“Who cares? So what? I don’t know. Whatever…” or
“Am I My Brother’s Keeper?”
John Shuck

Genesis 4:1-26
Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.’ Next she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. 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 no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.’

Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let us go out to the field.’ And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.’ Cain said to the Lord, ‘My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.’ Then the Lord said to him, ‘Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.’ And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him. Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch; and he built a city, and named it Enoch after his son Enoch.

To Enoch was born Irad; and Irad was the father of Mehujael, and Mehujael the father of Methushael, and Methushael the father of Lamech. Lamech took two wives; the name of one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah. Adah bore Jabal; he was the ancestor of those who live in tents and have livestock. His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the ancestor of all those who play the lyre and pipe. Zillah bore Tubal-cain, who made all kinds of bronze and iron tools. The sister of Tubal-cain was Naamah.

Lamech said to his wives:
‘Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say:
I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for striking me.
If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.’

Qu’ran 5:27-32
Recite to them the true story of the two sons of Adam, when they offered a sacrifice and it was accepted from one of them but not from the other.

He said, “I shall slay you!”

The other replied: “God only accepts from the devout. Were you to stretch forth your hand to kill me, I shall not stretch forth my hand to kill you, for I fear God, the Lord of the Worlds. I want you to bear my sin and yours, and thus become a denizen of the Fire, for this is the reward of wrongdoers.

His soul tempted him to kill his brother, so he killed him and ended up among the lost. But God sent a raven clawing out the earth to show him how he might bury the corpse of his brother. He said: ‘What a wretch I am! Am I incapable of being like this raven and so conceal my brother’s corpse?’ And so he ended up remorseful.

It is for this reason that We decreed to the Children of Israel that he who kills a soul neither in revenge for another, nor to prevent corruption on earth, it is as if he killed the whole of humankind; whereas he who saves a soul, it is as if he saved the whole of humankind.

Matthew 5:44a
“Jesus said, ‘Love your enemies.'”


This is fun.

Are clergy supposed to have fun? Whether we are supposed to or not, we do. This group of clergy that I have been fortunate to get to know this past year is a fun group. We meet a couple of times a month as a support group and to come up with ideas to enhance our ministries.

During the season of Lent we wanted to do a couple of things. We wanted to explore a Christian way of being that is open to questions. So often the popular voice and face of Christianity is one that wants to tell people what they must believe. That isn’t any of us, nor is that why people come to our respective churches. It is time, we thought, to be a bit more vocal on what a questioning Christianity is.

The second thing we wanted to do was to introduce our congregations to our clergy friends. Sometimes it is fun to introduce friends to other friends. I don’t know if this is going to be more fun for us than it is for you. But is going to be fun for us. All of us are looking forward to preaching in different settings. What you will get are some different perspectives, some different voices, and we hope an opportunity to ask, share, and live the questions. We are planning as well a gathering on April 10th for everyone, members and friends of all five churches, to come together for that greatest of Christian holy meals, the potluck, and to share what this experience has been like. More details to come on that.

So the five of us who will be preaching came up with questions with which we live. We thought to share them as well as share our provisional responses. My question is a bit tricky to pin down. The question that popped into my head was “Am I my brother’s keeper?” This is the question Cain asks God after the farmer, Cain, has killed his brother the shepherd, and God asks Cain where Abel is. “Where’s your brother, Abel?”

And Cain replies: “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

I wanted to talk about violence. Is violence ingrained in the human condition? Does the Bible think we are natural born killers? Or do we have a choice to do something else? When we witness violence do we shake our heads and say, ‘humans will be humans’ and then build up our security forces?

And what about the character of God? What do we do with God’s violence in the Bible? Both testaments. Christ comes in the Book of Revelation on a war horse and the blood of the unrighteous comes up to the horses bridles for 200 miles. That violent streak is throughout the Bible. That leads to this question: Is religion good for humanity, or not? Does religion inspire more violence in the name of a violent God? Or can religion help us choose non-violence?

These are real questions. Someone called KBOO complaining about my program. The listener hadn’t heard the program, just the promo for it. The complaint was not even about the topic of that particular show. The listener couldn’t bear the idea of a program about religion. The listener said: “Religion for Life? Religion isn’t for life! Religion is for death!”

I have an interview coming up with Dan Barker, an evangelical preacher turned atheist. His latest book is entitled: God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction. He provides a catalogue by quoting the Bible itself about all the bad character traits God demonstrates. Is he right? Is God, the Bible, Christianity, the whole of it, a bad idea whose end needs to come before we are all destroyed?

In my first church I led them through reading the Bible in a year. One of my church members, a schoolteacher with young children, came up to me, angry. He thought it would be a great idea to read the Bible with his kids. A spiritual adventure. Teach the children morality and so forth. He gets to the part where God says to kill all the Canaanites, including, women and children. He is angry with me for having him read this book.

