Monday, October 19, 2009

EfM Year 1 Chapter 5: Cain and Abel in Genesis 4:1 - 6:4

The EfM course materials on Cain and Abel are very helpful. The course materials see the purpose of the Cain and Abel story as showing the spread and deepening of sin. Here is the progression of this spread and deepening of sin:

  • Putting oneself in the place of God by deciding on one's own what is right and what is wrong apart from what God has said (Adam and Eve)
  • Killing a brother because of jealousy (Cain)
  • Killing another in revenge out of all proportion to the offending act (Lamech)
  • Polluting the court of heaven (sons of gods and daughters of men)
  • Becoming entirely evil of heart (all human society)

Here are some of the implications I see in the story of Cain and Abel, after working with the EfM course materials.

FALLEN WORLD. However one explains it, we do live in a fallen world. This means that we should not be surprised to find sin within ourselves and others. I am sometimes surprised at this myself, which I acknowledge is unreasonable.

We have forgotten that we already have everything we need and that we are all one. In fact, although we do have everything we need and we are all one in ultimate Reality, we have created our own reality in which we most definitely experience not having everything we need and in which we experience being separate from each other. We fear that we won't have enough for ourselves, so we grasp, hoard, and even take from others. We get angry when others take from us. There are those who crave power so much that they will hurt others just to enjoy the rush of power this gives them.

We live in a world where people will do whatever it takes to enrich themselves. As a consequence, we have Enron, we have the dishonest practices now coming to light on the part of bankers and mortgage brokers and Wall Street financiers, we have government money given to financial institutions for the purpose of stimulating the economy being used to pay high bonuses to corrupt executives instead. It doesn't matter that Enron employees lost all their retirement savings, that people suffered in California from the energy shortages created by Enron, that hard-working employees have lost their means of livelihood in the economic crisis, that families are reduced to homelessness, that some are living in incredible luxury while others are living in crushing poverty.

We live in a world where people will do whatever it takes to feel powerful. As a consequence, we have sexual abuse and bullying in all its forms. It doesn't matter that those raped and bullied are destroyed emotionally.

We live in a world where fear and anger predominate, and we need not be surprised to see them. I would say that a faith-filled response to this would be to envision and live into a world of compassion and justice and healing and creativity and beauty and community, yet to be realistic about the presence of evil in the world. Jesus did this. Perhaps the healer is a good image. The healer recognizes that something is not right and needs healing, and the healer works toward that healing. I think, for example, of a doctor who treats a person with a contagious illness: the doctor brings healing but also recognizes the presence of the disease by wearing protective gloves and mask.

SIN LURKING AT THE DOOR. God tells Cain, "Sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it" (Gen. 4:7). I like this image of sin lurking at the door, crouching like an animal of prey, lying in wait, ready to pounce. I like it because it helps me to place sin outside of myself and look at sin objectively. Oh, here is anger, crouching at the door, ready to pounce and master me, but I can recognize this anger and master it by choosing to act from wisdom and compassion instead. Oh, here is fear, crouching at the door, ready to pounce and master me, but I can recognize this fear and master it by choosing to act from courage instead. Picturing sin visibly helps me to see it clearly, to diminish its power, to turn away from it, to choose with wisdom instead.

CULTIC RELIGION TO REPLACE DIRECT RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD. The course materials say that cultic religion came into being so that humans could relate to God in some way now that the direct relationship with God in the Garden of Eden no longer existed. I believe that we need to foster both. We need a community of religious practice, and we also need a more direct personal relationship with God. Jesus fostered both in his own life. He was a practicing Jew, and he spent long hours alone with God in prayer. I can see that relying on either cultic religious practice or direct personal prayer to the exclusion of the other will throw a person off balance. The group tempers the excesses of the individual, and the individual tempers the excesses of the group. Individuals have been known to believe that all sorts of odd-ball directives came to them in personal prayer with God, and groups are often known to cling to past traditions when we need to grow beyond them.

GRACE. The course materials say this: "God's punishment is always softened by grace." God made clothing of animal skins for Adam and Eve so that they would be clothed as they left the Garden of Eden. God gave Cain a protective mark as he became a wanderer.

The Bible does indeed see God as prescribing punishments for sin. I believe that we would do better to see the unpleasant things that happen as a result of sin as consequences. In any case, the consequences of sin are often softened by grace.

In fact, there is grace in every situation, if we can open our eyes to it. This is an important quality to develop: to be a person who sees the grace.

HORROR OF SIN. Sin has become so commonplace in our world that we don't see its horror. The course materials point out that Cain kills his brother, Abel, at the very place where Cain offered sacrifices of his crops to God. God gave life, and Cain destroys the life that God has given, spilling the blood, the life of his brother, onto the earth, with which humans are so deeply connected. We don't see the horror of killing. Nearly every day, someone is killed in New Orleans. We've become deadened to this horror. We are also deadened to the horror of polluting and destroying God's non-human creation.

By the same token, God Godself seems utterly unaware of the horror of some of God's own directives. I think especially of God's telling the Israelites that they are welcome to take any conquered unmarried women for themselves as sex slaves. What a horror for these young women. God doesn't see it.

RIVALRY BETWEEN GROUPS TODAY. The course materials point out that Cain was a farmer while Abel was a shepherd and that there has traditionally been rivalry between farmers and shepherds because the two ways of life are at odds. What is good for the settled farmer is not so good for the nomadic shepherd, and vice versa. The course materials ask this question: Where do you see rivalry between siblings or competition between groups coveting the same land or the same promise, and where do you see places in our culture that parallel the Cain and Abel story?

Having read Frank Schaeffer's warnings about the extremist fringe of the far political/religious right in the United States, I would say that I see this between Democrats and Republicans. Certainly there is a history of non-cooperation between the two parties, and of one party making it difficult for the other party to get important bills passed. The Republicans see capitalism, largely unregulated, as being good for our country. Certainly, this is good for big business. The Democrats see a need to regulate capitalism so that no one is crushed by it. Certainly, this is good for the little guys. It seems to come down to this: what is good for the rich is not so good for the poor, and vice versa. And then other elements of morality come into play: the tendency of Republicans to oppose abortion, and the tendency of Democrats to allow abortion.

Frank especially cautions us about the fringe members of the far religious right. Frank says that these are people who see themselves as politically disenfranchised. They see themselves as standing alone for God in a secular and godless culture, despite the fact that fundamentalist churches are quite strong and influential. They perhaps feel disgruntled with their marginal status within the overall culture. Their books, for example, do very well, with a large fundamentalist following, but their books are often ignored by the New York Times and hence the wider culture.

Cain felt that God did not have the same high regard for him as God had for his brother, Abel. The extreme fringe of the far religious right tends to feel that our society does not have the same high regard for them as society does for human secularists. Cain was jealous of Abel and killed his brother. The extreme religious right is jealous of the rest of society and is eager for God to kill them--or perhaps to help God with the killing.

In his newest book, Patience With God, Frank Schaeffer points out that the far religious right loves the Left Behind series of novels by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye. These novels describe the End Times of the Apocalypse, when Jesus will return to earth, rapture his faithful into heaven, and unleash his fury upon the ungodly who are left behind on earth after the rapture. Frank says that the far religious right loves the idea of God taking vengeance for them against all whom they see as having deprived them of full cultural enfranchisement. In some cases, members of the extreme fringe of the far religious right have felt God calling them to kill and have actually killed doctors who perform abortions.

So I think we can see in the Democrats and the Republicans something of the rivalry that existed between Cain and Abel, at least in Cain's mind, and we can see how the kind of jealousy that led Cain to kill Abel also exists in the extreme fringe of the far religious right.

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