But unto Cain … [the Lord] had no respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell. 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 rule over it.” —Genesis 4:5
Could Cain have become a mass shooter, had he lived in our time? Yes, that Cain—Adam and Eve’s son, and the murderer of his brother, Abel. We realize this question presents a strange juxtaposition—what, after all, could a biblical figure have to do with the spate of mass shootings our country has endured over the past two decades? But if you stay with us, we think you’ll see the connection, and perhaps also understand how the issue of “mental illness” has been misapplied to the perpetrators of these horrendous mass killings.
Cain, to be clear, was not a mass murderer—usually defined as someone who kills four or more people during the same incident.1[PDF] There were, of course, no “masses” in the Garden of Eden. Yet there was basic human nature—with all its potential for virtue, depravity and everything in between. In this sense, the story is a high-resolution, deep dive into the psychology of entitled non-acceptance of one’s circumstances. A close analysis of the psychodynamics of Cain’s crime shows us something important about his mentality—not to be confused with mental illness. We propose here that Cain’s mentality has much to teach us about the psychology of present-day mass shooters.
Cain and Abel
For those not familiar with the account in Genesis 4:1-16, we are told that,
“Cain was a tiller of the land while his younger brother Abel was a shepherd, and that one day they both offered sacrifice to God. Cain offered fruit and grain, and Abel offered fresh meat from his flock. For an unspecified reason, God favored Abel's sacrifice, and reject's Cain's. Cain became very angry. God does not judge Cain but asks him why he is angry giving him the opportunity to reflect and change his attitude. God then tells Cain that it is up to him what happens. If he changes, he will be able to control his anger and not sin. If on the other hand he does not, his anger will overcome him and he will commit a terrible crime. Subsequently Cain murders Abel for an unspecified reason, often assumed simply to be jealousy over God's favoritism.”2
But the “jealousy theory” turns out to be far too simple. There is a deeper psychology that we need to explore, in order to understand the character of Cain (whom we conceive as a psychological archetype, not a historical figure) and to appreciate the motivation of many mass killers in our own time—who, for the most part, are not “mentally ill” in the sense that psychiatrists generally use that term.3
Prof Rein Nauta—Professor Emeritus of Psychology of Religion at the University of Tilburg—has analyzed the Cain and Abel story in psychological terms. Prof Nauta focuses not merely on the theme of jealousy, but also on the elements of shame, guilt, bravado, and narcissistic vulnerability. As Nauta writes,
“Cain’s offering is refused, he reddens with shame. His face falls. He has been unexpectedly abandoned by the One he depends on as a farmer and whose good favor he sought. The humiliation and hurt cannot be hidden or repressed, for Abel saw everything . . . Cain was rejected even though he loved God. Being rejected without reason by someone you love, someone you . . . thought you could trust is perhaps the worst thing that can happen to a person. Cain experiences [God’s] rejection of his offering as a traitorous act . . . it turns out there are others who share in God’s love, and are even loved more, who are preferred.”4
This humiliation overturns Cain’s entire world view and sense of self, as Nauta explains:
“[Cain’s] world comes crashing down. Disappointment in the former love object is transformed into hatred of the intruder who stole the love to which one believed oneself solely entitled. Incomprehension feeds a raging jealousy.”4
This, in turn, leads Cain to his murderous act:
“The killing of Abel does indeed appear to be an example of meaningless violence, although to Cain it was an attempt to come to grips with a situation in which he felt lost and the world appeared to be without meaning. Cain would rather be actively guilty than passively ashamed . . . Shame is the narcissistic affect par excellence. All at once, one’s self-image and the image one wants others to believe in is proven false. Such shame cannot be managed or controlled. That is how it differs from guilt . . . Guilt is related to actions, to what one does. Shame, however, is linked with . . . self-presentation, with the whole of one’s existence . . . In order to survive, to avoid drowning in self-depreciation and to escape the sudden futility of existence, Cain killed his brother.”4
Nauta relates these issues to our present-day culture, with clear implications for those prone to engaging in targeted violence:
“ . . . our culture demands that fear of failure be hidden behind a facade of courage and bravado. Not to be respected when support and admiration are essential, to be laughed at when one fails are fatal injuries to a fragile existence. The shame this generates finds expression in and is, at the same time, hidden by a violent rage. When self-respect and self-esteem are fatally wounded, concern for others is of no consequence, for the only way to re-affirm one’s own victimized self is by destroying those who were witness to its demise. This kind of targeted destructiveness liberates the perpetrator from the dependence and despondency of the shaming experience.” 4 (italics added)
The authors report no conflicts of interest concerning the subject matter of this article.
1. Morton RJ. Serial Murder - Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives for Investigators [PDF downloads automatically]. Federal Bureau of Investigation. 2008.
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4. Nauta R. Cain and Abel. Violence, Shame and Jealousy. Pastoral Psychol. 2009;58:65. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11089-008-0146-x. Accessed September 24, 2019.
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