The horror of the Derrick Bird rampage, in Cumbria, during which he shot about thirty innocent people, in the face, in the course of a three hours, has caused profound public disquiet in the UK.
It was not until I read a powerful passage in Shakespeare's "Henry IV Part 2 " this morning that I realised quite why. It is part of a speech, spoken in anguish by the grieving Duke of Northumberland at his son, Hotspur's death. The speech is spoken "out of character" and in passion, but that does not diminish its meaning - because Shakespeare had a biblically-aware, "prophetic soul". Northumberland, bent on revenge, says:
"Let heathen kiss earth. Now let not Nature's hand
Keep the wild flood confined. Let order die
And let this world no longer be a stage
To feed contention, in a lingering act;
But let one spirit of the first-born Cain
Reign in all bosoms, that, each heart being set
On bloody courses, the rude scene may end,
And darkness be the burier of the dead" Henry IV II Act 1 Scene 1
The phrase "the spirit of the first born Cain" hit me between the eyes. Cain was the brother of righteous Abel. He was a man with a hidden "dark side" who killed without reason and who was cursed by God to wander the earth, on the margins, bearing the shame of the "mark of Cain". Cain is also the father of mankind.
This "Cain spirit" is full of hatred and anger and filled with jealousy of both family members and of upright, straight, godly neighbours. When he killed, Cain was filled with rage and envy of the righteous life of his brother which was going well, when his was not. But Abel's blood cried out to God from the ground, a concept that Shakespeare elsewhere imagines as anguished "tongues" speaking from the very "caverns" of the earth.
This week in Cumbria, it is as if we glimpsed that ancient spirit let loose, for three terrible hours. It emerged from nowhere but actually from "the hidden deep": it chilled us. Of course, sin is pervasive in our society and affects all family and social relationships but there is no justification for cold, brutal, premeditated murder.
I believe that we all suspect that there is"something" holding back this "spirit of Cain" across the West. But don't we also unconsciously fear that that one day that restraint might stop and sheer barbarism powered by advanced technology and guns, could appear? What would we do then? Hollywood films already examine it.
Reformed Christians (and probably Shakespeare) have always believed that there is a restraining force holding back the "wild flood" and keeping order. It keeps the world as a mere "stage of contention" (not a blood bath). It is the hand of God:
"For the secret of this lawlessness is already at work, but only until the person now holding it back gets out of the way" 2 Thessalonians 2.7
What the Bible seems to suggest is that one day God will stop holding back the spirit of Cain which is driven by the real Enemy of Mankind (Satan). God will permit that spirit out of its invisible "cage" globally, and then hell on earth will break out.
On that day, no number of eminent psychologists will be able to explain what has happened, because Cain's spirit is not psychological. I believe that is why we feel such strange unease at this Cumbrian "massacre of the innocents". That is why we are desperately searching for some rational explanation. But there is no respectable or rational explanation for the cold-blooded murder of a twin brother and righteous neighbours.