The Blood of Abel is Crying Out From the Ground
I've been teaching on Genesis for the past month. Two weeks ago, we discussed the beginning of the Cain and Abel story, found in Genesis 4.1-7, just before Cain killed Abel, his brother.
And then a Black man in Baton Rouge was killed by police officers. Another Black man was killed by police officers in a suburb of St. Paul. And then in Dallas a sniper shot and killed five police officers, wounding several others. And then the Dallas police decided to send a robot with a bomb to blow up the sniper.
All of a sudden, our text took on a new meaning. The story of Cain and Abel had just played out in the news cycle, day after day after day.
So here's a recap of my Sunday School lesson, plus a little #BlackLivesMatter preaching...
Cain kills Abel, his brother, in verse 8. Just like that, in one brief verse, Abel is dead.
And when God comes asking where Abel is, Cain gives that classic response: "Am I my brother's keeper?"
We can read this as Cain redirecting the question of responsibility back at God. Maybe Cain is not just avoiding his own responsibility, but asking God to take responsibility. And this is something we understand.
We often wonder why God doesn't intervene, why God allows murder to happen.
Why, God, didn't you step in to keep Philando Castile alive? Why, God, didn't you step in to keep Alton Sterling alive? Why, God, didn't you step in to keep those officers in Dallas alive?
But I'm reminded here that the call for us to love God, who we can't see, is translated into a call to love our neighbor, who we can. It is our responsibility to be the hands and feet of God.
Of course we're our brother's keeper!
And our sister's too!
It's our responsibility to watch out for our brothers and sisters, to keep them safe, to ensure that they aren't killed.
And God's response is interesting. Listen, says God, the blood of Abel is crying out from the ground.
There is so much good news here. There is no one to protest for Abel's murder - there's no witness, no one to video on their cell, and of course Cain is not wearing a bodycam - and yet the blood of Abel cries out to God nonetheless.
Even more, God hears, God listens, God responds.
I don't think it's a stretch to say that, just like God hears the cry of the silenced Abel, God hears the cry of the silenced Philando Castile, the silenced Alton Sterling, the silenced Dallas police officers, and too many more to name. Their blood cries out to God.
And I think we can extend that to say that God hears the cries of those without a voice in our society, those who are still alive but whose voices have been silenced.
God listens, even when our elected officials ignore the call for justice. God listens...
And you don't even have to occupy a bridge to make God listen. God is paying attention before it gets to that.
As progressive white folks, we like to think of ourselves as the enlightened ones. We would never act as the two officers did last week. We would never be Cain and murder our brother.
But look at verse 7. Very calmly, God offers a rational case for Cain to collect himself and do the right thing. You haven't done anything wrong, and you can still choose the right path, God says, just be careful because sin is waiting to ambush you.
But Cain is just not in a rational place.
How many of us have acted without thinking? Who hasn't acted on impulse? Who hasn't looked back in regret after letting our emotions get the best of us? We all have.
That is Cain. He's a sympathetic figure in verses 1-7. He's set up as a good guy. (Don't believe me? Go back and read the story for yourself. He didn't do anything wrong.) He has every reason to be upset. But sin - and notice that, here, the first time sin is mentioned in the Bible, it's described not as doing the wrong thing, but as a force outside of us - is waiting to ambush him.
And that's exactly what happens. God tells Cain that he can control sin, but instead sin controls him.
I offer a parallel here. The officers who killed Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were probably good guys. Like Cain. If they could, I'm sure they would take it back. Like Cain. But I don't think they made rational choices, but rather acted in the moment. Like Cain.
My first three years of teaching were in Frayser, in one of the most violent schools in the city. The year before I got there, there were over 160 fights in 180 school days. A few years before that, a young man was killed in the restroom. It was chaos, and I'd never seen anything like it.
We did a lot of good things at that school. We cut fights by over 100 the first year. And then the next year fights were halved. We turned boys into young men, wearing their pants at their waist and voluntarily wearing ties to school. Every sports team made it to the playoffs. My class protested the death of Trayvon Martin at the entrance of our awards ceremony when the school board president was our guest of honor. There was a sense of pride, both within the school and in the community. And academic proficiency increased from 5% to 18%. Students with disabilities outperformed their non-disabled peers at 25%. Things had really turned around.
But some things I saw made me very uncomfortable. And yet I fell in line. I didn't speak up. Looking back, it terrifies me to even think about some of the ways I acted then.
I have a graduate degree in ethics - I am quite literally a master of right action. And yet...
The point being, in the wrong culture, there is a force that can take over even the best of us.
We are Cain.
Very easily, we could be those police officers too.
The hard truth, though, according to Genesis 4, is that sin is not so much something inside of us, but a force that is outside of us and beyond us. It has a life of its own. And that makes it so much more difficult to control.
It's embedded in the political system we participate in - and so we participate in it. It's embedded in the religion we practice - and so we practice it too. It's embedded in the news we consume - and so we consume it. It's in the very air we breath - and so we breath it in.
But Cain could control it, said God. And that means that we can too. And if we can control it, then by all means we must. Because there is too much blood crying out from the ground.
When it controls us, though, the good news is that God will not let go, will not give up, but will follow us even unto the land of Nod.
Cain went on to found the first city. His descendants were the first to discover art and culture and technology. They took the very same passion and emotion that Cain felt, and they channeled it into something productive and life-giving. Thanks be to God.
But they also continued killing. As do we today.
We can control it, says God. And so we must.
Those who have been silenced are crying out and asserting control over the forces in our society that have silenced them for years - and would keep them silenced.
They asserted control over a bridge. I was there. It was peaceful. It was nonviolent. But they controlled that bridge. And, as a result, they are on the path to control the force that is sin.
God heard them all along. But now, finally, their elected officials are listening. And so they are asserting control over the political process.
God heard them all along. But now, finally, religious leaders are listening. And so they are asserting control over religious institutions.
God heard them all along. But now, finally, the news media is listening. And printing public apologies. And so they are asserting control over how the narrative is reported.
As white folks, we must do our part.
We must stand up and affirm that #BlackLivesMatter. We must be part of the movement.
And yet, just like Stokely Carmichael told one of my Baptist heroes, Will Campbell, back in the '60s, we must get to work on our white brothers and sisters. We can't just abandon them because they don't understand why it's so important to say #BlackLivesMatter or why it's important to occupy a bridge. We must be the bridge that helps them understand.
And, as white folks, we must be willing to not be in control for once. We must be willing to check out privilege.
Listen! Abel's blood is crying out. May we listen to what it has to say. And may we not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Thanks be to God.