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Raising Cain

Colin Gibson


 The seeds of violence are hidden deep in the earth of our humanity,  and we have yet to learn the onset of the season that causes them to shoot.   Still mysterious are the rains that water and nourish them,  the sun that brings them to dark flower,  the winds that scatter them for yet another crop.

Why does a Cain turn out to be a murderer,  his brother a helpless and innocent victim?   Children of the same parents,  yet one set in deadly animosity against the other;  older brother versus younger brother.   Was it the genetic mix at the conception of the children of Adam and Eve,  something faulty in the nurture of the two children by their parents,  their instinctive desire as siblings to choose individuation, to take different paths,  one as a nomadic pastoralist,  the other as a farmer?   What does it take to raise a Cain?

The biblical myth offers little by way of explanation:  it simply acknowledges the primeval origin of hatred and rivalry,  leading to the deliberate destruction of the life that was the first fruits of the divine act of creation.   That the universe even more mysteriously may be the ultimate cause of division and violence is perhaps implied by the Genesis story,  for it is God's rejection of Cain's sacrifice and acceptance of Abel's that gives rise to Cain's fury against his brother.   The words attributed to God,  'If you do not do well,  sin is lurking at the door;  its desire is for you,  but you must master it'  (4.7),  with its implicit metaphors of primitive animal instinct  –  a wild beast in hiding close by the structures of settled civilisation,  always waiting to spring upon its desired victim  –  that must be tamed and controlled,  offers a different explanation,  but a no less partial one.

The Genesis story of the inception of murderous violence is male-focussed and almost certainly male-authored.   It implies that it is among males that violence first breaks out,  yet history shows that this is not always so.   Possibly the springs of equally lethal female behaviour lay beyond the limited understanding of a male writer,  though he must have possessed the universal proverbial wisdom that the female is deadlier than the male both in human societies and among many lesser creatures.

But wherever violence begins,  there is no doubt that it can be activated and fostered  –  intentionally or unintentionally  –  by social and religious behaviour.   My argument is that one of the most familiar and apparently innocuous of religious activities,  the singing of hymns,  can be an incitement to attitudes that may lead to actually violent behaviour;  and that we would do well to consider critically what texts congregations are taught  –  especially in an age when destructive violence against fellow human beings has reached such a level that it has become a major issue of national and international concern.

That hymns 'teach' theologies and embody social attitudes is an understatement.   Hymns,  carried by seductive tunes and reinforced by repeated singing,  are one of the most powerful forms of propaganda and mind control available to liturgists and religious leaders.   They plant themselves in the brain for a life–time:  a lesson well–learned by the commercial,  political and social interests in our secular societies.   Witness the money and creative skill spent on advertising,  political jingles and pressure–group theme songs.   West Indian poet Edward Lucie–Smith's poem  'The Hymn Tunes'  conveys something of the power of religious song to haunt and work on the imagination and memory:

They often haunt me,  those substantial ghosts,
Four-four,  four–square,  thumping in the brain   …

                                  …  Now a hymn-tune floats
Teasingly into the mind,  patterns a day
To its rhythm.   And nags like sudden speech
In a tongue one used to know — quietly said
Words which move forward,  always out of reach;
Still,  though I cannot grasp what it is they say,
God's tunes go marching through my echoing head.

It may be an uncomfortable thought,  but I believe that  (in some cases for generations)  congregations have been filling their echoing heads with formative texts and compelling tunes with the potential to water the seeds of violence. 

I set out some of the forms such hymnic incitements may take as follows:

Licensed thuggery:  God,  the 'heavy'

As the sad history of abuse within families teaches us,  brutalised victims all too often become the next generation of the brutal abusers.   Does this go any way towards explaining why it is that Christians  (and Jews and Muslims),  unable by reason of their powerlessness or their principles to retaliate against their oppressors,  visit imagined vengeance on their enemies through the convenient intermediary of an all–powerful God?   The Bible points the way in those books and passages which celebrate the infliction of divine vengeance on the foes of God  (our foes)  —  on our behalf.   The Psalms frequently express such furious vindictiveness.   God is exhorted to  'break the arm of the wicked and the evil man'  (Psalm 10),  to  'cut off all flattering lips and the tongue that speaketh proud things'  (Psalm 12).   In Psalm 94  God is personified as the one to whom vengeance belongs;   in Psalm 149  God's 'saints' are invited to have high praises of God in their mouths and a two–edged sword in their hands,  'to execute vengeance upon the heathen and punishments upon the people;  to bind their kings with chains,  and their nobles with fetters of iron,  to execute upon them the judgment written'.   Revelation takes up and completes the theme,  hurling God's plagues,  natural disasters,  fire and earthquake on the heads of the new faith's enemies.

Hymn writers,  from the famous  'Dies irae, dies illa'  onwards have perpetuated the same theme,  allowing singing congregations down through the centuries a sense of grim satisfaction that in the name of justice and final judgment God may unleash horrors not permitted to the faithful.

