Syria, Obama, and the Mark of Cain

Genesis 4:1-16; Romans 2:1-24, 12:14-21; Mark 3:31-35

John Dominic Crossan defines the Bible as the story of humanity’s continuing struggle to beat God. From Genesis to Revelation, God constantly lays out what the covenantal rules are and what the consequences will be for not keeping our side of the bargain. “Constantly” is the definitive adverb here. God is nothing if not “constant,” keeping God’s part as the rain continues to fall (or not) on the just and unjust and gravity maintains its hold on solar and planetary systems. The party that “constantly” cheats, equivocates, and outright ignores the rules is us.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has clearly stated that so far as the U.S. government is concerned, crimes against humanity were committed by the president of Syria and his agents. What the Secretary (and later President Obama) did not make clear was exactly what the response of the Obama administration will be. The Secretary appeared to leave the door open for some kind of diplomatic action that would allow the United Nations Security Council to hold Syrian leadership responsible, presumably by convincing the Russians and the Chinese to join the United States in somehow “punishing” the Assad regime; but clouding the diplomatic air is the smoky taint of violence. Kerry acknowledges the public may be“war weary,” but says being tired is no reason for doing nothing – as though an act of war is a moral imperative. What will it be? A drone strike? A bombing run over Damascus? Assassination? A “just war”?

There is politics, and when politics ends, there is war. After politics, destruction. From the time of George Washington through the Vietnam War until the recent and current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has consistently viewed war as postpolitical – that is, as a matter of annihilating an enemy after politics has failed. . . . After more than ten years of war against an asymmetric opponent, the permissive vision of just war linked to wars of focused annihilation is in crisis. The context of counterinsurgency calls for more attention to the political dimension of war and thus for a more responsible and discriminating use of force. Far from calling for a new ethic, the context calls for a more robust vision and practice of just war.

The discipline of just war asks that . . . overwhelming force and insufficiently discriminating weapons be forgone. . . that the fortitude to embrace the political dimension of war – the responsibility to protect civilians – replace trust in the force of arms that is central to war as annihilation. It calls for a people dedicated to the harder right instead of the easier wrong. Are our communities forming such people? That is the real challenge of just war in the aftermath of 9/11. (Daniel M. Bell, Jr., “The Discriminating Force: Just War and Counterinsurgency.” The Christian Century, July 24, 2013.)

Beneath the agonizing about how to respond to the criminal use of poison gas in Syria is the archetypal question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain throws that defiant question into God’s face when God wants to know “where is your brother Abel? . . . What have you done? Listen, your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” God then puts an eternal curse on Cain: “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.” Cain at once realizes that his life is forfeit. God agrees, and a principal of primitive law is established: criminals whose punishment would result in a greater danger to the community than the original crime could be granted a limited asylum. God puts a mark on Cain so that no one who encountered him would kill him, and Cain goes off to the land of Nod, “east of Eden,” where he and his descendants proceed to populate the known world. Cain’s violent crime against humanity is met with nonviolence from divinity.

In the last letter known to have been written by him, the Apostle Paul reminds the community he founded in Rome of God’s Covenant; he is very clear that participating in the Covenant is not restricted to those who follow the Jewish religion:

 All those ignorant of the law of Moses who are guilty of wrongdoing will perish despite their ignorance of the law. All those who know the law of Moses will be condemned by the law. For those who receive the law of Moses are not the ones approved by God but those who do what it says.

When the nations who do not have access to the law of Moses do naturally what the law requires, they embody the law in themselves, even though they do not possess the law. They demonstrate that the values engraved in the law of Moses are “engraved on their hearts.” This is confirmed by the witness of conscience and by their habit of debating among themselves what is right and what is wrong. This will become clear when God exposes what is hidden of the human condition through the Anointed Jesus, as I understand God’s world-changing news. (Romans 2:1-14, Scholars Translation: The Authentic Letters of Paul p. 215.)

That “world-changing news,” the scholars explain, is a breakthrough that happens to those who are open to the message – which takes on the Empire: “The slave (Paul) of the newly declared ruler (Cesar) has been designated to deliver the newsflash that peace and prosperity have arrived with this unlikely lord [Jesus]” (Authentic Letters p. 206). In what may be Paul’s own version of Jesus’s words, he continues (Romans 12:14-21):

If possible – insofar as it depends on you – be at peace with all people. Don’t try to retaliate on your own, dear friends, but leave that to God’s just indignation, because scripture says, “Justice is my business; I will put things right,” says the Lord. But (so far are you are concerned) as scripture says, “If your enemy is hungry give him something to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; because if you do this, you will pile red hot coals on his head.” So don’t let yourselves be defeated by what is evil, but defeat what is evil with what is good. (SV p. 239.)

Peace and prosperity arrive not only with Jesus, but with any person who takes on the violent political solutions of Empire with nonviolent political action. In a rejection of conventional relationship that goes back to God’s deal with Cain, Mark reports (Mark 3:21-35):

Then [Jesus’s] mother and his brothers arrive. While still outside, they send in and ask for him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they say to him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are outside looking for you.”   In response he says to them, “Who are my mother and brothers?”  And looking right at those seated around him in a circle, he says, “Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does God’s will, that’s my brother and sister and mother.” (The Complete Gospels, Edition 4, p. 30.)

David Brooks writes in the New York Times (August 30, 2013), “Poison gas in Syria is horrendous, but the real inferno is regional. When you look at all the policy options for dealing with the Syria situation, they are all terrible or too late. The job now is to try to wall off the situation to prevent something just as bad but much more sprawling.” But his solution is bereft of imagination and robs nonviolence of its power.

The mark of Cain reminds the world that a violent response to injustice (an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life) does more damage to the integrity of community than the original crime. Far from passively accepting evil, nonviolence demands the courage to reject conventional definitions of relationship. To love your enemy is to have no enemy.

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