Sense and Nonsense: Ken and Abel

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In And the Beagles and the Bunnies Shall Lie Down together, we see little Sally busily writing, head down, almost on the notebook. Charlie Brown is looking at her, as he does at all women, with some perplexity.

“I have to do a paper for school on Ken and Abel,” she explains to her brother. She straightens out with a big book in her hands, thumbing the pages. She tells Charlie earnestly, “I’ve been looking through the Old Testament and I’ve found Abel, but I can’t find Ken.” Charlie looks straight ahead with a sort of dazed look on his face. Then she asks him sprightly enough, “Do you think I am using the wrong translation?” In the final scene, Sally continues to comb the Bible diligently for this “Ken.” Charlie, still looking ahead but with the shadow of genuine consternation creeping across his face, mutters, “I never know what to say.”

In the First or Roman Canon of the Mass, we ask the Lord to “look upon these gifts as once you looked on the gift of your servant Abel.” The drama of sin after the Fall of Adam and Eve, its surprisingly quick appearance, began with what seems at first sight to be a most innocuous incident. In it, the two brothers, first sons of Adam and Eve, both dutifully offer a sacrificial gift to the Lord. Cain is evidently a farmer, while Abel is a shepherd. The Lord accepts the gift of Abel, presumably a lamb, but not of Cain, presumably sheaves of grain. This seemingly minor incident, however, is fraught with profound moral consequences all out of proportion to what, at first sight, appears to be warranted.

With a class of mine I have been reading the Fifteenth Book of Augustine’s City of God. Likewise, I have been reading the Holy Father’s new encyclical, Evangelium vitae. Now it so happens that both sources examine the account of Cain and Abel in the Book of Genesis. Unlike Charlie Brown, St. Augustine and John Paul II both do know what to say about these famous brothers.


As I reread the account in Augustine and reflected on why John Paul II would choose this story at the very beginning of his discussion of human life in the modern world, I realized that I had never really reflected on murder and the central position that it plays in civilizational theory and in understanding the dire depths of the human condition. So much of modern thought has to do with the promise of bringing civil peace on earth by political or economic means that we tend to forget that at the heart of murder we find something very surprising: we find envy, not need or pleasure. We live in a culture that the Holy Father describes as a “culture of death.” Among us murders have become common, both murders that we recognize to be murders and those killings we like to call something else—compassion for women or alleviation of suffering.

In his account of Cain’s killing of Abel, the Holy Father remarks that we are given no reason why God chooses Abel’s sacrifice or gift over Cain’s. So when at Mass we ask that we be chosen as the Lord once chose the gift of His servant Abel, we involve ourselves in a very deep mystery.

What is perplexing about the killing of Abel is Cain’s given motivation. Cain is annoyed only after the Lord rejects his gift. But why should he be annoyed? Is the fact that the Lord chose Abel’s gift necessarily a sign that there was something wrong with Cain’s gift, or with Cain himself? Apparently not. God can choose as He pleases. His choice is not a rejection of the other gift. But we can choose to see it that way, as evidently Cain did. Thus, the origin of Cain’s envy lies in an implicit misinterpretation of God’s choice. That is, if the Lord chooses John to do something, what is that to Peter? It is not a sign that the Lord does not love Peter.

When the Lord sees that Cain is angry, He asks him “why so”? And the Lord continues, “If you do well, you are accepted; if not, sin is a demon crouching at the door; it shall be eager for you, and you will be mastered by it.” Evidently Cain is not impressed by this analysis. Cain immediately invites his brother to the “open fields” where he kills him.

When the Lord subsequently accosts Cain with an inquiry into his brother’s whereabouts, Cain answers with a philosophical question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” We often use philosophy to cover our moral failings. Indeed, much philosophy is invented for that very reason. But evidently the Lord also is a good philosopher and a good observer. He knows that Cain is lying.

After Cain has given Him his philosophic premise about not being the keeper of one’s brother—the opposite of which the whole of revelation affirms—the Lord asks Cain, “what have you done?” Why does He ask this question? The Holy Father reflects on this very point: “h is almost like an invitation addressed to Cain to go beyond the material dimension of his murderous gesture in order to recognize in it all the gravity of the motives which occasioned it and the consequences which result from it.” That is to say, that the philosophy of Cain—we are responsible only for ourselves—is to be examined by Cain himself.

Cain envied what was good, even what was good in himself. In wandering the earth, in founding a city, Cain was invited to acknowledge that Abel was to be kept because he was good and loveable.

We must begin, where Cain did, responding brashly to the Lord with a philosophical premise about freedom that we know is wrong and does not justify the blood on our hands. We ought, as did little Sally, to give some attention to “Ken and Abel” in the Old Testament, to the initial fratricide, to see if our translation corresponds to that of the “the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel.”

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books including The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His later books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His last books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017); The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018); Run That By Me Again (Tan, 2018) and The Reason for the Season (Sophia Institute Press, 2018).