I’m probably not alone when I say that responsibility to and for others makes me squirm. It may have something to do with growing up in an unapologetically individualistic society, where everyone is supposed to be able to do everything for and take care of only themselves, where our main connections to others are about competition rather than compassion and cooperation and where major accomplishments are generally attributed to one person without more than a mere mention of their “pit crew” or support system. I suspect that it goes further back than American culture, too: God asks Cain, the first murderer, where the one he killed is. Cain retorts, basically, that he shouldn’t be responsible for his brother (Genesis 4:9). Now, this is a bit outrageous, of course: in the first place, the Lord knows exactly what happened, as the Lord proceeds to inform Cain (“your brother’s blood cries out to be from the ground,” Genesis 4:10) but in the second place, Cain murdered his brother. The Lord is putting the responsibility for his brother exactly where it needs to be: on Cain.
And yet, all extreme exceptions aside, I think the point still stands. Even though it was uttered by a killer – and sarcastically (as far as I can tell) no less – I affirm that, yes, I am my brother’s keeper. This means more than not murdering him. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it might mean, as Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig beautifully explains, keeping him from killing himself or at least trying to do so. It means laying aside our very American notion that we are not responsible for other people’s choices for just a minute and exploring what it may mean to consider that, even if we’re not personally culpable for the decisions of another, we have a profound ability to influence them. Really, we are doing so every day in our interactions, or lack thereof, with those in our lives whether we’re aware of it or not.
So if it is true that I am my brother’s keeper (and my sister’s keeper), how does one keep a brother or a sister? I don’t mean biological families here necessarily – though we often take those relationships for granted, too: I have both a brother and a sister and haven’t spoken to either in over six months. This will change (likely only briefly) next month, at my sister’s wedding, but the point is that “blood ties” are not always strong enough building blocks for relationships. If it’s difficult to grow and maintain “blood” relationships with siblings, how much harder, then, is it with non “family” members?
“But…Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:48-49). It is a huge task to even see anyone who does God’s will as a brother or sister, let alone “keep” them. But that is the first step: that we see each other in the body of Christ as brothers and sisters, those we need to keep and those we need to allow to keep us. This isn’t just important because we were created for community but also because if we are indeed the body of Christ, we can only function at all if we are connected for a body can only do its work as a whole body if each part remains attached to every other part. “Keeping” each other as brothers and sisters is how we remain connected; connection is how we remain unified; unity is how we remain in love and our love is how the world will see Jesus.