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Lessons from Bible continue: Make good choices, avoid tribal squabbles

By Walt Shelton
Special to the American-Statesman
Walt Shelton is a part-time professor at Baylor Law School and an environmental attorney in Austin.

What has always “tainted” mankind from ethical, inclusive and caring life and continues to be at the root of our contemporary cultural divide? Bad choices often rooted in tribal-based anger and hatred.

The first four chapters of the Bible, Genesis 1-4, contain parablelike ancient stories that contain profound truths. They are best considered ahistorical etiological accounts, which means mythlike stories of beginnings. How did it all begin and then start to go wrong?  

Genesis 1-3 includes what many consider two creation accounts from separate sources: six-steps/days and then rest in chapter 1, followed by the Garden of Eden and banishment in chapters 2 and 3. 

I grew up with way too much literal emphasis on the Garden of Eden and the so-called “fall of mankind.” This approach makes Adam and Eve disobeying an arbitrary rule about avoiding certain fruit on the advice of a snake result in the “need” for Jesus to make things right on the cross.  

As a Christian, I believe that Jesus does make things right in showing and teaching us how to live and that his death and resurrection can result in forgiveness, profound peace, companionship and enablement to help us make good choices. That is what life and the Kingdom of God are all about now — good choices. Jesus’s teachings and life-model provide a basis for an inclusive love-centered life for Christians and everyone else. 

The well-known six-step or “day” creation account culminates in God’s creation of humankind: "…God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them” (Genesis. 1:27).  Further, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good" (Genesis. 1:31). Thus, the climactic lasting truth of this account is that from the very start, humans were very good. The only distinction was gender. The story does not even hint at groups, races, socio-economic gaps, or any tribal or other differences. 

Temporarily setting aside the separate Garden of Eden account in Genesis 2 and 3, linking the Genesis 1 complete equality of human beginning with the account of Cain and Abel (Gen 4:1-10) is illuminating. Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve, were a farmer and shepherd, respectively.  Cain perceived that God preferred his sibling’s offering over his own. This made Cain “very angry” (verse 5).  He acted on his profound anger by murdering his own brother (verse 8). 

Importantly, this is the first mention of “sin” or wrongdoing, which God anthropomorphically indicated to Cain was “lurking at the door” when Cain was angry before deciding “not [to] do well” in killing Abel (verse 7).  

The account of Cain and Abel is in part an etiological story of tribal or group-based hatred between shepherds and farmers running so deep to affect blood brothers. The summit of this ancient story is Cain’s post-murder answer to God asking the whereabouts of Abel: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9). The implicit answer in this formative anecdote is a resounding divine "yes" — from the beginning and for all generations 

For me, the Garden of Eden account (Gen. 2-3) of creation is more mysterious and ambiguous than combining Genesis 1 and 4 into a practical, understandable and life experience authenticated beginning of equality and goodness actualized in good choices and spoiled by bad decisions. 

Yet, the Eden story teaches us that we are mortal, and our lives will not be easy.  Time is of the essence to live each day with good choices rooted in loving and caring for our sisters and brothers, regardless of differences. This is what God ordained as “very good” indeed.

Without question, Jesus understood that our mortal lives should be characterized by good daily choices grounded in love, care and the pursuit of justice. The earliest Gospel, Mark, quickly shows us what Jesus was all about in his life. Mark summarizes Jesus’s teaching as the “kingdom of God is at hand;” thus, it is time to “repent” (Mark 1:15). 

Repent means to so radically change that it is like turning around and following a different path. Jesus went in the opposite direction of many prominent and powerful leaders of his own Jewish tradition by championing people who were habitually despised and oppressed.

Shortly after summing up Jesus’s teachings, Mark tells us that a leper begged Jesus to help him: “If you choose, you can make me clean” (verse 40). Many healthy people oppressed the ill, erroneously thinking illness meant God rejected them.  No one dared go near a leper, yet Jesus immediately seized the opportunity by “touching” and helping him (verse 41). Jesus showed us the power of good choices.  

The Gospel of Luke offers a strong example of Jesus’ relentless pursuit of justice for the needy and ill-treated. Full of God’s spirit, Jesus announced in a Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4:16) that God had “anointed [him] to bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind [and] to let the oppressed go free….” (verse 18). 

Another example is from the start of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew (Matthew 5-7).  Jesus declares at the outset of this longest collection of his teachings that the “poor,” “meek,” hungry, “peacemakers,” and “those who are persecuted” are in fact the “blessed” ones (Matthew 5:3, 5-6, and 9-10). 

Like Jesus’s actions and the pure intention of every decent human being of any stripe, our choices should be “anointed” and consistent with how God intended and made us from the start — with equality and special concern for those who suffer or have suffered through oppression. 

The time for our return is beyond ripe. Let’s not delay in actively making a lasting difference in how we choose to live. 

Walt Shelton is an author, speaker, professor at Baylor Law School and environmental attorney in Austin.  His award-winning book, "The Daily Practice of Life: Practical Reflections Toward Meaningful Living" (CrossLink Publishing 2020), is a collection of previously published columns, waltshelton.com  Progressive Christianity originally posted a variant of this article on progressivechristianity.org