The Common Good
January-February 2002

The Silence of Cain

by Rose Marie Berger | January-February 2002

Are we cannon fodder in a cosmic war of good and evil?

In the nightly news, President Bush describes America as a nation engaged in a "monumental struggle of good vs. evil," while bin Laden accuses us of being sinners who have helped "evil triumph over good." In Kabul, Bush was burned in effigy. In Washington, D.C., T-shirts are sold with bin Laden’s face as a shooting target.

Do Christians have anything unique to contribute in a war between good and evil, or are we all just sideline morality judges and band-aid medics in a cosmic, and deadly, volleyball match?

Modern Christianity has spent an awful lot of time promoting codes of ethics and morality; so much so that the church’s role in society has become synonymous with what Dallas Willard calls "sin management." Don’t get me wrong. It is a good and Christian thing to make the world a better place; but the battle of good and evil is not won by "good ethics." Evil and our responses to it must be examined in light of the biblical master narrative. Be warned, however: If this salvation story is authentic, it must challenge and discomfort us at each new point in history. And post-Sept. 11 is no exception.

Let’s ask the hard questions. Were the terrorists’ attacks on Americans evil? Ethical consensus would give an unequivocal yes, because morally the act of killing thousands is evil in itself and theologically because such an act pushes the individuals who carried it out away from God. If we want to change the mindset of terrorists we must understand that horrendous evil, especially that which involves the death of the perpetrator, is almost always motivated by some vision of good, no matter how distorted. Is the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan an evil? Choosing to retaliate with overwhelming force, destroying innocent lives and livelihoods along the way, is morally evil. However, moral reasoning would argue that it may not be an absolute evil, leaving room for an act of limited evil to aid in the cause of greater good. These are the necessary, difficult questions of moral reasoning and "sin management."

Now let’s ask the harder questions. What level of self-deception is necessary to perpetrate evil? The shift from religion to ideology hinges on the simple mechanism of self-deception. Our ability to live authentically, as the Christian story compels us, depends on our capacity to resist self-deception. Illusions are evil because they distract from the Divine Reality.

Despite what most of us are taught, the biblical concepts of "good and evil" do not start in the Garden of Eden. The serpent introduced the concept of differentiation, that which is different from God’s original intent.

"Good and evil" as theological concepts come into play with Cain. "Sin" first appears biblically in Genesis 4:7. It is literally the "demon beast that lies in wait" for Cain to be indecisive about choosing good. Cain’s sin is not just the murder of his brother but his silence before God. Cain’s inability to move in the direction of the Divine creates within him an unbearable exposure to opposites. The demon sin manipulates Cain’s self-deception by suggesting that Cain can end this excruciating tension by silencing the one opposite to him—his brother Abel. But the demon’s designs are false by nature and ineffective. Instead of ending the pain, Cain is plunged into a greater degree of it. In his silence he must now listen to the cries of his brother’s blood screaming out from the ground.

When the disciples could not cast out the demon (Mark 9: 25-29), Jesus replied, "This kind can be exorcised by nothing but prayer and fasting." In other words, spiritually stripping down to the authentic self. Our biblical stories tell us what we need to know. As we study them, they train us to resist illusion, to turn away from false idols.

The Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitzyn wrote, "The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes nor between parties either—but right through the human heart." It is with a truly human heart, fleshy with our desire for God, that Christians shatter the false opposites posed so starkly on Sept. 11. This is the unique contribution of our salvation story.

Rose Marie Berger, an assistant editor at Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.

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