By Jim Perkinson, a sermon for Land Sunday, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church (Detroit, MI)
The word for today is “woe.” Woe, woe, woe, woe, woe, woe! The potency of a cry! It is the season of the sob—the wail of grief, the howl of anger, the warning of danger! But we live in a society that is illiterate in the language of lamentation. Neither the tears of mourning nor the rage of wounding is acceptable in the halls of power or the decorum of wealth. Lose a spouse or child to disease? We give three days off from work. Then you better be fully functional and productive again, not talk of the agony, not exhibit the melancholy. Go private with the pain; pretend in public. Lose a spouse or child to violence—it is the same. Lose entire families and communities to violence—like generation after generation of black folk up against the nooses and walls, choke-holds and policies, traffic stops and bullet barrages of white folk? Swallow hard and invisibly, smile politely and submissively, and re-assume “the position.” Dare arch an eyebrow? Your funeral is next. March in the streets? Now we really uncover the history and reality of the country. Out come the labels, the AKs, the white-sheet posses (now dressed Hawaiian or khaki), the full metal jacket riot squads hot-to-trot, itching-to-swat, backed by bellicosities Fox and Hannity, Carlson profanity, Barr absurdity and the sheer inanity of an Orange-headed contempt for fact and truth and reasonable conversation.
It is the season of outcry and lamentation full in the face of obscenity and consternation. But let’s at least sketch an outline in the smoke.
We have a visitation, speaking without a word. A “Crown” Virus, a “Prince” Microbe. Leaping across the gap between bat and barrio, between pangolin prisoners in wet-market prices and clueless crowds stomping for their next commodity-fix. And I am not speaking of Chinese offenders, but of all of us no longer living indigenous, social-media stupefied and Netflix flummoxed and utterly dependent on industrialization and plastic, killing a planet with our lack of skill and reliance on plunder. I am speaking to me.
A virus has appeared—without appearing! A being so small, we know not whether the wiggly-one is even living, a minutiae serving notice: in case we hadn’t taken cognizance, we live in a world where a dwarf can upend a giant. A nano-particle can take out a global economy. But the virus is not the enemy. It is a messenger. And the message is simple. We are crowding out everyone else on the planet to the tune of 200 extinctions per day. We have taken too much. Probably we have become too many. We want too wantonly. It behooves that we understand—at least a little bit. The prime movers of this planet are single-celled microbes—ancestors of every thing living: here longer, dwelling more robustly, adjusting more flexibly than any other being yet conceived in the Earth-Mother Belly. We call most of them bacteria.
And their companion innovators, their Co-Creator incubators, are these tiny RNA-voyeurs, trading code for genes, switching up the mix, hatching diversity, making prolixity possible, the original multi-cultural artists par excellence. This “microbiome” as it is called in scientific pomposity, is the primary communication going on for the last 3 billion years on this now blue marble (and it would not have been blue without them)—a continuous cacophony of tweets, constantly adapting the entire ensemble of living being to its constantly proliferating novelty. Viruses find their prime directive in the situation of stress, emerging en masse when the going gets tough, to figure out a new road forward. And I confess, I am quite intimate with them, given that some 380 trillion ride in this aging bone-bag called my body. I am a minority in my own flesh! And so are you!
But how grapple with their message now? The message is a three-fold revelation that intersects precisely with the biblical pronunciations we find in today’s texts for the Season of Creation.
Imagine the biblical tradition as a landscape stretching across time—from the Hebrew Genesis of Beginnings to John’s Apocalypse of the End. Hovering over the entire expanse is a Ghostly Figure, never-speaking, whose body-parts nonetheless cry out continually. This is Abel, the Haunt of the Bible. The original “Holy Ghost.” He gets a tiny bit of press in the opening as we already heard in the reading this morning (Gen 4:1-12). He shows again, when Jesus is pontificating about his mission, refusing to give a sign, except that of Jonah, reconfigured for the time of the messiah (Mt 12:38-42; Lk 11:29-32). Jonah spoke from the belly of the fish; Jesus will bellow from the belly of the Earth. But here is deep mystery.
We would only have to read just a few verses further on in Luke’s version of this Jonah invocation to discover something curious. When cornered by the Powers about his vitriol and message, Jesus speaks ancestors; he recites the prophetic line he is following (Lk 11:45-52; Mt 23:29-39). And at its head—as the very first Voice he heeds—is Abel. He will claim to channel the dead brother of Cain, killed in a field with nary a word coming from his lips. Jesus’ mentor in combative speech . . . is a figure silenced. But what leaks into the unspoken frequency anyway? A beat of blood! A wail of what is spilled! And the Hebrew is remarkable.
