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Thursday, July 5, 2012

'BETTER THAN....???'

"If you ain't no better'n a n****r, who you gon be better than?" If I'm not mistaken, the father of Gene Hackman's character in Mississippi Burning asks him this--and feel free to say so if I am.
But to the point: "Who you gon be better than?" How much of our system and our psyches is built on at least trying to answer this question? Most of us already construe being 'better than him or her' in a deeply mistaken way; some of us try to use the question in hopes of avoiding the justice which we see coming our way. One of our major political parties is built almost completely on the desires of plutocrats and peckerwoods to continually show the rest of us how much 'better' and more deserving of life's benefits they are (even while most of them know otherwise in their hearts but will be drawn apart by wild horses before they admit it) than all of us.
Wanting to show oneself 'better than' isn't the original sin, but it's (literally) damn close. Original sin was wanting to be like God and know good and evil for ourselves long (?) before we were ready for it. However, the desire to be 'better than' appears in the story of Cain and Abel. Here are some things to know and remember about this story: Cain was a farmer, Abel a herdsman. Farmers and herdsmen have been in conflict probably since large-scale agriculture began. If herdsmen drive their animals through the farmers' fields of grain, expect the farmers to be pretty p.o.'ed about it. And the field--the place of contention between farmer and herdsman--is also where Cain kills Abel.
In addition to this, farming people have traditionally looked down on more pastoral people. This may be a subtext in early Sumerian stories such as The Epic of Gilgamesh, but I became aware of it by reading a historical article with quotes from medieval chronicles that bespeaks that attitude quite clearly--in this case, how the agrarian French, Normans and (some) English looked down on the more pastoral Welsh and Irish. Especially, they pulled no punches on how lazy pastoral peoples were when compared with their allegedly more industrious farming neighbors.
"In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry and his face was downcast. Then the LORD said to Cain, "Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it." (Gen. 4:3-7, NIV)
Now there are some jackleg, and should-be jackleg, preachers who'll say Abel's sacrifice was accepted because it involved bloodshed, but I for one refuse to buy! However, I think it can be said that while Cain offered God a dividend, Abel gave over some of his working capital to God. Still, that's not even the main item yet. No, the main point here is (if farmers' attitudes towards herders is anything to go by) that Cain probably offered his fruits with thoughts such as, 'Here, Lord, are my firstfruits which the ground has produced through my hard work. See how much harder I've worked than that lazy dreaming brother of mine!' That is, whatever real gratitude he might have felt was shot through with and consumed by jealousy of, and desire to exalt himself above, his brother. If that ain't a wrong attitude with which to put offerings to God on the altar, I don't know what is! Abel's sacrifice was accepted because he offered it with real gratitude, and let us hope some joy as well.
And I suggest that wanting to 'prove' oneself (to borrow Tina's line) 'better than ALL the rest!' is NOT the same as wanting to do one's own best at whatever tasks are at hand. Nor is it the same as pushing oneself forward because of what one wants to do and, let's hope, share with as many others as possible. But if someone just wants to be king or queen--LOOK OUT!! My ignorance is NOT equal to your knowledge; likewise t'other way round! We are all blessedly different, but no individual is set above the rest, either politically or economically, by other than human hands either actively participating or silently agreeing. And the desire to be thought 'better than' is, well, maybe we can call it the 'original + 1 sin'?

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