Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Brother's keeper?

I was reading an article the other day that mentioned the concept of being our brother's keeper and it asked the question "'Am I my brother's keeper?' YES YOU ARE!" As soon as I read that I thought, "NO YOU AREN'T!" What? What about the hymn and all the talks about being our brother's keeper? If we actually look at the definition of "keeper" and how it's used in other instances we can see we are certainly not our brother's keeper.

First, the phrase "brother's keeper" really only appears a grand total of ONE time in the scriptures (two if you count its appearance in the book of Moses which is telling the same story) . That, of course, is in Genesis 4:9: "And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And [Cain] said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?" OK let's put this into context. First, the Lord knew very well where Cain's brother Abel was so Cain's answer is hardly anything beyond a smart@$$ remark. It certainly isn't some profound statement of truth from Cain. Translated into 21st century talk he's basically saying, "how should I know? Am I in charge of him?" Remember, this is CAIN we're talking about. You know, he not only killed his brother, but made a pact with the Devil. Outside of Lucifer himself he's one of the great villains in all scripture if not the greatest. Despite this, we use the very phrase only he uttered as a Gospel principle. Cain knew very well the principle of agency and the fact that both he and Abel were adults fully capable of and responsible for making their own decisions, hence the smart remark. Nowhere is it implied in what he said or the Lord's response that Cain was his brother's keeper. Instead, the Lord simply exclaims "What has thou done?" (Genesis 4:10) He doesn't even respond to the question "Am I my brother's keeper?" knowing full well what Cain meant by that remark.

OK, so besides the fact that it was Cain who said this, let's look at the current meaning of the word "keeper". While there are a number of definitions of "keeper" we use today, the one that applies here is "A person charged with guarding or caring for, storing, or maintaining something; a custodian, a guard." Examples include words like housekeeper, goalkeeper, zookeeper, beekeeper, etc. My mom has stated that being our brother's keeper has been confused with "bearing one another's burdens" and seeing "caring for" as part of the definition it's easy to see why. In the end, though, a "keeper" is almost completely responsible for whatever it is they are "keeping". We are not responsible for the actions of our "brothers" not only because of personal accountability, but also because of agency. Does that mean we shouldn't watch out for our "brothers" and help them when we can or that we shouldn't tell them when they're doing or about to do something stupid? Absolutely not. Unfortunately, too many people take being their "brother's keeper" to mean they are a keeper in the very real sense of the word; that is, it is their job to guard and even police their brothers. I saw this all too frequently while attending BYU-Idaho. "Brother's keeper" was translated into "informant" and/or "watcher" in regards to following the school's Honor Code. I've also seen it in legislation where the government takes on the role of brother's keeper by passing laws that show they believe they know more about what's best for your health, education, wellness, etc. than you do. There is a fine line between helpful advice and intrusion. Parents, however, are far more keepers than we should be of our fellow adults. But even parenthood has its limits as to what is too much "guarding" (i.e. overprotecting). When parents are overprotecting, it simply robs children of the ability to learn problem solving as well as the experience adversity brings. That doesn't mean we go looking for adversity but at the same time it also doesn't mean we shut ourselves up and avoid the world completely. What good does that do?

I think we should find a different word to use besides "keeper" to describe what we are to our brothers. Perhaps we are our "brother's advocate" or "best friend" or even "confidant". Parents are their children's keepers, but only for so long and in a limited way. There are just to many reasons why "brother's keeper" doesn't work as a phrase, from the meaning of "keeper" to the main person who first used the phrase.


BriAnne said...

Great insights! I never even gave it that much thought. But I think you're right. Very cool. Thank you!

Granny J said...

"Hear, Hear!"

Anonymous said...

Could you please post the article I am interested.

Jon said...

I posted the link to the article in the post, but in all honesty, I didn't include it originally because this isn't really a response to that specific article. That article (the one quote in particular) simply triggered my response to a long-standing belief of mine that "brother's keeper" isn't really an accurate phrase.

Anonymous said...

Oh okay