What falls from Abel’s veins is actually multiple—a Life Force that puddles with offspring and issue. It is “bloods” in the plural (perhaps somewhat like Spike Lee’s recent release, “Da 5 Bloods”) that bewail. But there is more, the actual sound echoes “from” the ground, described throughout the text as a “She,” a Female Entity who opens Her mouth to both drink and speak. What She speaks is curse. And here we go deep. Cain is cursed from the ground. This is a first.
To back track a moment: Once Eve and Adam had opted out of limitation in the Garden, decided that all the trees should be theirs to harvest and feast, broken the taboo, refused the boundary, exceeded the reciprocity, ruptured the symbiosis and mutuality, the modality of curse began to haunt our flesh. The first potent “woe” in this Hebrew myth of origins, has no subject; it simply materializes and falls on the serpent among other animals of the field, and throbs with particular consequence “between.” In the Hebrew this latter is a curious construction, spoken, from God to snake, as an “enmity” put literally “between you, and between the woman, and between the offspring of you and between the offspring of the woman.” Between, between, between, between!—four times! This is arguably rupture, but not yet hierarchy—a breakup occurring on a still level playing field. An enmity inside an on-going mutuality.
Thus in sum: The first curse in history comes from somewhere—we are not told where—and falls on the ground-crawling snake—creating serpentine/human separation—and on the ground Herself, which bears it, seemingly for Adam especially, who will now have to “labor,” with toil, the Soil-Mother (again in the text a very clear “She,” not an “It”) into plant fruitfulness. So far the curse identified, hits snake and soil not Adam or Eve, though it has consequences for both of the latter, in terms of “hard labor” in harvest and birth. Animal and ground bear the burden as “elders,” it seems, for the recalcitrant humans.
Then enter Cain and Abel. The first is farmer, the latter herder. The farmer kills the herder. And now we need to step out of the myth and into some of the actual history we know. In the big picture, farming was first innovated—as far as we are aware—in the Middle East. Coming out of a mini-Ice Age called the Younger Dryas about 9,600 BCE, humans for the first time, stopped living by typically quite sustainable hunting and gathering, and began for the first time to cultivate a partnership with plants that we now call “agriculture.” Interestingly, the very first such symbiotic “ally-ship” was apparently with trees—olive, fig, palm, date—on the part of an eastern Mediterranean people we call the Natufians. And it may be this early “tree-human” collaboration that the Garden of Eden tale “remembers.”
But in short order, the impulse focused on wheat and re-engineering fields to grow crops. Agriculture is patently coercive—making wild nature do something She otherwise never will do—grow one staple plant to the exclusion of all others. Farming requires a vegetable holocaust save for the one staple—wheat, barley, oats, rice, millet, corn—a given human population wants to commandeer. It begins a project of domestication in history that first entails “taming” plants, and because such is hard work, quickly develops into taming animals—especially goats, cows, sheep, pigs—that can help with taming the plants. For roughly 4,000 years, this domesticating enterprise was pursued only small scale, by human populations that continued to engage in some hunting and gathering and live largely within the bounds of a rough reciprocity. But around 3,200 BCE, for reasons that remain mysterious, we crossed a Rubicon.
The first city-state regimes came into existence, coercively rounding up small subsistence farming communities into larger mono-cropping enterprises, in which most of the population also began to be domesticated and forced to work long hours, under the duress of imposed debt, to produce surplus for ruling class elites, presiding over the city-centers. The history is complex but suffice it here to note that this is the real advent of oppression as it is, indeed, also of domination and disease—crowded urban quarters giving opportunity for zoonotic infections to cross over from domesticated animals to enslaved humans. And the dismal situation of such urban coercion for most of the laboring population also gave rise to the first resistance movements—especially on the part of pastoralist members of those communities who could take their herd animals out to pasture and not come back. These renegade fugitives of city settlements became free-roaming pastoral nomads, recovering more sustainable relationship with grassland ecosystems, outside the orbit and control of city-states. And as feral-going steppe nomads, these freedom-loving bands stood as living rebuke to monocropping enterprises under urban elites, who were constantly aggressing on autonomous peoples and territories, seeking new slave recruits.
And this then is the backdrop to the Abel and Cain encounter, where the former’s offering is acceptable to God as typically signifying a more equitable and reciprocal pact while Cain’s monocrop surplus is tainted by agriculture’s excesses and oppression and land-destruction. So, yes, as emblem of the on-going history of violence between these two different lifeways, Cain kills Abel. And the latter’s “bloods” combine with the soil’s own agency to articulate an execration. Abel’s cry marks the advent of prophecy. And mobilizes a third moment of curse. But this time, the curse has a subject and a vector. Cain is cursed from the soil—and this, arguably, in two senses! It is the Earth Herself who Voices this unwanted taste of blood. And it launches Cain away from the ground as either claim or home. He is destined in the text to wander east and build a city, erect a shrine and tower, beginning to put infrastructure and distance between ground and human. Of course!
