By Tommy Airey, a seven-minute sermon (if you are speed-reading)
*Dedicated to Dr. James Perkinson who paradigm-shifted my reading of the Abel story. For more, check out Perkinson’s Messianism Against Christology: Resistance Movements, Folk Art, and Empire (2013)
Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground.—Genesis 4:2b
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!—Genesis 4:8-10
As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.—Mark 6:34
“I’m more than ever of the opinion that a decent human existence is possible today only on the fringes of society, where one then runs the risk of starving or being stoned to death. In these circumstances, a sense of humor is a great help.”—Hannah Arendt
In the ancient world, shepherds tended their flocks on the edge of civilization, on the borderlands, straddling two cultures with the side-eyed and sidelined. Shepherds resisted mass migration to cities, built with resources extracted from somewhere else. What we called “civilization” was sculpted by strong men exploiting the masses. Shepherds were not part of this program. They stayed nomadic, foraging for food, going wherever the grass was growing. Shepherds were dirty people. Outcasts. Their testimony was not trusted in court.
Abel is the first shepherd who shows up in the bible. He exited the populated city with his flocks, living on wilderness land beyond the reach of his imperial boss. His lifestyle found divine favor. No wonder God appeared to the shepherds first with the good news of the birth of an anti-Caesar, the real savior and lord of the people. No wonder some of the first followers of Jesus called him the good shepherd, a forager for outside-the-box, outside-the-empire alternatives that truly meet the needs of peasant people.
Abel the good shepherd was slaughtered by Cain the settler colonialist. This is the core issue of human history. There are shepherds and there are settlers. Shepherds are Indigenous peoples. Settlers are what the Sioux call Wasichu, the ones who take the fat. The shepherds are those, like Abel, who get slaughtered, steamrolled, siphoned off. The settlers script supremacy stories that sanctify their quest to take take take take take take take and take some more. Settlers believe that they can take from others because they belong to a special race, religion, nation, family, class, gender.
The shed blood of shepherd Abel cries out to the God of the groan. Cain is spared, but he is consigned to a wandering existence. God placed a mark upon him so that everyone would recognize him. I believe that this mark was whiteness itself. White skin: the ultimate warning flag. This does not mean white people suck. It means that most white people are stuck in Cain mode. We have inherited a Wasichu worldview of taking. We solve problems with violence, war and genocide at the state level; with ghosting, gaslighting and passive-aggressive comments on the interpersonal level. Cain became a “settler,” trampling other people’s land wherever he wandered. Like a typical Wasichu, Cain the fugitive demanded privilege and protection. Sure, the people east of Eden didn’t kill him. But they didn’t trust him either.
Free-range Abel, an ancient pastoral nomad whose Hebrew name means “mist,” was vaporized by civilization. But, lo and behold, the bible later says that the mist rises and still speaks! When Jesus rolls on the scene, he indicts powerful elites who have persecuted the prophets, all the way back to “the blood of innocent Abel.” Abel is named as a prophet, as one who resisted the injustice of “normal life.” While critiquing ruling elites, Jesus peered out over the peasant crowds and had compassion for them because they were sheep without a shepherd. They were collateral damage of “progress.” They have been led astray by individual influencers invested in institutions that do not protect the people and professional religionists perpetuating their own legacy projects.
Jesus calls himself “the good shepherd”—but he prefers to be called “son of man.” Not rabbi, lord, master, messiah, son of God or king. The son of man title comes from the prophet Ezekiel who laments Israel’s abysmal leadership, comparing them to bad shepherds who do not feed the sheep, but instead slaughter them so they can eat the fat and clothe themselves with the wool. In Hebrew, son of man is kibor enosh. In Genesis, Enosh is the son of Seth, God’s replacement for Abel. As the kibor enosh, Jesus is intentionally rooting himself in the prophetic tradition of Abel.
Jesus sides with the protect-and-serve shepherds, not the city-builders and fat-takers. Jesus beckons humanity back to the beginning when we were all village people, living sustainably and reverently with the more-than-human world. Back to the beginning when our deep ancestors foraged on the basis of need, not greed. “Living simply,” the late bell hooks once wrote, “makes loving simple.” The original sin of humanity, starting some 10,000 years ago, was civilization. We fled from foraging to take the fat.
Jesus did not come so that his disciples can go to heaven when they die. Jesus called on people to repent, to switch sides, to join up with the Abel tradition, the shepherd strand of spirituality. We have a choice: side with the shepherds or side with the settlers. If you want social respectability and at least the perception of safety and security, stick with the settlers. If you want soul strength, if you want to know the spiritual secrets, if you want to know the truth and learn what love is, break rank with the settlers and breathe with the shepherds.
