The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism
By Regina M. Schwartz
Univ. of Chicago Press
211 pp.; $22.95
If the power of a book is measured by its ability to keep readers captive and stimulate thought, Regina M. Schwartz has written a powerful book. Some of its power lies in the accessible and often intriguing style, characterized by strong metaphors and stark contrasts. But style will captivate and stimulate only if it keeps offering treasures of content.
The treasure of Schwartz's book is that of a provocation. No doubt the book will make some people furious, partly because, for all its fundamental flaws, it exposes a disturbing underside of lived monotheistic faiths. Even after the dust kicked up by a strenuous debate with her has settled, her main thesis will continue to challenge both Christian thought and practice. What about the Canaanites? What about all those peoples slaughtered so that God can offer the infant Israel, just born out of the Egyptian slavery, a land flowing with milk and honey?
With these disturbing questions, Schwartz sets out on a journey to explore "the biblical sources" of national conflicts, racial hatreds, and ethnic divisions. At the center of her interest lies the relation between monotheism and identity. The subtitle states her thesis most tersely: "The Violent Legacy of Monotheism." She explains, "Whether as singleness (this God against the others) or totality (this is all the God there is), monotheism abhors, reviles, rejects, and ejects whatever it defines as outside its compass." Given that the belief in one God "forges identity antithetically," it issues in a mistaken notion of identity ("we are 'us' because we are not 'them'") and contributes to a violent practice ("we can remain 'us' only if we obliterate 'them'").
Why does belief in one God forge identities antithetically? one could ask, wondering whether the chain with which Schwartz connects violence to monotheism might lack a crucial link. And why is the claim to distinctive identity sufficiently important to spawn violence? The answer, argues Schwartz, lies in the principle of scarcity—the belief that everything is in short supply and must be competed for. This principle, too, is rooted in biblical monotheism, we are told. "Scarcity is encoded in the Bible as a principle of Oneness (one land, one people, one nation) and in monotheistic thinking (one Deity), it becomes a demand of exclusive allegiance that threatens with the violence of exclusion."
The story of Cain and Abel provides Schwartz with the key to the evils of monotheism. She calls it a story of "original violence." Unlike the story of original sin, though, the story of original violence does not suggest that we kill because Cain did, but that we kill for similar reasons. Without stating so explicitly, however, Schwartz implies that, at another level, the story of Cain and Abel is a story of original sin, with this twist: the sinner is not Cain but his divine Maker. We kill because God did something wrong, argues Schwartz. Cain was enraged by God's arbitrary decision to accept Abel's sacrifice and reject Cain's; we all kill because of the same arbitrariness of the one God of the Bible. "What kind of God is this who chooses one sacrifice over the other? This God who excludes some and prefers others, who casts some out, is a monotheistic God—monotheistic not only because he demands allegiance to himself alone but because he confers his favor on one alone."
Just as in the story of Jacob and Esau some "unexplained scarcity makes a human father have only one blessing to confer but two sons to receive it," so also in the story of Cain and Abel "some obscure scarcity motivates a divine Father to accept only one offering from two sons." Thus the one God of the Bible, the God of exclusive identities and artificial scarcities, is an instigator of the violence so pervasive in the Western world.
Schwartz is careful not to put all the blame on monotheism; other factors contribute to violence, too. But monotheism nonetheless offers a religiously sanctioned symbolic universe in which the violence of "us" against "them" is decisively legitimized.
Schwartz employs most of her arguments to chisel away at monotheism. Occasionally, though, she climbs the mountain of debris left by her chisel and, like an alternative Moses, surveys the new promised land. In that land the One and the Same has opened itself "into endless difference," and its imitation is "not a replication of the Same, the identical, but a proliferation of nonidentical repetitions." There the first commandment, "to have no other God," has given way to a new commandment, "to let every person walk in the name of his god" and let multiple gods legitimize liquefied identities. There "the old 'monotheist' Book" is closed and new books are "fruitful and multiply." "The Same" is no more in the new promised land, and therefore the rivalry for "the Same" has disappeared. Scarcity is abolished in the land that flows with the milk and honey of plenitude, and therefore violence has given way to peace sustained by the practice of generosity.
It would be easy to respond to Schwartz's book with a barrage of small gripes. What kind of book is this, one could ask, that peddles distortions as uncontested verities? Where does the Bible "insist that you slay your Other to forge your identity" (the first italics mine), for instance? Or what is one to make of the claim that Christ himself had "yearnings to be God"? How much data must one ignore to conclude that the war in Bosnia is best explained in terms of "the monotheistic commitments of nationalism"?
Schwartz can also be faulted for one-sided and superficial readings of the biblical texts. Take the key biblical passage in her book, the story of Cain and Abel. Why assume that God's acceptance of Abel's sacrifice and rejection of Cain's is arbitrary? Simply because the text does not state the reason explicitly? Why not see Cain as an arrogant first-born and Abel his despised sibling, a reading suggested by the meaning of the names of the two brothers in the original? Far from being arbitrary, God's action would then invert the order of social inequalities established by the powerful. Or, why highlight only God's rejection of Cain's sacrifice but overlook God's continued commitment to Cain, even to the point of placing a protective mark on the condemned criminal so he would not be killed? Far from excluding Cain, God's intention would then be to embrace him.
