July 7 | Reverse Revenge

Text: Genesis 4:8-26, Matthew 18:21-22
Speaker: Joel Miller

In the beginning, the first woman and the first man had two sons, and the older brother killed the younger.  That’s a very brief summary of the story we know as Cain and Abel, children of Adam and Eve.    As an origin story of the human family, it’s a cautionary tale about our tendency toward violence.  And since we all share a common ancestor, it’s a reminder that all violence is a family affair. 

The story takes on another layer if we consider that in Hebrew Cain, the farmer, is a play on the word meaning “production” – as in growing and acquiring stuff.  And Abel, the shepherd, means “emptiness” – as in open, spacious, non-investment in permanence.  Production and Emptiness are two different ways of being in the world.  And, two different forces within us.  Check your Google calendar to see if one is dominating the other.  Production and Emptiness are siblings.  They can co-exist in peace.  But in this story, they don’t.  Cain kills Abel.  Production kills Emptiness.  So it was in the beginning, and evermore has been up to our time. 

But…the blood of Abel, the slain brother, cries out from the ground to the Lord, who hears the cry, and visits the scene of the crime to have a talk with Cain. 

If you were here last week, this is review.  It was a first attempt at addressing some of the issues raised in the congregational survey for summer worship themes.  In this case, Peace, Violence, and Land.  If you weren’t here last week, today’s sermon will be kind of like watching the movie Inside Out 2 without seeing the original.  It can work as a stand-alone, but probably makes more sense having watched the first.  But since you’re here today, with the sequel already playing, maybe stick around and give it a shot if for no other reason than enjoying the non-overpriced refreshments after the service, which I’m sure you’re well-aware of.

Our story resumes out there in the field, where Abel was murdered, where the Lord has come to speak with Cain – Cain’s timeless question still hanging in the air: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The Lord’s reply just starting to register: “And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.  When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth” (Gen 4:11-12). 

Actions have consequences.  Cain, Production, is the only sibling left standing.  He is the winner, if you want to call him that, of the battle of the brothers.  Yet, as the Lord says, he is now less himself.  He will be less productive, with the ground no longer yielding its strength to him.  It’s as if Cain has not only drained the life out of Abel, but has drained the life out of the soil.  Like an over-farmed field, from nutrient rich to nutrient poor, the earth will not or cannot yield its strength to Cain.  And, he will be a wandered on the earth.   When your name is Production, there’s no time to rest. 

As devastating as this is for Cain – I mean, not as devastating as things were for Abel, but definitely some harsh consequences – As difficult as this makes life for Cain, he has an even deeper concern.  At odds with the land, exiled from home, a known murdered, Cain is most concerned about… vengeance.  This is how he puts it: “My punishment is greater than I can bear…I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.” 

Now this is one of the points in the story where we have to engage in a little suspension of disbelief.  Cain has ruined his honor and reputation through this pre-meditated act of violence, but we might be wondering….his reputation with who?  Who exactly is Cain afraid of killing him?  As far as we know, there are, at this point, four humans in the world.  Cain eliminated one of them, and the other two are his parents.  A similar problem comes up a few verses later when we’re introduced to Cain’s wife.

As concerning as some may find it that Cain either married his sister or there were other people around not descended from Adam and Eve  for Cain to marry or be killed by, this is a great example of these stories not being intended as literal history, and us potentially missing the point altogether if we get too caught up on that.   

The point of the story, at this point, is that Cain recognizes that violence is never simply one and done.  Violence cycles.  And, as we’re about to find out, it multiplies.  Cain’s deepest fear is that others will do to him what he has done to Abel. 

Now remember that at this point the earth is new.  People are new at being people.  And the Lord is pretty new at watching over them.  It’s like the idea of kids raising their parents.  You’re just barely keeping up with learning how to be parents while the kid keeps figuring our new ways of being a kid.

So, the Lord has an idea.  It’s the world’s first violence prevention program.  And, like I said, the Lord is learning right along with Cain at this point whether it’s going to work. 

It was a powerful idea, still in use today.  It’s been the backbone of US foreign policy ever since World World II.  It’s called deterrence.  Which is fancy word meaning we’re going to make it clear that anyone who hurts us is going to be hurt so much worse by us, that no one will hurt us in the first place.  Nuclear weapons are the ultimate logical conclusion of deterrence.  Who would be crazy enough to attack if they knew they and everyone they love would be completely destroyed in return?  So the logic goes. 

