By Frank Wessling
“Am I my brother’s keeper?” It’s a perennial question that underlies much of the tension in our political life. Is there some kind of obligation to watch out for each other? Do we owe every bum on the road a caring relationship in some way?
Or are we free to assume only the obligations we want?
Freedom is a crucial value in our religious tradition. Each of us is known personally by God and called to become a unique flavor of God’s presence in creation. Communion is also a crucial value, a central value especially in Catholicism. We do not represent God at all without the relationship of compassionate love.
That famous question we began with comes from the story of human beginnings in the Book of Genesis. Cain has killed his brother, Abel, and God confronts Cain: “Where is Abel, your brother?”
Cain’s response is a classic defensive move: Am I his keeper? His nanny? It’s not my business; he should take care of himself.
God was not amused. For his punishment Cain received the fullness of what he wished for, a disconnection from caring relationships. He was banished from human communion to feel the desolation of being without brotherhood anywhere at any time.
If Genesis were a drama communicated through women, the names might be Karen and Adelaide and the punishment would be absence of sisterhood, but we all get the point. Isolation is inhuman. We are created with directions to develop as persons in relationship, not merely as atomized individuals apart from other individuals.
The Catholic bishops of the world took up this topic during the Second Vatican Council. In the council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World they taught this:
“Profound and rapid changes make it particularly urgent that no one, ignoring the trend of events or drugged by laziness, content himself with a merely individualistic morality. It grows increasingly true that the obligations of justice and love are fulfilled only if each person, contributing to the common good according to his own abilities and the needs of others, also promotes and assists the public and private institutions dedicated to bettering the conditions of human life.”
Our freedom and virtue as persons matures as we grow in our ability to contribute to the common good. We are all one another’s “keepers” to some degree.