Unintended Consequences: Cain and the Holocaust’s Badges

Unintended Consequences: Cain and the Holocaust’s Badges

I firmly believe there’s nothing more important in the world than stories. In the stories we tell ourselves and others we find truth, God, and all the things that make us human including our humanity itself. The consciousness forming our body shows we’re literally made of stories. So is our society and all things in it. Our behavior is based off what we believe, which comes from our stories.

One story I’ve been digging into more lately is that of Cain of Cain and Abel. A few of you are also on my Facebook where you may have seen us talking about some of the research I’ve been doing, but I’ve gone much deeper than I’ve written on that thread both spiritually/metaphysically and research wise. One thing that caught my attention was the relationship between the Jewish version of Cain and Abel and the holocaust thousands of years later. 
One of the puzzling things about Cain’s story is the ‘mark of Cain,’ which, according to Genesis, was a mark put on Cain by God to protect him from vengeance seekers who would kill him for murdering his brother. What the actual mark was, whether it be a physical disability, a strange sort of personal power or aura, or a physical mark on the skin or something similar has been debated through time.

Augustine was the first person to make a parallel between Cain and the Jews, but it was really Ambrose who solidified that connection in his tract on Cain and Abel from about AD 375. In his opinion, Cain and Abel were obviously sharing in symbolism with the Synagogue and the Church and the murder of Christ by the Jews. In his tract we read “In Cain we perceive the parricidal people of the Jews, who were stained with the blood of their Lord…their Brother, also. By Abel we understand the Christian who cleaves to God(1).” Augustine picked up this idea and elaborated it. Augustine’s work was then picked up by Bede and Isidore of Seville who stated bluntly that the mark of Cain was the sign of the Jews, namely, circumcision. This concept was picked up by a few other folks, whom I won’t list simply for the sake of length of this post, expanding and becoming more detailed. The idea was even debated, not that Cain’s mark had nothing to do with the Jews, but that perhaps the mark wasn’t circumcision. For instance, there is the argument that Cain had a trembling head because he killed Abel, the head of the church. Writings like those left by Peter Riga go on to explain other supposed facets of this concept, providing that circumcision is the mark of the Jews that allows him to live amongst Pagan and Christian without being slain.

I mean, the man had a point that during his time, the Jews weren’t being killed by anyone in his part of the world where everyone else seemed to be being killed by somebody. I’d point out that literally every Jewish holiday is about “someone tried to kill us but we lived, yeay let’s party.” Obviously whipping it out hasn’t saved their lives through all of history.

Isn’t it funny how, when we project concepts of ‘how the world is’ based on our myopic view of our own lives, things get not only wildly inaccurate, but dangerous?

By the 12th century, we start to see the ‘pretty face’ shown in public towards Jews, sort of like our modern ‘politically correct’ speech from people who really want to see ya dead. Come the 13th cen. the concept of the Jews carrying the mark of Cain was a common belief with people like Innocent III openly remarking (in a letter to the Count of Nevers) that “the Lord made Cain a wanderer and a fugitive…the Jews, against whom the blood of Jesus Christ calls out, although they ought not to be killed…yet as wanderers ought they to remain upon the earth, until their countenance be filled with shame and they seek the name of Jesus Christ(2).”

Seven years later (in 1215) Innocent III implemented canon 68 in which Jews and Saracens were required to distinguish themselves from Christians, though it didn’t say in which way. Generally this was implemented with a distinct shape and color of cloth on the clothing. I wonder if, looking at the writings of Innocent III, he really didn’t expect this to lead to persecution of the Jews, especially when he writes a year later to “let the Jews wear clothes by which they might be distinguished from Christians, but not to force them to wear such as would lay them open to the danger of loss of life(3).” It’s important to note that that century’s 1% were making fair bank on this new law, after all, as there were sales of said cloth badges and income from fines from folks being caught not wearing them. The decree, in some ways, seems to be more about making money with no losses, at least in the eyes of those actually making the money.

Still, the ripple of these laws combined with thinking ‘other’ (in this case Jews) were bad were felt throughout the ages. These marks were of course used for denigrate the Jews rather than protect them. Badge laws for the Jews went as far as England, and the oppression of the Middle Ages and Renaissance is well known around badge laws. It wouldn’t be until the 17th century that the fervor around these began to wane, which seemed to pick up speed in the 18th century, only to be picked up by Nazi Germany. And we see what happened. How amazing that dress codes in the holocaust basically started with financial greed and distorted folk tales around a book more than 1000 years earlier.

It’s important not to villianize anyone, even if it is a pope and that’s kind of just job hazard, even when they might deserve it. There are lots of facets to people, actions, and history. We should take a moment to point out that the idea of special clothing badges actually started in Islam and were for both Jews and Christians from about AD 634. For those of us who believe in balancing karma, it should also be pointed out that it was the Jewish belief that Cain was turned into a person with black skin, and thus all black-skinned people were marked as their father Cain and were therefore punishable, for a long time before these laws. This was one of the excuses for the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, as well as many other atrocities throughout history. This passage struck me as an interesting example, suggesting black face existed as early as Cain: “He {God} beat Cain’s face with hail, which blackened like coal, and thus he remained with a black face(4).”

Of course, I am not at all saying that as a justification for badge laws, the holocaust, racism, or whatever. None of it is okay, nor should it sound okay. I’m only suggesting that we try to learn, be understanding, and thus gain learning that can be applied later. To me, this whole thing really drives home the point of unintended consequences. What stories do we tell ourselves? What stories do we pass on to our children? What consequences can come from these?

Just things to think about.

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Image credit: I took this image with my phone from a larger rendition by Alinari and then edited it for detail and clarity. It’s a detail from “Cain and Abel scenes,” a fresco decoration of the Camposanto at Pisa, AD 1390. This scene is the marking of Cain.

References: 1. Cain and Abel, trans. John Savage, p.362
2. Grayzel,
The Church and the Jews in the XIIIth Century, pp.126-127.
3. Grayzel,
The Church and the Jews, pp.140-141.
4. Issaverdens,
Uncanonical Writings, pp.54-55.
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