Judgment With Grace for a Mass Murderer

I'm still reading Mission at Nuremberg by Tim Townsend. It follows Army Chaplains Gerecke and O'Connor as they minister to the major Nazi war criminals on trial at Nuremberg after World War II. I'm about 250 pages in, and so far it has described each chaplain's trek to enstationment at Nuremberg, as well as each criminal's activities to warrant his position in a cell on the first floor of the Palace of Justice. The trials have been examined in brief, as well as the criminals' past and present relations to Hitler, the Nazi Party, and their own families. The verdicts and sentences have been given, with major prison stints and 11 orders of "death by hanging" in the midst. And now Townsend talks a little theology, particularly having to do with the Brand of Cain from Genesis 4.

Photo: Anonymous. A detail from the "Ghent Altarpiece" by Jan van Eyck, 1432.

Following is an excerpt:
            “The [writer in Genesis 4] brings murder into the primeval history pretty quickly, and things go badly for people from there onward. Cain is a farmer who is jealous of God’s preference for his brother Abel [a shepherd] because Abel can afford to offer ‘the fat portions’ of his first-born sheep in sacrifice to God. Cain, on the other hand, can only offer ‘the fruits of the ground’ [vegetables]. Though God warns Cain not to give in to his anger over this slight, Cain can’t help himself, and so he takes Abel into the field and kills him. In return, God banishes Cain from his own land to wander the earth, but he marks Cain to protect him from those who might avenge Abel’s murder. Anyone who takes Cain’s life, God says, ‘will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.’
            “…[The writer] wanted to connect the history to the lives of his audience. In [his] eyes, every human being is Cain and Abel, and committing sin is a universal human flaw. Cain was capable of overcoming sin, and yet he didn’t just choose, of his own free will, to sin.
            “‘The logic of sin proves stronger than the injunction to do good,’ writes theologian Miroslav Volf. ‘This is exactly what we should expect, for the logic of sin was originally designed for the very purpose of overcoming the obligation to do good.’ Committing a sin is not just making a wrong choice, but rather it is succumbing ‘to an evil power’. Before he killed Abel, Cain had the ability to conquer sin or be conquered by it. He murdered his brother, according to Volf ‘because he fell prey to what he refused to master’.
            “Volf, one of the world’s preeminent thinkers on the Christian theology of reconciliation and forgiveness, has pointed out that traditional mythology often tells stories from the perspective of the perpetrator so as to legitimize the sinner’s actions and render sympathy toward him. The story of Cain and Abel condemns Cain, and though the [writer] engenders sympathy for Abel, he twists tradition by making the story really about Cain, and by pointing the finger at his audience in doing so.
            “‘The story about a murderous “them” is a story about a murderous “us”,’ Volf writes. ‘Cain is “them” and Cain is “us”.’ The story’s great feat is that it combines ‘a clear judgment against the perpetrator with the commitment to protect him from the rage of the “innocent” victim.’ In the story, God questions Cain again and again, asking him, why are you angry? Why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? Where is your brother Abel? What have you done?
            “God’s constant questioning of Cain suggests a parental presence – God is someone who cares deeply about Cain’s actions and their consequences. God an Cain’s relationship makes God’s decision to banish Cain from His presence all the more poignant. And this is not an unfamiliar trope in the Bible. For instance, Jesus’ suffering on the cross didn’t tear His heart, Volf suggests, but rather it was the abandonment of everyone around Him, including His Father: ‘“My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”’
            “From God’s perspective, the story of Cain and Abel could not have gone worse – God loses both brothers to death and banishment. Yet, according to Volf, God’s mark of protection on Cain represents both armor to protect him from victimization as well as God’s grace. ‘The same God who did not regard Cain’s scanty offering, bestowed kindness upon the murderer whose life was in danger,’ Volf writes. God did not abandon Cain. He claimed Cain as His own by marking and protecting him, even as he sent Cain ‘away from the presence of the Lord.’”

Two things.

1) About the theology portrayed here concerning Cain and Abel and God's subsequent dealing with Cain (and, by proxy, all of sinful humanity)....

Cain sinned. And he didn't just tell a little white lie or snag a grape at the grocery store without paying for it. He murdered an innocent person.

Focusing on the emphasis in the excerpt that God banished Cain from His presence while still marking him as His own and promising him protection, I'd like to dwell for a minute on the significance of this act in light of the doctrine of eternal punishment. In fact, instead of offering answers here, let me just throw out a few questions.

          -   Why did God bother to protect Cain after he murdered his own brother in cold blood? Why not let him reap what he had sown - eye for an eye - karma? What obligation did God still feel to Cain in this story?
          -   I've heard many people pinpoint eternal separation from God as the crux of hell's torment. Between God sending Cain from His presence while not completely abandoning him, and the statement that "God loses both brothers to death and banishment," including righteous Abel, there seems to be something in the mix here hinting that separation from God is not irredeemable, even for Cain.
          -   I consider myself a progressive Christian. I like a lot of the progressive Christian thought out there. But I have not yet come to completely reject the idea of substitutionary atonement. Or, at least, I think something happened when Christ died on the cross...something that helped determine our eternal destinies. Is it akin to the Brand of Cain? Though the sinfulness and evil of the world separate humanity from God, does the cross symbolize His promise of protection and grace? If so, is it for all - the Cains and the Abels - or just for the Abels, or those who in some way "accept the gift"?

2) About the practicality of ministering to mass murderers (or others whom most people would say surely have no place in the family or care of God)....

I still think about going into some sort of chaplaincy, like at a hospital or hospice. Pastoral care/counseling has been near and dear to my heart for several years now, and I always mentally apply situations to this role of ministry in my mind. So...if I were ministering to mass murderers, and even holding services for them like Gerecke and O'Connor did for Hitler's right-hand mob, what biblical comfort would I offer them?

          -   Obviously, the above rendition of Cain and Abel seems to fit the bill very nicely.
          -   Perhaps the "cities of refuge" in Exodus 21:12-14. (These were for refuge for unintentional murderers, but it could be, and indeed was, argued that many of the defendants at Nuremberg acted on military orders, believing, however misguidedly, that Jewish extermination was necessary to preserve the posterity of the German people.)
          -   And the most applicable example in Scripture that comes to my mind is that of the Apostle Paul, who in his zeal to honor God relentlessly persecuted and slaughtered Christians until Christ met him on the road and changed his heart. He seems to be a prime example that a murderer can both show remorse and be rehabilitated.

What are your thoughts?


  1. Rehabilitation or Redemption? This is a thoughtful post and it leaves me with more questions than answers. And I will be mulling this post over for some time I believe. Thank you for the challenge friend.


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