Jesus challenges us to repent and spend the rest of our lives on this Abel path, in this process, just trying to make sense of the world through the eyes of the groaning ones who are chronically slaughtered. Indigenous peoples. Exploited immigrants. Black people. The historic resisters of civilization, living on the edge of society, scapegoated, demonized, appropriated, tokenized and/or schlepped aside by settler people. Breaking rank will not be easy, but we know, deep down, that nothing worth it is ever easy.
I read a brilliant book by Johari Jabir last year called Conjuring Freedom. It is a case study of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, an all-Black unit who fought for the Union Army during the Civil War. Conjuring is a uniquely Black cultural practice used to transform reality through a magical power that brings healing. Jabir’s thesis is that the regiment conjured a “cosmic vision of freedom”—not by rejecting the government, military, masculinity and religion, but instead in the creative work of what Jabir calls “repositioning and resignifying” these institutions.
The 1st South Carolina Volunteers lived on the borderlands, between worlds. In order to survive in a white supremacist society, Black Americans—the good shepherds, the kibor enosh, the sons of Abel—have always had to embrace a posture of both/and instead of either/or. The opposite of purity and perfection, this messy process has allowed them to envision and enact new understandings of freedom—not only for themselves, but for American society as a whole.
Jabir tells stories of covert acts of resistance from enslaved people. They would “frolic” in the woods at night instead of getting a good night sleep—so they would be less productive the next day. They got “lost” in the woods during the day so as to delay work. They “accidentally” broke tools. They attempted to run away, not on a horse, but with a bridle—as if looking for the horse. This dignified disobedience “turned the toxic into the tonic,” as Jabir puts it. If we want to learn how to break rank with a violent, unsustainable society scripted by supremacy stories, we can shift our attention to what Black people have been doing for the past five hundred years.
Like Abel the shepherd and the Black woman Hagar, Black faith embraces the wilderness as a place of protection, where God makes a way out of no way. This path is punctuated by maroons who ran away from plantations to live off the land, in caves with a village of a few dozen fellow former slaves and Indigenous people. A colony of Abels on the edge of society. “I felt safer among the alligators,” proclaimed 19th century maroon Tom Wilson, “than among the white men.” We must become maroons too because, as theologian Willie Jennings proposes, civilization is one giant plantation, training good settler-citizens to possess, control and master their world.
The Jesus tradition is fully rooted in Abel’s posture and practice, on the fringes of conventional wisdom, on the fringes of imperial society, on the fringes of the institutions addicted to excluding, exploiting and extracting. What might it mean to join Jesus and Abel in the wilderness, on the borderlands? I believe that this kind of spirituality consists of creating what Jesus called “new wineskins” to hold what intoxicates our souls, to recover what our deep ancestors lost a long time ago when their villages were colonized by empires. They became “civilized.”
Abel faith, prophetic faith, maroon faith, conjuring faith, does not mean that we sell everything, say goodbye and go live off the grid. It’s harder than that. The goal is repositioning and resignifying the institutions that organize our lives. We take the old wineskins of family, faith, career, education, investment, retirement and politics and transform them into new wineskins that hold what the old wineskins cannot: intimacy, community and justice. This kind of conjuring is cultivated by calling bullshit, making cuts, saying “no” and taking cues from blessed ones on the borderlands who have been turning the toxic into tonic for a long, long time.
In this shepherd vocation we are not alone. Abel and Jesus are our ancestors, leading a great cloud of witnesses beyond the grave. The book of Hebrews says that our spiritual ancestors were stoned to death, sawed in two, killed by the sword and wandered about destitute in the desert, in caves and holes in the ground wearing skins of sheep and goats. “Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised,” the text at the end of Hebrews 11 says, “since God had provided something better so that they would not, without us, be made whole again.” Something better than streets of gold in a disembodied heaven! Without us, those who have gone before cannot get healed! This is profound. How did I miss this perpetual, eternal paradigm? The work of collective liberation continues after we walk this earth in these bodies.
Our Christian legacy on earth is to continue the work of our spiritual ancestors, society’s shepherds, so that our biological ancestors can get free. I follow the wilderness way of Abel and Jesus, John Brown and Harriot Tubman, Fannie Lou Hamer and Viola Liuzzo, so that my grandparents Valentine Airey and Billie Brady and George Riese and Liz Griffith—and all those who came before—can get healed and freed from the ghosts that haunt them in the ancestral realm. It is mutual. All of these ancestors guide and support my life mission founded on faith and love. And this is the hope: that when my time is up, my nephews and nieces and godchildren will carry the torch of Abel too.
May we carry this word into our week and make it a reality. Amen.
Tommy Airey is a post-Evangelical pastor and the author of Descending Like a Dove: Adventures in Decolonizing Evangelical Christianity (2018). He is currently working on his second book Conspiracy: A Biblical Spirituality for Breaking Rank. In 2022, Tommy will be preaching a seven-minute sermon every other Sunday. Sermons will be posted to Easy Yolk.