Saturday, October 1, 2011

Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

The first smartass remark of a child to its elder is recorded very early in the book of Genesis in the Hebrew Scriptures. Cain had just bludgeoned his brother Abel to death and, even in that early era, without any criminal law precedents to guide him, had figured out that he had done something he shouldn’t have done. So he dug a hole and buried him. When his Grandfather (otherwise known as God, his father Adam’s maker) asked him where his brother was, he shot off a smartass remark. Instead of lying and saying, “I dunno,” he said, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” And just like that he created a phrase for the ages, unintentionally, I’m sure, raising a question with which we still struggle all these generations later.

Of course the gross answers to the question fall in two clear directions, yes and no. But those seeking to put a finer point on the issue find gradations and complications in answering the question. Under what circumstances am I my brother’s keeper? Who is this “brother” of whom I am supposed to be the keeper? In what ways am I to be my brother’s keeper? Am I required also to be the keep of my brother’s ex-wife and six kids? What if my brother is a lazy slob and doesn’t deserve any help?

Just about every occasion or every exhortation to become a “brother’s keeper” elicits a new refinement of the verbal dance. Cain’s guilty dodge is understandable even if not laudable. The modern responses to the question are more complicated. In most instances resistance to charitable concern for our “brothers” does not catch us in the guilty position of having put our brother in the straits which call for help for others. War, natural disasters, poor economic conditions, failing health, personal (and interpersonal) failures are more often the cause for our brother’s difficulties. So, we often ask, where is our responsibility? We didn’t get him into the mess he is in, why should we be required to help get him out?

David Brooks, a regular Op-Ed contributor to the New York Times wrote an excellent piece this week on the subject of human empathy. His main point was that, though recent neurological research seems to show that human beings are genetically wired to have empathy for other hurting individuals, other research shows that such natural empathy does not necessarily result in humans rushing to become their brother’s keeper when they see him in hard straights. German SS Troopers were known to weep as they gunned down innocent Jews in mass. Feeling empathy for a homeless man doesn’t necessarily translate into stopping ones car, getting out, and giving him a dollar or buying him a meal. Brooks concludes that one needs something more than empathy; one needs a commitment to a moral code that impels one to do something about the hurting brother’s condition even if such a response disadvantages oneself.

That moral impetus to help the brother in need can come from a variety of sources. Helping people come from all walks of life, all strata of society, and many philosophical perspectives. But they all share a willingness to by-pass the verbal dance that seeks to refine the question in such a way that they are excused from action. Instead they reach into their pocket, or extend their hand, or take of their time, or open their door, or do the thing that their brother needs done at the moment.

If Brooks’ sources are right; if empathy is a genetic human trait which all healthy humans possess, then Christians are no better or worse than non-Christians in that regard. They either have the gene or don’t – presumable the vast majority have it. The difference comes in how they respond to the urgings of their heart when they see a brother in need. Any observant person knows that Christians have as wide an array of responses to need as any other class of individuals. Some are generous and unquestioning, others selective in whom, and what causes they respond to, and still others are unwilling to allow their empathy to move them to action.

It is unfortunate that the name, Christian, has come to cover much that is antithetical to the teachings of the Christ whom it represents. The apostle Paul urged Christian believers of his time to imitate the selflessness of Jesus Christ.

"Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross."

That “attitude” should be ours when facing our brother’s need. When we are tempted to turn our back on our brother’s need it is time to ask if we are displaying the same love for the needs of mankind that Jesus did when he gave up all to be his brother’s keeper. There are many ways available to us to be our brother’s keeper. We can expend the resources we have of time, and energy, and emotion, and money directly and indirectly. We can support public policy that, though costing us through taxation, nonetheless provides for the care and welfare of those we might not otherwise have a direct way to help.

Others, not Christian, will be there to help the needy brothers (and sisters). It would be the greatest of shames if Christians were not there too, indeed in the forefront of those serving the needy. Perhaps David Brooks is right; we have all been given the gift of empathy. The only question is, what are we doing with it?

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