If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Curse of Cain: Genesis 4:1-17

Recent surveys have shown that violence is the top concern in our society. We have seen too any homes cordoned off by yellow police tape, red puddles on the asphalt, and handcuffed suspects being led to the courthouse. The proliferation of handguns and assault weapons is one evidence that violence is increasing in our society. The easy access to handguns and assault weapons has been challenged by some and celebrated by others. I remember reading a newspaper article on gun control in which a gun lobbyist said that the Bible not only permits but blesses assault weapons. Larry Pratt, a church elder and executive director of Gun Owners of America said, "Consider that when Cain killed Abel, God did not ban (or register or impose a waiting period on) the ownership of whatever it was that Cain used to kill his brother." Of course, God did not impose modern gun control legislation on Cain. The argument is ridiculous. But, God knows, violence is a problem as old as Cain and Abel.

When did human violence begin? What was the original impetus to violence? If we look at the story of Cain and Abel, everything seems to have started off on the right foot. Cain and Abel were brothers. Cain was a farmer and Abel was a shepherd. No reason for conflict so far. Well, some who read this story see in it an ancient rivalry that existed between shepherds and farmers. But, the original conflict didn't begin because God preferred cowboys to farmers. The ancient shepherd/farmer conflict may well be in the background of the story, but there is something else going on here.

Maybe the problem began with the offering. Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the field to God, while Abel brought the first of his flock. What else would you expect? Some would have us think that Abel's meat offering was preferable to Cain's grain or vegetable offering. Did God really prefer blood to beet juice? Or was there was something else inferior about Cain's offering? Probably not. They both sought to worship God with their best, the fruit of their labors. They both should have expected God's blessing on their gifts.

Could it be that violence began with an inner attitude? Maybe Cain gave his offering half- heartedly, begrudgingly, or with a bad attitude. Is that indicated by God's comment to Cain: "If you do well, will you not be accepted "? Some have thought that there was something not well with Cain when he made his offering to God. But, the text doesn't support such an interpretation. To be honest, there appears to be nothing in Cain or his offering that would warrant what happens next.

God accepts Abel's sacrifice and rejects Cain's. It's that simple. And that complicated. It would seem like we should lay the blame for the first act of violence at God's doorstep. God rejects Cain's offering, causing his red hot anger and his face to fall. If you were a kid and your dad accepted your brother's gift but rejected yours, wouldn't you be pissed off? It's unfair. God asks why Cain is angry and his face is on the floor. The answer is obvious. The problem lies with God, not with Cain. It comes down to God's capricious freedom. God chose Jacob over Esau. God chose Israel among all the nations. God chose to accept Abel's sacrifice over Cain's. This is the God who says, "I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy" (Exodus 33: 19). We may not like it. It seems unfair. It makes no sense. Yet, in this story we are dealing with a God who is free and a life that is unfair.

But, isn't our experience something like that? Life is unfair. And violence seems to arise out of life's inequities and unfairness. Some kill to obtain what they don't have. Others use violence to redress economic and political injustices. That's life. And our human predicament cannot be easily separated from the God question. Why was Abel's offering accepted and Cain's rejected? Why does it seem like some of us are accepted and others rejected? By all appearances that seems to be the case. Some live in luxury, while others live in poverty. Some live an easy life, while others struggle to make it through another day. Some of us are born into stable families, while others are born in dysfunctional families which scar them for life. All this inequity and unfairness set us up for angry, aggressive, violent behavior. Of all the possible world's God could have created, God created one where violence was not only possible, but probable. No. Practically inevitable. So, is God totally innocent or somehow a part of the human situation that breeds violence? Whether or not we blame God, we may at least wonder if the One who is in charge of the universe is somehow behind the way things are. Life makes us wonder. The story of Cain and Abel makes us wonder. Must we, as we have often done in our interpretation of this story, lay all the blame on Cain for his anger and aggression? Our text gives no final answers, just a story that indicates life is unfair and God is free.

What we can say is that violence has been with us from the beginning. Violence is around and within all of us. We must master it. Otherwise, it will pounce on us. Cain was angry and feeling rejected. God asked him, "Why are you angry and look so sad?" As if God didn't know. "Do good and you will be accepted. If you don't do good, sin is standing at the door waiting to get in. It is a lion ready to pounce upon you." Jealousy of Abel already stands at the door of Cain's heart. Envy waits behind the bushes ready to leap on him and cause him to commit a beastly act. So, Cain invites Abel out into the field, maybe under the pretense of showing him how well his grain is growing. In a fit of rage, Cain grabs a rock or instrument to till the earth and slays Abel. His blood has forever stained the earth. The first murder has been committed.

"Oh, but we would never commit such a heinous act," we say. "That kind of evil takes a monster. It's probably from bad parenting or something." Cain's parents are our parents. We are all part of Cain's violent legacy. Like Cain's Land of Nod, our society was built upon the foundations of violence from the murderous theft of native lands to slavery. It's walls are reinforced with violence from gang drive-bys to Mortal Kombat videos. Doctor Deborah Prothrow-Smith, with Harvard School of Public Health, says, "We are a country that's infatuated with violence ... We celebrate it. We're entertained by it. We run to read about it and see it ... As I travel across the country, one thing I see pretty universally among American children is an admiration for violence." We live in the violent legacy of Cain. If we are nurtured on violence, what would you expect? We are not immune from Cain's curse.

Besides, we don't know what we might do under circumstances similar to those who committed violent acts. What if you were in Cain's sandals. What would you have done? What if you were in a situation that constantly caused you to be frustrated and angry? What if your basic human rights were denied you? Psychologist Rollo May says, "When a person has been denied over a period of time what he feels are his legitimate rights ... violence is the predictable end result." What might we be capable of if we were the ones constantly rejected, frustrated, or denied basic human respect?

