Saturday, September 5, 2009

On Healthcare: Am I My Brother's Keeper?

Health care is a complicated issue. We can argue for a long time about the details of a solution. But our approach to the problem turns on an ancient question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

After Cain kills his brother Abel, he hears God calling to him, asking about Abel. And Cain answers with what he assumes is a rhetorical question:

“Am I my brother’s keeper?”

In his mind, that should end the discussion. Obviously, he is not his brother’s keeper. He is sure that Abel is not his responsibility and he is sure that God agrees with him.

But he is wrong. The question is not rhetorical. In fact some of the ancient rabbis argue that Cain’s question is the animating question for the whole Bible. The rest of the Bible, they assert, is an answer to Cain’s question, telling us over and over in a thousand different ways that we are responsible for our sisters and brothers.

“Listen,” says God, “Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!”

From the beginning, the biblical narrative tells us that we are responsible for one another, and that God is listening to the victims. If we cannot hear the cries of those who are suffering, then we are simply not listening.

This is where we need to begin with the health care debate. I am my brother’s keeper. It is my responsibility to do something. Of course, I need to do more than something. I need to look for the right something to do. Good intentions are only that. We also need good results. We should have a reasoned discussion about what to do. But Christians can never claim that it is not our problem. My brother’s (or sister’s) problem is my problem.

From the beginning we have had a hard time letting our lives be shaped by biblical faith. Rather than let the Bible shape us, we want to shape the message to match what we already believe. Like Cain, we have a hard time believing something that is so contrary to what suits us. The problem is not that we are evil, but that we are divided. That is what it means to have free will and that is what it means to be responsible. As Paul Tillich observed, there is a part of us that wants to be separate from our sisters and brothers, from God, and even from ourselves. And we want to call that good.

In the health care debate there are many who want to believe that Cain’s question is only rhetorical. We are not responsible for others. That is not surprising. What is disappointing is that many of those who take that approach call themselves Christians.

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