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The Mark of Cain: Germany, Russia, America

The Hebrew Bible includes much that seems archaic and repulsive to modern sensibilities, especially its depiction of a fearsome and vengeful God. Yet if we are honest, much of it does reflect reality in disturbing ways. Take the famous Biblical tale of the world’s first murder. Cain and Abel are brothers, the first children in the world, sons of Adam and Eve themselves. Both men make sacrifices to God, but the Supreme Being only accepts Abel’s offering, and in a fit of jealous rage, Cain murders his brother, then insolently pretends not to know what happened to him (“Am I my brother’s keeper?”). God isn’t fooled, of course, and places a curse on Cain, who objects that now his own life will be in danger from everyone else (which takes some nerve on his part, and who is the “everyone else”? Never mind). So God places a brand on him. It’s divine protection and part of the divine curse, at one and the same time.

This myth raises so many questions, and not just the obvious logical ones skeptics love about where Cain and Abel got their wives, etc. For example, why would an omniscient, loving God accept Abel’s sacrifice and turn away Cain’s, knowing Cain’s personality and what the rejection would or at least might push him to do? Even if some smart-aleck theologian responds that God grants us free will, why would He place a fragile personality in such a position, not to mention wantonly endangering Abel’s life? There’s also a frightening implication here, that maybe the whole human race descends from Cain, the first murderer.

And then there’s this doozy of a question: Does the mark of Cain pass on to his descendants? After all, we are told later on, in the Book of Deuteronomy, that God punishes the descendants of those who hate Him “unto the third and the fourth generation.” But how can sin and punishment be passed on like that? Aren’t we each responsible only for our own good and bad deeds?

Yes, but we can only ask such questions in the abstract, as if we had no experience of life. Because all we have to do is glance around us to see the dismal truth that the evil men and women do poisons the lives of their children and grandchildren, who must struggle very hard indeed to overcome it, and often fail. Children who suffer abuse and neglect from their parents are likelier than others to abuse or neglect their own children, though they are certainly not doomed to do that. And the point seems to apply to nations, too: it may be true, as someone once said, that at the foundations of every modern nation, there is a mass of corpses, but some nations have much more blood on their hands than others. Polls in recent years have shown a healthy majority of Germans, a people that has done possibly more than any other in history to try to atone for their mass murder of six million Jews and God knows how many others, feel that they’ve now done enough and are tired of the collective guilt. I think of my first wife’s great-grandparents, shot dead in a ditch in Lithuania, and my second wife’s great grandfather, his son and daughter-in-law and their children, gassed at Auschwitz and their bodies incinerated so that no one could even mourn at their graves, and I think to myself, Tough luck, German people, you don’t erase the mark of Cain so easily. And they have, I repeat, done more than just about anybody else to try to repent for the unforgiveable. For example, in the early 1950s, West Germany paid reparations to the new state of Israel that were crucial in helping it survive its early years surrounded by hostile neighbors. (Accepting this “blood money” was extremely controversial in the new Jewish state, with opponents led by the future Prime Minister, Menachem Begin. It’s impossible not to sympathize. If you lost everyone in your family and even your whole town to mass murder, would you accept financial compensation?) And down to the present day, the German government works tirelessly to combat neo-Nazism and prosecutes those who display the swastika or engage in other prohibited speech. A near-absolutist on free speech like me is given pause, because so far from curtailing liberty, these measures are essential to the freedom and health of German society in the past generation, and have protected it well against the so-called populism gripping other democracies.

On the other hand, we have those nations that refuse even to admit their own historical guilt. Like Russia, say, and America. Enormous numbers of ethnic Russians and White Americans refuse to believe their countries ever committed any crimes, such as, in Russia’s case in the guise of the Soviet Union, killing some twenty million of its own empire’s citizens to bring about “Communism,” and, in America’s case, pushing Native Americans off their ancestral lands and killing them en masse, while enslaving and murdering millions of Africans and African Americans. Of course, none of today’s ethnic Russians and White Americans are individually responsible for these enormous atrocities, but by refusing even to inform themselves about them—indeed, laws in both countries aim to criminalize the teaching of true history, although Putin’s regime is more efficient about the ban for now—they only serve to confirm their collective guilt in the eyes of the world, and to pave the way to future atrocities such as Russia’s ongoing genocide in Ukraine. And as for reparations, such as Germany has paid? It’s a laughable idea, apparently. Better to walk around with a glaring scar on your forehead.

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