Tuesday, October 8, 2013

reverse theology

Tintoretto's Cain and Abel
This past week I have been reading Miroslav Volf's excellent book, Exclusion & Embrace. Volf, a Croatian theologian (now working in the USA) who has seen the terrible things that neighbours can do to each other, brings a very personal and challenging perspective to the topic of how we live with others. One of the stories he includes in the book is the familiar tale of Cain and Abel, the brothers who didn't get along (see Genesis 4). Let me paraphrase his observations.

At first glance the two brothers appear to be equals: born of the same parents, both engaging in respectable occupations (one a tiller of the ground and the other a keeper of sheep), both offering appropriate sacrifices to God, and neither of them taking centre stage in the story (a literary device is used whereby the names are mentioned alternately). However, there is an undercurrent of inequality in the story. At the birth of her first son, the mother issues a proud and joyous proclamation ("I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.") Cain's name is one of honour, meaning "to produce," "to bring forth." On the other hand, Abel, the second son, is not received with much excitement. His name reflects his inferiority: Abel means "breath," "vapor," "sheer transience," "worthlessness," "nothingness." Some scholars put forth the idea that Cain would have been a rich farmer, a wealthy landowner whereas Abel would have struggled to keep a small flock. When they brought offerings to God, the great Cain brought simply "the fruit of the ground" whereas poor Abel brought the best parts ("fat portions").  Perhaps Abel was more aware of his dependence on God. Whatever the case, God noted the difference and the inequality between them became clear.

In a move that we later see echoed in the many inversions and reversals that Jesus became known for, we see God upsetting the status quo. Abel (not just his offering) is accepted and Cain is rejected. And this upsets Cain, to put it mildly. Volf observes that first came envy, that Abel (a nobody) should be regarded and Cain (a somebody) should be disregarded by God. Then came anger at both God and Abel, because God's version of justice offended Cain's sense of justice and importance. Volf writes: "Cain was confronted with God's measure of what truly matters and what is truly great. Since he could not change the measure and refused to change himself, he excluded both God and Abel from his life. Anger was the first link in a chain of exclusions." (Volf, 95).

I don't know about you, but I find comfort in many of Jesus' reversals: strangers are embraced, the poor are included, sinners are welcomed to the feast.  I identify with the outsider and am grateful for the invitation of Jesus to be a part of God's story, God's kingdom. What I am not as comfortable with, and what I find here in the story of Cain and Abel, is that I might be on the opposite side of the inversion: I might be Cain. Like this older brother, I have done everything right to the best of my ability. I am doing quite well, working hard and reaping good rewards in this life. There is a certain amount of favour and honour that I feel at times. It seems like justice. But is this God's justice, God's measure of greatness, of what truly matters? Or mine?

Here is another example. In Jeremiah we read about the unpopular message that the prophet brings to the people of Israel: they are to submit to the rule of the Babylonians and go willingly into captivity. This went against their idea of justice! Surely they should remain in their land, fight for what is theirs, stay with their beloved temple, and hold out against Babylon! But God, through Jeremiah, instructs them to surrender, go live in Babylon, be ruled by a foreigner, build homes and have families, and pray for the blessing of their captors. God's version of justice seems like a slap in the face. However, God promises that captivity will be life while holding out against Babylon will be death. Submit and live, Jeremiah urges! It all just seems so backwards! Putting ourselves under the leadership of a corrupt government? It makes no sense! And this is because we are Cain. We have assumed the position of favour and don't understand how it could be yanked out from under us.

So how can we write a better ending for the story where we are Cain? Here are some questions to ask: when my idea of justice is out of sync with what God says, with what Jesus demonstrates, am I willing to embrace a new outlook? Am I willing to say, "I obviously got this wrong. Let me learn what is important to you, God. Let me learn from my poor brother whom I dismissed as lesser than me. Let me willingly give up this place of favour and learn what true greatness, true service is." This inversion is a difficult one, I admit. It is moving from a place of independence to dependence. It is replacing self-sufficiency with surrender. It is giving up our well-laid plans for the future in exchange for one day at a time with the God who provides. But it is the better way, the only way forward. It is the way that leads to life and not to death.

For more on this, see Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Abingdon Press, 1996.

Matte from Montreal

No comments:

Post a Comment