“This isn’t even about human beings murdering others. God tells them to do it!”

I said, “Yeah, I guess I should have put a warning label on it first.”

No amount of apology, no defending or excusing God will work. We have to deal with the violence of God, the God who orders ethnic cleansing, the God who destroys nearly every human being including all the animals (what did they do?) in a flood, the God whose Christ rides his horse through rivers of blood and sends the vast majority of humans to eternal fire because they believe the wrong things.

More and more people, especially young people, are saying no thank you to the Christian faith, its Bible and its God: too violent, too narrow, too toxic.

And yet, there are those of us who say, but that isn’t all the story, is it?

A book I highly recommend from an author who has helped me more than any other in regards to Christianity and the Bible is called How to Read the Bible and Still Be A Christian: Struggling With Divine Violence From Genesis Through Revelation. The author is historical Jesus scholar, John Dominic Crossan. I would say that Professor Crossan and a few others such as Marcus Borg, Bob Funk, Elaine Pagels, and Jack Spong, helped me to remain a Christian. The reason is because they took the hard questions seriously. They didn’t offer an apology for the faith, but helped me in my search for a Christianity worth embracing.

Let’s start at the beginning. Why would Columbus, Shakespeare, and Bishop Ussher declare that earth and heaven was about 6,000 years old? It was commonly believed in 16th and 17th centuries by going through the Bible itself that one could with patience calculate creation’s beginning by counting up the lifespans of Adam and Eve’s descendants, conveniently provided in the various genealogies.

Bishop Ussher calculated the date of creation at 4004 BC, October 23rd to be precise. It was a Saturday. Creation began at dusk.

Of course we can laugh because we know that the universe is 14 billion years old, and Earth 4.5 billion years old, and all of life including humankind has evolved over hundreds millions of years through natural selection. As I shared with the children a couple of weeks ago, we are related to all of life. The banana we had for breakfast shares half of our DNA. We should remember that we are eating our cousin.

The interesting question is why did the biblical authors in the collective, set creation and the earliest creation parables in this time, 4000 BC and in this place, the fertile crescent? Other myths of creation that predate Genesis have time periods and characters several hundred thousand years previous. Why didn’t the Bible use those dates?

Why 4000 BC? Why the Euphrates and the Tigris? Genesis chapter 2, the second creation story, begins in modern day Iraq, Mesopotamia, in the midst of the Neolithic revolution, the dawn of civilization. This time period, 6 to 12 thousand years ago, marked the shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture, permanent settlements, the establishment of social classes, cities, and the need to protect excess produce. To standing armies.

Here is where we find the brothers, Cain the first human born on Earth and Abel. Let’s not be silly. These are fictions. These are not real people. Cain, the farmer, and Abel, the shepherd, are based on an earlier Sumerian myth. There are a number of Sumerian myths of this type that ask the question, “What is better?” In this particular story, the question is, “What is better, a farmer or a shepherd.?”

According to the story, the goddess Ianna, the queen of heaven, is told by her brother to marry the shepherd god, Dumizid, and not the farmer god, Enkimdu, who are brothers. She does not want to marry the shepherd. She wants the farmer. The shepherd god, Dumizid, asks why is the farmer better than me? He compares his products to those of his brother. My stuff is as good as the farmer’s.

Then the shepherd god, Dumizid starts a quarrel with the farmer god, Enkimdu, but Enkimdu doesn’t take the bait to get into a conflict and says, we can share; “let your sheep eat on the riverbank and eat the stubble of my fields. “ The dispute ends with Ianna marrying the shepherd after all and they invite Enkimdu to the wedding. The brothers end up friends.

Dumizid the shepherd god becomes Abel and Enkimdu the farmer god becomes Cain in the biblical story. It does not end so nicely. Like the Sumerian myth, there is a contest of sorts typical of these Sumerian myths. Abel brings his shepherd offering. Cain brings his farmer offering. God regards Abel not Cain. No reason is given. God prefers one over the other. Cain becomes angry.

Then God has a conversation with Cain. The Lord said to Cain,

‘Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.’

Another translation has it that you will master it, not you must master it.

This is the first we hear of sin in the Bible.

Adam and Eve do not sin by eating the fruit. The “original” sin is Cain’s sin that lurks at the door, that he is able to master. That sin is violence. Cain does not master the sin. Instead he kills his brother.

In the story the character, God, does not punish Cain. It is the ground itself, Adamah, that curses Cain. God is offering a play by play. The consequence of violence is the curse. The violence will make Cain a fugitive. Cain expresses fear that people will kill him. God says not so. God puts a mark on Cain. That mark of Cain is the mark of civilization. Any who kills you will be avenged sevenfold, not by God, but by humans. 

Cain goes off and builds a city. His descendants demonstrate also the marks civilization: livestock, music, iron tools.

