The Tree of Life /5
Reflections on the Book of Genesis by Luigino Bruni
The Ever-Present Question of History:
“Where’s Your Brother?”
You are still the one with the stone and the sling,
Man of my time. You were in the cockpit,
With the malevolent wings, the meridians of death,
-I have seen you – in the chariot of fire, at the gallows,
At the wheels of torture. I have seen you: it was you,
With your exact science set on extermination,
Without love, without Christ. You have killed again,
As always, as your fathers killed,
as the animals killed that saw you for the first time.
And this blood smells as on the day
When one brother told the other brother:
“Let us go into the fields.” (Salvatore Quasimodo).
If the first murder in human history was a fratricide, then every murder is a fratricide. Elohim does not abandon Adam, but dresses him with skins (3:21). The human being does not depart in solitude: it is a family leaving Eden. The first human journey in the pains of history is not a solitary journey but a journey made together.
In addition to the skins donated, there is the great gift of each other’s company for the journey to face the night time and the times of night. Even when you cross the hour of misfortune or error, the fact of being able to cross it with someone, ‘eye to eye’, is the piece of bread and sip of water that won’t let you die in the desert – even in the deserts of the crisis of work, of the company, and therefore of life.
The blessing on the creation and on Adam does not get removed by disobedience. And a son, Cain is donated to the human couple. Cain is a gift, too, even a future murderer will always remain a son. The second born is Abel. Both become working men: Abel is a shepherd, Cain a farmer, and perhaps the narrative itself, too, contains an echo of the conflict among the last nomads and the first farmers, a conflict that was eventually won by the resident ones. Both make offerings to God, but, for reasons that remain (at least partly) mysterious, God did not like the gifts offered by Cain. Cain suffers from this lack of recognition (““his face was downcast“, 4:5), which he claimed also because of his birthright, and he cannot overcome this bundle of pain, envy and rage. He invites Abel to go into the fields and there kills him. This is the great turning point, the great silence of creation.
The grammar connecting and combining gifts, obligations, expectations of reciprocity and claims is essential in any discourse on human life. Death comes as a ‘horizontal’ response to the frustration growing out of a ‘vertical’ relationship: the un-received and missed appreciation by God for his gifts does not push Cain to rebel against Him (as was often the case in the myths of the nearby Ancient Greece), but triggers violence towards an innocent brother. We are all ‘sick‘ because of the vital need for recognition, esteem, gratitude; but the gentleness of a life is built by practicing day after day not to feel angry with and hurt by our peers (from brothers to work colleagues) that seem to get more even when this difference in treatment seems unfair and unjustified. When this fundamental exercise of human-ness fails (and we see it too many times), there is still the ‘crime’ of fraternity.
Death comes into the world by the hand of a brother. And when Cain returns, alone, from the fields he hears the question being asked of him “Where is your brother?“. Since that day, this question will not leave history any more, and will always be the first radical question of all ethics and all responsibilities. Cain was not the guardian and therefore was not responsible (he did not answer): “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” So this chapter does not speak only about the first fratricide: it also reveals the first law of all fraternity in backlight.
Cain continues to talk with God, to converse with him, even after the fratricide. Even a fratricidal remains the Adam. The last word of Cain is a plea for help so that he would not die: “Today you are driving me from the land … and whoever finds me will kill me”. And God: “Not so…and the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him” (4:14). We do not know what the mark of Cain was like, what sign it was. In any case, it was a sign of life. Even a murderer is still an image of the Adam (5:3), of Elohim and of the people who created and generated them – how many times did it happen that the mothers of children who have become murderers had to press an old photo of their baby son to their chest, and it was with the help of that far-away but vivid image that they tried not to let that child die deep inside themselves. Even a murderer is someone’s child. And so they have to live. However, human history has disregarded the mark of Cain, and it has continued, and still continues to kill him, practicing Lamech’s law of vengeance instead. Therefore, the commandment of ‘thou shall not kill’ is addressed to the sons of Cain, but also to those who would avenge Abel. Only with the mark of Cain does the logic of “retaliation” break, and it puts the law of equivalence of justice and vengeance into a crisis: a life taken is not to be fixed by another death, but by another life. In fact, the chapter closes with a hymn to life, with another child: Seth. ‘God‘, says Eve, ‘has granted me another child in place of Abel, since Cain killed him‘ (4:25). And as Cain starts a race, also Seth, the new Abel, will have his legacy that will forever intertwine with that of Cain. Lamech will descend from Cain – he is the first bigamist and murderer of children; but Noah the righteous will also arrive from Seth.
So we are descendants of Cain, but also the children and descendants of Seth.. But most importantly, we are all Abel’s descendants. The first murdered brother is still alive. This is also the power of the Scriptures. Every time we encounter, embody and re-live this fourth chapter, we can and must feel the temptation of Cain again. But, stronger than that, in us and in the world there lives, in fact, Abel. The eternal power of the Word revives a thousand times.
Abel is still alive in the victims of history and he comes back to life every time an innocent or meek or non-violent person is killed. And he dies again, and we continue to feel all the pain of the innocent death. But above all, Abel comes back to life whenever we choose meekness in the face of our violence and that of others, and when we prefer to succumb as the righteous do instead of turning into killers: “Even if you extend your hand to kill me, I am not extending my hand to kill you.” These are the words that, in the Qur’anic version of the story, Abel says to Cain when he realizes that his brother is about to strike down on him (Sura 5:28).
The earth is full of ‘places of Abel’. Their redemption and their diminution measure the degree of human and spiritual development of every civilization and the world as a whole. Let us ask ourselves: throughout the two and a half millennia that separate us from that ancient Chapter 4 of Genesis, have the ‘places of Abel’ increased or decreased in number? It is not an easy calculation to do. Some were definitely eliminated, but new ones are born: the sidewalks or the five-star hotels where the ‘slave trade‘ is being practiced, the arcades and video-lottery, the many centres for the first ‘reception‘ of immigrants, the prison cells of those who ended up there as victims, the still too many refugee camps and the places of detention in forgotten wars, the death factories where children work in order not to die, the sad homes for the elderly where, left alone, they are waiting for death.
>We should train ourselves to be able to watch the world by positioning ourselves on the side of the victims, and observe it from the perspective of Abel and his places. By visiting them and loving them we would learn things that are very different from those seen by the people who position themselves in the perspective of Cain and his many places. We would realize, for example, that it is not true that Cain is the one who wins, and that it is not true that the violent and murderers are always to win. There is a victory for Cain, but there is also the triumph of Abel the non-fratricidal. History shows us violent people that kill and meek people that succumb, but the really fertile seed is the blood of Abel, giving rise to the many Noahs who have saved the world for us, and keep saving it for us every day. The world that has been saved and populated by the sons of Seth, which is the same world where the children of Cain live, who continue to strike down on Abel, and still receive the ‘mark’ not to die.
by Luigino Bruni
published in Avvenire on March 16, 2014
Translated by Eszter Kató