Excerpt from James Alison's Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination, New York: Crossroads, 1996, pp. 132-137.

The Time of Abel, or the Inhabitability of Time

I would like to take a look at something which is a consequence of what I have been setting out for you, and which I think to be a useful tool in the search which we make as Catholics for an understanding of something of the modern world in which we live, and in which we forge our Christian life and preaching.

Let us imagine Cain, sentenced to wander forever over the face of the earth, unable to find a lasting home, always with fear of some vengeance for his brother's murder, and only half-protected by the laws which God gave after that incident, laws whose purpose was to contain the violence of reciprocal vengeance. Cain is getting on now, and feels that death draws close. Wherever he goes he hears rumors that something terrible will happen, some fearful end will befall him, with a judgement in which he will be declared guilty. The truth is that that matter of his brother has been clouded from his memory, or is there as a very distant, vague, sense of unease. What he knows is that he has been wandering all over the face of the earth since a certain time ago, without managing to settle anywhere: and it hasn't been for want of trying. He has had to fight bloody wars to protect himself; he has helped others to build sacred frontiers to protect themselves, also, against the violence which spreads everywhere. He spread a theology, he too, in which God is worshiped by people upholding strict laws separating good from bad, pure from impure, so as to keep God safely in place as the guarantor of social order. But now he feels, he knows not how, that things are winding down, coming to such a cosmic end that neither he nor anyone has a real protection against the threat.

Let us imagine him in a hut, not very well built, trying to sleep. Sleep does not come to him easily, because he has a presage of danger, and at time stays half-awake through the night. This night is no different, but suddenly he is fully awake when he realizes that someone has entered, burrowing a small hole in the wall. Cain is frightened: either it will be a thief, or a murderer. The intruder seems unalarmed by having been detected, and this is probably because he is young and strong, and would have no difficulty in overcoming the old man who is before him, an old man who would once have known how to put such an intruder to the sword. Not only does he not seem alarmed, but he draws close to the one who has intuited him in the darkness, so confirming all the old man's fears that, at last, he will perish defenseless, as he has made so many others to perish.

However the young man, on whose face can be glimpsed, even in the shadows of the first hours of dawn, certain half-healed scars, says to him: "Fear not, it is I, your brother, do you not remember?" He has to help the old man to remember that strong and handsome youth whom Cain adored, and who was his brother; so much did he adore him that he felt prostrated before him, loving him so much that the only way of being like him was to be instead of him, and he killed him, not out of hatred, but out of envy, devastating excess of a love which grasps at being. This process of remembering his brother is not at all pleasant for the old man, since at every awakening to what had really happened, it shakes him to see what it was that had been driving him since then, what strange and fatal mechanisms of love and hatred interlaced; and his whole story of wandering, of searching for shelter, of killing and driving out so as to protect himself, all stands revealed as unnecessary. At every step his brother allows him to see what had really been going on, and at each step the old man would like to do what his leathern'd legs will no longer allow him to do: to flee before hearing more, so much does he fear the turning inside out of everything he has come to be.

Nevertheless, the young brother doesn't let him off this strange trial, strange, for in this court, the younger brother is victim, attorney and judge, and the trial is the process of unblaming the one who did not dare to hear an accusation that never comes. Strangely, as his memory takes body, the old man begins to feel less and less the weight of the threatened end, which he had almost heard roaring about his ears. And he is right to lose that feeling, for the end has already come, but not as a threat: it has come as his brother who forgives him. He begins to glimpse that at the end of this trial he may have no physical strength left, but with all the strength of his heart which is unfolding into youth, he wants to kiss his brother before dying, the rest does not matter...

Well, all this will no doubt have been pretty obvious to you, heavily dostoyevskian tints and all. What I wanted to suggest is that, in this, very exactly, does the Christian faith consist: in the return of Abel as forgiveness for Cain, and the return of Abel not only as a decree of forgiveness for Cain, but as an insistent presence which gives Cain time to recover his story, and, with the years which remain to him, which may only be days, who knows, to begin to construct another story. This he will manage to do in the degree to which, at every step of that painful process of calling to mind, he manages to stand loose from what he was doing, driven on by his poorly hidden flight in shame, and to build another story in which he has ceased to swing between playing the rôle of hero, who has to face up to a senseless life, or that of the victim, against whom all whisper, and who must protect himself against them all; to build a story that is 'other', somewhere between forgotten and unimagined, the story of the broken-hearted fratricide to whom his brother has come back in peace, naked of threat. However the story is to finish, between this arrival of his brother like a thief in the night, and the end of his days, Cain will be hard at work in the construction of the story of one who can look into his brother's eyes neither with pride nor with shame. He will look instead with the gratitude of a man who has received himself back at the hands of the one he himself killed, killed so as to fill the vacuum of the feeling that, before that other, he, Cain, had no 'himself' to give, no 'himself' with whom to love.

This is the story of which we are talking when we speak of the human story in its working out starting from the resurrection. It is what I call the time of Abel. The time in which the innocent victim is made present to us as forgiveness, and thus, little by little, allows us to let go of all the sacred mechanisms of which we lay hold so as to fortify ourselves against our own truth. Of course, this process of letting go is violent, because we don't let go easily, or at once. The problem is that, at every step of our removing the sacred, the desacralized element gets resacralized, but under a different form, opposed to the previous sacralization, and we think that, at last, we have managed to set ourselves free from the sacred.

