by Quin Hillyer
In his official Thanksgiving Day proclamation, President Obama repeated a frequent claim of his that, despite any good intentions behind it, is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong as a matter of faith, of history, and of American political theory. To correct that error requires no opposition to any particular policy, no overtly political stance at all; it merely requires constructive criticism offered in the spirit of good will.
The problematic statement was an assertion of "our age-old belief that we are our brothers' and sisters' keepers." This is at least the 58th documented occasion in which Obama has used this phrase to describe a central tenet of his belief system. It obviously is meant as a call to communal concern and care for others. Yet its genesis - from the book of Genesis itself - is utterly distinct from, and far less admirable than, the more familiar Judeo-Christian call to love one's neighbor.
The phrase comes from the story of Cain and Abel, after Cain has murdered his brother, when God asked him where Abel was. Cain dismissed the Lord, asking rhetorically, "Am I my brother's keeper?"
Because Cain has done evil, it is an understandable reaction to assume that his inference that he is not his brother's keeper is itself evil, and therefore that the "good" requires us to adopt the posture of "keeper" to our brethren. But that is a logical fallacy. It is the action that was evil, not the assumed answer to the question.
Compare an analogous situation. When Jesus was brought before Pilate, Pilate asked "Are you the king of the Jews?" Pilate is about to do the ultimate evil of turning Christ over to be killed. Yet just because Pilate's clear inference was that Jesus would be wrong to claim such kingship, it does not mean that Jesus' answer should have been that he is indeed such a king. The evil Pilate was doing lay not in his question (or its expected answer), but in his actions.
In neither Cain's case nor Pilate's did the Lord (in either incarnation, as Father or Son) directly answer the impertinent question. Jesus' answer to Pilate (in most translations) is instructive. "You say that I am," Jesus said. And when questioned further (quoting the Gospel of Matthew), Jesus "gave him no answer, not even to a single charge." The right answer to the challenge, from an evildoer, to his earthly kingship, was not to assert such kingship but instead (as he later explained to Pilate, according to the Gospel of John) to say that "My kingdom is not from this world."
Likewise, the answer to Cain effectively asserting that he was not his brother's keeper is not to assume that being such a keeper is the correct option, but instead to get to the real heart of the matter - as the Lord did - by calling attention to the murderous action. God operates on an entirely different and deeper level than human beings do. His reality is no more limited by our questions, or the inferences therein, than the Truth is limited by clever evasions.
In not a single place in the Bible is it ever written that we are indeed our brothers' keepers. (Look it up!) And for good reason: To be a "keeper" of another person is not necessarily to help the other but instead to control him. An Internet site called "Cup of Wrath" explains it well: "No one is their brother's or sister's keeper, unless that person is incapable of taking care of him or herself . . . Loving thy neighbor as thyself doesn't mean being your neighbor's keeper or overseer. Instead it means taking his or her best interests to heart."
Again, the command from Christ is not to act for others, but to serve others - to love the brother as an equal, not in loco parentis. To assert parental responsibility for a brother is to assume a role - to wrongly assume it - that God has reserved for Himself. Even if undertaken with the best intentions, to be a brother's keeper is to commit a sin akin to vainglory by putting oneself above one's proper station.
Meanwhile, in the realm of political philosophy rather than faith, nothing in this nation's history supports the idea that being a brother's keeper is part of the American tradition. Again, communal concern for one's fellow man, and volitional actions for mutual aid either individually or through voluntary institutions such as churches and civic clubs, are certainly a longstanding part of the American ethos. But to be a "brother's keeper" is to tread dangerously close to the realm of George Orwell's fictional "Big Brother" - an all-powerful state of the sort explicitly and rightfully rejected by our nation's Founders and by large majorities of every succeeding American generation.
The point is not to belittle the laudable idea of "giving back" as expressed in Obama's Thanksgiving proclamation (although in other circumstances he has used "brother's keeper" in a more explicitly governmental context). Instead, it is to guard against the paternalistic notion that we or our government "know best" how to direct the individual lives of others. Insofar as the phrase "brother's keeper" can be used toward the latter ends, it is a potentially dangerous use of language, turning fine sentiments into attitudes and actions contrary to both our religious and civic faiths. It is a phrase that should be unwelcome from any government official.
About the Contributor
Quin Hillyer is a Senior Fellow for The Center for Individual Freedom, a Senior Editor for the American Spectator magazine, and a Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mobile. He has won mainstream awards for journalistic excellence at the local, state, regional and national levels. He has been published professionally in well over 50 publications, including the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Houston Chronicle, the San Francisco Chronicle, Investors Business Daily, National Review, the Weekly Standard, Human Events, and The New Republic Online. He is a former editorial writer and columnist for the Washington Times, the Washington Examiner, the Mobile Register, and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and a former Managing Editor of Gambit Weekly in New Orleans. He has appeared dozens of times as a television analyst in Washington DC, Alabama, Arkansas, and Louisiana, and as a guest many hundreds of times on national and local radio shows.