Summary: Cain’s problem is ours: we are fearful and anxious if someone else seems to be getting ahead of us, and our anxiety is the root of our violence. But in God’s curse there is a mercy and a clue for brotherliness.
For today’s message we are going back to the earliest moments in human history to look at one of the most basic issues in human life. We are looking at the way we feel about differences, and what we do about that feeling.
The Book of Genesis, in its opening stories, teaches us about what it means when men rise up against one another and do violence. That probes the deepest and most convoluted corners of the human heart. Our Scripture contains that haunting question, "Am I my brother’s keeper?" And it speaks about marked men, people on whom some curse has fallen. Our Scripture is about us and what we do to each other, because of differences.
Human history puts some tough questions to us. It asks how it could be that a Christian people, a people who had lived with the good news all their lives, some of whom had even given themselves to Christian missions ... how could it be that these same people would entrap and enslave Africans, treat these slaves with utter disrespect, break up their families, and justify it all with the Bible? How could that be? And yet it was. It happened. In our own nation.
History asks, too, how it could be that a people who first heard the gospel more than a thousand years ago, a people who had given the world the finest music, the most sophisticated philosophy, an extraordinary science, some of the world’s greatest Biblical scholars ... how could it be that Germany would entrap and enslave Jews, treat them with sheer contempt, break up their families, put them into concentration camps, and justify it all in the name of achieving a master race? How could this be? And yet it was. It happened. In our century and within the memory of many of us.
History’s question is contemporary, too. How can it be today that well-meaning people, people who have fought for good causes, people we have looked up to, people who have themselves suffered the slings and arrows of prejudice ... how can it be that today such people will blindly blame whole groups for the problems of our society? How can it be that today some will lash out emotionally, at others? How can this be? And yet it is. It happens. It happened just the other day in the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church, when a congresswoman’s father cried out about what he called "racist Jews." It happened a year ago in the rhetoric of Louis Farrakhan, tracing everything that’s wrong with us, and there is plenty of it, but tracing it all to Christians, to Jews, to whites, to Asians, and so forth. It happens in the snarling laughter of the fashionable, who put down ordinary, hard-working folks as "bubbas"; it happens in the beer halls and bowling alleys of the working folks, who think that everybody with a college degree is an effete snob! It happens in the churches. Last week, after I found we had a Catholic priest worshipping with us, I sort of checked my memory to see whether I had said anything that might have been offensive or insulting to him; it’s so easy to do! We seem to be incurable name-callers, we are wrapped up in putting one another down.
The ancient story of Cain answers some questions about all of this. Why does prejudice happen? What are we going to do about it? And, most important, what is God’s response to it?
First, why does prejudice happen? Where does group hatred come from? When we speak out or reach out to harm someone else, we do this out of fear. Violence comes out of fear and insecurity. Hatred and prejudice are born when we are afraid that someone else is going to get ahead of us, someone else is going to take what we have.
"In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had not regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. ... And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him."
Cain killed his brother Abel because Cain was anxious, Cain was fearful. Cain saw his own place eroding, he felt his brother taking over from him, and so Cain hated his brother and killed him.
As I see it, there is the root of violence, there is the source of disrespect. Fear. Anxiety. That deep down thing that is afraid that we are going to lose our place, our supremacy. And so we lash out in blind antagonism against those we think are the threat.