When the Judge his seat attaineth
And each hidden deed arraigneth
Nothing unavenged remaineth …

Mine eyes have seen the glory
of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage
where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He is sifting out the hearts of men
before his judgment seat;
He hath loosed the fatal lightning
of his terrible swift sword …

In hymns such as these there is the ever–present temptation to rejoice in the fate of others,  to follow our most secret imaginings and step over the dividing line between compassionate justice and the pitiless satisfactions of revenge.   If it is in the hearts and minds of humans that the springs of violence are to be found,  we would do well not to sing God into existence as a powerful master–monster of our retaliation.

Proto–sadism:  the suffering body

Although Christian theologians have frequently directed the faithful to withdraw into the spiritual inner world and seek the immaterial joys of heaven,  leaving the world and the flesh to the devil,  the physical body has obstinately asserted itself in Christian culture and practice.

Hermits removed their bodies to the remotest deserts,  caves and islands,  where they could starve,  scourge,  hair shirt and discipline them into submission.   Lay women were swathed in clothing intended to hide any hint of shape or physical attraction,  and were commanded to cover their heads,  in particular the devilish attractions of their hair;  nuns  'took the veil'  and exposed only hands and face.   Devotees mutilated and pierced the body,  seeking to emulate the sufferings of Christ.   Priests were robed in all–enveloping garments,  and bare arms or bare knees attracted ecclesiastical displeasure even in hot climates.

But the body persisted in obtruding itself with all its uncomfortable physicality,  and not more so than in the legends of saints and martyrs whose gruesome deaths were proudly advertised to the faithful for their pious wonder and earnest contemplation.   St Sebastian was endlesly exhibited in Christian art,  tied to a tree,  stripped bare and shot through with clouds of arrows,   and St Catherine carried the spiked wheel on which she was torn to pieces.   St Agatha's symbol is a platter bearing her shorn–off breasts;   St Apollonia's are the pincers which pulled out her teeth.   These are medieval images,  but later Christian history in Africa,  Canada and Europe added further tortured bodies to the parade of pain.

All of these exhibitions are ranged round the central scene of the crucifixion of Christ,  where the pious outdid each other in their swooning adoration of the sufferings which led to their salvation.   The tools of torture were separately identified and displayed.   Painters vied in depicting the mocking,  the flogging,  the journey to Calvary and the final act of brutal execution,  and poets and hymn writers vividly provided Christian congregations with the means of mentally and emotionally rehearsing the agony of the Man on the Cross.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that elements of the erotic and the sado–erotic are inextricably mixed with spiritual impulses here.   And it is at least possible that fascination with blood,  sweat,  tears,  thorns,  nails,  spear wounds and afflicted bodies signals the presence of a disturbing element of sexuality in such over–enthusiastic pietistic contemplation of the death of Christ.   The anonymous medieval playwright who wrote  The Play of the Crucifixion,  the German painter Grünewald and the English artist Stanley Spencer focus excessively on the savagery of the event and the plain cruelty of the crucifiers;   but what are we to make of that conservative ex–Anglican cleric Charles Wesley swooning over the tortured body of Christ:

O let me kiss thy bleeding feet,
and bathe and wash them with my tears!
The story of thy love repeat
in every drooping sinner's ears,
that all may hear the quickening sound,
since I,  even I,  have mercy found.
                                       'Would Jesus have the sinner die?'   MHB 173)

The pleasures of violence?   They lurk within the iconic spectacle of the dying Christ,  surrounded by later generations of adoring spectators and lyrical hymn writers:

O sacred Head,  once wounded,
with grief and pain weighed down,
How scornfully surrounded
with thorns,  Thine only crown!
How pale thou art with anguish,
with sore abuse and scorn!
How does that visage languish
which once was bright as morn!

See,  from His head,  His hands,  His feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down;
Did e'er such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown?

There is a fountain filled with blood
drawn from Immanuel's veins;
and sinners,  plunged beneath that flood
lose all their guilty stains.

The warrior syndrome:  battle savagery

That the Christian life can be imagined as a battlefield,  and the moral life as a ferocious war against the 'forces' of evil is evidenced by millennia of poems,  paintings and songs.   Their ancestry can be traced back to the Bible,  most famously in Paul's conception of the Christian soldier.   Their outcome is the emergence in modern times of the idea of the 'spiritual warrior'  and the religious/secular  Warrior Cult  —  most clearly articulated in the publicity material for the Promise Keepers  (Every man has a battle to fight.   What's yours?).   One of the most popular of the new Christian children's associations is labelled  'Warrior Kids',  and the author of this article was recently invited at a Methodist Synod to support the purchase of American–authored bibles illustrated with images of macho–muscled male biblical 'heroes',  cast in the mould of Japanese Ninja warrior cartoon films.

Of course,  the classic hymn of this kind is  'Onward Christian soldiers,  marching as to war',  assigned to the section on  'Temptation and Conflict'  in the 1933 Methodist hymnbook,  where it is accompanied by  'Soldiers of Christ arise',  'Fight the good fight with all thy might',  and M L Wostenholm's Star Wars hymn:

Surrounded by a host of foes,
Stormed by a host of foes within,
Nor swift to flee,  nor strong to oppose,
Single,  against hell,  earth and sin …

I have a shield shall quell their rage,
And drive the alien armies back.

