How can we not mention the war in Ukraine? On 24 February 2022, the Archbishop of Kiev and the whole of Ukraine, Onuphre, made an appeal referring to the story of Cain and Abel:
« Defending the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine, we address the President of Russia and ask him to stop the fratricidal war immediately.
The Ukrainian and Russian peoples have emerged from the baptismal font of the Dnieper, and the war between them is a repetition of the sin of Cain, who in jealousy killed his brother. Such a war is not justified either before God or man.1
The story of Cain and Abel comes to mind whenever violence breaks out.
Let us re-read this text which can give us some light in the present situation! In the course of this reading, I will highlight five mysteries.
The mystery of God’s choice
What provoked Cain’s violence against his brother?
This story begins with God deciding to favour Abel’s offering over Cain’s. (Genesis 4:4-5)
Why? The text does not say so explicitly: God accepts Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s, without giving a reason.
This is the first mystery of this text: the mystery of God’s choice (or election). God decides to favour whomever he wants. Faced with this mystery Paul cries out, referring to two other brothers, Jacob and Esau: « It was said to Rebekah, ‘The elder shall be subject to the younger, as it is written, ‘I have loved Jacob and hated Esau. What shall we say then? Is there any injustice in God? Not at all! For he said to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion‘ (Rom 9:1-152; cf. Ex 33:19).
The mystery of faith
The letter to the Hebrews says that it was because of his faith that Abel’s sacrifice was better than that of his brother Cain. It considers Abel as the first persecuted person to give his life out of faithfulness to God. (Heb 11:4)
We are referred here to a second mystery: the mystery of faith. (I Tim 3:16) Why does it inhabit the heart of Abel and not that of Cain?
The consequence of Cain’s closed heart towards God is that he « was very angry and his face was downcast » (Gen 4:5).
In Cain burns a violent hatred. A hatred that can even be seen on his face.
Perhaps this hatred comes from the lack of recognition that Cain experienced when his offering was not accepted.
Cain is a wounded man; he cannot control his pain caused by this lack of recognition. His vertical frustration (against God) produces in him horizontal violence (against his brother).
Lack of recognition leads to violence. We are all sick of this lack. That is why it is so important to recognize the contributions of our neighbors.
It takes a lot of faith and trust to overcome the pain of non-recognition. Faith that did not inhabit the heart of Cain, but that of Abel.2
Faith and guarding the heart
But God calls Cain to faith, to believe in the truth of what He is telling him. Faith is trusting the word God says. He warns him of the risk he runs in allowing himself to be won over by anger. He begs him to overcome sin: « Sin lurking at your door desires you. But you rule over it! Before it is too late, he would like to show him a solution.
It is a call to « guard your heart above all else, for from it flow the springs of life » (Prov. 4:23).
The Fathers of the Church called this the practice of « guarding the heart ». Evagrius, one of the Fathers of the Desert, said: « Be attentive to yourself, be the doorkeeper of your heart and do not let any thought enter it without questioning it. »
And John Damascene wrote in his « Discourse useful to the soul »: « Whether thoughts trouble us or not is part of the things that do not depend on us. But whether they remain in us or not, whether they arouse the passions or not, is part of what is in our power”.
Today, this is called « inner ecology« . If we must take care of nature, we must also be attentive to our soul. We will always be the theatre of sensations and thoughts, the question is: what do I do with them? Faced with a thought, » Jean-Guilhem Xerri reminds us, « man has several possibilities: to consent to it or not, to feed it or resist it.3
Yes, we must guard our hearts more than anything else, because it is in our hearts that wars or peace are born, as the preamble to the Constitution of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) proclaims: « since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed. 4
This sentence has taken on a striking topicality with the latest events in Ukraine!
In a recent message about the war in Ukraine, Russian theologian Michel Stavrou, Dean of the St Sergius Institute of Orthodox Theology in Paris, writes: « As Christians, we are called to bring this truth down into our hearts in order to avoid, as far as possible, fuelling the escalation of conflict and war. It is now up to us, fleeing from the deadly passions, to renounce the spirit of discord of the Prince of this world, and to pray to Christ our God for peace in communion with all the saints of Russia and Ukraine, with the hundreds of thousands of martyrs of the century20e who, following the example of the suffering saints Boris and Gleb, preferred to follow Christ – the Suffering Servant – and to offer their lives rather than to take the lives of others.
