Most people know the general plot of the story, whether they think it’s history or myth: Cain and Abel were the first brothers on earth, and because his offering wasn’t accepted by God like his brother’s was, Cain killed Abel in a jealous rage. (You can read the full story here—and you should, because source material matters, people.)
There’s something deeply disturbing about realizing the first death was a murder. Christianity teaches that because of sin, we all die…but also because of sin, we sometimes kill.
Which brings us to today. More than in the aftermath of past mass shootings, I’ve seen arguments from both sides that reference Cain. Here’s the most common one:
Full disclosure: I’m not a huge fan of discussing complex societal problems on the Internet, partly because I’m not an expert in basically anything, and partly because it’s not a good medium for listening and responding well.
But as soon as I see people posting Biblical verses or references to support their position, it’s like beaming the bat-signal into the sky. Time to break out the cape and exegetical utility belt. Gotham needs me.
Don’t worry. I always give myself a cooling-off period when I’m in one of those moods, so I’m not about to go all vigilante justice on you. By now, I know that I’m not the hero the world deserves or the hero it needs. I don’t have all the answers. I can’t solve all the problems. But I do have some thoughts.
If you had asked me a week ago what the story of Cain teaches us, before the memes and the rhetoric, I would have said things like “God deeply values right worship,” “God deeply values human life,” and “We are held responsible for the moral choices we make.” All of those are major themes of the story. None of these are referenced by the meme.
That’s your friendly reminder that the story of Cain and Abel isn’t actually about gun control. It exists in the Bible for much more important reasons than to get name-dropped on Facebook after a terrible tragedy.
Okay. So, let’s talk about the part that is directly relevant to mass shootings and what we should do about them. One of the themes of the story of Cain is…
We are capable of great evil.
All of us. Not just the mentally ill or the marginalized, not just the shooters and the psychopaths. Need proof? Later in the Bible, when John says, “Do not be like Cain”—referencing choices to hate others instead of love them—he’s talking to his fellow Christians. (1 John 3:12)
Have you felt what that means, lately? It means we could be like Cain. It means sometimes we are. Sometimes I am.
If you believe this, thousands of conclusions follow, some of which I think relate to the meme-ification of gun violence. Because I believe that all of us are capable of great evil, I also believe…
My friends on the political left are correct when they say it’s all too easy to let greed and selfishness blind us to potential solutions to this problem.
And my friends on the political right are correct when they say that no matter how many laws are made, people determined to break them will find a way to do so.
Some of my friends are wrong because, really, there is no such thing as a “good guy with a gun.” We are all corrupted by sin, and even our good intentions for gun ownership—protection or public safety—can be twisted by fear or prejudice or pride. (Ex: controversial police shootings and questions about “just wars.”)
Some of my friends are wrong because they put too much faith in rules, and maybe even in the government (made up of corrupted people) by being willing to trade freedom for security. It’s an age-old question of risks and gains that needs to be made carefully with an understanding that we’re just as bad, maybe worse, institutionalized into a group than we are individually.
So to the people talking about how Cain killed with a rock, I’d say yes, he did. But now we can kill with weapons that have more power and potential, and that changes things. That’s true of every new invention—guns are just one example. Technology shows both our capacity to create and progress, and our tendency to corrupt and destroy in more far-reaching ways. That’s the difference between a rock and a gun. And the point of the story of Cain and Abel isn’t to say we shouldn’t have laws just because we are lawbreakers at heart.
And to the people saying that Abel’s blood cries out for justice, I’d say yes, it does. But it cries out against us, in our confidence of our own rightness and righteousness. The references to Abel’s blood crying out in the New Testament (Matthew 23:34-36, Hebrews 11:4, 12:24) aren’t given as a reason why we should have more restrictions to prevent murder. The point of the story of Cain and Abel is not that it tells us how to respond to violence, but that it symbolizes all of our rejections of God since then.
All that said, the story of Cain and Abel does have application to the crazy, messed-up world we live in. The main one I see is in its honesty about the human condition. What you think about people’s goodness matters when you talk politics and policy…but it doesn’t mean you don’t have a responsibility to talk about those things.
Let’s refuse to accept platitudes and easy answers as we try to find wise solutions…but let’s also remember our tendency toward corruption when we think about how those solutions will play out.