And then we get to Lamech. Lamech a descendent of Cain, boasts:

Lamech said to his wives:
‘Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say:
I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for striking me.
If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.’

You might remember those numbers in the gospels, when Peter asks how many times should he forgive, seven times. No, Jesus says, the answer is seventy-sevenfold, an obvious reference to Lamech’s boast.

God is not doing the avenging in this case. Humans are avenging. What we have here is “escalatory violence.” That is the by-product of civilization. Civilization doing its normal thing.

The mark of civilization, the mark of Cain, is agriculture, cities, iron, bronze, music, cars, the internet, hamburgers, and escalatory violence.

According this biblical story, escalatory violence is not inherent. Violence on the scale that Lamech boasts is the by-product of civilization.

Ronald Wright in his book The History of Progress wrote:

From the first chipped stone to the first smelted iron took nearly 3 million years; from the first iron to the hydrogen bomb took only 3,000.

But hydrogen bombs and nuclear subs are normal and necessary, right? You have to have a strong defense, right? Perhaps you do for the normalcy of civilization, but that is not because human beings are natural born killers. It isn’t because of human nature.

Genesis four is not about fratricide, an isolated case of brother killing brother, it is the story of escalatory violence that arises with civilization, particularly with the managing of surplus.

Crossan argues that throughout the Bible the we have this faint heartbeat of distributive justice, where everyone has enough, all live in peace with justice, the creation of Earth in God’s image and the Sabbath so all may rest including animals, to the immediate second loud heartbeat of the normalcy of civilization and retributive violence.

This is why we find the character, God, bi-polar so to speak. On one hand, the character God, through the prophets, says turn spears into pruning hooks. God declares a year of jubilee, where all debts are wiped clean. God invites all to come to my holy mountain where no one harms another. The historical Jesus says, “love your enemies.” Then you have quickly responding, ethnic cleansing, war, slavery, retribution, Christ on his war horse in Revelation all commanded by the character, God.

The Bible is a human product. God is the character of storymaking. Yet, the stories they wrote are about the human condition. Are we naturally violent, or is this violence, including the violence of God, the result of decisions made in the matrix of the challenges of civilization?

The Bible contains two messages, the possibility that we can master the violence, the original sin, and then as quick as a heartbeat, civilization doing its normal thing and saying: peace only comes through violence and victory. How do we know which God is real? How do we know our human destiny?

Is the path to peace through distributive justice, life for everyone, or retributive justice, violence and revenge?

The contest within the Bible according to Crossan, is the kingdom of God to use Jesus’ phrase vs. the kingdom of Caesar. Caesar isn’t bad. He is normal. You have to crucify people, strike them with drones, imprison them, control the whole world with your military in order to keep the good flowing to those few whom Empire blesses.

As Christians we read the Bible through the lens of the biblical Christ. But we read Christ through the lens of the historical Jesus. If there is a red-letter saying of Jesus it is this:

“Love your enemies.”

Crossan bets it all on the belief that Jesus was non-violent. I agree with him.

The message of Jesus’ parables was that we get peace through justice not through victory and conquest. The normalcy of civilization is violence, but that is not human nature.

It is as if it is election time. Jesus is running against Caesar. Caesar’s platform is peace through victory. You dominate. You get bigger and better guns. You build walls. You win. You get peace for the elect and quiet for the rest.

Jesus’ platform is peace through justice. You build peace by making sure everyone has enough. You build bridges. You educate. You heal. You practice an open table. When people have access, freedom, autonomy, enough, you get peace for everyone.

Who do you believe? A look at our recent history shows who we believe. Out of fear we have chosen those who promise peace for the few through violence.

That is why the heartbeat of distributive justice is so faint. It isn’t an Old Testament vs. New Testament thing. The God of distributive justice is throughout the scripture. We barely hear it, because the God of retribution is loud and immediate.

As we picture our God, so we picture ourselves.

Yet, the faint promise is that we can master the original sin of escalatory violence.

We can, we must, we will, master it.

This is why, to answer my own question, I think that religion can be a force for human dignity and for non-violence. Love your enemies. Build peace. That is the divine message of the Bible and of the Qur’an for that matter.

We decreed to the Children of Israel that he who kills a soul…it is as if he killed the whole of humankind; whereas he who saves a soul, it is as if he saved the whole of humankind.

I remain a Christian and a religious person in general because I think the heart of the message is not that humankind is violent, but that violence is the result of our choices. We can choose another path.

We can choose to build peace, to make choices for healthcare, food, water, access to the fruit of earth for all people. We can make that choice. We can make that choice everyday.

We can also choose as did Cain, to shrug with indifference, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” We can let our fear and cynicism master us, and we can excuse it with the resignation that violence is inevitable, and we must get ours and protect ours and secure ours and defeat the opposition before they defeat us.

That according to the Bible, is the original sin.

“Sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.’

And we will.