Friday, September 21, 2007

Who's keeping the brothers?

We've moved on to the story of Cain and Abel, which is actually one of my favorites in the Bible. There are so many unexplained details in that story. Why didn't God like Cain's offering? (I mean, Cain and Abel were only the 2nd and 3rd human beings ever... it's not like there was an established protocol for ritual sacrifice already!) Why did Cain kill Abel? (Most people assume that it was out of jealousy, but we aren't really told that in the story.) How did Cain kill Abel? (Whatever it was, we know it was bloody, since Cain's hands are dripping with Abel's blood later when Cain is talking to God.) And why did God, who is supposed to know everything, have to ask Cain where is brother was?

Of course, the real "punch" of this story comes in Cain's response to God's question. Cain says: "I don't know [where Abel is]. Am I my brother's keeper?"

I asked my students to think about the broader significance of Cain's question. And then I asked them whether or not they were, by their own reckoning, their brothers' keepers. And then a darkness fell over my world...

Very few (and by "very few" I mean "almost none") of my students answered an unqualified "yes" to the generic question, "Are you your brothers' keeper?" They wanted to know what I meant by "brother." They wanted to know what I meant by "keeper." They wanted to distingush between a convenient sense of responsibility (like helping an old lady across the street) and the kind of reponsibility that requires effort (like aiding starving people on some other continent). They wanted to attach a utilitarian value to any act of "keeping" worth considering, and toss out the rest. Yuck. Yuck. YUCK!

"Where are my humanitarians?" I asked. "Where are my WWJD peoples?" I implored. "Where is there someone among you who actually has a brother?" I wondered. There were a few meek detractors who tried to step up to the plate of beatitudes, but I think it was only to get the beatitudes.

You know, when I was first-year student in college, as all the students in this class are, the default position was to be the idealist. It was only after being there for a while that you grew that jaded, cynical, self-interested chip on your shoulder. Now, in a depressing turn of events, it's the professor who has to play the Pollyanna role.

Oh, the humanity.


melanie said...

I hear that! We are studying Hobbes in my soc/polit class, and so many of my students are just fine with human reason as a one-dimensional tool that allows us to calculate self-interest. I always think the teacher should present the case of thinker we are studying and defend the thinker from the students' criticisms, but in this case, I had to show them the problems with a Hobbesean view of the world because they were so thoroughly convinced that we are all just nasty calculating bastards at heart. Yuck, yuck, yuck!

Doctor J said...

Oh, Mel, that story makes me so sad.

There are going to be a lot of unkept brothers out there...

MSdos5602 said...

I suppose the next generation just has a little more difficulty with any positive outlook. It's a strange world indeed that the teacher protects the original thought instead of leaving that to the student.