“Am I My Brother’s Keeper?”

“Balch Springs Police – Teen’s Shooting Death – Chief Changes Account…”
“Paramedic Shot; Suspect Dead…”
“UT Student Accused in Fatal Campus Stabbing…”

brother

There were just three stories on the front-page of the Dallas Morning News on Tuesday morning, May 2. 15 year old athlete and honor student Jordan Edwards shot and killed by a Balch Springs police officer who fired into a car leaving the scene of a loud party on Saturday night.  William An, a 10-year veteran of Dallas Fire-Rescue, shot and critically wounded on Monday morning responding to a call for help. And University of Texas freshman Harrison Brown from Graham, Texas, stabbed and killed in an unprovoked knife attack on campus on Monday afternoon that wounded three other students as well.

Each one of these stories triggers feelings of anguish and outrage.

Jordan Edwards’ death is another agonizing chapter in the completely unacceptable series of police shootings of young black men in our society. The critical wounding of William An is an intolerable assault on the social contract that asks first responders to run to and not away from trouble for all of us.  And the death of Harrison Brown is every parent’s worst nightmare, the loss of a beloved child on the brink of his life.

We can be selective in our response to these three tragedies. We can reserve our moral anger for the story that hits closest to “our” home.  We can channel our profound grief to the story that hits us where we are personally most vulnerable. And who could blame us?

Who could possibly object to those who in anger and pain are standing up right now and are saying that Black Lives Matter. They’re absolutely right.  They do.  And who could possibly object to those who in anger and fear are standing up right now and are saying that Blue Lives Matter.  They’re absolutely right. They do too.  And who could possibly criticize those who worry that if they send their kids off to school that they won’t come home again. As we often sing, there are “many dangers, toils and snares,” and so I will not dismiss the agony or disregard the anxiety of anybody right now.  These three stories on the front page of Tuesday morning’s paper are particular enough to hit all of our own particularities very hard and to make them hurt very deeply.  But I am finding that their convergence is striking a different chord in me right now, and producing a different kind of ache – an ache for our lost shalom.

I love the stories that the book of Genesis tells in its first eleven chapters as much as anything I find in the Hebrew Scriptures. These stories spiritually set the table at which I sit as a Christian each and every Sunday morning to break bread and pour a cup to remember what God in Christ has done for us. If the Gospel solves a problem, then I find that the problem gets stated for me most concisely and clearly in the stories told in the first eleven chapters of Genesis.

shalomThe shalom of God’s creative intention – everybody and everything working together in perfect harmony in a web of mutual well-being and thriving – has come undone, and now all of our relationships have been shattered. My relationship with God is broken. My relationship with myself is broken. My relationship with you is broken. My relationship with nature is broken.   My problem — our problem — is theological, psychological, sociological and ecological. And what the stories about Jordan, William and Harrison in Tuesday morning’s paper remind me of this week is just how painfully real and frustratingly persistent our divisions with each other are.

In the cycle of origin stories found in the first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis, the beginning of Jordan’s, William’s and Harrison’s stories goes back to a single episode, the very first story told about humanity after our expulsion from the shalom of the Garden –

cainCain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”  And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! (Genesis 4:8-10)

God directly answered Cain’s question about whether or not he was his brother’s keeper in another origin story told Genesis 9 – the story of Noah and the ark. After the flood and cosmic reboot it represented was accomplished, God sat His second human prototype –Noah – down and reprogrammed His design for creation, and part of the explicit instruction given was a divine response to the trajectory of violence between human beings that Cain’s act set in motion. God told Noah – Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind” (Genesis 9:6). The morally necessary and urgent demands for justice that are being made right now on behalf of Jordan, William and Harrison find their Biblical legitimacy right here.