So thus we have it. City-state systems killing off pastoral nomad renegades, who try to exit the oppression and return to more indigenous land-relations and gift-economy sustainability. This Cry indeed hovers over history like a Ghost, like a shimmering Wraith of Witness, barely discerned, until given vocal bombast and incarnate movement in prophetic risk-taking and resolve. It is the sum and substance of much that follows in the tradition, whether in the form of Abraham going out from urban Harran with his herds and tents, or Moses leading the clans away from Egypt-chains and enslavement into four-footed re-instatement in the desert; Elijah the Prophet going east bank and weather-mongering as a horse-nomad protector of Israel, or John the Baptist seeking Bedouin-council and camel-wisdom in his day.
And Jesus himself will pick up the ground-buzz, name the Abel-Specter as Spirit-Father; and mobilize the ancient curse-grenades of soil-violation against Jerusalem-oppression, as he marches his movement towards Temple-Occupation and the final showdown with the Powers. In the extra reading I already mentioned in Luke’s version of the Jonah admonition we would in fact find Jesus waxing bombastic with execration (Lk 11:37-52; see also Mt 23:13-36). He marshals a six-fold “woe” directed against the city tyranny that subtly recapitulates the original six-fold warning (in the ease of Garden Gathering) not to eat of the Taboo Tree (as indeed the six-fold promise-and-its-breaking, immediately after expulsion from Eden that She, the Soil, would yet bear sustenance even though domesticated and coerced in pre-state agriculture) (Lk 11:42, 43, 44, 46, 47, 52; Gen 2:17, 3:3, 5, 11, 17; 3:17, 18, 19;4:11, 12). And it is his nomenclature of predecessors—from earliest Abel to Zechariah of late—that also names the comeuppance. It is the blood of all the innocents (Mt 23:35) and all the prophets (Lk 11:50) shed from the foundation of the world that shall be required finally of “this generation.”
And suddenly we are at the end. Revelator John’s famous vision of the fall of Babylon goes straight to the point. In chapter 18 of his archetypal apocalypse of the “everywhere city,” the Patmos Seer gives roll-call litany of all the merchant materials gathered by oligarchic force and imperial fraud across the Earth—all the gold and silver and jewels and pearls and linen and silk and ivory and bronze and iron and marble and incense and spice and wine and oil and wheat and sheep and horses and chariots and yes, “slaves,” as the summary category for all of the humans but also everything else, ripped from place and made part of the instrumentality of the great overbearing city—all of this stuff will finally crumble and burn because “in the city was found the blood of prophets and saints, of all who have been slain on Earth” (Rev 18: 11-13, 24). And this climatic collapse is actually ritually triggered when an angel-messenger throws a great, presumably “wheat-grinding,” millstone—likely the earliest “advanced” technology enabling mono-cropping—into the sea. The final urban fall begins with a Divine Luddite-like repudiation of the tool.
And this is the final truth of “Abel the indigenous,” disappeared across an entire planet over the entire course of the epoch of agricultural monocropping and urban re-organization of the biosphere. For more than 5,000 years, elite imperial dynasties, embodying fallen angel Principalities in ever-proliferating urban bureaucracies, have disappeared those living with close-to-soil savvy and respect—stolen their lands, dug up their minerals, pirated their goods, enslaved their bodies, decimated their cultures. Likewise they have unleashed a continuous assault on biodiversity. But up inside the very walls and buildings, the weapons and technologies, the transport and tapestries and titillations—if you peek behind the veil, if you have x-ray eyes to see underneath the glitter and beyond the bauble and inside the commercial—there is blood that drips and soil that speaks. None of it is forgotten and all of it shimmers with vindication. And kicking off this “fall,” at the inception of the vision, before the angel skips the millstone across the ocean and the bricks begin to tumble, is a declamation that Babylon has already become the haunt of demons, the home of birds bearing retribution, the assertion of the advent of plague.
And so we come full circle. The plants and animals and birds and soils and even genes and microbes that our blood shares with all the “bloods” of the planet, are gift and community and kin, long colonized now, but not actually subdued. Abel as Jesus speaks from the mouth of the Earth. SARS-CoV-2 is part of the prophecy, ventriloquizing a biosphere. BLM chants the human slant, the long-standing pain of BIPOC suffering and disappearance. We will one day re-join all of them as Earth-Swallowed kin of stone and bacterium and water and land. But maybe, just maybe, even before that unavoidable eventuality, we can learn to listen to them as teachers and seers. That is our topic for next time.