Genesis 4-Dehumanization and Deification

Genesis 4:1-10

4 Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten[a] a man with the help of the Lord.” 2 And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. 3 In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 and Abel brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. 6 The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

8 Cain said to Abel his brother, “Let us go out to the field.”[b] And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. 9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. 

Who Are You To Me?

Do we ever stop and take inventory of those who dehumanize? 

The employee working the drive thru? The clerk running customer service? The person online in the comment section? The beautiful figure on the screen or that we pass on the street? Our employee, our next-door neighbor, our family member?

Perhaps with the civil unrest and politically tumultuous times we have been living in for this past year and a half it might seem obvious that we do in fact have a problem belittling our neighbor, though I wonder if we are cognizant of how we do this in ways that do not put things into the category of “us versus them”. We dehumanize one another in far more ways than simply categorizing people based on beliefs. 

We dehumanize when we place expectations on others to provide us something. We dehumanize when people are utilities and servants when they provide us a service. We dehumanize when something stirs up our lust and we begin to see people as pieces of meat for our pleasure rather than human beings with a soul and a story. We dehumanize when we have a grievance for something someone else has done or for what they represent. We dehumanize when others enjoy certain pleasures and comforts which make them ignorant to our own plight.

It is interesting that the first story of “man making it on their own” is a story of dehumanization. Cain and Abel are brothers, and we can perhaps call them “the first men” due to these being the first two people we know that have been humanly birthed. It is tragic that these first men find themselves not in harmony or experiencing gratitude and peace for each other’s well-being, but rather that the relationship is severed by the passions, by jealousy, by one steward of the earth becoming indignant that the other steward has a better lot.

Jealousy is a problem for us today, but it is not the only dynamic that leads us to treating our fellow human being as sub-human. As we touched in before, lust also diminshes the value and dignity of the other by the misuse of our eyes and imagination. Impatience quickly leads us to call employees as incompetent, to see that person totally as a product that can be reviewed or recalled should it not perform. We can even dehumanize others in a way we might see positive, viewing someone else as a savior or idolizing someone we love, piling upon them praise and responsibility for ourselves which can feed into an over-functioning/under-functioning dynamic.

The point is, it is a true struggle to see people as…people! To see the other as human, with a story, with much in common with ourselves. 

The Oldest Temptation

In the story of Cain and Abel, God foresees Cain’s unawareness of his dehumanizing his brother and warns him, “sin is crouching at the door”. The word “crouching” not only implies that these feelings are often predatory, but that they are elusive and require a great deal of attention in order to defend against. I don’t believe we overtly dehumanize one another, but rather it is our “neediness” that often compels us to see our neighbor as “means” or “resources” to these needs instead of actual people. 

Cain’s need was confidence, with acceptance. His brother perhaps wasn’t the outlet for finding it, but he was an obstacle for Cain feeling at peace with his own circumstances. Cain believed he could meet his need of confidence by eliminating the competition, by no longer seeing his comparison, by showing Abel up even by showing he was craftier and mightier to murder him. And yet Cain does not strike any of us as a satisfied person after this deed…he is overwhelmed, embarrassed, and forlorn.

So what would it look like if we were mindful of these needs and impulses? How could we recognize in the moment that we find ourselves looking at someone with “a certain set of eyes” whether those eyes be angry, envious, lustful, or doting? What possible safeguard could we employ so that we do truly see each other as people, and perhaps more than that, to see the divine spark within one another, for Christ tells us that as we “do unto the least of these my brethren, you did unto Me”. 

Eyes to see humanity and divinity

So how do we see the human in the other AND the divine in the other?

To begin, I believe it starts with a kind of mantra, a kind of practice of forced thought that helps steers us from some of these destructive viewpoints.
What I have personally begun adopting is a question I ask in my head when I see someone new: “Who are you to me?” It’s purposefully not a question too unlike from Cain’s: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The answer to Cain’s question is yes, and the answer to my question requires some more work on my end. Each person we see, walk past, interact with, is our brother, our sister. Without making our fellow stranger diminutive to us, we could even go so far as to say, “I am responsible for you” which is to say that we are each called to serve each other’s needs, to not be stumbling blocks to others, to show THEM the divine spark within us so that they may cultivate the divine spark within them!

Related to this, we need to grow in fostering eyes that see the divine spark. Attention requires effort, and so it will require extra work for us to concentrate to see a person, past their facade, past the caricature that we and others put up for them, past the utility we imagine them to be, in order to see this divine spark. The first step towards this is slowing down, perhaps even starting at the basics of being able to look for and list in our heads the commonalities we share with them, or something we admire about them or their appearance. This first step of positive regard helps us towards this cosmic leap of seeing or brothers and sister in the proper lens, untinted by the fog of our perceptions and bias, but with an x-ray like focus so that we can see and appreciate the image and likeness they bear of our common Creator and God.

Lastly, we need to get curious. I know a previous reflection was rather scathing to the notion of curiosity, but there is such a thing as a healthy curiosity. This kind of curiosity is one that does not see someone else as a list of facts or a utility, but as a living human document of wisdom, of a divine narrative. Do we ask a stranger’s name merely to avoid embarrassment of not knowing what to call them, or do we crave this information so that we may move towards communion with them? Do we merely ask where they are from to be able to talk about our own birthplace, or can we find some energy in hearing of their life’s journey. And, most importantly, we must break down any assumptions or “givens” we might unconsciously place on that individual–by doing so, we’ll find out how little we really know of our neighbor.

Cain could not become curious of his brother; he had already written some assumptions of him.

Cain could not see the image and likeness of God within Abel, because he couldn’t even identify the man as his brother, but rather as his competitor.

Cain, by word and action, forsook any responsibility for his fellow man, his closest kin. Cain became nothing to him, and Abel nothing but an impediment to a false sense of security and acceptance.

Envy might not be the sin that plagues us all in the same way, though this story speaks to the arcane temptation we all have to make “less than” our neighbor, to belittle the other because of our own circumstances. Instead of resentment, debasement, or idolizing our brothers and sisters, can we not begin to wonder what our responsibility is towards one another? 

Can we not become each other’s keeper?

Today, consider the following:

  • Who is someone that I dehumanize? Someone I objectify? Someone I deify? Someone I have trouble getting to know?
  • What are five things I have in common with each aforementioned person?
  • What responsibility do I have for each aforementioned person?
  • What sentence, what principle, what reminder, what form of accountability can I put into place right now so that I can move towards seeing not only the human in my neighbor, but the divine?

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