Am I My Brother’s Keeper?
The question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is asked very early in the story of mankind (Genesis 4:9) but no answer is ever given. Maybe there is no one right answer; it depends on the circumstances of the case, and also on the kind of person who is asking the question.
Roughly speaking, there are two classes of people, the dominant and the recessive. The dominant man or woman is inclined to say, “Yes, I am my brother’s keeper.” The recessive will say, “No, I am not my brother’s keeper.” Both could be right, and both could be wrong. Many dominant people who have a keen sense of responsibility toward their neighbor become outstanding figures, a source of tremendous strength. Friends and strangers come to them for help. Everybody looks up to them and admires them. On the other hand, dominant people can be a dreadful pest: officious, fussy, bossy, trying to control all the traffic, playing God. The recessive individual who says, “I am not my brother’s keeper,” will be a much easier person to live with; but he will back away from responsibility, avoid committing himself, being afraid of sticking out his neck. He will be quite useless when trouble strikes, a liability rather than an asset.
A visitor to your home may be of the kind who has to be waited on hand and foot. You think, “Surely he might offer to do something toward the work of the house!” Then there is the dominant type of person who comes forward and says, “Isn’t there anything I can do to help?” and soon you find he is running the show! Even worse, he goes around the house putting things right! Just as an example, I knew someone whose garden gate squeaked whenever it was opened or shut. A house guest, wishing to do his good deed for the day, insisted on procuring an oil can and oiling the hinges, so that the gate opened and closed without a sound. But – the owners of the house liked the squeak! It gave the lady warning when tradesmen or visitors were coming up the garden path, or when her husband was returning from work; and anyway it gave a characteristic sound which meant home to them. What right had this meddlesome visitor to change their way of life by oiling their gate? Who made him his brother’s keeper? The trouble was, he had acted from his own ego, utterly insensitive to the feelings of his host. He had taken it for granted that what he thought was good for them would necessarily be what they thought, and it isn’t always so.
In many marriages one partner tends to be dominant and the other recessive. Sometimes it is the husband who dominates, sometimes it is the wife; I have known it both ways. We will call the dominant partner A, and the recessive partner B. A feels impelled to be B’s keeper. In the early days of the marriage B struggles a bit but eventually gives in and lets A decide everything, arrange everything, and even do everything, until B is a mere nonentity or shadow. If you challenge A, A says heor she has to take the initiative or nothing would get done at all. If you put this to B, B says it is no use his or her trying to do anything because it is always wrong! What sort of a partnership is that? The only advice one can give in such a case is that each should stand on his own feet and be himself, and let the other be himself, because otherwise how can there possibly be a love relationship between them? The dominant one should respect the right of the other to be recessive, and guard that right for him, never infringing it. Each should allow the other to go at his or her own pace, without needling or pushing or pulling or trying to compete or trying to make the other feel guilty. Remember Lucy in Peanuts. First she accuses Charlie Brown of being wishy-washy; then, remembering her psychology, she says: “Stick up for your right to be wishy-washy, Charlie Brown!”
I used to think that in a marriage the husband should do everything he does as an act of service to his wife, and she should do everything as an act of service to her husband. But I have changed my mind about this, because I have so often seen one partner swallow up the other. The counsel I now give to young couples is that marriage is a team relationship, and each should contribute all he has to the team. They will contribute different things, of course, and they will work at different speeds and in different ways. Neither has any right to interfere with the other or criticize the other’s contribution or try to impose on the other. So long as both are contributing to the team in their own way, the marriage is likely to come out all right.
Returning now to the question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” – this was originally asked in the Bible story by Cain after he had murdered his brother Abel. God found Cain walking alone in the open country, and asked, “Where is your brother Abel?” Cain answered with a show of innocence, “Why ask me? I don’t know! Am I my brother’s keeper?” It was not a real question but a piece of shameless hypocrisy. Maybe Cain was not his brother’s keeper, but that did not excuse him for being his brother’s murderer! Yet that is a strong temptation for anyone with a dominant personality. If he cannot keep his brother, he tries to abolish him! I saw it often in Africa. The paternalistic whiteman comes out, full of wonderful plans for the welfare of the “natives,” whom he regards as inferior beings. He tries to introduce all these good reforms which would indeed save hundreds of lives and make the “poor savages” more healthy and better nourished, and raise their standard of living. But, unfortunately, the African does not see it in that way. He fails to recognize the wonderful superiority of the whiteman. He declines to cooperate, he resists the improving innovations, preferring to go in the immemorial ways of his ancestors. In the end the whiteman is so frustrated and angry that he dismisses the African as ungrateful, unappreciative, unhelpable. He murders him in his own mind with bitterness and contempt. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” he asks in despair. “No, I am not. He is dead anyway. I’ve killed him. Let’s pack up and go home!”
