“What have you done? Listen your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” (Genesis 4:10)
For people of faith, the story of Cain and Abel is the first place in biblical history where we see the beginning of the pattern that is tearing our society apart today. This pattern of behavior has replayed over centuries and explicitly demonstrates: “What I want is more important that your life.” This pattern is responsible for the holocaust, genocides, worldwide wars and the systemic racism that has plagued the United States since its precolonial days. It’s quite shocking how little life is valued and how easily we have been accustomed to the slaughter of people as being collateral damage. It is particularly disturbing how this is so widely ignored by persons who consider themselves to be people of faith. Most faith traditions believe that life is a sacred gift, but our actions demonstrate that we don’t believe that at all. Being created in God’s image and being precious in the eyes of the Lord seems to be a concept that we teach children so that they’ll have healthy self-esteems, but we don’t carry that belief far enough to impact our social and economic policies.
Cain and Abel were two of Adam and Eve’s children who lived in the Garden of Eden. Their story unfolds in Genesis 4 as both young men present offerings to God. For some reason Abel’s offering to God was accepted and Cain’s was not accepted. We aren’t given the details as to why Cain’s was not accepted, and it would be an exercise in futility to shift our focus on this unknowable aspect of the story. Suffice it to say, there was something unacceptable about Cain’s offering, it was God’s call, we just need to leave it there. Obviously, Cain was disappointed, maybe embarrassed, and mad. God addresses Cain’s anger and says in essence, “Why are you so distraught and mad? If you do the right thing when present the offering, won’t it be accepted?” (The following words we see recorded are particularly foreshadowing and rings with truth and wisdom even today. “And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” v 7). The story proceeds and Cain’s anger leads him to murder his brother Abel. The Lord returns to Cain and asks about Abel, and Cain replies with “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (v 9). Of course, the Lord knew what had transpired, I think that the asking Cain the question was a test to see if Cain would own up to his action or deny his guilt. After Cain’s unsuccessful attempt to “pivot” the conversation (didn’t work with God then, and still doesn’t) the Lord says, “What have you done? Listen, your brother’s blood is crying out from the ground!” (v 10). The Lord then confronts Cain with all of the consequences for his actions. Cain’s existence would never be the same. Cain then cries out that he could never bear living with the consequences and that someone would surely kill him because he murdered Abel. Then, the Lord declares that Cain would be able to live out his life and that he would not be murdered as a payback for the killing of his brother.
This story came to me as I was participating in public protest this weekend that was a demonstration against systemic racism and the long history of police brutality against people of color. In fact, as one of the protest leaders was speaking, I actually looked this scripture up and read it because I was feeling so drawn to it in that moment. Let me explain why I think this ancient story is a story that illuminates this current moment.
As I mentioned before, this biblical account is a clear illustration of what happens when we value our interests above the lives of others. Cain presented an inadequate offering to the Lord. The Lord clearly stated, “If you do the right thing your offerings will be accepted.” All Cain had to do was correct whatever the issue was with the offering. He could simply give another offering that was acceptable and receive a blessing from God. Instead of correcting his action, he eliminated someone who made him jealous. I guess Cain thought he would look better if he didn’t have competition, which is absolutely not true. God’s acceptance of an offering has nothing to do with your offering being better than someone else’s offering. God judges our offerings against the spirt in which we present them, other people have nothing to do with it. It seemed that Cain, instead of owning up to whatever his offering lacked, chose anger against his brother instead of confession and repentance to God.
After Cain’s anger led him to murder his brother, Cain was reluctant to own up to his actions. His answer “Am I my brother’s keeper?” seemed like a great way to spin the situation from focusing on the murder that he committed. As humans we love to spin stories, presenting things in such a manner as to divert attention or to present ourselves in the best possible light. This is effective, we see it every day, however, the Lord who always has discerning vision into our hearts doesn’t fall for “spin.” The Lord has been calling out “spin” since before Cain and Able were born. We see the Lord confront Cain about Cain’s actions. “Your brother’s blood is crying out.” Cain was forced to own up to his selfish act that was rooted in the philosophy, “what I want is more valuable than your life.”
