Friday, May 27, 2022

I am tired of Bad Language, Part 1

I have been becoming increasingly tired for some time now with what I have decided to call Bad Language. I am not referring to curse words or slurs, F-words, N-word, S-word, etc. What I mean could be more exactly called "abuse of language". But I am going to call it bad language because its effects are bad.

There are numerous uses of the phrase "brother's keeper" in current popular media, and most people with some Biblical literacy know that this phrase comes from the story of the murder of Abel by his own brother Cain which appears in the fourth chapter of Genesis. After Cain kills Abel, God asks Cain "Where is Abel, your brother? Cain says "I don't know; am I my brother's keeper?" Then God says "The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground."

I have heard insightful sermons on this passage, but they are rare. Most of what you hear is like the content on this page. Don't get me wrong--many of the standard messages here are very good, such as "love your brothers and sisters", "treat them kindly", etc. But the big conclusion, delivered in bold capitalized words, at the end of the article is completely off: Even If Cain Wasn’t a Brother’s Keeper, We Are Still Called to Be.

The context needed to understand the phrase is in Genesis 4:2, "Now Abel was a keeper of sheep." When you realize that Cain's answer to God's question is first a lie ("I don't know") and then a bit of mockery ("Am I my brother's keeper?") then you will see what a misuse of this phrase is. God is emphatic about this brotherly relationship and Cain is dismissive. There are a lot more things going on in this passage as well having to do with Cain being a "tiller of the ground" and Abel's blood "crying... from the ground" that skilled Hebrew scholars have noted, and it simply cannot be an accident that Cain used the same word as Abel's chosen profession.

I am not my brother's keeper. I am my brother's brother.

Writers like Mr. Haynes in the aforementioned article would no doubt expect God's answer to Cain's mocking rhetorical question to be "Yes; you are your Brother's Keeper." Whereas I believe the implied answer is "No; you are his brother." Cain is not expected to treat Abel like Abel's ovine charges. In fact, since Abel obviously slaughtered the animals he raised, the implied negative answer is made all the more emphatic to my mind.

A lot of people will roll their eyes at this point and say "Oh, gee whiz Paul, does this matter? Aren't groups like My Brother's Keeper and My Brother's Keeper International and I am my Brother's Keeper Prison Ministry Book Club good and wonderful organizations?" My answer is that I have no reason to believe they are not wonderful, but insofar as they exist to help other people and treat them in the proper way, they should not have brother's keeper in their names.

I realize that all human language deals with abstractions and therefore no word construct perfectly describes reality. But using this phrase is reinforcing at least several incorrect ideas about what is going on in the story, and frankly, it is ignoring or at least making light of the terrible sins and failings which led up to Cain murdering his brother. The jealousy, envy and anger of Cain were unchecked and they all led to a murderous, blind rage and finally to murder itself. This was the "sin crouching at the door", not some vague failure to realize that we all need to play "keeper" to each other.

Why is this so important to emphasize? It is because the people close to us in one way or another are the ones with whom we have the hardest time. Older brothers are embarrassed by their little brothers doing things which they would merely laugh about if a kid the same age next door did them. And younger brothers are resentful of their older brothers' privileges. And jealousy goes in both directions constantly. Let go, these smaller sins grow into more terrible ones--that's a fact. Indiscriminate killings seem to more often grab headlines, but most murdered people know their killers.

As I mentioned earlier, Mr. Haynes' article is replete with great scripture references, but a good antidote to Cain's problem would be Romans 12:14, "Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep." It is one of those verses which is practically identical in many English versions. I am the father of seven sons and when my boys follow this verse there are no problems. But when they let their "countenance fall", that is always the first inflection point. The devil says over and over, "If this person feels bad, you will feel good." It's the zero sum lie, and it is believed by many.

Look back at Genesis 2:15: "The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till IT and keep IT." The emphasis here on the word IT is mine. I have a hypothesis: the greatest instances of abuse of language involve the treating of people like things, or things like people. I have heard this saying before, "We are supposed to use things and love people. But too often we love things and use people." Also I believe that Pope John Paul II remarked that all the evil in the world had its origin in the treatment of people like things. We should take comfort in the knowledge that we are called to be brothers and sisters to one another, and not keepers.