In the Virginia colony four hundred years ago in July 1619, writes Jill Lepore in These Truths, pp. 37-38,
twenty-two English colonists…met in a legislative body, the House of Burgesses, the first self-governing body in the colonies. One month later, twenty Africans arrived in Virginia, the first slaves in British America. Twenty Englishmen were elected to the House of Burgesses. Twenty Africans were condemned to the house of bondage. Another chapter opened in the American book of genesis: liberty and slavery became the American Abel and Cain.
We are all familiar with Cain and Abel, if not their story. Gen. 4:1-16…read more.
Cain, the older brother, was “a tiller of the ground”; his younger brother Abel “was a keeper of sheep.” Gen. 4:2. As God, for no apparent reason, favored Abel’s offering of the first born of his flock over Cain’s offering of the first fruits of his fields, Cain became insanely jealous and killed Abel. Gen. 4:8. God confronted Cain and asked about Abel, to which Cain famously replied…”am I my brother’s keeper?” Gen. 4:9. “God then banished Cain from the land….” Gen. 4:16.
This sacred story of fraternal conflict, which ends with the death of one brother and the banishment of the other, forever condemned to “be a fugitive and wanderer on the earth”, Gen. 4:12, does not end well for either brother. The question then is: how will the American Abel and Cain story end?
Lepore’s analogy is not perfect. In the American book of genesis, the Cains not only killed and enslaved African Abels, but massacred indigenous Abels as well. If the field of dispute resolution teaches us nothing else, we know that, unless the offspring of America’s Cains, of which I am one, find a way to reconcile with the offspring of America’s Abels, be they of African or indigenous descent, the American Abel and Cain story also will not end well.
Another sacred story, the story of Jacob and Esau at the River Jabbok, offers a picture of what reconciliation might look like. If America’s Cains can summon the courage to reconcile with America’s Abels, we Cains may be blessed, as Jacob was, with a new name, Gen. 32:28, and an ability to see “the face of God” in the faces of our Abel brothers and sisters. Gen. 33:10.