In contrast to this, the Peace Corps are trained not to try to dominate and control other people’s lives, but instead to live and work with them, respecting their traditional ways and being sensitive to their feelings, influencing them by loving example rather than by bossy instruction. It is only in partnership that you can help anyone, going along with him so that he will go along with you. God Himself works on this basis. He never forces good on His children. He does not compel anyone to go to heaven. It must be done by first of all getting the person to want to go to heaven. The Lord works with us in partnership, and, if we agree to this procedure, if we accept the “covenant” which God offers us, then He can gradually lift us up. We shall feel we are doing it ourselves; and, before we even begin to realize what is happening, we shall find ourselves angels in heaven!
I think the general answer to the question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” should go something like this. No. No man should be his brother’s keeper, in the sense of a keeper at the zoo. You can own and control animals, and you can own and control machines and things. But not human beings. That is the basic evil behind Fascism and Communism, where the State claims the right to control the lives of the people, whereas it should be the other way around. Let us rephrase the question: “Am I responsible for my brother?” That sounds better, but still the answer must be “No.” I am responsible for myself alone, not for any other adult. Children are a different matter; you have to be responsible for them. And for teenagers in a lessening degree as they grow up. At what point must we take our hands away from under them? – cut the umbilical cord? That is another question! The point I am making now is that the time will come, whether we like it or not, when they will become adults. And every adult is responsible for himself or herself alone. I may be responsible for some element in another man’s environment, especially if an act of mine, or thoughtlessness of mine, causes any restriction in his freedom to be himself. There are gross evils in our society which hinder or even prevent the full development of countless people. We could probably contribute towards improving these conditions if we exerted ourselves sufficiently and in the right way. Anything we can do, or could do if we tried, we are 100% responsible for. We are responsible for the way we vote in an election, and to that extent for the kind of government that results from the voting. We are responsible for the way we spend our money or occupy our time. We are responsible for the way we pollute our environment, whether with rubbish or smoke or the over-loud noise of a radio. Even more are we responsible for the spiritual forces which emanate from us, the love and encouragement which can build our neighbor up, or the contempt and scorn that can crush someone down. You are 100% responsible for your attitude towards other people and all that follows from it. But you are not responsible in the least degree for the way they choose to run their lives, nor for their attitude towards you, nor for what they do to you.
If this were not so: that is to say, if you could be your brother’s keeper, then it would have to be equally true to say that he could be your keeper! How would you like that? Not too much, I guess! There are some people, no doubt, who would welcome having someone else whom they could blame for their troubles and mistakes. As it is, they blame their heredity, their childhood traumas, their parents and upbringing, their married partners, their children, the government, anything but themselves. But this is sick. Far healthier to take the blame on one’s own shoulders and do something about it. Your brother is not your keeper! Even God is not your keeper! God is your partner, as we have seen, but He leaves it to you how you choose to manage your side of the partnership. God is 100% responsible for His side, and you are 100% responsible for your side…..
