On Gifts, Sacrifice and Relationship

Sometime ago — April 2009, to be exact — I wrote a post on Cain, Abel, sacrifice and exile:

Some might say that Cain’s offering was inferior — not firstfruits. Maybe. But it may also be that God was partial to Abel’s “choicest of the firstlings” as opposed to whatever grain and fruit Cain offered. … [Farming is] hard work, and perhaps he felt that God did not reward his work well enough. But maybe the sense of rejection he felt when God favored the firstling of Abel’s flock was intolerable. Tilling the land wasn’t just what he did, it was who he was, and clearly he saw that who he was simply was not good enough for God.

Not good enough. Our capricious God liked Abel’s sacrifice and not Cain’s through no stated fault of Cain’s. I’ve had time of late to consider this lately (some of you know why, and the rest of you will just have to ponder) , and something else about this passage early in Genesis struck me.

The entire story of Cain and Abel prefigures the history of Israel from Sinai onward — sacrifice and offer, follow the law and be blessed, or fail to offer proper sacrifices, to follow the law and Israel shall be cursed. It is almost the entire Hebrew Bible writ small.

It occurred to me today that Cain has something Abel does not — a real relationship with God. Abel just gave, and God received. (That’s fine, you may say, but we cannot know much about Abel’s relationship with God because he is dead. True enough. But work with me in regards to what we actually have in Genesis 4.) Abel’s relationship with God is a very passive relationship, perhaps even a very pagan or idolatrous relationship. Abel gives, God takes. God may be pleased, but God is not giving anything to Abel.

But Cain’s failure — which I state above is God’s doing, and not Cain’s — to deliver a sacrifice that God will accept begins a different kind of relationship, in which God gives to Cain. And receives nothing from Cain. First God gives advice (“If you do well, will you not be accepted?”, implying Cain was at fault for the failure of his offering to please God), then accusation and curse (“When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive, and a wanderer on the earth.”) and finally a promise of some kind of protection or vengeance (“If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.”). It may stink as a relationship — who wouldn’t want to be happy and content giving to God and knowing that God had accepted all they’d given? Because I’d really like to be there right now… — but it is far more than what Abel had. In sinning, and in fear, Cain lived in a relationship with God that the sinless, approved and accepted Abel did not.

It prefigures Israel’s tempestuous relationship with God, in Egypt, in the wilderness, in the take-over of Canaan, in conquest, exile and regathering. It says that in sin, and the consequences of sin (wandering in the land of exile), we have a relationship with God that cannot be matched by those who are “sinless” and whose offerings are accepted. (The story itself may imply that such people don’t really exist, since Abel is killed and therefore nothing can be said of his relationship to God.) That in sinning, space for relationship with God is opened that cannot otherwise be opened — God is transformed from a mere receiver of sacrifices, a kind of fat and happy God who smiles on the one making the offering (suddenly, a bronze Buddha statue surrounded by clouds of incense and rotting oranges comes to mind), to an actual being interacting with the creation. To a God who has something meaningful to say to the creation.

Interacting with the created, who need God’s gift because our gift to God is unacceptable. Sometimes, it’s not much of gift — a mere mark to state whoever kills me gets it back seven times! — but it’s more than first fruits. Perhaps a true relationship with God can only begin in our sinfulness, because only then are we open to receiving what God has to give us, rather than lining up and dumping our offerings into the mouth of Vaal.

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NOTE: The Cain and Abel story is, however, something of a sideshow. Abel dies before having progeny (an assumption based on the fact that none are listed), and all of the featured characters of Israelite history trace their lineage to Seth, Adam and Eve’s third son.

Modernity and Tragedy

Ugh. After a long period of being very sick, and an even longer period of not wanting to blog (blogging comes in bursts with me, it seems), I’m finally up to comment on something.

David Brooks has an interesting column in today’s (Friday, 15 July) New York Times. He’s wrong when he writes “[t]he fiscal crisis is driven largely by health care costs,” (it’s driven most by America’s insistence on living beyond its means, whether that “living” is waging war in the Middle East and dominating the world or being “generous” to the poor and supporting the elderly) but he is correct when he notes:

We have the illusion that in spending so much on health care we are radically improving the quality of our lives. We have the illusion that through advances in medical research we are in the process of eradicating deadly diseases. We have the barely suppressed hope that someday all this spending and innovation will produce something close to immortality.

There is, I believe, a larger point to this. The aim of Modernity and the Enlightenment — both stated and unstated — is the eradication of the tragic. Specifically, Modernity and Enlightenment seek the end of death, suffering, accident, inequality, misery and poverty. Modernity and Enlightenment believe that human reason, combined with science (technology and industrial production) and rightly guided (by Morality and Reason to become Progress) can effectively bring about the Kingdom of God on earth, or something akin to that kingdom. It may be these ideals are not as passionately felt as they were 100 years ago, but they are still very intensely felt, and the desires of Modernity and Enlightenment have been almost completely impervious to human history, and humanity’s inability to alter the tragic conditions and nature of human existence.

Modernity and Enlightenment have been quite capable of staggering change, mostly in terms of technology and organization. But that change has mostly been engineering, not moral. It has not altered the fundamental nature of human beings because it cannot. It cannot eradicate sin and all that springs from human sinfulness. And it is a delusion — albeit an incredibly powerful delusion — that somehow this engineering and organizational change can facilitate moral change. It cannot. We cannot evade the tragic, no matter how much we try. There will always be poverty, suffering, misery, accident, inequality, hierarchy and death as long as we are humans existing this side of the eschaton because those tragic elements are essential to the human condition. No amount of production, no amount of wealth, no amount of communication, will make us good enough to share what there is with all who need. Not because there isn’t enough, but because we are people incapable of doing that kind of good.

