My First Responsibility
Genesis never explicitly answers whether or not I am my brother’s keeper. The reader’s disgust with Cain’s sin tends to fill in the blank, perhaps even with such overtones of obviousness as Zen tradition would encapsulate with ‘mu’—loosely, ‘this question is its own answer!’
But my instinctive answer seems not to address the concern or perspective that might originally have prompted Cain’s question. It deems Cain an ‘outsider’ to a brotherly doctrine that renders his question - ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ - foolish from the outset. It dissociates myself, the humanity I share with Cain, from similar tendencies that may equally guide my own relationships.
Addressing the MDR audience, Graeme Cordiner shared the importance and struggle of his and his country’s journey toward reconciliation with Australia’s Aboriginal population. The emotion he offered alongside his words initially confused me. I struggled to intellectually connect the dots between a nation’s past injustice and the accountability of those who one day find themselves born under an associated national title. What right had Graeme to bear responsibility?
His eyes watered as he recalled aloud the tears of Aboriginal suffering. I tried to listen more closely. I heard a new question emerge from Graeme’s honesty, much louder than the words through the auditorium speakers:
‘Who is my brother?’
Perhaps Cain assumed his own answer to this question with confidence. Abel. Abel was his brother. But suppose we redefined 'brother'. Suppose the word referred to any object of unqualified love, any emotional extension of oneself that is somehow still independent. Would Cain’s ‘brother’ have been his crops, his strength, his significance? Would Cain still have doubted that he was this brother’s keeper?
Material or transitory as they may be, ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ are inevitable. In the Bible, Cain murdered Abel precisely for the sake of something Cain prioritized. Whatever this something was, Cain kept hold of it, much as a brother might keep his own family close to heart.
The result of Cain’s brotherhood was destructive. But Abel was not alone in suffering destruction. Cain, too, emerged with the stinging curse of 'family' betrayal. And alongside this curse emerged the opportunity for future generations to embrace a new, more honest brotherhood—to extend the boundaries of self-interest to include concern for the vulnerable, for the other. Perhaps it is the extent of our awareness of the other that most ultimately defines the dimensions of our family.
I refocused on the podium and saw Graeme once again. His honesty now asked of me a different question: ‘For what must I take responsibility?’
Whom do I actively exclude from my family? Which brothers and sisters have I denied? When have I turned my back to opportunities to gain awareness?
As many have emphasized throughout this five-day conference, real democracy begins at home. With each family I strive and sacrifice to serve, to repair, to expand—beginning with those I am blessed to call my own—I arrive, alongside siblings, one step closer to making democracy real.
May I find the strength, according to Graeme’s example, to grow in honest acceptance of family and in pure respect for responsibility.
Jacob 'Coby' Goodwin is an intern at Asia Plateau, the Initiatives of Change centre in Panchgani, India.