Am I My Brother's Keeper?
Whenever I think of Cain and Abel, I think back on my own family’s less-than-love-filled moments. I remember blabbing to a boy my sister had just met at the movie theater that she was not sixteen years old (as she had claimed) but only fourteen. I also told a boy she started dating in high school how she practiced kissing him on our bedroom mirror.
Yes, we had plenty of our own low-wattage Cain-and-Abel moments in our family. I don’t think the words brother’s keeper were ever on my mind, or on the minds of my siblings.
“Where is your brother Abel?” God probingly asks. “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” responds Cain.
It’s a haunting question - one explored over the centuries in literature, music, and art. The question is in our subconscious when a family member asks for a loan. It lingers between parents as they wonder whether they should once again take in their adult kid who’s between jobs. It’s present in the unexpressed voices of grandparents raising their grandkids.
“What have you done?” God demands, refusing to let Cain off the hook. “Listen! Your brother’s blood screams out at me the ground.”
Are we our brother’s keeper? How far do terms like “brotherhood” stretch? What does it mean to be someone’s “keeper”?
Cain and Abel are often considered the first story of sibling rivalry; the two of them and their parents, Adam and Eve, constitute the first nuclear family. If you interpret the story narrowly, you could probably conclude that Cain’s question refers solely to a biological sibling. See — God wants us to take care of our families!
Of course, God does want us to take care of our families. It’s just that there is one world, one Creator, and one family God is after. The whole human drama in Genesis extends way beyond just one family unit. Cain and Abel don’t just represent the sibling rivalry between two blood brothers; they are stand-ins for all humanity. They are brothers who live in a haunted kingdom. Their father may have remembered the rush of cosmic creation, but his sons know only the fall. They are the true offspring of man and woman. The divine breath is by now one step removed.
So we see two brothers - men of the same blood, the beginning of the universal human family - who can’t get along. There are only the two of them, and yet the world doesn’t seem to be big enough for them to live together peacefully. They are unable to coexist. Cain, distraught and jealous over the fact that God paid heed to Abel’s sacrifices and ignored his, got so angry that he killed his brother Abel. Cain was actually angry at God or at What seemed like the unfairness of God. But Cain doesn’t take it out on God; he takes it out on his brother.
With his dead brother lying on the ground beside his feet, Cain manages to ask God his astounding question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” That does sound extreme, doesn’t it? I want to roll my eyes at the absurdity of the question. Envision the scene in your mind. Feel the incredulity of it. God surely sees it as nonsense. “What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to me the ground!”
Jok Koui, a brother from the South of Sudan, presented our congregation with a first-person account of some of the horrendous persecution and atrocities suffered by his family and community in that part of Africa. and I met at a coffee shop a few days ago. As he talked, his words seemed to blow past me while the images began to take form: a four-year-old boy running for his life with his eight year old brother; government troops firing at the backs of villagers as they fled; watching people who can’t swim jump into a swift river to escape the bullets, only to be drowned by the current.
I saw the scenes 10k presented to me, and I thought of the figures I already knew:
- Every fourteen seconds a child is orphaned due to HIV/AIDS, and every five seconds another child dies of starvation. That means that since you began reading this article, another nine children or so have become orphans in a place where there is no real help for them, and sixty or so have died from hunger;
- 22 million people have already died of AIDS worldwide;
- More than 1.1 billion people live on less than $1 a day, and 2.7 billion live on less than $2 a day.
I looked down at my cappuccino and saw not Cain standing beside Abel but myself standing beside the lifeless bodies of Jok’s mother and father, his uncles, aunts, and cousins; and I saw God asking me, “What have you done? The blood of your brother cries out to me from the ground!”
Americans spent more than $850 million in 2004 on customized cell phone rings. ABC spent a total of eighteen minutes on the Darfur genocide in its nightly newscasts; stories of Michael Jackson’s trial were fifty-five times that. Is it too much of a leap to imagine God asking us, “What have you done?”
I don’t think it’s too much of a leap. I bet most of us would readily see the parallels. We have seen the news photos, gazed uneasily at their lifeless eyes upon us, and heard the lingering question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The question comes at inconvenient times for me, like while I’m buying shoes in Nordstroms or coming out of Dunkin Donuts with a coffee and amuffin. Like most of us, I am very moved by the stories, the photos, the needs. I don’t think our lukewarm response to Darfur, or world poverty, or the AIDS crisis, or the other world tragedies are a result of us not believing that we are our brothers’ keepers. Yet the framework of being my brother’s keeper somehow doesn’t frame my life. I confess that many days when I read the paper, or pass by people with petitions, I have an almost frustrated response that’s akin to, “Hey, I’m doing the best I can. I can’t take on any more needs!” Then I realize that what I need isn’t to whip myself to do more. I need a more mature response to the world’s needs, one that understands that Abel and Cain needed each other.