I am a pacifist, who doesn't believe in corporal or capital punishment. I think of myself as pretty patient. mild tempered, and peace loving. Yet, I know that violence lurks ready to leap upon me. I have raised two children from violent homes, who in their early years knew how to frustrate the hell out of you, and I don't use the word "hell" lightly. But, I don't blame them. That's was their family legacy. I recall feeling the urge to physically abuse my wounded children out of extreme anger and frustration over their uncontrollable behavior. At times my face reddened, veins bulged, fists tightened and teeth clenched. Only by God's grace was I spared from inflicting bodily harm. But, let me tell you, the violence was within me. Overcoming it was not easy. During that time I remember having the most bloody, murderous dream. I interpreted rnv dream as my own violence within that I had to master. Haven't you ever been angry enough to want to "strangle someone" or at least want the worse to happen to them. Well, didn't I read somewhere that such anger at a brother or sister is tantamount to murder?

We are our brother's and sister's keeper. We have a responsibility for the care and well being of the human family. God's question to Cain is a question to us all: "Where is your brother? Where is your sister?" Though Cain's response is a denial. ... "Am I my brother's keeper?" .... we understand the statement as implying a classic affirmation. Yes. We are our brother's and sister's keeper. We are responsible to share our resources with those less advantaged in this life, reducing the possibility of violence. We are responsible to protect and care for those wounded by the violence of rape, abuse, and war. We are responsible to work at reducing violence and waging peace in this world. We are responsible for being reconciled. Jesus said that, if like Cain, you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that you have something against a brother, or sister, first go and be reconciled, then come and offer your gift. Reconciliation comes before worship. If only Cain had known that. If only he had believed he was his brother's keeper. But, am I really my brother and sister's keeper? There are those who seem beyond our compassion and efforts at reconciliation.

If anyone seemed worth murdering, or at least someone to reject as worthless, it was Larry Trapp. By all appearances and practices, Larry was a despicable creature. He was the grand dragon of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Nebraska. Sitting in his apartment in a wheel chair dressed in frayed jeans, gold swastika, Hell's Angel's tattoo, red t-shirt with "White Power," and surrounded by guns and klan robe, Larry distributed racist, bigoted, anti-Semitic, white supremacist literature. Hatred seeped from the pores of his skin. For years he led a campaign of terror with death threats, assassination plans, and threatening phone calls to Blacks and Jews. One of those who received a call was Jewish Cantor Michael Weisser. But, Michael was not going to be intimidated. He had learned that the heart of Jewish faith was loving your neighbor, tolerance, and non-harmful behavior. But, what he did with Larry Trapp was a shock. He not only confronted Larry during a hate call on the phone, he called back later to talk with him. Michael said to Larry, "Well, I was thinking you might need a hand with something. And I wondered if I could help. I know you're in a wheelchair and I thought maybe I could take you to the grocery store or something." Michael and his wife, Julie, took dinner to Larry. Now, this is carrying that brother's keeper stuff a bit too far!

Larry was stunned, as were Michael's congregation and many African-Americans in the community, at this Jewish cantor's unconditional care and compassion. Like Cain, Larry's sin was greater than he could bear. It was a sore that needed lancing. The shell on Larry's heart eventually cracked open spilling out the thick hate and violence. It happened when Michael and Julie brought him a meal. They all ended up weeping and embracing. What he had needed all his life was someone who really cared for him and accepted him. Not only would Larry toss aside his klan robe, but he apologized to his victims and campaigned against racism and bigotry. Larry not only renounced his anti-Semitic past, but converted to the Jewish faith. Later, Larry was diagnosed with a terminal illness and the Weisser family took him into their home to care for him the last days of his life. Amazing grace! You see, Michael saw Larry as his brother. God had taught Michael that he was his brother's keeper.

What we have in the end is the maddening mercy of God. This is the staggering grace revealed in Michael Weisser and his family's care for one who did not deserve it. It is the mercy seen in God placing a mark on Cain, who did not deserve it. You see, after murdering Abel, Cain was a literally a marked man. As a murderer and fugitive, he would have been a target of vengeance and retaliation. The never ending cycle of violence had been initiated. So, God placed a mark on Cain. Many have speculated what that mark might have been. How utterly horrible and tragic that Cain's mark has been interpreted as the color of the African-American slave and as the star of David used by the Nazi's to mark Jews. Such interpretations are hateful and murderous. Really, Cain's mark was a sign of protection.

Why would God want to protect Cain? He wasn't worth it. He committed an unspeakable crime. Murder deserves murder. An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth. A life for a life. Capital punishment is what Cain deserved. Not protection. Inject those criminals. Gas those murderers. Enough of this liberal nonsense that protects the perpetrator and forgets the victim. What about the Abels in this world? Their blood cries from the ground to be heard. Who speaks for the Abels? Protect the murderer? It's enough to make you want to take the law into your own hands. It's enough to make you want to kill those murderers. God's mercy is maddening. It's a curse upon humanity! Why protect Cain?

Remember God's capricious freedom? God will have mercy on whom God will have mercy. God's freedom was there at the beginning of the story of Cain and Abel. It was there in the story of Larry Trapp. Here it is again. In God's protective mark on Cain. The mark points toward the gospel of grace. We have seen the mark of Cain. It appears to us as unmerited favor, undeserved goodness. God's capricious compassion. God's maddening mercy toward us. In the midst of a world that seems cruel, unfair, and unjust, we are all Abel. In the midst of a world where, though undeservedly we are recipients of God's odd goodness, we are Cain. And we are forever marked with the curse of God's grace.

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