This suggests what we should be like in our relations with other people. We should make ourselves 100% available to help and heal them. If our neighbor does not wish to receive the help we offer, that is his privilege. We should not hit him over the head if he does not respond as we want him to. Rather, we should patiently continue making ourselves available, in case at any time he does want to relate to us and receive our love and help. What if he hits us over the head? Well, that is his responsibility, not ours. Our responsibility lies only in our reaction to what he does, in the attitude we take towards him. It is that – our reaction – which will judge us, not anything he does to us. When Shimei cursed David and threw mud and stones at him as he went down to Jericho, it was Shimei who was hurt, not David. David reacted appropriately to it, and actually benefited spiritually, for the Lord repaid him with good on account of his patience and restraint (II Samuel 16:5-14). If you are angry or indignant or resentful on account of any bad thing that anybody does to you, you hurt yourself, not him. It is not our environment or circumstances or anything that anyone else does to us that can help or harm us spiritually, but only our reaction to our environment or circumstances or other people’s behavior. We are responsible for our attitude towards the other person; he is responsible for his attitude towards us. We each judge ourselves by our attitudes, not by anything specific we have done or left undone. When we die and leave this world, it is solely our attitude of heart that takes us to heaven or hell. Someone will object: “How about that well-known saying of John Donne’s, No man is an island?” Well, as far as our environment is concerned, we are, to a very large extent, responsible for one another. We are traveling through space together in this little space ship called the Earth. Our quarters are getting rather cramped as our numbers increase; there is certainly no room for quarrelling and fighting among ourselves! We have got to work together to see that everybody is comfortable and safe, or we shall all be destroyed. Even on a deeper level, the level of love to the neighbor, we do interact tremendously, and so we should always “do unto others as we would they should do unto us” (the Golden Rule).
However, on the deepest level of all, in our relationship with God, each individual is basically alone. Each man is an island. He cannot escape being so. Each one of us, male and female, must face that final interview with God alone. (Yes, my friend, that includes you!) In your confrontation with your Maker, you are alone; and whether His searing love and wisdom envelopes you with joy, or shatters you with agony, that is your affair, and nobody else’s.
People sometimes say disparagingly of some small religious sect: “Oh, they think they are the salt of the earth”! – meaning that they are spiritual snobs who imagine they have got a corner in salvation. Yet salt is just about the humblest of all cooking ingredients, and I am wondering whether the disciples took it as much of a compliment when the Master likened them to a pinch of salt! Rather a blow to their pride I would say. The whole point about salt is that, though a certain amount of it is necessary for health and well-being, and even life, yet it must not be conspicuous in itself. Think of some dish of meat or soup, or a stew, or scrambled eggs, or a plate of spaghetti. Without that pinch of salt, the meal is “weary, stale, flat and unprofitable.” Yet you don’t have to taste the salt. It is retiring and inconspicuous in itself, but brings out the full flavor of the meat and vegetables. This gives a new slant on what we should be doing as the salt of the earth.
A good Christian doesn’t push himself forward. He does not say: “Look at me, everybody, and do as I do – I am holier than you.” That would be like drawing attention to the salt, spilling it all over everything. You can have too much of a good thing, even if it is holy. Salt, to do its work properly, must keep in the background. It brings out the best in everything else, but does not want to be caught doing it. A really good man does not seek attention; all he wants is that somebody else should feel good. And if his own contribution to the situation is not noticed, he is perfectly content. You probably know such people. They are not necessarily brilliant, learned or clever, not outstanding in any way. Yet they seem to bring out the best in us. They make us taste good. They are the salt of the earth.
The next thing I want to say about salt is that it is tangy, bracing and astringent, not cloying or debilitating as sweetness tends to be. Sweetness is a very attractive quality, and Jesus might have said to His disciples, “Ye are the sugar of the earth.” But in fact He didn’t; He said salt. It was characteristic of the Victorian era (at any rate in England) to think of the Christian religion as sweet and sentimental – a velvet cushion to soften for us the shocks and blows of worldly life. One thinks of the syrupy hymns and anthems produced during that period, the pretty-pretty religious pictures of clean little Palestinian children with flowers in their hair. The emphasis was on the first part of our Lord’s words, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” – overlooking the second part, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me.” The yoke was a symbol of bondage, slavery. He also said, “Take up your cross and follow me.” Be prepared, if necessary, for the gas chamber or the electric chair. Submit to death by torture even. No mention of a velvet cushion! Sweetness there will be in the life of religion (and thank God for that!). But the challenge is that we should be salt, not sugar.
Have you noticed the difference in smell between a fresh-water lake and the salt sea? The lake is enervating, the sea bracing. Often on a lake shore there is a whiff of rotting fish or vegetation; never by the seaside, for a saline solution is a mild disinfectant and preservative. The sea is not sterile – far from it! It is teeming with plankton and fish, and a far greater variety of strange creatures than we have on the land. But there is never any sense of decay. You cannot, of course, drink sea water. If that is the only water available, you will die of thirst. Salt water doesn’t quench thirst, it makes you more thirsty than ever. And this brings out another quality of salt: it is thirst-provoking. That is why it helps us digest our food. Religion and church life do not refresh us or satisfy us in themselves. They make us thirsty for something else… for what? For the living water which springs up into everlasting life. This comes direct from the Lord, and from Him alone. “Blessed are they that thirst.” Blessed is the man or the church that thirsts. Are you thirsty for the living water? If not, you need some salt!
