Several weeks ago, I went for dinner at a favorite restaurant. As I waited to pay the tab, a family with a boy about 4 years old was leaving. The father roughly grabbed the little boy by the arm, jerking him off his feet. I said to no one in particular, “poor little boy.” The man’s back was toward me, so I wasn’t sure he heard me. But the little boy’s mother quickly scooped the little boy up into her arms, where he buried his head in her shoulder.
How many times have we seen someone mistreat a child in a harsh manner in some public place? Do we turn our backs? Do we give the parent “the look” of disapproval? Do we risk a scene that might make the situation worse? If a child is treated this way by a frustrated parent, what happens to that child at home? Do our responses make any difference?
The phrase “Am I my brother’s keeper?” has run through my head since that brief encounter in the restaurant. It comes from the story of Cain’s response to God, after Cain killed his brother. When asked by God where Abel was, Cain’s retort was, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” This scripture passage is a basic ethical premise of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (in the Quran, Cain and Abel are referred to as the sons of Adam, rather than by name).
Question extends to the political, social, economic realms
The question of whether I am my brother’s or sister’s keeper is about more than our individual encounters with others. It extends to ethical and moral responsibilities in political, social, and economic issues within our country – and responsibilities we have to other countries.
Genocide is an obvious heinous crime. The use of chemical or biological weapons compounds the evil committed when one faction seeks to eradicate another. Yet, dynamics of genocide are complex and responses other countries might make are equally complex.
After the Holocaust, in which Hitler sought to cleanse his kingdom of Jews, Gypsies, and other groups of people who did not fit his idea of white or Aryan superiority, the world’s reactions of horror continue to this day. Many are determined that such horrendous crimes are never repeated. Thus, when our sisters and brothers are being slaughtered, we struggle with the question of “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Countries need to be able to settle their issues without intervention from other countries, particularly when their differences involve religious beliefs. Settling such issues may extract enormous costs of bloodshed. But do we stand by when such differences spiral into genocide?
Two decades ago, the international community was confronted with ethnic genocide in Rwanda. During the horrendous slaughter of whole communities, the U.N. and individual countries hesitated. Similarly, when Yugoslavia began to break up and slide in ethnic chaos, Europe and the United States could come to little agreement about intervening in the affairs of another country.
Now I listen to global conversations about the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Chemical and biological weapons have been prohibited in armed conflicts by a series of treaties that began with use of chemical weapons during World War I. There seems to be general agreement that this ban has not been honored in Syria and that sarin, a lethal nerve gas, was used in rebel neighborhoods in Damascus. It is the options about what to do that range widely.
Protests by some people and organizations against engagement in any war go beyond American or European weariness with war. This anti-war position opposes engaging in war under any circumstance. We just celebrated the 1963 March on Washington, where nonviolent civil disobedience was seen as the way to effect social change. It is an approach worthy of addressing any injustice. But when the “other side” does not play by the rules, we are faced with complex ethical issues.
Are we are our brother’s and our sister’s keeper? Is the question a simple statement to guide our lives? Or is it a very deep moral and ethical prescription in situations where sometimes there seem to be no solutions?
When should we stand by — or intervene?
Even more far-reaching, when do we stand by and let people work out their disagreements? And when, as our brother’s keeper, should we intervene in discrimination of any kind, address disparities between those who have and those who have not, work to end violence in our neighborhoods, or intercede on behalf of children being mistreated? Or intervene in mass protests in countries where governments generate responses of rage?
Since I reacted to that family several weeks ago, I have wondered what happened when the family got in their car. Or when they arrived home. Did they make peace with each other? Explain to their son what behaviors they expect in restaurants and other public places? Was what I said helpful for a dear little boy, whose behavior was no annoyance to anyone but his father?
Elizabeth Nagel is a local published writer and fine arts photographer. Her writing can be read at her blog essays of the heart or at the blog nagelandnagel that she shares with her husband and writing colleague. She teaches writing at Banfill Locke Center for the Arts and other community organizations.
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