The Cain and Abel School of Management
September 23, 2012
Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.” Next she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground.
In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.
The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”
Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.” Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him.
Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” —he said to the paralytic— “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”
Conflict is a bad thing. A very bad thing. A thing to be avoided. Everybody who likes conflict, put your hands up.
In churches, we might think that conflict is especially bad. Christians are supposed to be loving and meek. Christians should get along bonded by a common doctrine. When people don’t agree, it creates conflict, which is inevitably hurtful and destructive. So we will avoid, compromise, and accommodate, often totally losing track of our basic purpose and values, to wiggle out of a situation we assume will surely lead to bloodletting.
Did you notice my hand was up when I asked about liking conflict? Well, I don’t really like conflict, but I surely do appreciate it. I think conflict gets a bad rap.
First, I don’t think most people have really formed a clear working definition of conflict. I even question some experts’ definitions of conflict. The folks at XiCom, who do conflict management training, say conflict occurs when “your concerns or desires differ from another person’s.” I disagree. If your desire is to vacation in Cincinnati and my desire is to vacation at Moosehead Lake, that does not create a conflict. This definition lacks context. The only way our vacation desires will conflict is if we plan on going on vacation together. If we have one week we want to spend together and you say, “Let’s go to New Orleans for Mardi Gras” and I say, “Let’s stay home and paint the garage,” then we have a conflict.
I often use the definition “conflict occurs when there are excess demands on a seemingly limited resource.” Our vacation time is a limited resource, and we cannot meet both our demands by simultaneously staying home and going away. But that definition still isn’t right, because sometimes we have conflict over ideas without a clear resource at risk.
I like Hugh Halverstadt’s definition, “Conflicts are problems to be solved, not contests to be won.” When we solve a problem together, we both “get on the same side of the table.” Solving a problem, we’re likely to sit side-by-side and focus our attention on the problem. A contest to be won pits us against each other; we focus on getting our way at the expense of the other. But I’m not sure we can say that Cain failed to recognize the problem that needed to be solved. His view of the problem was that God didn’t like him. That’s a difficult problem to solve.
Buddha perhaps gives us the best understanding when he says, “All suffering is the result of attachment.” Attachment is not necessarily bad. Attachment to justice causes suffering in an unjust world. But I truly believe that attachment is one of the things that contributes to conflict—perhaps the major thing.
As human beings—social beings—we cannot escape conflict. So let’s learn about it.
Let’s look at the conflicts in our Scripture readings today. There are three: Cain’s conflict with God, which he transfers to Abel; the paralytic’s conflict with his disability; and the scribes’ conflict with Jesus.
Cain (whose name means “to possess” or “to acquire”) has acquired certain needs and expectations. He has become attached to how he thinks the world should be. He brings the Lord a gift and expects positive regard in response. He gets no regard whatsoever. Not only that, but his crummy little brother (whose name means “vaporous”) does get the attention. Cain experiences friction between his envisioned reality and experienced reality. Cain interprets God’s notice of Abel’s offering and God’s non-notice of his own offering, and his interpretation leads him to get angry. The Lord (or Cain’s conscience) intervenes and reframes the situation, but thanks to Cain’s state of mind, he doesn’t hear what God says to him, instead projecting his own interpretation onto the situation. Now Cain has a real problem: with God. It’s difficult to get even with God. So he relocates his pain from God to Abel, placing the blame for his bad feelings on God’s apparently preferential treatment of Abel and avoiding the opportunity to do any inner work of his own. He takes action, spilling Abel’s blood onto the very ground from which Cain derives his livelihood and from which he drew his offerings to God. He gets in trouble for doing this. Then he becomes afraid that the very solution he applied to Abel will be applied to him—that someone will surely kill him. God allows him to live, but banishes him from the ground, thereby causing Cain to lose his identity. This conflict has what is termed a “lose/ lose outcome.” There are no winners.
In the Gospel story, we have a man whose body is in conflict with a disability. Knowing that the man is given his physical health by means of forgiveness of sins, we can assess his conflict to be a spiritual one. He has some error of inner orientation; he is out of step with God’s will; he is somehow resisting love. But luckily, the man has friends. They have a vision. They put their vision into action. (Imagine wanting to see the local guru so badly that you would damage his house to get in! I hope Jesus could heal ceilings as well as people.)
This poor paralyzed man floats down from the ceiling. Jesus has a vision, too. He doesn’t mess around with surface matters, with presenting symptoms. He goes right to the cause of the problem and says, “Your sins are forgiven.” Problem solved!
But a new problem arises! Jesus is violating protocol. He is displaying an excess of personal power. He is out of scale. The scribes (visiting in his house!) challenge Jesus on the basis of rules, and then they challenge his very person. “What you do is bad” leads to “Who you are is bad.”
Jesus responds in what may be a playful move: he switches back and addresses the symptoms. He is willing to change from “your sins are forgiven” (the root of the matter) to “pick up your mat and walk” (the surface issue). The man picks up his mat and walks, amazing the bystanders and annoying the scribes. Jesus is upsetting the system. The result of this annoyance is friction with those who attach their needs and expectations to that system. The scribes have something to lose here. The penultimate result of this annoyance is crucifixion, because sometimes you have to do the right thing regardless of the conflict it causes. (The ultimate result, of course, is resurrection.)
What do we learn from these stories about what can create conflict?
Expectations play a leading role—more specifically, attachment to those expectations. Cain expected God to meet his need to be noticed by noticing that Cain had brought an offering to God. What God ended up noticing was Cain’s anger and fallen face. The scribes had expectations about the limited role of a messiah and about where forgiveness comes from. They might also have been afraid: afraid of change, of losing status. Face it: people do not like their boats rocked.