Distortions such as those just mentioned suggest an impatient mind armed with a deft pen. What makes the book intriguing is the "system" behind the impatience. Many of these distortions are not arbitrary errors but are governed by Schwartz's main thesis about monotheism, identity, and scarcity, and by the alternative she proposes. Many of them line up nicely around the fundamental contrasts that make up the backbone of the book: Not one, but many gods! Not the struggle for the proper identity, but an endless composing and recomposing of "temporary and multiple identifications"! Not scarcity, but plenitude! So one has to ask whether her three-pronged main thesis is more defensible than her individual arguments.
I think not. The tendency toward distortion encountered in her individual arguments besets the main thesis, only on a larger scale. But before pointing out the flaws in the three prongs of her thesis, let me underscore that the distortions in Schwartz's thought often simply mirror much more distressing distortions—those of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish social practice. Our allegiance to the true God notwithstanding, in thought, word, and deed we serve the false god she critiques.
First, God's oneness. Should not a person who sees the oneness of God as a source of antithetically constructed identities and the consequent exclusion of the other deal with the fact that God's oneness correlates with the stress on the common humanity of all people? Schwartz never does. Inversely, should not a person who argues that the belief in many gods will eliminate the polarity between "us" and "them" explain why this belief will not simply multiply that same polarity at a different level? With many gods, why would there be peace instead of struggle of all against all, unconstrained by anything but the law of the jungle in which the strong swallow the weak?
Schwartz protests this suggestion. To advocate many gods, she writes, is "not to endorse some kind of Nietzschean neopaganism; the idea is not to replace ethics with the rule of the strong." But we look in vain for arguments that justify her protest.
Second, identity. Schwartz "locates the origins of violence in identity formation, arguing that imagining identity as an act of distinguishing and separating from others, of boundary making and line drawing, is the most frequent and fundamental act of violence we commit." What she fails to explain is how identity can be imagined at all without acts of "distinguishing and separating from others." Without such acts, would not all differences melt away so that there would be nobody, strictly speaking, to be engaged in such temporary identifications? She also fails to explain why "temporary identifications" would be less violent than stable identities. Could not temporary identifications, precisely because they are temporary and therefore uncertain, be potentially more violent than are the stable and therefore more secure identities?
Third, scarcity. As Peter Berkowitz puts it in a review of her book, Schwartz writes "as if scarcity were an idea that the Bible arbitrarily invented and violently inscribed in the mind of the faithful, as if scarcity were a law manufactured by monotheism out of thin air and which, if we were to construct the correct concepts, we would be free to think away." The problem of scarcity is so much a part of the world we inhabit that a world in which scarcity could not (not: would not!) occur is strictly unimaginable—except as a world of the dead in which nothing could be scarce because nothing could be possessed. Every plenitude carries in it its own potential scarcity.
With all the small and large flaws in Schwartz's book, one may think that we should simply abandon it to the "gnawing critique of mice." For two reasons I think this would be a mistake. First, scattered throughout the book are significant insights. For instance, Schwartz rightly warns against the all-too-common conflation of exodus and conquest as a result of which exodus (as a metaphor) becomes unthinkable without violence.
Also, she rightly highlights the insight that, metaphorically speaking, the life of a sojourner moving about with a tent may be religiously more desirable than settled life in palaces. Finally, she is bold enough to suggest that both memory and community "depend upon forgetting" and that rather than dissolving community, a certain kind of forgetting may in fact build community. For these insights and more, Schwartz's book should be read.
The second, and more important, reason why we should read the book consists in a challenge that Schwartz's three-pronged thesis poses for Christian thinking about scarcity, identity, and the nature of God. I do not mean an apologetic challenge that, for instance, the violence of conquest presents even for those theologians who do not think, as Schwartz does, that this violence is explainable in terms of the oneness of Israel's God. No, Schwartz's main thesis presents a theological challenge that touches the very core of the Christian faith: How should we live in a world in which struggles over scarcity and identity rage? What kind of God should we serve? Both Schwartz's critique of monotheism and her alternative proposal, which centers on plenitude, fluid identities, and divine plurality, can prod us to give a richer and more faithful account of who God is and what it means to serve God in a world of scarcity and clashing identities.
Let us assume that on the whole Schwartz is wrong. First, let us assume that the problem of scarcity is neither exacerbated by believing in one God nor overcome by imagining a world of plenitude. But how should we manage scarcity? One way is by advocating an economy of deserts, which says that what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours, and when I give you something that is mine you must give me the proportionate amount of something that is yours.
