Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

I am the older of my two brothers. One is just 10 ½ months younger (so we share the same numerical age for six bemusing weeks) and the other, the baby of the family, is 2 ½ years younger. We are close in age and growing up we were fierce in loyalty. I should add that we were, from time to time through adolescence, just as fierce antagonizing each other, tussling through our childhood as brothers tend to do.


There is a well-known story in Genesis of two brothers, Cain and Abel, sons of Adam and Eve. Cain harbors anger against his brother Abel that escalates. Inexplicably Cain kills his brother. Immediately in the story we read that the LORD asked Cain, “Where is your brother?” Cain retorts, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9)


Although the question is not answered, we know the answer, don’t we? “Yes, yes Cain, you are your brother’s keeper.” And so am I and so are you. We are our brother’s and our sister’s keeper.


Yet much too often we abide more in the isolation with Cain, absorbed in self – pity, narcissism, greed, and anxiety. Cain loses a brother because he was looking out for himself, forgetting that his identity is shared with others. In losing his brother he loses himself.


We neglect our brothers and sisters in so many small acts. On Facebook we “unfriend” those whose words are inconvenient; we objectify according to gender, race, socio-economics; and we selfishly consume conspicuously because of our steady-belief in the god of scarcity. Who has time for watching out for brothers and sisters while looking out for #1? When you believe only in looking out for yourself, only trusting in yourself, and fearing for yourself, you reject any notion that you are your brother’s keeper.


In a recent newspaper article I was reminded of the late Jewish theologian Martin Buber, who wrote a seminal work in 1938, I and Thou. Buber writes that we are created in relationship, but when we treat others as objects to be used, vilified, exploited, or neglected we diminish our sacred birthright. The “Thou” of the other is reduced to “it.”


The primaries and election for the next President of the United States has spawned legions of individuals saying, questioning, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Lines of demarcation and separation are carved out seeing others as “it” instead of “Thou” because of how a vote is cast and which candidate, or political party is supported. New York Times columnist David Brooks wryly remarks “If America were a marriage we would need therapy.”


I work with individuals with developmental disabilities who are often scorned, neglected, ignored or pitied. I am learning that my work is not really about serving or caring for those with disabilities who are different than me, but discovering our shared humanity as we participate in the common good together. We keep each other, brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “tied together in a single garment of destiny.”


And so it is for all of us: democrats, republicans, rich, poor, abled and disabled and differently abled.


One day God will ask of us, “where is your brother…where is your sister?” Our life will be the answer, but I hope we will have something more to say than Cain’s anxious response.


Thankful to be peacefully kept by many,