The Mark of Cain

I have just finished reading the new book by Robert Jones, White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. It is very well done and disturbingly, brutally clear in its examination of the intertwining of American Christianity and the supremacy of white people from the beginning of our nation’s history to the present—in our history and also, even, in our theology.

In the last chapter, Jones reminds us of the story in the book of Genesis of Cain killing his brother Abel. In the story, God asks Cain, “Where is your brother?”

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

God says, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.”

Later when Cain complains that his punishment is too harsh and that he will be killed if he is driven out of his homeland, God agrees to mark him in some way as a visible sign of God’s protection, even while he remains under the curse that God has put on him.

For generations, white Christians have used this passage to justify and explain white supremacy, teaching that it describes the origins of dark-skinned humans (“the mark of Cain”).

In writing about this, Jones says that the truth is that if we want to use this story to talk about race in the United States, we should invert the traditional white interpretation about who is Abel in this story and who is Cain.

“I’ll be blunt: it is white Americans who have murdered our black and brown brothers and sisters. After the genocide and forced removal of Native Americans, the enslavement of millions of Africans, and the lynching of more than 4,400 of their surviving descendants, it is white Americans who have used our faith as a shield to justify our actions, deny our responsibilities, and insist on our innocence. We, white Christian Americans, are Cain.”

Jones writes a long passage then expanding on this idea. I was so moved by it as I read it tonight—I think because I’ve been reading news accounts of the race-related strife in our country these days. And I’ve been looking at social media posts by people I know that are ugly (the posts, not the people) and seemingly unaware of our history. It’s so painful to read the vitriol directed toward others.

Why, my fellow white Christians, would we go on the attack because our black brothers and sisters are expressing the pain of centuries of racial discrimination and violence? I mean, really. Why?

Why be angry about this?

What is this history we trying so hard to hold on to and so afraid of losing?

Why are we being hateful toward our brothers and sisters who are right now in front of us because of some sort of nostalgia for an idealized (and maybe imagined) past?

Why would I want to fly a Confederate flag or put up a statue if it is hurtful to someone else? Why not just turn loose of those things out of love for others?

Instead of being self-defensive, why not take this moment and be self-reflective?

How have I, as a white Christian, been “marked” by my own faith’s strong complicity in the racial discrimination and violence in our country? Let’s be honest—I grew up a Southern Baptist; my denomination was founded on the idea that slave holders should not be considered in sin.

Instead of being mad at and fearful of others, why not take this national moment and wonder what it means for me, my faith, and my church?

Why not stand down from fighting about this?

I want to share the entire passage about “the mark of Cain” from Robert Jones that I read tonight. Maybe it will be moving to you as it was to me. The rest of this is a direct quote from Jones:

“And despite our denials, equivocations, protests and excuses, as the biblical narrative declares, the soil itself preserves and carries a testimony of truth to God. Today God’s anguished questions — “Where is your brother?” and “What have you done?” — still hang in the air like morning mist on the Mississippi River. We are only just beginning to discern these questions, let alone find the words to voice honest answers.

“These queries are, of course, rhetorical, even in the biblical story. God certainly knows the answers, and, if we’re honest with ourselves, so do we. I’ve always found it puzzling that God asks these questions of Cain. When I was younger, I thought perhaps God was playing a divine game of “gotcha” with Cain, laying a trap and testing him to see if he would lie.

“But I think the better interpretation, and one that is relevant for us, is that God is giving Cain the opportunity for confession, for honesty, knowing that this would be the best path for Cain to begin reckoning with the traumatic experience of having killed his own brother, the pain he has unleashed for himself and others, and the consequences that will inevitably come. God’s questions were a compassionate invitation to Cain, giving him an opportunity to avoid the twisting of his personality that this trauma, and the perpetual deception required to cover it up, would inevitably bring.

“But just as we have, Cain doubles down. Throwing his own rhetorical question back at God — “Am I my brother’s keeper?” — Cain not only indignantly denies any knowledge of his brother’s fate but also rejects the very idea that he should be expected to answer God’s questions. Here, it’s clear that Cain’s decision to lie about his hand in the murder and to deny responsibility makes his future harder, just as our denials threaten our own future.

“The challenge for white Americans today, and white Christians in particular, is whether and how we are going to answer these questions: “Where is your brother?” and “What have you done?”

“As we contemplate our answers, there are certainly important pragmatic considerations. Continued racial inequality, injustice and unrest harm our ability to live together in a democratic society. Racial prejudice and divisions provide weapons for our enemies who wish to weaken us. White supremacy is sand in the gears of the economy and a source of life-threatening conflict in our communities.

“But another important consideration, and one that we white Americans have given very little thought to, is the ways in which our complicity in this history, and our unwillingness to face it, have warped our own identities. Just as Cain was separated from his natural family, we have allowed white supremacy to separate us not just from our Black brothers and sisters but also from a true sense of who we are.

“We are Cain. It is white Christian souls that have been most disfigured by the myth of white supremacy. And it is we who are most in need of repentance and restoration, not just for the sake of the descendants of those whom our ancestors kidnapped, robbed, whipped, murdered and oppressed; not just for those who today are unjustifiably shot by police, unfairly tried, wrongfully convicted, denied jobs and poorly educated in failing schools; but for the sake of our children and our own future.

“And there’s hope here in the Genesis story. Even for the guilty and unrepentant Cain, God acts to preserve the possibility of a new future.”

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