- The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism
Articles in the Common Knowledge symposium on "imperial trauma" hovered around notions of identity; for what is more at stake symbolically in relations between empires and "their" others than identity? War and peace, poverty and abundance, are embroiled with identity and its evil twin, alterity. Schwartz's study of the Old Testament stories is worth rereading in this context because the key question that she poses goes to the heart of the problem: "Why is claiming a distinctive collective identity important enough to spawn violence?" Her answer relates to the principle of scarcity that "pervades most of the thinking about identity." In cultures of scarcity, "it must all be competed forland, prosperity, power, favor, even identity itself." Schwartz finds, in story after story, only one blessing to be given at a time. God cannot bless two brothers, or two of anything. (Monotheist indeed!) Cain is rejected for offering grain, not sheep; Esau, for being late back from the hunt. "Do you have only one blessing, my father?" Esau asks: "Bless me too, my father!" Jealous God; stingy Isaac. One brother, once part of identity, becomes an exile, now part of alterity. How do we know who is "really" who? I suspect that we are not passionately attached to our present identities. We are passionately attached to knowing who we are. Identity is [End Page 524] particular and limited, knowing-who-I-am is more abundant and flexible (note the gerund). Knowing-who-we-are renders us capable of cosmopolitanism. We can chat up each other's gods.
One blessing, one true religion, one chosen peopleidentity means being safe. Stability of identity thus in short supply, one would want to watch one's back. Two (let alone three) of anything can only threaten identity in a world in which, for you to be you, I cannot be me, and we cannot mix (our stories). Identity is story. Hence the words on which we close Schwartz's book: "The old 'monotheistic' Book must be closed so that the new books may be fruitful and multiply. After all, that was the first commandment." Be ye abundant; be ye not scarce.
Simone Roberts, a poet, writes on poststructuralist theory and French feminist philosophy.