In Christian belief, it’s often taught that we are our brother’s keeper. After the story of Cain murdering Abel, the usual commentary is that Cain murdered because he did not think of being his brother’s keeper. So we must be our brother’s keeper because we are responsible for each other, and so we must help each other as often, must give to each other, sometimes even when not needed, and so on. Now I think it veered away from the original message about murder, and whoever came up with the conventional interpretation just took a verse and used it to suit his own ideas (what’s that called, proof-texting?) And with all the recent things I’ve been reading about personal responsibility, I now hold that being commanded to be your brother’s keeper is a serious misinterpretation that has been appropriated to support flawed ideas, such as the “social justice warrior” mentality.
First, let’s look at the source. The line itself is a taunt by Cain against God’s asking him (even if God already knows) where Abel is. Cain answered, “I don’t know, am I my brother’s keeper?” If we modernize the phrase according to the sense it carried, it might go, “don’t ask me, I didn’t hide him!” It was a sarcastic lie.
God did not reply anything like, “yes you are your brother’s keeper” or similar. He said something else, that Abel’s blood was crying out to him, implying that nothing could be hidden from him. When you think about it, Cain was indeed his brother’s keeper – by keeping the body! So being his brother’s keeper was Cain’s sin too. This one’s a stretch, but notice that another word for killing is to put away – for which another synonym is to keep! Could that have been the sense in those times too?
I do know about the conventional interpretation that being a brother’s keeper means respecting them, so you don’t hurt or kill them. But that doesn’t seem to jibe with the way “keep” was used in that part of the Bible. “Keep” to me sounds more like to control or own someone, such as keeping a slave. The way the traditional Christian teaching used it seemed to be forced and inappropriate. But when “keep” is used to mean being responsible for another’s fortune or misfortune even if we not do something to them, it doesn’t sound right either. If someone else is poor, it is our fault. If someone gets drunk and dies of a heart attack, it’s our fault, not his. If someone commits a crime, it is someone else’s fault that led to his committing a crime. Basically, the buck is passed.
This is a great misinterpretation that is misused for things such as moral fundamentalism. For example, the “social justice warriors” think rich people should be forced to give to the poor (or that it is always the fault of the rich that others are poor). Or they believe poverty is always someone else’s fault, so the poor are justified to kill (e.g. hold a “revolution” against) that someone else. Even the oldies I described who want to force their children to share or believe they should impose their morality on others likely hold the brother’s keeper idea. But the same goes for criminals: a murderer can say in their defense, “it’s their (the victim’s) fault, they made me do it.” A palamunin or freeloader will say, “hey, you should be your brother’s keeper, so keep me, as in, keep me fed!” And so on.
If we look at the Bible again, it has another verse that says, “each of us will give an account of himself before God.” (Romans 14:10). This is individual accountability. We cannot be responsible for others’ actions.
In or out of the religious context, we are not other people’s keepers because each person is a living equal of ours. They have individual will and freedom. We cannot “keep” them and be responsible for their actions. They are responsible for their own. Each of us is our own keeper. We are only responsible for others if we ordered them to do something wrong or if we did something to them (just as Cain killed Abel).
Perhaps it’s time to drop this idea of being our brother’s keeper, or at least drop the interpretation of being responsible for others’ decisions and actions. Dropping it does not oppose the idea that we should love our neighbors as ourselves, or that we should treat others as we would want them to treat us. But being a keeper of someone else is not love. It is controlling others. With or without the religious contest, we should still be cognizant of personal responsibility. Because even while we are on this earth, the verse is very much relevant that we will each make an account of ourselves, individually. Because that is what justice really means – not that “social justice” horse manure.