Songs of the Kingdom  (1981)  offers a more contemporary version of the medieval crusade theme:

We are the soldiers of the army of salvation
That God is raisin' up to save the world.
And we won't lay down our arms until
Ev'ry nation is bowed on bended knees before the Lord.
                                   ('Soldiers of the Army')

What is interesting here is that the imagery is both unremittingly heroic and triumphal.   The conception of warfare projected in such hymn texts matches exactly the unreal rhetoric of real war leaders and propagandists,  the kind of patriotic bombast that sent armies into the unheroic horrors of the Somme and still sends suicide bombers to their deaths today.   No one is seriously wounded or disabled in these texts,  faith always triumphs over the demonised enemy;  there are no shell–shocked survivors,  no terrified civilians,  no massacres,  no cruelties,  no doubts or betrayals.   War is presented as a simple heroic enterprise:  the nuances,  subtleties and ambiguities of real life experience are displaced by specious and glamorous generalities  —  'Jesus,  our king,  by the cross overcame. / Now the whole hosts of darkness are under his feet'  (Graham Kendrick 1979). 

The saints versus the demons

As a famous old Gospel song has it,  'The bells of Hell go ting–a–ling–a–ling for you,  but not for me'.   Hymns and religious songs have for generations perpetuated the naïve and all too often catastrophic view that humanity is divided into two kinds:  the good  (commonly Christians who hold similar beliefs to our own)  and the bad  (non–Christians — or sometimes other Christians — who hold different beliefs from our own).   This comfortable doctrine allows for no via media,  no qualifications,  no modulations or fine discriminations;  its rhetoric offers only absolute antitheses.   You either belong to the saints,  the believers,  the righteous souls,  the conquerors reigning with Him,  the elect,  or to the reprobates,  the enemy,  the hosts of Satan,  the legions of the lost.

This simplistic and popular analysis of the human condition,  which pays no attention to the genuine complexities of moral behaviour in the real world or to the elaborate possibilities for good or evil in every individual human soul is well characterised in Luther's classic hymn,  'A safe stronghold our God is still',   with its vivid picturing of an embattled Protestant force confronting a world full of demons:

And were this world all devils o'er,
And watching to devour us,
We lay it not to heart so sore;
Nor can they overpower us,
And let the Prince of Ill
Look grim as e'er he will,
He harms us not a whit …

God's word,  for all their craft and force
One moment will not linger,
But,  spite of hell,  shall have its course:
'Tis written by his finger.
And though they take our life,
Goods,  honour,  children,  wife,
Yet is their profit small.
These things shall vanish all;
The City of God remaineth.

No place for the uncommitted here!   The horrors and atrocities  (on both sides)  of the religious wars in Germany show what extremities of violence may be aroused by such rhetoric and how easily religious song may be used to whip up a frenzy in which any sense of a common humanity disappears.   When the  'other'  has been so demonised,  there is no limit to the cruelty or violence which may be done to  'them'.   And contemporary history bloodily demonstrates the appalling effects of the total alienation of the enemy and the appropriation to one's self of all good — 'My Jesus,  I love thee,  I know thou art mine':  even such an apparently innocuous and sentimental hymn has its sinister implications of rejection of those who stand outside the charmed circle of divine favour,  whose circumference  (we know for sure)  encloses us.   Such attitudes license and unleash violence. 


In 1985 I was confronted in Broad Street,  Oxford,  England,  by a desperate Iraqi,  begging for money to help fund armed resistance against the new tyrannical rulers of his state.   When I refused his plea,  explaining as a Christian I was unable to accept the idea of open violence as a means of social change,  and turned to walk away,  I heard him calling out after me,  'But there is no other way!'   Out of that experience I wrote a hymn,  later published in  Singing Love (1988),  and Alleluia Aotearoa (1992).   In part the text reads

Is there no other way but this,
when children learn to curse and kill,
when isolation numbs the brain
and torture breaks another's will?
Is there no other way but this
from tyrant fear ourselves to save,
but eye for eye and death for death,
till earth becomes our common grave?

Must we take up the stone,  the knife,
and at the last the winter bomb;
protect our own by taking life,
pit all our strength against the strong?

Must hate for ever mask from me
a brother's or a sister's face?
I choose another way than this.
I choose to turn from final loss;
choose good for bad,  choose love,  not hate.
Lift up,  my soul,  the Saviour's cross.

If we are not to raise endless generations of children of Cain,  hymn writers,  worship leaders and congregations need to give more thought to what they write,  select and sing.   We need celebrations of restorative justice,  confessional texts acknowledging past wrongs,  affirmations of our common humanity,  and praise of a God of gentleness,  not force,  whose way is never destructive violence but fresh creation,  compassionate life–bringing love.

Colin Gibson is a former Professor of English at the University of Otago and a well known composer and writer of hymns.   'Raising Cain'  was first published in the July 2002 issue of  The  [NZ]  Methodist Theological Review.


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