To win the care of God, we are meant to lose what counts the most: human blood, and sometimes human life.
Over the millennia we have principally looked to one means of connection with our deities: we spill blood. Blood of animals, of other humans, or our own.
Slicing open a vein, bleeding an animal properly, or even ripping out someone’s heart and holding it up to the sun is the ultimate way to tell our God: we fear you, and we hereby prove our fealty and ask that you meet our needs today and tomorrow.
Would we offer God a bag of peanuts, or $10 from a $200,000 bank account? The idea is risible.
Since Karl Landsteiner identified the main blood types in 1901, and since physicians began carrying out successful transfusions over the next years, the sharing of blood has offered opportunities to give in one of the most noble, selfless ways possible.
When you give blood, you don’t even get a grateful smile or hug from the recipient of your blood. You know that you are helping to preserve human life, and that general knowledge is good enough. The desire to reach out and help others in need reflects the best parts of our humanity.
But the gift of blood has been a double-edged sword. It has brought out some of our worst fears and prejudices.
“One can say quite truthfully that on the battlefields nobody is very interested in where the plasma comes from when they are hurt. They get the first bottle they get their hands on.”
- Dr. Charles Drew
Charles Richard Drew was born in Washington, D.C., in 1904, of black parents. Drew left the United States to attend medical school at McGill University in Montreal from 1928–33.
The outbreak of World War II presented Drew, who at Columbia had become a leading expert on blood storage technology, with the opportunity of a lifetime. In 1940 — before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which drew the Americans into the war — Drew was hired as the medical director of the Blood for Britain project, which was to ship liquid plasma from the United States to British soldiers who had been wounded in France.
The American Red Cross first banned blacks from donating blood, and then, after facing an outcry from the black community, ruled that African-Americans could donate blood that would be segregated and thus not transfused into whites.
Drew weighed in on the matter several times. In 1942, he said, “I feel that the recent ruling of the United States Army and Navy regarding the refusal of colored blood donors is an indefensible one from any point of view. As you know, there is no scientific basis for the separation of the bloods of different races except on the basis of the individual blood types or groups.”
The American Red Cross could have taken a stand, during World War II, by arguing that there was no reason to impede blacks from donating blood to white military personnel. Perhaps this would have helped the United States tackle serious problems of segregation and racial discrimination in an era when these issues were crippling the country.
Today, federal officials in Canada, as well as the Canadian Blood Services and the American Red Cross — where a lifetime deferral for men who have sex with men is still in effect — could show the same leadership, with regard to blood from gay donors. Restrictions on who should donate should be based on science, on tests, and on meaningful questions designed to avoid donations from people who engage in risky behaviour.
Just as we count on the truthfulness and honour of blood donors, we also require it of the famous athletes whom we so revere, and from whom we draw hope and inspiration. Any superstar athlete who claims that his or her blood is clean, when it is not, runs the risk of creating a mighty scandal. At the intersection of honour and blood, we hold people to account.
It's hard to imagine a single Canadian born before 1975 who does not know that in 1988, the sprinter Ben Johnson tested positive for anabolic steroids after winning the Olympic 100-metre dash in a record time of 9.79 seconds and trouncing his archrival, the American Carl Lewis, whom Johnson led from start to finish. News that Johnson had cheated by using performance-enhancing drugs shocked Canadians just as profoundly as Americans and others were troubled by the truth -- when it finally came out -- about Lance Armstrong.
One of the striking similarities between the Ben Johnson and Lance Armstrong stories is how widespread cheating was among their contemporaries. Altering the chemical properties of their bodies and blood was not the sole province of Johnson and Armstrong.
The world of sport serves as the perfect mirror. We look into it and we see our deepest values either respected or trashed. Blood, to us, is sacred.
We want our sacrificial gestures, our gifts, our artists, our science, and our athletes to respect blood.
In a world where we fret, sometimes, that nobody seems to care about anything,
blood still counts.