Raising Cain

By Commissioner Peter H. Chang –

Before the Fall there was no private property, no clothes; nothing of this was needed. But in a fallen world, we all need a little distance from one another. In a fallen world there is the danger of imperialism–I identify you with me; or the danger of submissiveness–I identify myself with you. Private property, clothes–they give us space. But remember this: we are distanced to facilitate our coming together; not to keep us apart. If clothes and private property serve only to separate us further, then we are badly and negligently misusing both.

Chapter four of Genesis begins, “Now Adam knew Eve, his wife” (the Bible uses that verb so wonderfully) “and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord’.” Scholars wonder whether “with the help of the Lord” might be a gloss, something that was added later, but I find it marvelous. Parents will bear me out: nothing in life is quite as miraculous as your newly-born first child–unless, of course, it be your newly-born second child, which Eve also had.

“And again, she bore his brother, Abel.” For all we know, Abel could have been a twin. Then (talk about symbolism!) the first instance of brotherly love ends in fratricide; and the first murder takes place with an act of worship.

It is not stated why the Lord had no regard for Cain’s offering. Perhaps God was testing Cain for his own benefit. Interestingly enough, it will not be the last time the firstborn is passed over. Think of Esau and Jacob; Joseph and his older brothers.

What is clear is that Cain’s capacity to be hurt far exceeded God’s desire to see harm come to him, and that Cain hated Abel less for anything he did than because of what he was. Shakespeare buffs will remember Iago’s classic description of Cassio: “He hath a daily beauty in his life that makes mine ugly.” In Cain’s eyes, Abel was God’s favorite, just as Joseph’s brothers thought their father considered them inferior to Joseph.

It may be that Cain had no intention of killing Abel. How could he know what it took to kill a man? It had never been done before. If so, we can only note once again how often the result outruns what the will intends. Whatever the case, the deed is done; the result, apparently, of jealousy, that most corrosive and most futile of all human emotions. (Of the seven so-called deadly sins, jealousy–envy–is the only one with no gratification whatsoever. That’s the paradigm of human sin: when there’s no gratification in it and yet we still succumb.)

Our world still raises Cain. Our world is not so much imperfect as it is diseased: sick with a violence to which Cain was only the first to resort. Violence is not only physical; violence is anything that violates human integrity. When children have to fight for scraps of bread and scraps of their mother’s distracted affections, that’s violence. When racial division all by itself breeds prejudice, then racial division all by itself is violent. When the poor can’t stop being poor simply because the rich are unwilling to stop getting even richer, even at a slower rate; when college students, according to a recent poll, show an increase in their desire to be affluent and a decrease in their social concerns and altruism, that violates everybody’s integrity.

Of course, there is a better way, one better way for all of us: the better way that seeks to avoid not only external violence but also internal violence of spirit; the better way that seeks to defeat evil and not to defeat people victimized by it; the better way that seeks not to defeat or to humiliate an opponent but to awaken a sense of moral shame. Violence simply cannot expose injustice so well as non-violence, and it tends to obscure moral issues. It was Gandhi’s way, it was Martin Luther King’s way and it was Jesus’ way: Jesus who opposed injustice but never took up arms, a revolutionary “who did not become an extremist since he did not offer an ideology, only himself” (Henri Nouwen).

There is no cause and no need for Cain’s jealousy; God loves us all equally. There is cause and much need only to be spreading the love of God, that love which God bore to us in Christ: and that is done by our being lightning rods to ground the world’s hostility. That’s what holiness is all about: “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.” So let us be holy people, sanctified to God and dedicated to the task of being God’s lightning rods to a violent and very lost world.

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