Throughout the history of the United States we have been confronted with our self-serving policies that were executed to the detriment of many. It seems like no matter how much evidence is presented there is an unlimited collection of spin to divert the attention from the issues of inequality so that the comfort of the elites (or the “haves”) can be assured. Despite many accounts of the indigenous people helping the settlers, the Europeans killed many, stole land and wealth from the indigenous people and exploited them in the passage of “legislative acts” and “treaties” that were blatantly to the settlers’ benefit. Even worse, the very biased acts and treaties are easily ignored, even to this day, when compliance isn’t financially beneficial or convenient to the country. After the bloody Civil War ended, the reparations promised to the former slaves were quickly reversed after Lincoln’s assassination. The Civil Rights movement which fought to secure legislation to end the economic and social disparities saw this legislation ignored or selectively enforced. And here we are, after another person of color literally had his life squeezed from him, and we, white people, are very uncomfortable. We hope that somewhere we will find the right combination of smoke and mirrors and spin to make this disappear, just like we’ve done for centuries.
To all of us white people of faith- our brothers’ blood is calling out to us and the Lord is saying “What have you done?” While it is very convenient to just get wrapped up and jump on the bandwagon of people who look like us and who say things that we like to believe, we are still confronted by our Creator who in complete love, grace and righteousness is saying, “What have you done?” “What are you doing?” “What are you going to do?” Our preachers, our spouses, our community leaders are not who we answer for, we are being asked about our actions. Dare to research and learn more about the accusations being made by protesters. I recommend resources like the book The New Jim Crow, and organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Poor People’s Campaign. Study, pray and ask the Lord for guidance. God didn’t give us a brain capable of understanding and discernment just for us to regurgitate the ideas of our parents or the people in our churches and social circles.
We sit in disbelief at the suffering in Syria, Yemen, Latin America, and other places. We act so taken aback when we hear stories about the murder and hate in the accounts of Anne Frank and Corrie Ten Boom. I believe that most of us sincerely hope for better circumstances for the people in far away lands. The problem is, we are blind to the pain in our back yard. As an average white person raised in the United States in the 70s and 80s, I wasn’t raised to recognize racism. When things caught my attention there were always pivots and spin to take my attention off the issues. “Blacks are lazy and want to live off the government.” “Mexicans bring drugs into the country and steals our jobs.” I know what white people say when only white people are around. You hear these things spoken usually in hushed tones, but they are still spoken in schools, community settings, churches and of course these ideas are promoted by the media. I’m thankful that I grew up in a family that didn’t speak words of hate against others, but these racial biases were certainly not hard to find. I’m definitely not holding myself up as an example of anything, but my views have changed because I began to learn. I began to be exposed to these issues, and the more I looked the more I saw. There is plenty to see.
One more thing about Cain- let’s talk about the grace at work in this story. It can be argued that Cain “deserved” to die and not enjoy years of life like what he stole from his brother. The Lord didn’t do that, in fact, the Lord made him a promise that he would be protected from murder. Cain really messed up bad, but that didn’t have to be the end of his story. Years later, Jacob really messed up bad, but that wasn’t the end of his story. In the New Testament Peter really messed up bad, but it wasn’t the end of his story. There are usually consequences for our bad actions, but our stories are defined by what we do with the grace we find after our screw ups. What is our answer to the cries of our brothers and sisters whose blood cries out to us from the ground? It’s impossible to wrap our heads around everything at play in this moment of our lives, but I’m sensing that we are stumbling upon a time of grace that is waiting for us just beyond the point when we lift our repentance to the Creator of us all for our apathy.
Because of my faith in God’s grace and power, I know we can do better as a society than we have done. We have a funny relationship with the word repentance. We see repentance as being closely aligned with punishment or manipulation. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Repentance is merely “returning to God.” We punish ourselves when we don’t repent because we are willfully keeping ourselves away from the Lord, which is our life-giving power source. This is our moment! Let us repent of our complacency toward social justice. Could it be, just like Queen Ester, that we were created for “such a time as this,”(Esther 4:14)? What a blessing it would be to participate in a time that ushered in a new chapter of understanding for justice and equality for our country, a true season of healing grace. There has been so much pain, so many lives wasted, so much potential never realized, because we were preoccupied by what we wanted instead of the value of human lives. Generations of blood is calling out to us in this moment. May the offering we present to God, our lives, be acceptable. May we not let this moment pass us by.