Am I my brother’s keeper?
Nothing surpasses the joy and wonder of a child. The possibilities, the potentialities, the first steps, the crazed screams of jubilation arising over the sighting of a dog call each mother and father, each aunt and uncle and plenty of unsuspecting strangers to attention. This is inherent in what it means to be human. Children primarily crave attention. This dynamic is simple enough until a baby brother or sister comes along. Siblings are co-creators, conspirators, playmates and, it turns out, competitors.
Now imagine the excitement accompanying the first child in the biblical story of creation. Adam and Eve, cast from the Garden of Eden, have a boy named Cain. He is a gardener himself, blessed with patience and sensitivity. He is the only one of his type, the beloved child of his parents. Then Abel, his little brother, comes along. There is no blueprint for jealousy, but now Cain has a rival.
Just when it looked (sort of) as if President Trump was turning over a new leaf, he woke up early last Saturday, armed with a conspiracy theory. His predecessor, the tale goes, was spying on him before the election. The jealousy, it seems, that begun so long ago, just east of Eden, is alive and well today. This is the same competitive impulse that causes businesses to pollute the earth when cleaner alternatives are available and its the same impulse that makes professional athletes take steroids. When the world is divided into clean categories of winning and losing, the steaks to succeed and the fear accompanying failure are high enough to throw moral misgivings to the wind. Economists call this a “zero-sum game.”
When the brothers were old enough, they brought their offerings to the Lord. There was something special about Abel’s gift, though what it was isn’t exactly clear. Perhaps it was the pleasing aroma of Abel’s meaty offering, as opposed to Cain’s vegetarian spread, though that seems to miss the point. Perhaps Abel’s attitude was simply better than his brother’s. Whatever the reason, the Lord regarded Abel’s gift and not Cain’s.
Cain felt all at once the hardship of living in somebody else’s shadow. His anger was evident and the Lord pulled him aside for a fatherly pep-talk. Cain was counseled to play the long game but instead he went out in a rage and murdered his brother.
Watching the President of the United States and his merry men setting indiscriminate fires with their words has given many pause for good reason. Not only are words sacred (the word, after all, became flesh at the beginning of the Christian story), they are our single greatest safeguard against violence. Where diplomacy, conversation, spirited debate and rational thought abound, peace is present; where erratic, demeaning and untrue words are fair game, violence is near. This is as true in governments as it is in jealous siblings.
The echoes of Cain’s murder and subsequent abandonment of his brother haunt humanity to this day. Out of pure self-interest, greedy corporations snatch up all the profits of their companies and neglect their employees’ benefits and taking up the familiar refrain, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”. Out of jealousy, one president tries to bring down his predecessor with demonstrably false accusations, echoing the same familiar refrain. Out of exhaustion, we are tempted to take up the refrain as well.
Echoes of this story, thankfully, are also in the teachings of Jesus:
“And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’
Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
Where is your neighbor?
Where is your brother? His voice calls out from the earth.