The mystery of iniquity
The Genesis account says that sin is like a beast « lurking at the door. The word « lurking » in Hebrew is robes: « ready to pounce on the passer-by like the demon rabisu among the Babylonians » (Genesis4,7 ).6
This verse does not speak so much of sin as an inner disposition, but rather as « an objective power that stands simultaneously outside of man and above him and longs to take hold of him; it must dominate him and keep him in bondage.7
Paul calls for the sun not to set on our anger (Eph. 4:26), for anger can open our hearts to the action of this beast lurking at its door. And, a little further on, he identifies this beast with the « maneuvers of the devil » against which we must protect ourselves by putting on the « armor of God« : truth, justice, peace, life in the Holy Spirit and the Word of God, unceasing prayer. (Eph 6:10-17).
Martin Luther wrote that ‘in political anger there is a trace of human nature…This rage is clearly a diabolical rage‘. 8
Is there a « diabolical rage » in the current war in Ukraine? I don’t doubt it. As in any war, in fact – there are 60 wars going on in the world today, many of them forgotten.9
War is diabolical in that it is irrational. It is ultimately a mystery that cannot be explained rationally…And this is the third mystery: “the mystery of iniquity” (2 Thess 2:7).
Let us remember that among the first Christians, there is no legitimization of « just war ». For John Chrysostom: « To wage war against one another…is to make room for the devil…for the devil never has so much room as in our enmities.
It is well known that war is the mother of human catastrophes and does not bring prosperity. So why allow us to be dragged into its downward spiral?
Antoine Nouis notes that war is a spiral that has been called the « Lucifer effect« :
« In situations of violence, there comes a time when individuals lose their ability to judge. If the Bible personifies evil under the name of Lucifer, it is to remind us that it has a power of fascination that can, at certain moments, take possession of the person. Since there is something diabolical in war, we must not try to make a pact with it, but to oppose it with a moral and spiritual ban.10
Lucifer is the master of the irrational and the absurd. In the Temptation of Saint Anthony, the holy man asks the devil what the reason is for all the attacks he suffers. The devil replies: « There is no reason« .
This response echoes what Jesus experienced when he was confronted with the hatred of his enemies. He quoted this word from a psalm: « They hated me without a cause » (Ps 35:7; John 15:25).
Hate blinds us and leads us into a vicious and irrational circle.
In the parable of the king who goes on a journey to be enthroned, « the people of his country hated him » and refused to let him rule over them (Luke 19:14). In these enemies we can see the authorities of Jesus’ time who were in league against him and who will be led away by « the power of darkness » (Luke 22:53), the beast lurking at their door.
What does the king in this parable do in the face of his enemies’ hatred? He orders: « As for my enemies who did not want me as their king, bring them here and execute them before me. (Luke 19,27). Enemies are slaughtered as in the vengeance and banning of certain Old Testament texts!
Does the king also allow himself to be dragged down by this beast of vengeance and resentment? How is it possible that Jesus identifies with such a king?
François Bovon sees here « an allegorical slip« . Justice is certainly the king’s business. But here it is reprisals and oppression that take over. A certain Christian triumphalism will not hesitate to justify them.11
To understand it properly, we need to read this parable in its context: it takes place just before Jesus enters Jerusalem. He is acclaimed as king. But he is a gentle and humble king riding on a colt. A king who would have the power to defeat his enemies with an army of angels, but who chooses to lay down his life in love and forgiveness to the end. He is the « king of the Jews« , as it is written on his cross, from where he prays: « Father, forgive them, they know not what they do« ! (Luke 23:34)
In his footsteps, we are called to make every effort to forgive or ask for forgiveness, to seek reconciliation with all, expelling from our hearts all resentment and desire for revenge.
The mystery of the refusal to repent
Yet God continues to be present in Cain’s life.
First, he calls out to him: « Where is your brother Abel« ?
To Adam, God had asked this question: « Where are you? But now God’s question is posed in terms of the social question of brotherhood: « Where is your brother?
Cain silences this question which gave him a chance to acknowledge his fault. He brazenly answers, « Am I my brother’s keeper« ? The keeper of a brother, who is the keeper of a flock!
Adam must guard the garden. Cain must guard his brother. He must also guard his heart. I cannot guard my brother if I do not keep my heart open to God… and closed to sin and the suggestions of the devil.