Why is it that Christians often think in these terms and thus fuel the fires of criticism such as Schwartz's? Should we not, instead, seek to subvert the economy of deserts by the economy of grace? In this economy, scarcity is overcome by self-giving, not by dividing possessions according to deserts or by the utopian assumption that there is enough for everyone. Only through self-giving can we hope to create a world of plenitude—a truly heavenly world in which the other never emerges as a debtor because she has already given by having joyfully received, and because even before the gift has reached her she was already engaged in a movement of advance reciprocation.
Second, let us assume that separation is essential for formation of identity and that the creative act of differentiation ought to be distinguished from the violent act of exclusion. But how should we go about maintaining boundaries and managing relations between groups with discrete identities? Christians have often advocated a "politics of purity," which seeks to push others out of our world and eject otherness from within ourselves. To the extent that we have, we are legitimate targets of Schwartz's attack. Could Christian theologians conceive of a plausible alternative account of identity formation, an account according to which boundaries exist but are porous, in which the other is not perceived as a threat by simply being other but is experienced as enrichment? I think the doctrine of the Trinity points precisely in this direction.
Finally, let us assume that the oneness of God is not inimical to the peaceful coexistence of people but is rather an important precondition for it. How then should we think about the one God? Along with adherents of the other two monotheistic religions—Judaism and Islam—Christians have been sometimes tempted to conceive of God almost as a kind of private deity, the God who automatically rejects "them" by electing "us" and who therefore provides a divine sanction for our strenuous efforts to keep our identity pure, even if this means obliterating the other. But is this the God of Abraham and Sarah? Is this the God revealed in Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit? Is not the God of Abraham and Sarah the God who ultimately elects some in order that the divine blessing may come to all? Is not the God whom we encounter in the story of Jesus Christ the Triune God? Is not this God a community of persons each of whom indwells the others and all of whom are therefore persons precisely by not having self-enclosed and "pure" identities? Does not the eternal blessedness of this God consist in the circular movement of divine love in which the giving of the self coalesces with the receiving of the other?
It would be easy simply to dismiss Schwartz for having misread the character of the one God of the Bible and distorted the implications of biblical monotheism for life in a world of scarcity and clashing identities. It would be more difficult as well as more fruitful to offer plausible alternative accounts of Trinitarian monotheism and to demonstrate its salutary social consequences. But even if this were done, the truly difficult task for Christians would remain: to stop behaving as if the idol Schwartz seeks to demolish were in fact the God they worship.
Miroslav Volf is professor of systematic theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of several books, including After Our Likeness: The Church As the Image of Trinity, recently published by Eerdmans.Recommended Readings
Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary
Even for evangelicals who keep a watchful eye on things Roman Catholic, Michael W. Cuneo's The Smoke of Satan: Conservative and Traditionalist Dissent in Contemporary American Catholicism (Oxford University Press, 1997, 215 pp; $27.50, hardcover) sheds light on little-known movements within Catholicism: thriving communities of traditionalist nuns and priests, mystical Marian devotees whose ties to mainstream Catholicism are quite strained, and "the-end-is-near" apocalypticists—to say nothing of the separatist Catholics who believe that the present occupant of the papal throne is an imposter and a forerunner of the Antichrist. The truths here are not only stranger than much fiction, they add up to a tale that reads like a well-written novel.
Amy Plantinga Pauw, Henry P. Mobley Associate Professor of Theology at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary and a lay member of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
"A revolution is transforming American Protestantism," Don Miller declares in Reinventing American Protestantism: Christianity in the New Millennium (University of California Press, 1997, 253 pp.; $27.50, hardcover). The vanguard of this movement is what Miller calls "new paradigm churches" (NPCS), networks of Christian fellowships that adopt contemporary styles of music, welcoming settings for worship, and a responsiveness to the therapeutic, individualistic, and antiestablishment mood of the culture. His book is a detailed and engaging account of three southern California churches founded in the 1960s and '70s: Calvary Chapel, Vineyard Christian Fellowship, and Hope Chapel. Often independent or postdenominational, NPCS reject the bureaucratic rigidities and traditional liturgical tastes of mainstream Protestantism. Despite theological similarities, their efforts to democratize access to the sacred distinguish NPCS from most evangelical and fundamentalist churches as well.
As a liberal Episcopalian, Miller is clearly an outsider to these groups, yet he presents a sympathetic portrait of enthusiastic worship, organizational flexibility, intense discipleship in small cell groups, and the ability to attract and nurture those whose history and lifestyle have disenfranchised them from more established churches. On all these counts, Miller's concluding call for mainstream Protestantism to learn from NPCS is welcome.
But Mark Noll's warning in Scandal of the Evangelical Mind about antitraditional forms of Christian piety deserves heed here as well. The biblicistic, authoritarian style of these pastors, "unfettered" by knowledge of the larger Christian tradition, hamstrings careful theological reflection. Routinization of these churches is inevitable. And when it comes, the confluence of this style of pastoral leadership with a hierarchical bureaucracy may be the worst of both worlds.
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