What Does it Mean to be Our Brother’s Keeper?
- Thursday, September 10, 2009
Recently President Obama rallied the "Religious Left" to fight for his health care overhaul, with the spiritual - and PC - call to arms: "We are our brother's - and our sister's - keeper."
Which leaves me wondering: While a government response to a national crisis - say, an attack on the Pacific Fleet - is sometimes the obvious solution, is it kosher to claim that a thousand pages of increased control and oversight by an already monolithic government is somehow a religious/spiritual battle?
Does it make spiritual sense to rush such legislation through unread, short-circuiting the debate process? Is it ethical to mischaracterize those with specific, serious questions on beginning and end-of-life issues as miscreants? And is it morally correct to neutralize the opposition by using the language of sacred scripture to make political points?
Ironically, the Brother's Keeper epithet was first framed as a negative: When God asked after Cain, Abel - fresh from murdering him - answered "Am I my brother's keeper?" But, hey, we were only four chapters into history, and we still had a lot to learn. Today any Christian worth his salt knows that where God is concerned, the right response is a resounding "Yes!" After all, Jesus told us so Himself, through stories like the Good Samaritan and imperatives like "Love Your Neighbor."
Through the years, I've met many Brother's Keeper Christians whose walk - much bigger than their talk - led them into adoption, foster care, soup kitchens, Special Olympics, hospitals and hospice. A quick Google reveals several groups borrowing the Brother's Keeper name for practical projects like rounding up free furniture for those in need http://www.mybrotherskeeper.org/ and making sleeping bags for the homeless http://thesleepingbagproject.org/.
Compared to a government program costing trillions, these efforts may seem small and insignificant. And yet - especially as I consider the past year of my life - I am convinced that when it comes to charity, small is scriptural and personal outshines political.
Last summer our family began a financial/lifestyle tumble that landed us in territory I hadn't seen since I was a little girl - a territory where turn the heat to 60 and forget the AC, where new clothes and fast food are no longer options, where you use odds and ends stamps to make postage. A territory where you finally are dependent - at least for a while - on the compassion of others to get you through.
When we returned to renting after 20 years of home ownership, the silver lining was that my husband could finally have the knee replacement surgery he'd put off for six years because he couldn't take a month off work. Complications led to five more surgeries and nine months without his income.
Adding to the financial crisis was our unusual family situation: though we are senior citizens, we have five children under 17 at home, including four with disabilities, three of whom we adopted in our younger and more well-to-do days, our way of giving back.
While between the two of us, we could manage, by November, without my husband's help, I was crushed and desperate. I went to my doctor for help. She gave me a sample of anti-depressants but I never took them.
Instead, God intervened. He sent a veritable army of brothers and sisters in Christ to help us. Families with six or seven kids marched in with full-course dinners. Neighboring churches showed up with coolers full of frozen food to stock our freezer. Firewood appeared from nowhere and teenagers came and stacked it. Homeschool moms collected hand-me-downs to keep my growing boys warm all winter. A small private foundation paid a month's utility bills. Unexpected packages arrived and out tumbled gift cards and spiritual books and handmade presents.
The generosity of the church was complemented by the generosity of the community. School personnel made sure my children had supplies. And in a twist I never thought would be part of my life experience, instead of taking stars off the Christmas tree to buy gifts for a family in need, our family became part of the stars.
Please understand that I'm not telling this story for pity. I'm telling this story because it represents a triumph - the sort of small triumph that occurs in communities across the country every day. The triumph when in the midst of whatever suffering we have, the hearts of friends, neighbors - and even strangers - are moved to do what they can to meet the need in a completely spontaneous, autonomous, and authentic way.
Even though our trials are not over yet, I'm grateful for this chapter of my life. In fact this year has given me more to be grateful for than the 20 years of prosperity our family enjoyed - the years when we could afford to give, never thinking we would someday need to receive.
The confluence of the personal and the political in the past year has given me an understanding of why the government cannot - and should not claim to be able to - replace the role God has given us as Christians, where we are defined not by the worship we share on Sunday or the Bible we read each day, but our awareness of and caring for others. And it has affirmed for me that charity is a personal responsibility, not one any politician could or should use to shame us into adopting a pet program funded through force.
The fact is that Jesus calls us to a life of compassion and charity in a real and concrete way. Our faith is rich in this kind of imagery: Mary breaking her alabaster jar to anoint Jesus with special ointment. Jesus kneeling to wash his disciples' dirty feet.
I know how Peter must have felt at that moment - unworthy, humble, confused, but loved beyond measure. I know that the Christmas Eve surprise of a special dinner and bathrobes for our whole family was a lot different than taking a government check out of an envelope.
Charity is inherently individual - poignantly personal and real. Acts of charity transform those who give and those who receive. As someone who has given much when times were good and received much when times were tough, I can tell you it is much more real - and life-changing - to receive from the Body of Christ than to receive from the government. In the hands of our Heavenly Father, I can see how - as always - he has used all things for good in our family's situation this year, building within our church and community more interdependence, our awareness and compassion.
The problem with government programs is they inspire entitlement and resentment and a sense that there is never enough. Ultimately greed rather than gratitude.
And for the givers? Making dinner for a needy family involves more personal sacrifice yet yields more reward than turning over your hard-earned money/approval/trust to an already Byzantine, inefficient, unfriendly government bureaucracy, only to blindly trust that somehow they will filter your charity back down to your neighbor next door.
So what to make of a president wielding scripture as a tool, chiding us to be our brother's keeper by supporting his health care plan?
The Bible has shown us that anyone can use scripture - from Jesus to the disciples to the Pharisees to the Accuser.
While scripture may lend itself for political use, we need to listen for God's voice. Was Jesus speaking to political systems or to us as individuals? Has God ever asked us to build a bigger government? Does he really want us to pass our own personal responsibility to the poor, the hungry, the disabled, the lonely over to an impersonal monolithic bureaucracy with all the waste that implies?
Or should we take our president's words to heart on a personal level and do even more to help those closer to home so that at least a few - and perhaps a multitude - will turn their hearts to God rather than the government?
September 10, 2009
Barbara Curtis is author of 9 books, including Mommy, Teach Me! and Mommy, Teach Me to Read! She is also mother of 12, including several pursuing careers in music and theater.
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