The impulse to murder

Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go for a walk.” And when they were out in a field, Cain killed him.” — Genesis 4:8, CEV

batman-shootingIt was a case of sibling rivalry. Cain was the firstborn son of Adam and Eve; Abel was his younger brother. They were all farmers, of necessity, and we might romantically imagine Adam, Eve, and the kids living a kind of  Little House on the Prairie existence, where life revolved around a daily cycle of hard work and family relationships, under the protective presence of God.

But the reality was something more familiar: Cain was a troubled young man. Perhaps he chafed under the authority of his parents, as most kids eventually do. Perhaps he bristled at having to live under the watchful eye of God, and dreamt of the day when he could throw off his parents’’ religion and be free to make his own choices, to follow his own heart.

Abel, on the other hand, was the son who did everything right. He was content with his place, content to labor on the family farm tending the flocks of sheep. Abel loved God, and God approved of Abel.

So Cain grew to resent his brother. He began thinking of himself as the black sheep, the one who always gets the blame, the one who always screws things up. He struggled unsuccessfully to measure up to his  younger sibling, and he was angry about it.

One day, the two brothers brought offerings to God, Cain from the crops he was raising and Abel from his flocks of sheep. God accepted Abel’’s offering but rejected Cain’’s. The passage doesn’t explain why, but it would be wrong to focus too much on the offerings themselves. The issue for God was the condition of the brothers’’ hearts. God sees what we hide from others, and is not one to settle for a fresh coat of paint on a rotten fence.

God spoke to Cain, not in anger, but as a father trying to turn around a wayward child. Don’’t be bitter, God said. You will be accepted, too, if you repent and choose a better path. And then God warned him that sin was waiting to pounce if he didn’t change his ways.

But Cain was far too angry to hear the love in God’’s voice. Instead of examining himself, instead of honestly facing his jealousy and hurt feelings, Cain blamed Abel for his troubles and decided to do something about it. And on a sunny morning not far from Eden, Cain lured his brother into the fields and murdered him, then walked away as if nothing had happened.

We instinctively value human life and recoil at death, especially murder. We read the awful headlines and always ask the same question: Why? The answers we come up with are never satisfying, and never seem to promise to prevent the cycle of bloodshed from repeating itself.

When Adam Lanza murdered his mother, shooting her in the face as she slept, we tried to make some kind of horrible sense of it as a tragic escalation of the ordinary warfare that often exists between children and their parents. And had he stopped there, her murder would have been a sad but all too common atrocity, not much different than what Cain did so long ago.

But he didn’’t stop, and how can anyone possibly understand what Adam Lanza did next? No amount of twisted rage against his mother or the hard circumstances of his life make any sense of the wanton killing of defenseless women and children. If his first crime was an act of rage against his family, his second was rage vomited out against youth and joy and life and society itself.

Perhaps he was mentally ill, which is an explanation of some sort, however unsatisfying. But the three teenagers who allegedly murdered 22-year-old Christopher Lane to ease their boredom seemed in full possession of their wits when they randomly selected the college baseball player for murder. This was murder as entertainment, violence not aimed at righting some perceived wrong, but violence as a raw exercise of brutal power. Perhaps subconsciously it was an attack against God himself, as the Creator of all things good and hopeful.

This never-ending red tide incites arguments about gun control policies, and it can’’t be seriously argued that the abundance of guns has diminished the impulse to murder. But as with many social problems that we attempt to address by first stripping away any insights religion might bring, the cry of gun control misses the point by putting the blame on technology, while avoiding a hard look at the inner turmoil and moral emptiness — an increasingly modern problem — that make us willing to murder in the first place.

The core problem is not technology but sin –— walling off our hearts against the love of God — and it has created a continuous trail of blood that extends back from Sandy Hook to 9/11 to Oklahoma City to Buchenwald to Nero’s Coliseum to Cain.

The act of murder can explode from psychosis, or from unfettered anger or jealousy or ambition, or even from simple boredom, but whatever its trigger, it is always fueled by the tyranny of I over you. All our moral strictures and legal prohibitions become irrelevant once a murderous heart demands payment for its many perceived grievances against another person, or against life’’s injustices, or even against God. Murder is the ego demanding satisfaction no matter what the cost to others.

Love, on the other hand, arises out of self-denial and the ego-taming impulses that blossom when you are more important than me. The love of Christ orients our hearts and minds towards the good of others, not their annihilation. That other-centered orientation of heart is what Jesus was talking about in this often-quoted passage in Matthew 7:

“Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets.”” — Matthew 7:12, NLT

And if your reaction to all of this is, “Well, I must be ok in God’’s eyes because I’’ve never murdered anybody……”

We should remember that the impulse to murder is merely the last stop on a long subway trip past envy, jealousy, pride, selfish ambition, idolatry, and a host of other sins that all thrive and bloom once we’’ve made ourselves into little gods and have convinced ourselves that the world really should revolve around our needs and our desires.

Murder is the antithesis of love. Big duh. That’s pretty obvious, isn’’t it? But maybe what we fail to realize, or would see more clearly if we could see through God’’s eyes, is that murder is merely part of a long chain of self-serving commitments that we keep buried deep inside of us. Any attitude that leads us to lift ourselves up and put others down is a relative of murder, even if only a distant cousin.

The impulse to murder doesn’t boil up out of nowhere in a moment of hot rage. It simmers and thickens and becomes more tasty, so long as we keep adding more and more “I” to the stew, and less and less “Him

Photo credit: Karl Gehring, Associated Press

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  1. I don’t think I had ever seen the phrase “self-serving commitments” before. It expresses a powerful insight, that we have “promised ourselves” that we will be responsible (among other things) to take action to rectify whatever wrong we believe to have been inflicted upon us. It implies confidence in our own understanding of what is going on and an unwillingness to leave the consequences in God’s hands. So it’s not hard to see how it could lead to murder. Surely this is the antithesis of humility, which is therefore the best antidote, as in 1 Peter 5:5-6.

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