This reminds me of an incident in the eventful life of Elisha. The Sons of the Prophets, a religious fraternity who were living in a kind of retreat house near Jericho, said to him, “The situation of this city is pleasant, but the water is bad and the ground barren.” A stream was there, but it was bitter, and carried death wherever it went. Now, Elisha did a strange thing. He called for a new pot, and put salt in it, and threw it into the stream. You would have thought this would have made it worse, but on the contrary. Bitterness is not the same as salt. Bitterness destroys appetite, salt stimulates it. With salt, the waters were healed, and they have been fresh ever since; the modern tourist can quench his thirst there. The symbolism of this little miracle is clear and interesting. The Sons of the Prophets, who boasted of the splendid situation of their city but admitted that the ground was barren, were just like us Christians with our wonderful teachings and our fine church buildings, if we rest content with our situation but lack the healthy, life-giving thirst for God which salt stimulates in the palate: a thirst which enables us to digest the truths we possess and absorb them into our lives, to transform truth into goodness.
So we see that salt represents, in the abstract, “Truth thirsty for goodness.” As Christians, and especially as Swedenborgians, we have plenty of truth, which is pleasant and satisfactory in its own way, but entirely useless unless it leads to an improvement in the quality of our lives. If it does not do this we remain sterile. “Faith alone” has actually been found to carry death with it. Faith inevitably brings a responsibility; we must live according to the truth we know. The professional theologian is at a disadvantage in this respect. He has immense quantities of truth and loves to accumulate it. Perhaps he has written books on it. He is a wholesale dealer in salt. He has warehouses full of salt, and wants to pass it on to other people. But maybe he never takes a lick of it himself. It never occurs to him, perhaps, that he must take the Lord’s teachings out of his study into his everyday life. He could live and die in a wilderness of salt.
Remember Lot’s wife. Oh yes, she knew all about the wickedness of Sodom. She had special insights which other people lacked, revealed by an angel from heaven. But it didn’t seem to occur to her that she herself was involved, that her own life was in danger; that she must get right out of her evil situation, and never look back. She had plenty of salt, but it did not make her hungry for goodness. So she became a dried-up pillar of_ salt in the desert, a perpetual warning of what happens to those who make the salt of doctrine into a monument, instead of using it as an appetizer.
This leads us to the Lord’s parable about salt which has lost its savor. You and I can probably look back to a time when we were really in love with our religion; it meant everything to us. But now, perhaps, the bloom has worn off. Its cutting edge is getting blunt. We are becoming slack and apathetic. This is a dangerous state to be in. With the ordinary worldly pleasure-seeker who has never had any close contacts with religion, salt can be given him to make him thirsty for a better life, which may lead to repentance and reformation. But the religious apostate has been through it all before. He knows the teachings from A to Z. They are “old hat” to him! Such a case is indeed difficult to deal with. As Jesus said: “Salt is good; but if the salt itself has lost its savor, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing but to be cast out on to the dunghill.”
This comes as a serious challenge to you, if you have once accepted the responsibility of being the salt of the earth. You must be continually on your guard, lest your savor wear off. You must be careful never to grow careless or apathetic. Remember, on you depends the salting of the world in which you move. It rests with you, as a Christian, to demonstrate in your life how a true son or daughter of God should live. Nobody expects you to be a saint; we are all very ordinary people. But a few ordinary people can make a tremendous difference to their environment, if they live in simplicity and sincerity according to the Christian doctrine. A little leaven can leaven three measures of meal. A small pinch of salt can transform a large saucepan of stew. A few good people can transform a family, a community, a town, a nation – so powerful and far-reaching is the force of example. Your kindliness and gentleness, your unselfishness, your intimacy with the Lord, your reverence for holy things, your honesty, integrity and purity, on these may depend the salvation of thousands of people. Not many will be aware of your influence, but it will be there. And some there may be who will say, when at length you leave this earth-life for the Great Beyond: “The world tastes better because he or she has passed this way.”