Here is another riddle: why was Cain unable to acknowledge his wrongs? Why this refusal to repent? Why this stifling of conscience?
Cain leads us to a fourth great mystery: that of the refusal to ask forgiveness of God and of our neighbor.
Even after God tells him that he will be a wanderer in this land (he will be a fugitive – Nad in Hebrew – in the land of Nod, the place of wandering and instability), Cain does not regret his deed, but he falls into sadness because of the severity of his punishment. He is sad but does not repent! This is a « sorrow according to the world that produces death » and not a « sorrow according to God that produces repentance that leads to salvation » (2 Cor 7:10).
A Jewish psychologist, Gustave Gilbert, had accompanied the great Nazi criminals after their conviction at the Nuremberg Tribunal, until their execution. He was struck by the fact that none of them finally repented of their terrible deeds.12
The mystery of God’s patience
And finally, here is the fifth mystery on which I would like to conclude. Cain goes away to live « far from the face of the Lord« , but God continues to love him. This is even, according to Von Rad, « the height of the mystery of this story« .13 In spite of Cain’s withdrawal and closure to love, God does not abandon him. He continues to be present in his life and puts a sign on him to protect him.
Despite all their transgressions, violence, and crimes for which they will be judged by the courts of men, Cain’s companions do not belong to themselves, but to God.
They remain creatures in his image. To God alone belongs the judgement of hearts and to the end he calls them to turn to him for forgiveness.
The story of Cain and Abel ultimately calls us to recognize God’s goodness and patience in not repeating Cain’s sin: to move from resentment to repentance and forgiveness, to live in gratitude: « Do you despise the riches of (God’s) goodness, patience and longsuffering, not recognizing that God’s goodness leads you to repentance”? (Rom 2:4).
A friend, Giovanni Gaïta, a Russian Orthodox priest, wrote from Moscow on 2 March: « Russians and Ukrainians are Orthodox, brothers in faith: their ancestors were baptized together in Kiev, called in Russian the ‘mother of Russian cities’. Next week marks the beginning of Lent for the Orthodox, a strong time, generally very felt by the faithful. The day before, this Sunday, will be « Forgiveness Sunday »: before entering Lent, every Orthodox believer asks for and grants forgiveness to all his brothers and sisters. Will we be able to stop the war before then”?14
Yes, let us pray that the Cain of today will turn to God and hear the universal call to brotherhood: « What have you done with your brother« !
During this Lenten season, let us pray for one another, that we too may hear this call and forgive one another!
« Adam, where are you?
« Cain, what have you done with your brother?
These two questions continue to resonate throughout history.
Today, Lord, you ask them again of everyone.
« Where are you?
How do I receive and live your Word?
How do I hear your voice in my consciousness?
Do I live in the open before you?
What have you done with your brother?
Do I practice justice, love, mercy, and walk in humility?
Do I refrain from judging my brother or sister and stand up for them?
Can I overcome the bitterness in the disappointment?
All these issues are so topical, Lord.
And you know perfectly well where I am and what I have done with my neighbor.
So I stand before you again this morning
and wishes to make myself transparent to you.
May I let your Spirit flow through me during this moment of silence
to receive your love and forgiveness!
2 It is interesting to read that it is also the perspective of the Qur’an that makes Abel the believer who refuses to use violence: « If you stretch out your hand to kill me, I will not stretch out my hand to kill you. Indeed, I fear God, the Lord of the worlds. (Surah 5:31)
3 Cf. Jean-Guilhem Xerri, Take care of your soul, Petit traité d’écologie intérieure, Cerf, Paris, 2018
6 Note from the Ecumenical Bible Translation on this verse (TOB)
 Gerhard Von Rad, La Genèse, Labor et Fides, Geneva, 1968, p. 102
 Martin Luther, W.A. XLII, 193
 Ukraine-Russie : des éléments théologiques pour penser la guerre. Réforme, 24.2.2022. https://www.reforme.net/theologie/2022/02/24/ukraine-russie-des-elements-theologiques-pour-penser-la-guerre/
 François Bovon, L’Évangile selon saint Luc, III, Labor et Fides, Geneva, 2010, p. 262
 Gustave Gilbert, Journal de Nuremberg, 1948. See https://www.alleedescuriosites.com/journal-de-nuremberg-gustave-gilbert
 Op. cit. p. 106