“Listen, your brother’s blood is crying to me from the soil.”
Genesis 4:10 -- Moffatt Translation
I am presently haunted by this scripture. I have read and heard it numerous times. The hearing was different last Tuesday during this semester’s powerful and inspiring open chapel service at Pacific School of Religion (PSR). It struck at the core of my being as no other reading or hearing of it had. Why? Because my spirit raced to the blood of Tyre Nichols crying out to me, to us, to the nation. This emotive response had not happened since the news spread of his heinous murder. Hopefully, I have not become accustomed to such tragedies. Yet, the image of his blood crying to the nation was almost too much to bear. Was this Tyre’s resurrection, the protests across the nation? Was he still living in the pain and promise of commitment to change that pervades the heart of so many? And what about the blood of George Floyd and the 228 other Black people killed by police since the killing of Floyd?
Every year St. Paul Baptist Community Church in Brooklyn celebrates the MAAFA. MAAFA is a Kiswahili word that denotes great tragedy or catastrophe and is applied to the forced migration of Africans to the Americas during the Atlantic slave trade. The designation of MAAFA to describe this Middle Passage was conceptualized by Dr. Dona Richards (Marimba Ani) scholar and former SNCC activist.
The opening video is a very brief glance into this extraordinary ritual that I was fortunate to attend years ago. Dr. Johnny Ray Youngblood, the pastor at the time and major contributor to the ritual, believes that we cannot go forward until we go back, back through the horrors and trauma of this experience whose consequences reside with us even today. The waves of the Atlantic, he posits, are the souls of those lost in the crossing of the Atlantic whose deaths were never properly ritualized. Millions died from the inhumane conditions and treatment onboard and others jumped overboard preferring a grave in the ocean rather than being a slave in a strange land. The sanctuary is turned into the hull of a slave ship. And the atrocities of slavery are carried out in the sanctuary. It is difficult to be unmoved by the physical closeness and the diminishing of the time from slavery to the present. The blood of our ancestors still cries to us.
Will we hear or continue to ignore or downplay its relevance and therefore lose the opportunity for reconciliation?
Contextually, the scripture (Genesis 4:10) comes from the Cain and Abel narrative: two brothers, sons of Adam and Eve. Both make sacrifices to God. Abel’s is accepted. Cain’s is not. Did not the man who is accused of carrying out the mass murders in Half Moon Bay present a proposal to his supervisor that was rejected? The rejection of the sacrifice or proposal is seen as a rejection of the presenter, the self. The Eternal tells Cain that he has the opportunity to look inward and come to a greater realization of his possibilities and sacrifices. Taking out his fury on his brother, who is not responsible for the rejection, but is close by and is seen as competition, Cain slays his brother Abel.
The Eternal interrogates Cain with the simple question: “Cain, where is your brother Abel?”
This is the question God raised with Adam and Eve after they had violated their relationship with the garden and God. The question was not an inquiry about physical surroundings. God knew where they were geographically. It was a question about their integrity and their values. We could ask the same question of ourselves. Where are we in relationship to what has been created for us and given into our care? Do we have integrity? What are our values? Along with that is the question put to Cain. Where is our brother, our sister, our neighbor? Where are they physically and emotionally? Do they have the means to sustain themselves?
Cain’s retort is equally disturbing. “How do I know?” But shouldn’t he know? They are brothers living in the same household who work the fields together. Shouldn’t we know where people are in our communities? More disturbing to me, however, is the second question: “Am I my brother’s keeper” is the familiar rendering. Moffatt translates the question as “Am I a shepherd to my brother?” I like this interpretation better. The shepherd knows the sheep under the shepherd’s charge. When one is missing, the shepherd looks for it. When one is hurt, the shepherd seeks healing. When one stumbles, the shepherd caresses it. When a sheep faces danger, the shepherd protects it.
The 23rd Psalm depicts the Eternal as shepherd.
The Eternal shepherds me (note that the Eternal is active),
I lack for nothing;
the Eternal makes me lie in meadows green,
leads me to refreshing streams ,
And revives life in me.
The Eternal guides me by true paths, as the Eternal is true.
My road may run through a glen of gloom,
but I fear no harm, for thou art beside me;
Thy club, thy staff—they give me courage.
Thou art my host, spreading a feast for me,
while my foes have to look on!
Thou hast poured oil upon my head,
my cup is brimming over;
yes, and all through my life
Goodness and Kindness wait on me,
the Eternal’s guest,
within his household evermore.
No, Cain is not that shepherd, and neither are we. The challenge is to become such a shepherd. And we can strive with greater precision and perseverance toward that goal.
The question of where is your brother is not one that should be dismissed. Cain does know where his brother is. He has slain him. He knows because Abel’s cry cannot be silenced or blotted out. That stain will always be part of him. Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s play knows about the tenacity of blood. In agony, she cries “Out damned spot.” The blood on her hand is due to the assassination of King Duncan. She is sleepwalking and talking because in her ruthless quest to be queen, she and Macbeth have participated in the murder of King Duncan. She cannot wash the blood off. It is in her soul.
Yet, how easy it is for this nation to ignore the blood shed by Black bodies, ignoring the fact that recognizing the bloodshed is the first step in the healing of the nation. Yes, courses and books about the African American experience as well as engagement with the present African American communities are essential to that healing.
Dr. Carter G. Woodson noticed in the 1920s that there was a dearth of knowledge among young Black Americans about their history. So, he created Negro/Black History Week as an attempt to fill this vacuum of knowledge. The shedding of blood is part of that legacy. He chose February because it contained the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Later, this celebration of African American heritage was expanded to a month. It is just as critical for those who are not of African descent to learn this history. For it is American History. It is often invisible, unrecognized, or distorted in the narrative of the nation and holds the possibility of dressing wounds and being balm for the nation.
Dr. Howard Thurman reminds us that we should experience in our daily rounds the unity we experience in the mystic vision. And we are obliged to dismantle institutions and systems that block this from happening.
The story of man’s struggle on the planet, haunting him as he builds his cultures, his civilizations, as he erects his altars and makes his sacrifices before his god, is to find his way back to the Garden of Eden, which must yet be achieved. To achieve community in the midst of all the things he brought upon himself by his own deeds, things that work most against community, is to sweep past the angel with the flaming sword and build a new home in the Garden of Eden. At man’s moments of greatest despair, he is instinctively unwilling and perhaps unable to accept the contradictions of his life as final or ultimate. Something deep within reminds him that the intent of the creator of life and the living substance is that men must live in harmony within themselves and with one another and perhaps with all of life. When he seeks to achieve it, even in his little world of belonging and meaning, what is at first the dim racial memory stirring deep within him becomes the paean of a great transcendent chorus rejoicing him on his way.
The initial title for today’s message was Am I My Brother’s Keeper? When I saved the file, however, the title appeared as Am I My Brother? Wow!