Richard B. Steele, PhD
Professor of Moral and Historical Theology
Associate Dean of Graduate Theological Studies
School of Theology, Seattle Pacific University

March 25, 2015

For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement (Lev. 17:11, NRSV).

I am not “Reformed” in my theological outlook, but one thing I have learned from the likes of Calvin, Edwards and Barth is the spiritual danger of self-congratulation.  I have tried to bear that in mind as I have been writing the essays for this blog.  Not all of these posts have been autobiographical, but many have been, and the temptation to indulge either in mawkish self-display or false humility is great.  I’m trying to resist it.  That said, I wish to brag a bit here about a “certificate of appreciation” I received recently from the Puget Sound Blood Center after donating my one hundredth unit of A-negative.

Let me begin with a few interesting facts – or at least facts that seem interesting to self-interested me – about this accomplishment:

  • 100 units (or pints) of blood = 12.5 gallons. An average adult has between 14 and 18 units of blood in his or her body.  Given my size, I’m guessing that I’m at the high end of “average.”  That means that over the time that my donations have been recorded, I have given about 5.5 times the amount of blood that is currently circulating in my veins.  (But see below for a slight correction to this computation.)
  • Between 1982 and 1995, when I lived in Milwaukee, I donated 56 units to the Blood Center of Wisconsin. Credit for these donations was “transferred” to the Puget Sound Blood Center, where, since moving to Seattle in 1995, I have now donated 45 units.
  • Not all my donations have been of whole blood. On about half a dozen occasions I have given platelets, leukocytes or plasma.  Such donations are more time-consuming and uncomfortable to undergo, but also more interesting to observe, than ordinary donations of whole blood.  Usually your blood goes directly into a collection bag, and from there, via various safety testing procedures, to a needy recipient.  But in plateletpheresis, leukapheresis, or plasmapheresis, your blood goes into a centrifuge, where the needed contents are removed.  Then the remainder is pumped mechanically back into your bloodstream.  Some machines remove and return the blood through the same needle, but others have a needle in one arm for removing the whole blood, and another in the other arm for returning the “leftovers.”  For record-keeping purposes, a donation of a blood product counts as two whole blood donations.  That being so, the actual number of donations I have made since 1982 is not quite 100, and the total quantity of blood I have given is about 12 gallons even.

So much for the “facts,” and so much for the self-congratulation that these facts ostensibly warrant.  I would now like to offer a few theological reflections and personal reminiscences on the occasion of my award.[1]

First, I have come to regard the practice of donating blood as a kind of spiritual discipline.  I say this with misgivings.  The scriptural epigraph of this essay is admittedly taken out of context.  Leviticus 17 is an extended discussion of the slaughter and sacrifice of animals, in which the use of blood for liturgical practices is prescribed, and in which the eating of blood is prohibited.  Whatever relevance that passage may have for contemporary Christians, particularly in light of Hebrews 9-13, it neither implies that Christians are obligated to contribute to the public blood supply nor that Christians are prohibited from receiving blood transfusions during medical procedures.  Nevertheless, I find the act of lying stock still on my back, one arm (and sometimes both arms!) extended outward, with a tube draining a fraction of my lifeblood into a bag, incredibly moving and extremely humbling.  Normally, I don’t know the identity of the recipient or the reason that he or she might need my blood when I make the donation.  He or she is a “stranger” to me – but for that very reason my time on the table is an offering of a peculiar kind of “hospitality.”  It is my vein, not my home that I have opened for him or her.  It is the health of my bone marrow not the abundance of my table or the warmth of my hearth that I have offered.  I pray for that person as I donate, though my intercession is necessarily anonymous and very general: “Lord, may the person who receives this blood, for whatever reason, be restored to health.  And may the efforts of this phlebotomist, who now stands watchfully by my side, as well as all the technicians, researchers, orderlies, physicians and nurses who will stand between me and the recipient of this blood, be richly blessed for their skills and efforts.  Amen.”

