Our reading from Genesis speaks to us about how the broken down relationships between God and humanity, between humans and other humans, and between humans and the land, are related.
Cain was a tiller of the ground. His brother Abel was a keeper of sheep. In the first part of Genesis 4, both brothers bring their offerings to God – Cain the produce from the ground, and Abel offerings from his stock. God is pleased with Abel’s offering but not with Cain’s. After this rejection, Cain murders his brother Abel on the ground which he is supposed to till, and defiles it with Abel’s blood. As a result, the ground rejects Cain – it will no longer yield produce. Cain understands that to be rejected from the land, on which he depends for his livelihood and well-being, is to be hidden from the face of God.
This story has similarities to the story of Cain and Abel’s parents, Adam and Eve, in Genesis 3. Because of their wrong-doing, Adam and Eve are ejected from the Garden of Eden, where they had lived in harmony with all creatures. They are alienated from the place that they had dwelt, and there is an enmity between them and other creatures. They are still required to till the ground outside the garden – a repetition of the creation story in Genesis 2, where the first human was put in the garden of Eden to “till it and keep it”. But now they will “toil” with a land that is “unco-operative”, producing thistles and thorns.
The stories of Cain and Abel and of Adam and Eve tell of how human wrong-doing and injustice relate to separation from God and alienation from the land, and how this is repeated down through the generations. The stories speak to us keenly today, especially in Australia.
Last year I read a wonderful book called “Soil and Soul” by a Scottish Quaker called Alistair McIntosh, who was involved in a number of land rights-related struggles in the Hebrides. Something which has stayed with me is the historical story that he tells about the clearances of the Scottish Highlands and its repercussions down through the ages. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the landlords of the Scottish Highlands evicted many thousands of peasant farmers to make way for sheep farming. These people were forced unto barren and unproductive on the coast, to the Scottish lowlands, and abroad to the colonies. Indigenous people of Scotland, evicted and alienated from their land, made new lives for themselves in Canada, America and Australia. And as these places were colonised, the indigenous people were in turn evicted and alienated from the land.
In his book, Alistair McIntosh tells me about how a respected elder from the Mi’kMaq, a first nations people from Canada in an area in part settled by emigrants from the Highlands, comes across to Scotland to help a Hebridean community prevent the development of a super-quarry on their island. In the closing part of the book, Alistair McIntosh tells of how this particular elder at a later time was put on trial for abusing children in his community. The elder pleaded guilty to these charges. It is a story of those to whom wrong is done themselves becoming wrongdoers, down through the generations.
There are parallels to this story in many a colonised land, I think, including in Australia. One of the messages that I got from reading the book was that to properly “till and keep” this land Australia also requires healing or reconciliation between and among the first nations peoples of this land and those who have come here since.
Eve and Adam and Cain experience the repercussions of their sins. But this was not the end. God continues to care for them. God provided clothes for Eve and Adam, and Cain, although a fugitive from his land, was protected by the mark of God.
As Christians, we believe that the will of God is not an endless cycle of sin, injustice, and alienation from the land. We believe that in Christ, God reconciles all things to Gods self – people and the whole the creation. Our mission as a church is to take part in this reconciliation. The Church’s call is not to just serve the coming reconciliation, the restoration of relationship, between individual people and God. It includes the restoration of broken down relationships between people. It also includes the restoration of relationships between people and the earth.
How do we learn to build a sense of connection with the land in which we live? How do we be reconciled with our environment? How do we be reconciled with each other?