Conflict often arises from actions that don’t yield the expected results. Frustration, disillusionment, bewilderment, the need to go back to the drawing board, the feeling of having wasted time and effort, and perhaps even a lost “now what?” feeling can drag our fingers into a fist.
The need for acceptance also plays a big role. Again, Cain longed for acceptance and was so deeply hurt when he was not accepted that it harmed his character. The paralytic wanted to be rejoined with society. We all long for a place in another’s heart, whether God’s or the community’s. Conflict does not occur alone. Our lives, and both the joys and conflicts they bring, are relational.
Communication is a huge factor in conflict. To me, it is a wonder that people ever communicate at all. When we try to connect through words, there is what we mean to say, what we actually say, what is heard, and what is understood. The meaning we intend can be missed, twisted, or substituted at many steps between one brain and another. God may have said lovingly, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen?” But apparently Cain heard a scolding instead: “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen?”
I learned a long time ago that, no matter how much I might be convinced that the person who misunderstood me was in the wrong, the most constructive thing I could do was say, “I’m sorry, I guess I didn’t make myself clear.” No point adding an argument about what I did or didn’t say on top of a mixed-up communication.
Also in the category of communication is what is not said. We are not told that Cain ever told God what he wanted; he just gets mad when he doesn’t get it. My husband, Norris Dale, has a saying he calls Dale’s Law: “If you don’t say you want it, you probably won’t get it.” With his brother, Cain exhibits an aggressive silence, an intentional non-communication. In some translations, we read, “Cain said to Abel, ‘Let us go to the field.’” These translators insist on putting words in Cain’s mouth. The Hebrew actually says, “Cain spoke to Abel.” That’s all. Cain seems so disdainful of his brother that even when he speaks to him, he doesn’t say anything.
Interpretation is a major player in the conflict game. Cain has decided exactly what happened: God picked Abel and not him. God is unfair. God’s regard is a limited resource, and Abel got Cain’s share. Cain is not able to stop and look within and ask, “How else might I understand this?” So his conflict with— his attack on—Abel enacts his limited thinking. That happens in real life a lot.
Many other factors influence these elements and direct the nature and intensity of conflict: how secure or insecure one feels, how mature one is, the genders of the antagonists. And a little factor called “systemic homeostasis,” which means “we are stuck in a rut (and we mean to stay here).”
There are no guarantees for avoiding the negative aspects of conflict, but there are some tools for getting the best out of conflict. (Remember, conflict is a problem to be solved, not a contest to be won.)
Rules can be helpful, provided they are not made into idols. Last Christmas, we were with friends, and we got out the Parcheesi board. It had been years since any of us had played Parcheesi, so we started reading the rules. There were a lot of rules. We got very bored about halfway through and said, “Oh, let’s just play.” Well, of course, one person or another would remember some rule from their childhood and try to invoke it while we were playing. We’d stop the game and go back to read the rules from the box lid. Sometimes we would agree to use different rules, but at least we knew what was written and what we were changing. It meant we could play together instead of fight together.
There are written and unwritten rules. I vote in favor of written rules. You can always change them if they don’t work, but having some unemotional piece of paper reminding us of the agreements we made about how to go about living together is a real boon.
There are God’s rules and our rules. It helps to play by God’s rules. God wants the best for us and provides rules to aim us in that direction. Our rules can be a mixed blessing. The scribes, unfortunately, over-identified with the rules. Rules became idols. Cain was unrestrained by codified rules in the literal story. In the inner meaning of the passage, however, he is nothing but rules. Cain represents a doctrine that separates faith from charity. Abel is worship from charity itself. It is the tendency to declare the “truth” without ever acting in loving kindness that murders charity. Either way, literal or correspondential, Cain’s relationship with rules was undermining his ability to live. If we make up our rules by the light of God’s rules, when we make loving kindness the first thing, then our rules will come alive because they support God’s intention.
Lowering the fear level makes a big difference in dealing positively with conflict. When we read Mark’s gospel, there is an urgency that adds anxiety to the story of Jesus, headed inevitably for the cross. Mark uses the word “immediately” over and over again, like a train speeding down the track. He makes us want to yell, “Wait, stop, slow down; I know who Jesus is—don’t kill him!” That’s excellent for storytelling. It’s terrible for conflict resolution. Cain was afraid that God didn’t love him. Fear and anxiety will undercut even a skilled mediator’s best efforts to enlighten a tense situation. Stop. Breathe. Wait. Think. Fear not.
Yes, Cain killed Abel and yes, the Romans and the temple government killed Jesus (for a couple of days). Notwithstanding these unsatisfactory outcomes, I want to propose today that conflict can actually be a good thing. It can heighten creativity, open understanding, intensify love. Solving problems together can be challenging and fun, in a way that winning contests can’t. In problem solving, it is possible to create a win/win solution; but in contest winning there are, perforce, losers.
Indeed, conflict, spiritual conflict, is the very meat of regeneration. By divine design, it is how we grow. Met with vision, run by rules based on sound theological principles, infused with lovingkindness, conflict can result in an outcome in which everyone can take up their mats and walk—or dance. Blessed be the Lord.
Lord, help us to see in the groaning of creation not death throes but birth pangs;
Help us to see in suffering a promise for the future, because it is a cry against the inhumanity of the present.
Help us to glimpse in protest the dawn of justice;
In the cross, the pathway to resurrection;
And in suffering, the seeds of joy.
- Ruben Alves, 1987
Ms. Eli Dale