I need to care for people with AIDS primarily for their sake, but also for my own. As Annie Dillard says in Teaching a Stone to Talk,
God does not demand that we give up our personal dignity, that we throw in our lot with random people, that we lose ourselves and turn from all that is not him. God needs nothing, asks nothing, and demands nothing....It is a life with God which demands these things.
I need to be my brother’s keeper not because I must live with God, but because I may. More than anything else, I want a life with God, and that means a life of being my brother’s keeper. As Jok said, “There is one world and one God and one brotherhood.”
After Abel’s murder in Genesis 4, Genesis 5:1-3 (NRSV) opens with a bright voice declaring, “This is the list of the descendents of Adam . . . when Adam had lived one hundred years, he became the father of a son in his likeness . . . and named him Seth.” Seth was seen as God’s replacement for Abel (Genesis 4:25), and Abel’s name is not mentioned again throughout the Old Testament.
But he doesn’t go away. His blood continues to call forth from the ground, echoing the cry. Abel finally reappears in Matthew 23, when another Son, the Son of God, says to the Pharisees - those who sit in churches week after week, those who pour over the Torah, those who desire to be holy,
Woe to you. You tithe. You tithe mint and dill and cumin, but you’ve neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and appear beautiful on the outside, but inside you are full of dead man’s bones... upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth...thc blood of righteous Abel” (Matthew 23:1-39, NIV)
Jesus reminds us that Abel’s blood continues to scream.
We might not want to think about what happened so long ago. But the reality is that there is still blood on the ground. And it involves us, because it’s our brother’s blood. Taking care of our nuclear or extended family isn’t enough. Being careful about what our kids watch on TV, reading to them at night, helping them make good choices and learn about God are all good. But it’s not enough. It’s not enough for human beings. And it’s not enough for the children of God. Working hard at your job isn’t enough. Being honest on your income taxes, working through your inner demons, and tithing aren’t enough. A life with God has a weightier provision, a weightier responsibility: We are our brothers’ keepers.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the magnitude of it all. It’s like standing in a field staring up at the blazing sun. Sooner or later you have to close your eyes. And I think for some of us, that’s what we’ve done. We’ve closed our eyes in order to keep ourselves together, or because the pain of looking at the needs is too severe. We can get overwhelmed because we think that it’s up to us. But it isn’t. It’s up to God. And a life with God, a life of being a disciple, isn’t about meeting the needs of all; it’s about just bringing who we are to God and letting God have his way with us. It’s about being watchful, attentive to what the Spirit is saying. We are to put ourselves into places and conversations where we may be directed by the Spirit.
Maybe the place to begin is to change one thing in your life. Maybe it’s to pray each day for God to show you the world’s needs and your proper response. Then be prepared to respond. If you think that prayer is too passive, try it and see what happens after a couple of weeks of praying and listening. Prayer is being part of a dialogue that can take you to places and action you would have never dreamed!
Maybe some of us are called to consciously give up a few candy bars or cups of coffee at work and put the change in a cup for our brothers and sisters who are living in extreme poverty. Maybe as a family we will put up a map of Africa and teach and learn about how our bigger family lives. Maybe some of us will pack up our dreaded jobs and stake our lotwith our brothers and sisters in dramatic ways. But don’t do any of these things with stooped shoulders and dejected mouths. Don’t do them because we must, but because we may.
Ultimately, there is more than the blood of Abel crying out from the ground; there is the blood of Jesus streaming from the cross. Our weightier responsibility doesn’t come from the law of Moses (the law of fear and responsibility). Being our brother’s keeper is the privilege that comes from the law of Love, from the Lord of Love. It’s the responsibility that emerges from gratitude to a Savior who held nothing back in loving the world. It’s a word of hope, not of burden. It’s the word made visible to me by 10k. A better word than the blood of Abel, as the writer of Hebrews expresses it (Hebrews 12:24), the new life that begs to be shared with others. It’s the experience of being our brother’s keeper.
Rev. Laura Truax, M. Div, is Senior Pastor of LaSalle Street Church in Chicago, This article was originally a sermon that she preached at the church located at 1126 N. LaSalle Street, Chicago, Illinois on August 21, 2005. She can be I contacted at ltruax [at] lasallestreetchurch [dot] org.