Cain and Abel is the prototypical story of brotherly jealousy-cum-murder. Agrarian brother versus shepherd brother. Both fight over the acceptance of land use, but the Lord finds the shepherd’s sacrifices acceptable and not the vegetable ones. Herds wander, but farmers stay put. I’ve been considering this since my pastor made note of not only how this story ends for Abel, but also how it ends for Cain.
For murdering his brother, Cain cannot remain in his fields – he must wander the country as a vagabond, with his special protection mark. But after some years, he settles again and builds a city.
I am reading this as a critique from a largely shepherding community of the very civilizations that they encountered: Egypt, Babylon, Ninevah. Cities have the mark of Cain impressed on them. Cities are birthed in violence, and that is something to remember in how we approach living situations. Cities have long been the epicenter of violence – both on the creating and receiving ends.
This violence is not borne of the citizens, but of the mechanisms of which civilization bears – industry, empire, colonization, economic injustice and disparity, pollution, exploitation.
And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.
Jeremiah 29:7 (NLT)
The biblical and prophetic witness to the Abels of Israel was to “work for peace” while in the cities. This command I would argue would be extended to all of the people of God. We see it being repeated in Jonah and God’s concern for the inhabitants of the empirical/colonial/conquering city of Ninevah. We are also told to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, which I think is important considering the blood shed by the colonial and conquering Israeli government.
And yet, White Evangelicals – my own background – were among the primary White Flighters, those who not only left the cities to rot under the violence but took with them tools and resources needed to deal with that violence. As if White Evangelicals could leave the Mark of Cain behind them.
They refused to work for the peace of the city and were, en masse, culpable for the unrest, for the insatiable poverty, for the decay, for the water turn-offs.
When White Evangelicals come into the city, it is often as another form of colonialism and conquering. Their churches act as if they’re carrying out terra nullius upon the spiritual landscape. We city folks are aboriginals to be converted and our churches like our rights to our land are void and nonexistent. It’s religious gentrification, values colonialism of white, middle class suburbia. Our values are not valid, our concerns are not valid. People who left us and took the money with them come back with money, to spend on each other as they push us out of the way of our own homes and dismantle our communities.
The missionaries of Spain and England came as emissaries of a military overtaking. The missionaries of suburbia are emissaries of real estate developers and gentrifiers.
So when Evangelicals borne of a post-Cain-ian suburbia complain about living in the city and how the suburbs were so much better, so much safer, so much cleaner, so much better for kids, I sigh. It happens often. Very often. Suburbia may be the womb of contemporary Evangelicalism, but it is also built upon the backs of those left within the city. It is us who have spent these years fighting the crippling effects that their removal have left. It is us that have invested in this city. It is our labor that have created the wealth of suburbia and it is suburbia that has refused to give it back.
“Work for the peace and prosperity of the city” means to work for justice. Means to partner with us while we seek liberation and peace. To do otherwise isn’t prophetic, isn’t biblical in any sense that is loving.