In scripture, God may promise an eventual transcendence of the tragic, and we who are called by God in Christ to live that kingdom live out that transcendence. But we do so also knowing that God came into the world not to negate or eradicate tragedy but to participate in it, and to be present with us in the midst of it. The goals of Modernity and Enlightenment are misguided, and the Liberal Church is deeply misguided when it mistakes Modernity and Enlightenment for the Kingdom of God. When it mistakes the goals of Modernity and Enlightenment with the promises of God. And when it mistakes society and the nation for the church, the community of people called out to follow.

On Liberal Conceits (Part 1 of an Occasional Series)

Some years ago, when reading an interview in Salon with French intellectual (sic) Bernard-Henri Levy, I developed the notion of something I called “the liberal conceit.” I think it was the cognitive dissonance in Levy’s insistence that killing people is wrong (thus his opposition to the death penalty) and yet his support for liberal/humanitarian intervention and war (because allowing people to live under dictators is immoral). It seemed to me Levy did not get that humanitarian intervention is war, and therefore killing, but perhaps this is why I am an neither a neoconservative nor a French intellectual (sic).

(In fact, I wad going to write the first of these essays based on the Levy interview, until I went back and reread it to discover it did not say what I remembered it saying or quite what I thought it had said. What he said was annoying enough, however.)

At any rate, I am going to write these essays over time, in no particular order. But first, I need to define what I mean by liberal. Liberalism is is the governing mindset of modernity. It is individualistic (that is, focuses on the well-being of the individual, even if it is collectivist), optimistic about the moral and material condition of humanity (always improving, and human beings are essential “good” when allowed to be), focuses on emancipation (liberty and social equality), and that the final “meaning” of human life is determined collectively in and by the state and society (society being that community which is bounded by the state).

(Conservative readers should not get complacent. These are your values too, generally speaking.)

It occurred to me a couple of weeks ago, as I was preparing to preach a sermon on Matthew’s beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-11) that liberal Christians, as a general rule, tend to see these blessings applying only to those who are “unfortunate,” to those who ended up on the “wrong side” of life’s lottery. That is, those who aren’t rich and powerful, but only through no fault of their own. This little phrase came to mind:

The mercy of God is for the guilty, and not merely the unfortunate.

When Jesus tells his disciples after he goes up the mountain, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3 ESV), he doesn’t qualify that statement. It may be the “poor in spirit” are that way because they’ve never gotten an even break or anything remotely resembling justice in the world. But it may also be that the “poor in spirit” are the authors of some, much or even all of their misfortune.

To be a liberal is essentially to divide the world up into three categories of people: the unfortunate, who are unable to secure justice for themselves and thus need people to secure justice for them; the virtuous, who do the actual securing of justice; and the evil, who are largely responsible for creating or perpetuating the condition of the unfortunate and thus also need the intervention of the virtuous in order for justice to prevail.

The key liberal notion is justice, which is a kind-of social vengeance. Justice for the unfortunate means ending their misfortune. But they cannot do it themselves, so they must be empowered or guided by the virtuous, who will use power wisely and fairly to empower the unfortunate and bring the evil to heel. Justice for the evil means anything from their re-education to their annihilation. But the evil deserve only justice, and not mercy, because the right ordering of the world — the just ordering of the world — demands it. The mercy of God has no place in the just ordering of the world. The guilty and the innocent, the evil and the unfortunate, receive justice and only justice. For the unfortunate, that justice is their elevation at the hands of the virtuous. For the evil, that justice is their being brought low at the hands of the virtuous.

It is my experience that most liberals, whether they are Democrats or Republicans, see themselves as “virtuous,” as seeking obvious good for the unfortunate. There is significant disagreement on who the unfortunate are, or how the nature of the justice the virtuous should pursue on their behalf, but the basic belief is the same. And the basic desire to wield power, even an allegedly disinterested power (there is no such thing, since power always seeks to aggrandize the self; empowering others is a form of self-aggrandizement), is the same as well. A lot of power given to the virtuous in this scheme. A lot of power they give themselves.

The virtuous rarely if ever question their own virtue. Their motives are not subject to review or conscience nor is the destruction they wreck upon the earth — and much of the violence and injustice done in the 19th and 20th centuries has been done by the virtuous wielding state power in the name of justice and good (at least for someone). And they rarely question what constitutes justice. Because they (at least to themselves) so obviously embody all that is good and noble and pure in human aspirations and divine commands.

But in the end, the virtuous in the liberal scheme of things seek a world in which God’s mercy is no longer necessary because there is perfect justice or at least justice striven for.

This is why I am so militantly (and yes, I use that word on purpose) opposed to the language of justice used by the social democratic left and its fellow-travelers in the liberal and progressive church. (The right doesn’t use the language very much but pursues the same kinds of ends.) There is no mercy in justice language, and the aspiration for justice is really a grab for power in the name of virtue, power unchecked by other power, and unlikely to be checked effectively by conscience. I don’t think there’s even much “justice” in justice language, since it seeks power, and any power that can be used for good will be used for evil. Just as sure as the sun rises in the east every morning.

Only the virtuous almost never see the evil they do in the pursuit of justice. Or even care.