The shooting death of Jordan by a police officer on Saturday night was wrong, and cannot be tolerated in a moral society that intends justice for all. The attempt made on William’s life on Monday morning was wrong, and cannot be tolerated in a moral society that intends justice for all. And the stabbing death of Harrison on Monday afternoon was wrong, and cannot be tolerated in a moral society that intends justice for all. This needs to be said loudly, clearly and persistent by people of a faith that is deeply informed by the Biblical witness. The cry for justice is rooted and grounded in a clear “no” from God. We are not supposed to be killing each other as members of the same human family because we all bear the image of God and thereby have a divinely declared worth. Our voices cannot falter or equivocate on this. We must guard the image of human beings because human beings bear the image of God. But for the people of a faith that is deeply informed by the Biblical witness, this cry for justice is not all that we must say, because by itself it is just not enough.

If all that was needed to fix the things that got all twisted up inside us when Cain killed his brother Abel was just a clear and emphatic “no” to the rivalry and violence of brother against brother, then the problem should have been solved with the clear injunction of Genesis 9:6. But the Biblical narrative runs red with the blood of brothers still killing brothers in the chapters that follow God’s declaration of the value of human life at the end of the Noah story in Genesis 9. We certainly need moral instruction, but we need more than moral instruction.

I am intrigued by where and how the Cain and Abel story from Genesis 4 shows up again in the New Testament and gets used “for our instruction” as Christians (I Corinthians 10:11). The primary occurrence is in I John 3:11-16 –

For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.  We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous.  Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you.  We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death.  All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.

Fully unpacking the scope and significance of these verses in the structure of John’s argument is well beyond the scope of this blog. A doctoral dissertation would be a better venue for that assignment. So all I would suggest here in closing is that the crucial key to understanding what it was that John was doing here can be found in the way that he rooted Cain’s evil deeds in the prior fact of Cain’s core identity as being “from the evil one,” just as John rooted the new command for us as Christians to love one another in the prior fact that we have already “passed from death to life” and now have eternal life “abiding” in us.

In assessing the human condition with its propensity for the violence of Cain, Jesus said – what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.  For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:18-19). And so, if addressing murder is something that we think we need to address – and Jordan, William and Harrison all make the painful case this week that we certainly do – then it is to the heart that we must finally turn as people of a faith that is deeply informed by the biblical witness.

orangeAt the end of His Sermon on the Mount, a summary of the core teachings of Christ which included a powerful reaffirmation of the Divine prohibition on murder (Matthew 5:21-26), Jesus addressed how He thought that all of the behavioral changes that He expected of His disciples would come about – Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?  In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit” (Matthew 7:16-18). According to John, Cain committed his evil act because he was “from the evil one.” And John told Christians that they were not to behave like Cain, but instead that they were to love others, because they had been changed deep inside – they had “passed from death to life” and now had eternal life “abiding” in them. Cain was one kind of tree, and his violent act against his brother was just the fruit of the kind of tree that he was. To change the story of Cain, then he would have to become a different kind of tree! And the way that I read the New Testament, this is precisely what the Gospel offers us – a fundamental and consequential change of identity that results in fundamental and consequential changes in how we think and act.

Justice tells us that what happened to Jordan, William and Harrison this week was absolutely wrong and cannot be tolerated by a moral society. Justice can warn people not to do things like this, justice can establish laws to try to prevent people from doing things like this, and finally justice can punish people who do things like this. Justice is clearly necessary and even urgent in a world where people do things like this. But to change things, people are going to have to be changed – “born again” and “born from above” as Jesus put it (John 3:3) – and this requires nothing less that the power of the Gospel to save (Romans 1:16-17). People of faith informed by the Biblical witness need to stand up and speak out for justice in a week like this one, and then we need to share the Gospel as the solution to the problem that this week has so painfully exposed once again. The fruit of behavior comes from the root of identity, and the Good News of Jesus Christ is that our identities can in fact be fundamentally and consequentially changed. In Christ we become new creations, the old passes away and the new comes (2 Corinthians 5:17). DBS+

 

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