Nearly a month into Russia’s unprovoked and brutal invasion of Ukraine, Pope Francis addressed an audience from the Vatican. Concerned about escalation, the Pope warned of the horror of nuclear war, asking us to imagine “the day after” when humanity (what’s left of it) would have to start over amid mass devastation and a poisoned earth. He prayed the words of an Italian Archbishop, Domenico Battaglia:
Forgive us, O Lord.
Forgive us, if we are not satisfied with the nails with which we crucified Your hands, as we continue to slake our thirst with the blood of those mauled by weapons.
Forgive us, if these hands which You created to tend have been transformed into instruments of death.
Forgive us, O Lord, if we continue to kill our brother;
Forgive us, if we continue like Cain to pick up the stones of our fields to kill Abel.
Forgive us, if we continue to justify our cruelty with our labours, if we legitimize the brutality of our actions with our pain.
Forgive us for war, O Lord. Forgive us for war, O Lord.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, we implore You!
Hold fast the hand of Cain!
Illumine our consciences;
May our will not be done;
Abandon us not to our own actions!
Stop us, O Lord, stop us!
And when you have held back the hand of Cain, care also for him. He is our brother.
O Lord, put a halt to the violence!
Stop us, O Lord!
Life east of Eden
This prayer invokes the biblical story of Cain and Abel (Gen. 4:1-16). After our primeval parents, Adam and Eve, are driven “east of the Garden of Eden” (Gen. 3:24), never to return, they have a family. This begins what we (who also live “east of Eden”) know as human life, a reality bounded by birth and death, sustained by agriculture and animal husbandry, directed to God in both worship and unbelief and enmeshed in relationships with kin and neighbour that, even at their best, contain seeds of jealousy, resentment, rivalry and violence.
The sparse details of the Cain and Abel story are familiar: Cain is jealous because God rejects his offering but accepts his brother Abel’s offering. Cain’s anger boils over into sibling resentment. God warns him of the predatory power of sin: “Sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (Gen. 5:7). Cain does not “master it” and instead ambushes his unsuspecting brother with swift and unprovoked brutality. Abel is dead. And Cain, now a murderer, tries to hide from God. But how can he hide from a God who can always hear the cries of the innocent? “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” (Gen. 4:10). The blessing of Cain’s life dissolves into a relentless curse. He is a fugitive, at war with creation. He is mysteriously “marked” and so spared the brutality inflicted on his brother, yet his life is reduced to a shadow of its former goodness.
We too are Cain
The horrific details of human history are all laid bare in this account. Human life “east of Eden” is full of blood and tears. There are moments of beauty and joy, to be sure, but for many, those moments are fleeting and scarce. The hand of Cain still strikes down; not only in Ukraine, but even in Canada, where – to cite one example – we continue to learn about the horrors of residential schools, of unmarked mass graves filled with the bodies of children, some still unnamed. The government and the churches, all filled with “well-meaning” people, sowed seeds of trauma and pain that afflict each new generation. It’s easy to accuse dictators and autocrats while ignoring the sins of our own past, not to mention the sins of our present.
It’s also tempting to evade complicity by trying, like Cain, to hide. After all, it wasn’t me who hauled children off to residential schools and it’s not me who has commanded the shelling of Ukrainian civilian populations. That’s true enough. But human beings do these things, and in their conflicted humanity they are a lot like me. We like to think that we would have done differently in this or that situation, that we would speak out against injustice, stand up for victims, be a force for peace amidst cruelty and violence. But would we?
As we near the end of Lent, my thoughts turn to the Passion story. One of the remarkable things about the accounts of Jesus’ death is the ambiguity about who is to blame. Jesus is accused and brought to Pilate, who is largely indifferent. Pilate hands him over to Herod. Jesus is then handed back to Pilate, before being handed to a mob. Once everyone has either agreed or acquiesced to his murder, Jesus is handed over to Roman soldiers who actually do the deed. Jesus is continually “handed over.” Everyone passes the buck. The ultimate responsibility for his death seems to fall on no one in particular.
This depiction is not accidental. The responsibility for Jesus’s death is meant to be ambiguous. It’s not only because of cruel Herod or amoral Pilate or corrupt religious officials or cowardly disciples or Roman colonialism and occupation. There’s enough blame to go around, because ultimately Jesus is killed for the same reason Abel is killed, because “sin is lurking at the door.” This forces us to confront an uncomfortable truth: we, in the right circumstance, can all become Cain. We can “become Cain” through aggression and violence, but also through neglect and apathy. These impulses, so clearly displayed in the Passion stories, are all too familiar.
The outstretched arms of Abel
This is what Archbishop Battaglia’s prayer recognizes so clearly. It’s a prayer for “us” – our consciences, our wayward wills, our destructive actions. It’s prayer for repentance, for that change of mind and direction that sets us on a new trajectory vis-à-vis God and neighbour. So yes, pray for Vladimir Putin’s sins, which are resulting in so much destruction and misery, but also pray for your sins and mine. And maybe our repentance will produce the fruit of reconciliation, so that the human family can begin untangling knots of strife and division and heal the wounds that history has carved into our flesh and into the earth. This double movement of inward repentance and outward reconciliation is only possible because that “second Abel” – Jesus Christ – was struck down by Cain but raised into a radiant life full of mercy and hope. He remains, arms extended, willing to embrace Cain wherever he finds him – in Parliament and the Kremlin, in our churches and workplaces, in families and neighbourhoods, and in the darkness and light of every human heart.
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