By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
Cain is despondent after God rejects his sacrifice but looks favorably upon the offering of his younger brother Abel. His sadness quickly morphs into smoldering rage, and the Lord confronts him in the midst of his internal fury: “If you do well, you can lift your head high; but if not, sin is lurking at your door. Its craving is for you, but you can master it” (Genesis 4:7). The Lord reminds Cain that he is capable of suppressing his murderous urge; as the story makes clear, though, he does not, and the blood of his innocent brother cries out to God from the polluted earth.
No other biblical story portrays with such devastating clarity the savage and vile hatred erupting from the depths of the human heart. The mark of Cain (see Genesis 4:15) is a stain on the soul of every human being. The most egregious manifestations of sin, from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks whose anniversary approaches to the recent display of racist hatred in Charlottesville, reveal that evil is always lurking in human hearts, even those in supposedly enlightened cultures.
Sadly, the gravity of these odious outbursts can shield us from the sober reality that the same blood runs in our veins as courses through the jihadi terrorist or the neo-Nazi. It is true that no one is born with such ingrained hatred, but such hatred is easily acquired thanks to the tendency of the originally sinned soul to choose the selfish and the monstrous over the communion for which we were made, the charity which bridges rather than separates. As evidenced by the fanatical attacks on people deemed infidels or sub-human, hatred isolates, ignorance poisons, and fear of another’s difference leads to prejudiced separation. And we all, shamefully but truly, bear the mark of Cain, though it often manifests itself in less bloody ways in the privacy of our minds or vicious words. This leads us to the numbing and false belief that we could not be capable of such senseless violence erupting daily on our screens and in our neighborhoods.
There are obvious political dimensions to this abhorrent propensity for evil, but the hatred which drives a person to murder another, or simply to think that another human being is inferior and unworthy of life, can only be diagnosed and healed by theological medicine. No amount of social media denunciations, protests and legislation, however legitimate and necessary they may be, could ever cure a nature wounded by the crippling consequences of sin, whether they be the inheritance of the original sin, our own transgressions, or those of others. The only credible remedy for the deeply rooted disease which dominated Cain as he looked upon his brother with murderous envy is the grace flowing from the side of another innocent man, the crucified Christ, whose blood “speaks more eloquently than that of Abel” (Hebrews 12:24). The death of our Lord destroys, as Paul says, the divisions of sin and death, and unites all peoples as redeemed members of one glorious body. The precious blood of Christ was not shed in vain, yet our Lord still suffers violence, still bleeds, in the maimed limbs and broken bodies of the victims of hatred and ignorance. The communion of the Church, the body of Christ, demands that we understand that a sin against one member is a sin against the entire body, and must be denounced so that no further atrocity be committed against that member.
A secular mind would not accept this religious terminology for the necessary work of communion in the body of Christ. But the pursuit of a common good, “with liberty and justice for all,” must be grounded in the awareness that selfless virtue is the only hope for a society rent at present by vice and blind selfishness. That virtue, in the Catholic view of things, must run in tandem with the pursuit of holiness, the worship and imitation of Christ, which alone can generate an effective and eternal antidote to selfish hatred. But how can the body of Christ be visible to someone without eyes to see their own mark of Cain?
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column appears occasionally in The Texas Catholic.