Well, it was a simpler world back in Genesis, but the logic still holds.  Cain, the murderer, fears for his life, and so the Lord says, Genesis 4:15: “No so!  Whoever kills Cain will suffer sevenfold vengeance.  And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him.” 

I mean, it sounds like it could work.  If some just warrior going after Cain knew they were putting a target not just on themselves, but on six of their family members, they might think twice.  It’s the first violence prevention policy, still in effect today, and we’re about to find out how it works. 

Cain knew his wife, in the biblical sense, Haha, and she gives birth to a son, and probably some daughters but we don’t hear about them.  And he has a son, with several more generations on down, until we get to Lamech, the great-great-great grandson of Cain.  Lamech has two wives, who actually do get named: Adah and Zillah.  It’s the first biblical incidence of polygamy, so maybe raises a red flag or two about Lamech, who, yep, takes the logic of Cain’s vengeance to the next level.  Lamech says to his wives: “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, an young man for striking me.  If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-seven fold.”

Threatening to have your brother take out 77 of your enemy’s cousins if anyone hurts you is pretty extreme.  Lamech goes nuclear, more or less.  Lamech does us a favor by exposing a flaw in this violence-prevention experiment.  Because where does it stop?  Seven times?  Seventy-seven times?

Just keeping it close to home: There were around 3,000 people killed in the 9/11 attacks on our country.  In the US-led wars that followed there were approximately 200,000 Iraqi civilians killed, and 236,000 people killed in the war in Afghanistan.    According to my math, 436,000/3000, that’s about 145-fold vengeance, about twice that declared by Lamech.    

It makes that “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” law of Moses sound like a revolutionary de-escalation of violence.  Which it might have been.  Only one eye for one eye is a whole lot better than seven or 77 or 145.

Is there a better way to interrupt this endless cycle of violence that has plagued the human family from the beginning?    

Well, imagine with me.  What if?  What if Jesus knew his Bible, the Hebrew Bible, and these Genesis stories?  What if he had observed the prevalence of violence around him, seen how Rome’s policies of deterrence put people up on crosses and destroyed whole cultures?  Saw the futility in returning harm for harm.

What if he had pondered an alternative to Cain, Lamech, and even that law of Moses?  And what if his proposal sounded like Matthew 18:21-22  “Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Master, if my brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.’”

Let’s imagine Jesus having these very stories in mind when he gives this response to Peter.  Let’s imagine him thinking of Cain’s seven-fold vengeance, and Lamech’s seventy-seven-fold vengeange.  Let’s imagine Jesus conceiving of forgiveness as an antidote.  A kind of reverse revenge.  Not some kind of passive forgetfulness, or non-accountability for the one who did the harm.  Forgiveness as a kind of active, engaged, even aggressive peacemaking.

Like, what if the US had gone on a health clinic-building rampage across Afghanistan after 9/11, dedicating each one to a US victim?  Call that the War on Terror.  Or, what if we had destroyed seventy times seven nuclear warheads in a gesture of de-escalation to rally the world to our side as other nations did the same?  Farfetched in the world of global politics, perhaps, but not beyond the possible.

Reverse revenge would harness all the energy and even anger around an injustice and direct it in a way that breaks the cycle of harm and violence.

I see reverse revenge in someone like Gabby Giffords, the Congresswoman from Arizona who almost lost her life to an assassin’s bullet in 2011, later dedicating her life’s energy to preventing gun violence.  Reverse Revenge. 

We can see it in the lives of death row exonorees, convicted and imprisoned for a crime they didn’t commit, now free and working for the abolition of the death penalty.  Reverse revenge.

We can see reverse revenge in anyone who works through a harm done to them, and harnesses that energy to protect others from that harm. 

Good parenting is reverse revenge for having been on the receiving end of bad parenting.  There are countless forms this could take.  What if forgiveness isn’t about letting a harm go unacknowledged, but about refusing to give that harm any more of its destructive power – participating in our own healing by participating in the healing of those around us?  Maybe seven times over, or even seventy seven times. 

There’s this story toward the end of John’s gospel where the resurrected Christ, having had unspeakable violence directed at him, having been abandoned by his friends, comes to them while they are huddled behind locked doors.  His words of revenge?  “Peace be with you,” he says.  It’s like the voice of Abel, back from the dead, wishing peace on his brother Cain, offering an alternative storyline to the human family. 

What if every time we pass the peace with the words of the Risen Christ we are reminding ourselves of this most sacred and courageous of tasks?  By God’s grace, we are participants, with Christ, in active, engaged peacemaking.  For our human family that has known violence and escalating vengeance from the very beginning, it might be the only way forward. 

The peace of Christ be with you.