In this second post of our Theology of Racial Reconciliation Series, entitled “Uncovering the Root of Hatred and Racism,” I want to look at the root of interpersonal hatred, the root of racism that stems from the beginning of time as recounted in the Bible itself.
If we’re going to have an honest discussion on the topic, we must consider what’s at the root. We need to ask questions like, “Why does racism exist? We live in the 21st century in the United States, for goodness sake, why is racism still around?” or “Haven’t we progressed as humans?”
The answer to such questions is found at the root of interpersonal hatred, the root of racism. To identify this root, we have to look back at the Bible. Today, we will dwell on what may be a familiar passage to many of you, namely, the story of Cain and Abel. And what I’m going to argue is this: at the root of interpersonal hatred, at the heart of racism is a distorted view of God and a distorted view of humanity.
This two-legged root, I believe, is what drives hate and racism among humans. Now, I have chosen this passage in Genesis 4 because it is the first instance in the Bible and of humanity in general of hate, anger, and violence. In short, it is the first occurrence of murder in the Bible. And, if like good investigators, we can trace the problem of hate to the source, we can see why hate and racism manifests itself to this day.
Let’s begin by looking at how one’s view of God impacts how they view and treat other human beings.
As this passage of violence and murder unfolds, what we quickly see is how one’s view of God directly influences how they treat others.
You see, hatred and violence in the Bible begins with the root of a distorted view of God.
Before Cain even gets to his deadly encounter with his brother, we see his deficient view of God come through in the form of worship. As verse 2 indicates, Cain was a farmer while his younger brother Abel was a shepherd. It was very common in the ancient Near East for siblings in a family to have different responsibilities. Some needed to focus on crops while others had to focus on the animals. In this case, Cain tended to the land and Abel to the sheep.
Now, we are not told how old the brothers are. We can simply assume that they are old enough to sufficiently work in these areas. Well, in the course of time, perhaps, during Cain’s first season of harvest, Cain brought an offering to God. This type of offering was given as somewhat of a token of thanks to God.
Around that time, Abel too brought an offering from his flock. He wanted to thank God for his sheep. And, as verse 4 indicates, God accepted Abel and his offering, but not Cain’s. Why? For those familiar with this passage, have you ever wondered that? At first glance, it seems like this is unfair. But notice the differences in the offerings.
The author distinguishes the two offerings by an important descriptive term. Look at verse 4. The difference between Cain’s offering and Abel’s offering was that Abel offered the first of his flock whereas Cain didn’t. For Cain, God was an afterthought. For Abel, God was the first thing on his mind. And because God had the place of primacy in Abel’s mind, he was eager to offer his firstborn of the flock. Whereas Cain, the first and best of his crops belonged to himself. After Cain got his, only then did he offer his crops in worship. Do you see the difference?
Cain’s warped view of God also unfolds in his response to God’s acceptance of Abel. Look at verse 5. Cain was angry with God for not accepting his offering, as if God was bound to accept his offering. We, too, are guilty of this. We expect and demand that God approve of everything in our life. Regardless of whether our conduct is pleasing to God, we expect that He accept us, and if He doesn’t, then the fault is on Him.
Now, Cain’s distorted view of God continues through in verse 8 after God came and spoke with him. God came to Cain with a gracious warning, “Cain, if you do right, if you honor Me correctly, you will be accepted. But if you don’t do right, sin will devour you.” So, how did Cain respond to God? a. He responded by not answering God. He brushed aside God’s warning. At best, Cain thought he didn’t need to heed God’s comments. At worst, Cain deliberately sought to rebel against God’s warning. How troubling this is!
Cain’s distorted view of God finally comes to a gut-wrenching climax. In his anger towards God, Cain deceivingly drew Abel into the field. Cain got Abel to sit down at some point, and you can picture it in graphic detail. As Abel was sitting on the ground, Cain walked behind his brother, and without Abel even knowing it, Cain pulled out a knife, and with one hand he held Abel’s head up, and with the other, he slit Abel’s throat.
Cain killed his brother out of anger towards God, and when God confronted Cain in verse 9, Cain denied any knowledge of his brother’s whereabouts. Is not this whole scene horrific?! Brothers and sisters, Cain committed acts of violence and hatred because of his distorted view of God. He did not think God had any claim on his life or his brother’s life. He did not think that God would find out or judge him. That is why he had the audacity to say, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper.”
Let me take it a step further: Cain saw himself as his own god – he thought all he did was right, he didn’t think he had to answer to any one, and he left his actions unchecked. The one, true, living God of the universe meant nothing to him, and this distorted, small view of God provided a context for Cain to kill.
Brother and sisters, throughout human history, humans have committed acts of violence, of hate, of racism because of distorted views of God.
You see, when we see ourselves as the highest moral authority, as god, we are on a dangerous path. We let our own emotions and thoughts dictate how we act, and we do not care whether our actions will offend some god or others. This, my friends, is where classism, sexism, war, gang-fighting, and any other form of hate towards a group of people begins. And that includes racism.
You see, a fundamental basis of how we treat people is our view of God. In other words, our ethics are built upon our view of God. If there is no God, or if God is merely a distant deity, then ethics, how we treat people is really a matter of social and individual choice. If a society deems a group of people as less, then who can hold that society accountable if there is no God or if God is not just?
This sort of argument was popular back in the 1600s and 1700s. We talked about the history of racism in America in our first post of this series here. Men like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and many other of our nation’s founding fathers held to this belief, and this sadly impacted their treatment of black men and women. They may have never explicitly called themselves gods, but in their claims of moral superiority, they implied it. And we can see the direct consequences of their ideology in their possession of slaves and in their support of the institution of slavery. Like Cain, these men saw themselves answerable to no one. These men let their thoughts and actions go unchecked, and their despicable treatment of other human beings resulted.
This is what I mean when I say that our view of God affects our treatment of people. The foundational reason why hatred and racism exist in our world today is because we have a distorted view of God, and because we treat ourselves like gods instead.