Second, I can distinctly remember the first time I ever donated blood – and why the act of donating blood became a spiritual discipline for me.  This was back in the mid-1970s, when I was a seminarian.  A mobile unit from the New Haven Blood Center had set up shop in the common room.  Most of those gathered to donate were fellow students, but at least one faculty member was there, too.  It was Dr. Paul Holmer, the Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology.  Dr. Holmer was a distinguished, though somewhat intimidating person – Tweed-jacketed, barrel-chested and gruff-spoken.  But there he was, stripped to his shirt sleeves, lying on the table, offering his pint of erythrocytes like everybody else.  Seeing this was a moral revelation for me.  Until then, I had fancied myself, or wanted to fancy myself, as one of his coterie of acolytes.  But I suddenly realized that this man neither needed nor wanted any acolytes, precisely because he saw himself simply as a disciple of Jesus.  And it wasn’t that he was giving blood for the express purpose of testifying to that fact – which, of course, would have spoiled the testimony.  But he was indirectly, indeed unwittingly, testifying to that fact precisely because he was only there to give blood – like everybody else.  Forty years later, I regard Dr. Holmer as one of the most influential teachers I have ever had.  I still read his books and articles with delight and admiration.  But of the many things he taught me, the thing that stands out most is that a responsible theologian should never be too eager to stand out at all. [2]  Better to lie down, roll up your sleeves, and give your blood as a token of thanks for the one who shed his for us all.

Third, when my eldest daughter, Sarah, was eight years old, she was found to have a craniopharynioma, a non-cancerous but often fatal tumor of the pituitary gland.[3]  We took her to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where one of the world’s foremost specialists on this condition worked.  There were at that time several ways to treat this kind of tumor – surgery, externally administered irradiation and radium implant – and because of an unrelated medical condition from which Sarah suffers, it was not immediately clear which treatment would be best.  But eventually we settled on surgery.  I asked if she would need a blood transfusion and was told that although the surgery would probably cause relatively little blood loss, having a unit on hand, and especially a unit from a close relative of the same blood type would be very handy.  The necessary arrangements were soon made, and I walked down to the hospital lab.  The draw was made by a pediatric nurse, who displayed that remarkable combination of businesslike efficiency and deep human compassion which mark members of her profession.  As frightened as I was for Sarah, I took immense comfort in being able to contribute to her healing.  Needless to say, I was not physically present in the operating room – and yet, oddly enough, I was.  The neurosurgeon told me later that he had used about half a pint of my blood during the resection.

So the next time the bloodmobile comes to campus, stop in.  It will do a stranger good.  And it will do you good too, especially if you don’t take too much credit for doing it.


[1] See also the following: R. M. Titmuss, The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy (New York: Vintage Books, 1971); J. A. Piliavin, D. E. Evans, and P. Callero, “Learning to ‘Give to Unnamed Strangers’: The Process of Commitment to Regular Blood Donation,” in E. Staub, et al. (Eds.), Development and Maintenance of Prosocial Behavior: International Perspectives on Positive Morality (New York: Plenum Press, 1984); and C. Andre and M. Velasquez, “Giving Blood: The Development of Generosity,” Issues in Ethics 5.1 (Spring 1992), online at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Santa Clara University, v5n1/blood.html.

[2] For summaries of Dr. Holmer’s life and thought, see: Mark Horst, “Disciplined by Theology: A Profile of Paul Holmer,” originally published in The Christian Century 105.29 (Oct. 12, 1988), 891–895, and reprinted in Religion Online,; and Stanley M. Hauerwas, “How to Go On When You Know You Are Going to Be Misunderstood, or How Paul Holmer Ruined My Life, or Making Sense of Paul Holmer,” in Wilderness Wanderings: Probing Twentieth Century Theology and Philosophy (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997), 143–152.

[3] The full story of Sarah’s craniopharyngioma surgery is told in Richard B. Steele, “The Wish Kite,” Journal of Religion, Disability and Health 7:4 (Spring 2003): 55–63.

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