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The Victim Cult: Cain

The second in a series of excerpts from Orca contributor Mark Milke's groundbreaking new book.
Cain killing Abel, marble relief on the facade of the Milan Cathedral (Zvonimir Atletic /

The following is from chapter 1 of The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations, by Mark Milke.

Ultimately, claiming victim status does not itself bring sound ethical choices. Stalin and Hitler both claimed throughout their political careers to be victims. They persuaded millions of other people that they, too, were victims: of an international capitalist or Jewish conspiracy…. No major act of war or mass killing in the twentieth century began without the aggressors or perpetrators first claiming innocence and victimhood.

Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

The first family of blame

“What have you done?!” demands the deity of one brother as he inquires after the fate of the other.

God, who well knows what just transpired, still requires an accounting: “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground!” he exclaims to Cain, soon to be marked as the world’s first murderer.

Cain and Abel are part of the Genesis creation narrative where the sons of the first family of Eden offer sacrifices to God. The youngest, Abel, presents the fattest and firstborn sheep from his herd. Cain, the oldest, tills the ground and offers up vegetables. God accepts Abel’s offering and rejects his brother’s.

That makes Cain angry—very, according to the story. To add to the rejection,

God then lectures the supplicant: “Why are you angry?” the Lord asks of a sullen Cain. “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?” The celestial dialogue then ends with the deity’s warning to Cain to not succumb to resentment, to an evil that can corrupt the soul, but to instead master and defeat it. But the caution goes unheeded. Instead, Cain lures his brother to a field and in a simmering rage murders his brother.

The Cain and Abel story may be the first in the Western canon where the temptation to burrow in self-pity appears, where a man who spills blood thinks himself the victim. Rather than take responsibility for his actions, Cain chooses envy and somewhere deep inside swears that the reminder of his failure—Abel, his own brother—must be wiped from the earth. Thus, in Cain, we glimpse the mindset of a self-professed victim all of us have encountered: a friend, relative, or colleague, actually injured by someone else or just life, or wrongly believe themselves a victim. Either way, they invite additional misery with their response, a chronic “looking back” and blame of others, which sacrifices the future to the past.

Cain illustrates the ambiguity of claims to victimhood and which we should approach with initial openness because, perhaps, fate was unkind. While a traditional reading of Cain and Abel is the moral lesson taught to generations of Sunday school students—avoid resentment because that nourishes a bitter seed—there is another way to view Cain, God, and the slaughter of a brother: Maybe Cain, at least pre-bloodshed, should be pitied.

After all, in the Genesis story there is no hint that God instructs Cain on the finer details of acceptable sacrifices. Abel was a shepherd and Cain a farmer and both offered gifts from their own labour. In this alternate reading, God seems less the Old Testament rock of consistency and more akin to a capricious Greek deity, one who  toys with men on the field of life absent any markers to navigate the uneven ground. Let us then side with Cain for a moment: He was set up to fail. It was unfair for the Divine to demand that a mere mortal grasp God’s wishes and then lecture him when he fails to properly guess them.

Even if sympathetic to this reading, Cain yet had a choice. Even if the object of divine unfairness, Cain skirts a direct confrontation with the source of his woe. Cain does not plead or contend with the deity as will other Old Testament figures such as Noah, Moses, Lot, and Jonah. They all debate the Divine on instructions they think harsh. (They even occasionally win an argument: Recall how Jonah convinces God to not destroy Nineveh.) Instead, Cain marinates in his anger and lashes out at the nearest, weakest target, Abel, who never suspects he will become a conduit for his brother’s grudge-match against God.

But the destruction of others is not a remedy to our own real or imagined tragedies, and Cain’s response signals the chronic human temptation to blame others and, just as often, to lash out at the wrong target. And it is right there where we re-enter Cain’s story: When God first asks after Abel, we can almost see Cain’s narrowing eyes, curling lip, and sneer in his evasive response: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The response reveals a man who thinks not even the Creator is owed an account for the taking of human life.

And then, in mixing red blood and black soil—“Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground!”—Cain’s  divine prosecutor creates a haunting, eternal image  of unchained bitterness: It turns murderous with the virgin earth stained by the death of an innocent man, and another man, Cain, soon condemned to extract a living from the same patch of earth he himself poisoned.

Cain is thus the archetype of the victim psyche we encounter repeatedly in our own lives, or in grievance narratives we will encounter in the chapters to come: those harmed in the past or who merely imagine it but who become obsessed with blame and lash out with rage.

And that is the other lesson in the Genesis story: An intense focus on the past, and a refusal to consider one’s own attitudes and actions at least partly at fault for life’s woes, leads to new victims and new blood spilt.

Cain thinks of himself only as a victim. It is all he can see. Sound familiar?

From The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations. Published by Thomas & Black. Copyright 2019 by Mark Milke. Foreword by Ellis Ross.