Seminarian NC Harrison reflects on how a familiar Biblical narrative can improve our understanding of the gendered nature of violence.
“Then one time, when they were in the field, Kayin turned on his brother Hevel and killed him.” These words, from Genesis 4:8, have pricked the conscience and imaginations of people for centuries. Rabbinical scholarship, in particular, has spilled an ocean of ink trying to figure out why, exactly, Kayin felt such anger at his brother that he had to commit the first murder. One midrash states that the two brothers were arguing over the best land; Kayin wished to plant his crops there and Hevel wanted the land to graze his sheep. Another, telescoping a phrase from the prophet Micah, suggests that they argued over the land where the Temple would one day be built. A third possibility, suggested both in rabbinical writings and the Christian pseudepigraphical work The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan, is that the two brothers strove over the love of a woman named Aclima. Most discussions, of both Christian and Jewish provenance, have ultimately concluded that the importance of the story lies in how Adonai took the part of a slain, innocent man instead of his more physically potent slayer. This focus on the perspective of the victim is, according to Girard, the Bible’s central narrative.
Although my respect for Girard (he was the mentor of my mentor, after all) and the rabbinical sages is a truly towering thing I cannot say, without reservation, that I agree with either of their assessments about the locus of importance in the Kayin story. “Violence has a gender,” a friend proclaimed on Facebook, “and that gender is male!” He may have been quoting someone else but I am not sure. I agreed with him in general, if not particular. Violence has been coded, throughout history, as male. Men have been its stereotypical perpetrators and, though we seem to forget this, its most frequent victims. The Monkey Dance and Group Monkey Dance, as discussed by Sergeant Rory Miller in Meditations on Violence, describe in chilling, clinical detail how two young men can go from a glance to staring each other down to shoving to brawling in the space of mere minutes, and how easily their companions can join the general melee. Weapons can be drawn at any point and change the level of danger. People can die in moments.
A fine example of this lies in the road-rage incident concerning Bradley Turner (40), William Berry (20) and Nathan Brotzman (21). After Turner was cut off in traffic by the two younger men, he and his wife pursued them for over thirty minutes. When both cars were stopped Turner, enraged at having been cut off, approached Berry’s car and punched him in the face, through the open window. Although one can ask a number of tactical questions here, like why Berry’s window was open in such a situation, one cannot deny the ferocity of the younger men’s self-defense: they leapt from their car and, with a flurry of punches and kicks, subdued Mr. Turner.
Considering the issue closed, they attempted to return to their car. Turner, unsatisfied with this conclusion to his adventure, retrieved a gun from his wife and fired more than one shot into Berry’s vehicle. No one was killed or seriously injured, thankfully, but Turner has been sentenced to four years in prison for a variety of charges. Such a small thing, such a silly thing. It could have ended at any step. It didn’t, though, and only through the grace of God did this not wind up a lethal encounter. Berry and Brotzman were safe and Mr. Turner, after paying his debt to society, will return to his family. This has not been the case on many occasions, though. The Little Rock altercation of Chris Schnarr and Arista Aldridge, for example, led to the death of the latter man in early May. Schnarr, no matter how his court case turns out, will have to live the rest of his life—in or out of prison—with the knowledge that he killed a man in a moment of foolish anger. Aldridge, however, is just gone.
Although we imagine Adonai striking murderers, especially fratricides, down with bolts of lightning, Kayin, in contrast to this, lived a long and productive life. He married, founded cities, prospered. His son Tuval-Kayin developed metallurgy. Nothing could ever make him happy, though, and he stayed the rest of his days in the land of Wanderers, called the land of Nod, marked as an outcast by his god because he lashed out against his brother.
These foolish moments don’t seem so foolish when they’re thrust upon us, though. I recall a time when a guest in my house began to behave erratically. He moved and spoke aggressively, acting in a threatening way towards my family. We were lucky enough to eject him without incident—although he did, eschewing an open gate, choose to leap rather spectacularly over a fence—but during those moments, as he tried to initiate the Monkey Dance with me, I felt the anger building. I wanted to get rid of him, yes, but I also wanted to hit him, hurt him, punish him for his actions, for making me and my family feel vulnerable in our own house, wanted to feel flesh and bone give way under my knuckles. One good punch, I asked, just give me one good punch and he’ll feel a lot better when he wakes up.
It occurred to me while decompressing what the real meaning of Kayin’s narrative is. Hevel, the innocent victim, is not the main character, and the clue lies in 4:7, one verse before Kayin’s act. “Sin is crouching at the door,” Adonai tells Kayin, “it wants you but you can rule over it.” Kayin, in his weakness and pride, is the one we must identify with for this story to reach its full impact so that we, unlike him, can rule over our anger instead of having it rule us. So now, when I look in the mirror, if I want to see the face of a righteous man (a real mensch, as it has ever been my goal to be), I must first make sure to process the moody, smoldering eyes of Kayin.