You can multiply examples of this from your experience, or your knowledge of history. Let us go no further than the two most powerful enemy twins of this century, whose dregs we all drink to some extent. National Socialism was the fantastic attempt by a prostrated and humiliated nation to create a pure, Aryan, sacred, rejecting the whole of that repulsive Jewish and Christian history which seeks to look with compassion on the victim; an attempt so powerful that it created, with full knowledge aforethought an unimaginable quantity of victims. At the same time as this sacralization there was the great attempt at a definitive desacralization following the thought of Marx: the attempt to get rid, at last, of the deceptive world of religion by building a planned, rational society, without religion, whence all religion was expelled, with a violence no less atrocious. We know now something of how many victims that system had to sacrifice, thinking itself free from religion, and in fact returning to religion's most primitive form: the construction of equality, peace and social order on the basis of the expulsion of the contaminating element, the bourgeois, the kulak, the small landholder, the priest, the dissident, the suspected dissident, the potential dissident, whosever might doubt of the unanimity against the expelled one.

It is not, as some say, that extremes meet, but that the underlying phenomenon is identical. Exactly the same phenomenon can be seen since Christianity desacralized the Roman Empire, then going on to sacralize it again, until that project was itself desacralized at the time of the Reformation, and with it the Church, at the same time as the nation-state began to be sacralized, and so on. The strangest thing is not this reality of wars and rumours of wars and revolutions spreading all over the earth, but that it is precisely in the midst of all this that little by little there emerges a disbelief in all of that: the creation of a non-sacred space in terms of ordinary time and ordinary life, where many have a relative peace and distance from all the surrounding disturbances. Here too the same mechanism plays its rôle: when the empire is desacralized, the Church is sacralized in its stead, when the Church is desacralized, the conscience is sacralized, and so on. However, not all has been a series of swings of the pendulum, but effectively we have become distanced from certain things. It is difficult for someone in "the West" to believe any longer in the evil attributed to witches; the belief that the Jews were responsible for outbreaks of the plague in the middle ages lasted for centuries: the attempt to make believe that they were responsible for the ills of society, and so to found a Reich which would last a thousand years, lasted no longer than twelve.

The problem is this: since this series of swings of the pendulum began, that is, since the humble security which was afforded us by a belief in the guilt of the victim began to wither away, there have been no purely good or evil people. Almost nobody escapes from some or other involvement in some degree of what is later considered to be an evil, and this is because that apparently contradictory movement of desacralization and resacralization is at its simultaneous work in the lives of each of us. Consider how this is lived now: in our western societies those who are called 'of the right' tend to sacralize those things which are to do with personal morality: the family, abortion and so on. At the same time they have a highly secular, and secularizing attitude towards social morality, especially in its economic dimension: it should not be controlled, free frontiers, "get the government off our back", end the religious superstition of the past that competition, that is rivalry at the heart of the group, produces social evils. What is strange of course is that the sacred personal and family morality is strictly dependent on economic and social life, and the attempt to sacralize the former while secularizing the latter produces and exacerbates the world of contradictory desires which form us. This, besides, of course, the necessary sequel to every sacralization: the disqualifying of people who do not fit within the scheme, the creation of new impure and profane people.

Of course, the contrary position is identical: that which gets called 'of the left' tends to be rather more secular in its attitude to personal morality, at the same time as it has sought, at least up until now, to sacralize the social and economic order, building strong frontiers (both physical and ideological), attempting to block desire, to destroy competition and rivalry, with the result, as could be expected, that, on the occasions when it has taken power it has proceeded, a very short time after its installation, to a forced control of personal and matrimonial life and so on. Think of the splendid word which the Cuban revolution coined for this: La parametración -- fitting your personal life within the acceptable parameters! And woe to them that cannot or will not...

None of us escape from living in the midst of all these contradictory and oscillating desires and tendencies, and we are all formed from within by means of them. This is the time of Abel, the time of the scandal revealed, where there is no longer any formula for reunion, where there is no easy peace, and in the midst of which the one who refuses to participate in the current game runs the risk of being lynched, but also has to take great care that her way of playing the game is not to seek to be lynched, to sacralize herself as a victim. This is one of the possibilities which only the scandal of the Cross has made viable.

The task is to live in the midst of this, learning not to be scandalized either by oneself or by the process, nor by finding oneself living out simultaneous contradictions. Being scandalized means, in the first place, always being in flight from one form of the sacred to another, in a series of strokes of the pendulum where the most that we manage to hide from ourselves is the identity of what is apparently different. The only one who can cease fleeing from these strokes is the Cain who accepts forgiveness, accepts that he has no city, and that there is no need to seek to found it, because the Son of Man has no place, like Cain, and his story is built wherever, and has no abiding city, because the new Jerusalem is coming down from heaven.

When Jesus says: "And blessed is whosoever is not scandalized by me" (Matt. 11:6) and Paul preaches the scandal of the Cross (1 Cor. 1:23) they are revealing, and making habitable, life in the time of Abel. Whosoever is not scandalized by Abel, who does not have to flee in scandal from the sacred to the secular, and back again to the sacred, without ever leaving that same cyclical movement, is being enabled to accept the contradictions which move him or her, and, in the midst of them to stretch out a hand to the victims of the scandalized sacred in which that person has, him or herself, participated, and to some degree participates still. The peace which Christ gave and which the world does not give, the creation of habitable time, is this peace of Cain in the time of Abel, in patient and humble hoping for the coming of a new heaven and a new earth.