Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (Genesis 4) transports me to what anthropologist Jared Diamond calls the worst mistake in human history, circa 10,000 years ago. That’s the approximate birthdate of the agricultural revolution and the ensuing emergence of civil society, aka “civilization.” As Diamond argues, this revolution led to one thing and then another, with those first aggies ultimately getting the blame for the eventual over-population of the world, which in turn has caused and continues to cause catastrophic suffering, not to mention placing the planet at peril. Before this chain of events ever started, before humans settled down with the knowledge of tilling the soil and growing their food, the species subsisted (Jared Diamond would say thrived) in communities of nomadic hunters and gatherers and pastoral herders. Something tragic happened in 8,000 BCE to change all that. Whether or not we agree with Diamond’s analysis, it’s a safe bet that those nomadic pastoral people certainly did. Why? Because they suffered virtual genocide in the process. Before the agriculturalists, the various bands and communities of people co-existed in relative peace on the land. But the tillers of the soil got the idea that they couldn’t abide the presence of the shepherds and foragers, and systematically slaughtered them, until finally the entire Fertile Crescent was, shall we say, civilized, with cities and empires cropping up alongside the amber waves of grain. Eventually the revolution would reach the entire globe, until the anthrologists were left with only the rare and remote hunting and gathering tribes in places like Papua New Guinea to study.
What is fascinating to me is the juxtaposition of this large meta-narrative of the sweep of human history over the very personal micro-narrative of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. I first read of this connection in Daniel Quinn’s book, Ishmael. According to Quinn, the story of Cain, the tiller of soil, and Abel, the pastoral shepherd, has its etymology in the experience of the nomads who were observing a new phenomenon: the inability of agriculturalists to co-exist with nomadic cultures, and the wholesale murder of the latter, largely over the never-satisfied hunger for more and more land in the ever-expanding reach of the farmers. From the pastoralist’s perspective, this new way of being did not have divine approval, in the way God had been blessing their work for eons. This new so-called civilization signaled, in fact, a divine curse. According to the anthropologists, it really was a curse by many measurements, with the emergence of epidemic diseases and malnutrition to name but two. What Daniel Quinn found interesting was how this tale of fratricide, an explanation story rooted among a nomadic people trying to interpret a tragedy taking place around them, eventually found its way into the sacred stories of the civilized people. The civilized folks have never understood the story; it’s always been an enigma to the theologians and the preachers, why God would without explanation accept one brother’s offering and refuse the other. The mystery has meant that the heart of the story has been forgotten, with the culture only able to latch onto to a couple of phrases at the edge of the story – such as the question of being our brother’s keeper.
The other phrase from the edge of this story that survives in our religious vocabulary is the image of sin crouching at our door. Given that we in the “civilized” world are all descendants of Cain, and bear his mark, this phrase defines our existence – sin is forever crouching at our door, desiring to rule over us. Here is the insidious nature of that crouching sin, the illusion that Cain’s offering really does have God’s blessing, as evidenced by our civilization’s reaping the benefits of all the advancements that civilization has proffered – medical, technological, etc etc. But Jared Diamond points out that we who enjoy these advances really are part of an elite sliver of humanity – he labels us social parasites – living off the sweat of the other 80 to 90% of the world’s population who exist on less than $10 a day and suffer the misery of mining our minerals and harvesting our chocolate and coffee. Perhaps this, and not Eve’s bite of the apple, is our real “original sin,” this delusional fantasy of progress that we imbibe day in and day out, in the blissful ignorance of billions of suffering people who miss out on the blessing. We who enjoy a life of luxury do not have a choice to trade this cursed delusional existence in for the life of the forager in the paradise of Papua New Guinea, and none of us would dare make the choice if the opportunity arose. We are hardly able to go back and live within the technological confines of our parents or grandparents for more than a day or week, and let go of the computer and cell phone technology that we enjoy at the expense of 5 million Congolese who have died in the mining wars that give us the coltan necessary to boot up and text. But, as Cain asked, are we our brother’s keeper?
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.