A Reader on Sins That Cry to Heaven for Vengeance

Yesterday, I posted a bit of satire rooted in the Church’s tradition about the Sins That Cry to Heaven for Vengeance.

In case you wonder what those are and why they are called that, the answer (as you might expect) comes from centuries of reflection on Scripture. The sins are:

  • the blood of Abel (Genesis 4:10)
  • the sin of the Sodom (Genesis 18:20, 19:13; Ezekiel 16:49-50; Jude 7)
  • the cry of the people oppressed in Egypt (Exodus 3:7-10)
  • the cry of the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan (Exodus 20:20-22)
  • injustice to the wage earner (Deuteronomy 24:14-15; James 5:4).

But, you may still ask, why those sins? What links them?

Well, in response to the bit of satire that I posted here yesterday, a reader remarks, quite perceptively and brilliantly:

This post has really let me grasp something fundamental. (Thank you for this.) In retrospect, it’s obvious. But there’s been such a perversion of the obvious, throughout the culture war and for centuries before, that it was hard, at least for me, to see.

The idea of “sins that cry to heaven for vengeance” is usually presented as not an idea at all. There’s no common denominator. These are just a random list of sins that are particularly bad or something. This is of course strange in Catholic theology, because there are plenty of mortal sins that don’t make the list. But there you go. That’s just how it is. God separated these ones out in the Bible for special condemnation. So be especially mean about them. Or something.

Aside from being asinine, of course, this is just wrong. There is a common denominator. Every single one of the sins described in the Bible as crying out to heaven for vengeance has something in common with the others. They are all grievous harms, yes. But how bad they are isn’t the issue. What the acts are in their form, type, or gravity, considered apart from context, again, not the issue. What matters is that they are grievous harms gotten away with. Grievous harms with no social response of redress. No or little hope of it in human society.

“The blood of Abel” is not just any willful murder. There are plenty of murders in the Bible. And it’s not crying out because it’s the first murder. What the blood of Abel is is literally the crime Cain gets away with. There are no witnesses. There are no social institutions. Nobody will take him to task. The point is driven home in Gen 4 by the fact that, even in the Pentateuch’s logic of intergenerational punishment, the descendant Kenites will not face up to anything. (This is of course an etymology, but it also hammers home the idea of what a sin crying to heaven for vengeance means. It’s one that avoids its punishment in human society.)

“The sin of the Sodomites” is not a sexual act defined by the biological sex of the partners involved or how the organs fit together. It’s not something people do with each other. It’s clearly a sin committed against. But heinous as gang rape is, it’s not even gang rape as such. The sin of Sodom has a particular victim. It’s abuse of visiting outsiders, travelling foreigners, strangers, non-residents without a complete legal standing (as opposed to “ger,” resident foreigners, who have a legal standing of some sort). Again, this is driven home in context. Gen 18 is about Abraham’s righteousness and his hospitality to visitors. The angels/God decide to find out if the heinous sin of Sodom is true by appearing there as travelling outsiders. So, Gen 19 happens. Heinous anti-hospitality confirmed. Sodom is destroyed.

The cry of the Israelites in Egypt, sins against the widow, the orphan, and the resident foreigner, injustice to the wage earner… all the same. It’s not what is done. Or not just that. It’s the fact that these people have no fair chance of the grave wrong being redressed. Their social and/or economic status is stacked against them. So, the sin which cannot be “avenged” or redressed in human society cries to heaven. The meaning is clear. It’s sensible and straightforward. Why else would a sin cry to heaven for vengeance other than that it is not “avenged” here below?

“A sin that cries to heaven for vengeance” is just a technical term for something like sin that is grave, committed against someone else, and that isn’t going to be redressed given the way concrete society is and isn’t set up. The exact definition can be picked apart. The general intuition is hard to fight. Once you see it, you see it. You read the Bible and mull it over, meditate, contemplate, pray. It can’t be shaken. There is a coherent idea lurking behind the words “sin that cries to heaven for vengeance.”

Consequences for the culture war seem almost perversely well-thought-out, though it’s really unconscious.

When the reactionaries in the culture war say that murder is a sin that cries to heaven for vengeance, their distortion of the Bible feeds their own lust to kill. It’s used to prop up the death penalty. But actually, “the blood of Abel” isn’t just any murder. Most murders are, at least we hope, redressed (and not lethally). The blood of Abel is the blood of Emmett Till, and it’s the blood of everyone killed by the State for a crime they were innocent of, when other means of protecting the public were available but deliberately not chosen.

Likewise, “the sin of the Sodomites” is used to justify oppression of and outright harm of gay men (and by extension, LGBTQ+ people more generally). In reality, what is targeted by the Bible (here) isn’t homosexual acts that two people consent to, and reprehensible as that may be, it isn’t even the horror of gang rape. What’s condemned is every abuse committed against travellers who have had no way to communicate what really happened or be taken seriously, and it’s every crime committed against immigrants without due legal status and documentation, unable to report the harm to one branch of the authorities for fear of punishment over their immigration status from another branch. It’s all the injustices like these.

More generally, by obscuring any common denominator to “sins that cry to heaven for vengeance,” the culture warrior adeptly, whether consciously or not, destroys the notion that what is crying out is social injustice. A society that cannot or will not deal with harms against vulnerable people or people denied a fair status. All the crimes that one side in the culture war loves (or loves to turn a blind eye to). All the crimes that you have to stay awake to see, because society will put you to sleep.


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