My Brother’s Keeper
I’ll be honest: the title is a little misleading. I’m an only child. Growing up on Bible stories, the experience of Cain and Abel always confused me. My young impressionable mind could not truly grasp the moral implications of sacrifice and worship, and I never really understood what it meant to be “my brother’s keeper.” I was not my brother’s keeper. I was alone and I did not need to worry about anyone but myself.
Maybe that’s where the stereotype of the only-child syndrome begins. Only children learn they are special. We gain an early sense of entitlement. We never have to share with another who shares our blood. We are a single entity, loved by our parents, and most likely the rest of the world. We appear to have it all, so we’re labeled spoiled, selfish, and stand-offish. Many of us learned to love the words “my” and “mine”—my toys, my parents, my house, all these things . . . mine.
It’s February 2018, and I’m sitting in the theater, surrounded by my best friends, watching a king fighting for his place on the throne. It’s a quintessential drama of royalty and conflicting ideologies, except now it’s set in Africa, the king is a superhero and the villain is Michael B. Jordan, aka Killmonger. Throughout the movie, my English major mind looks for all the different ways to analyze this film, and one of the main messages I gather centers on responsibility, especially our accountability to each other and those who look like us i.e. our shared cultural and ethnic heritage.
Without spoilers, both individuals struggled to promote principles that would benefit a certain community, one through keeping their riches and development cloistered in secrecy and the other to use those same advances to oppress the oppressors. In the end, the movie challenges the issues of what lengths we take to protect our families and communities, the measures by which we evaluate the plight of the suffering and oppressed before we sacrifice personal feelings of security and comfort, and what methods must be taken to begin healing, restoration and progress.
Earlier this month, an active shooter went into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida killing 17 people and injuring 14 more. America finds itself involved in another national debate on gun control policies, government silence, and advocacy groups for and against the current interpretations of the Second Amendment. Heartbroken families plead with the upper echelons of legislature and justice to do something. Believers in self-protection and the right to bear arms urge others to trust the freedoms granted to us by the Bill of Rights. Others remain silent, unsure of where to stand. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
I’m angry, I’m confused, and I want answers. And then I’m afraid because my mom teaches at a public high school, because she shouldn’t have to use a gun to protect herself and her students, because as much as I hate to think about it, it could’ve been her students’ names in the headlines. It could’ve been hers.
I’ve heard Mom tell me stories about her students, so much so that I pretty much know who they are without meeting them. And in a way my family has become more extended than I ever wanted it to be. Every time we catch up I learn more about how much she worries about them, their success, their failures and now, more prominently, their safety. And I feel a sense of helplessness because I can’t protect her and I can’t protect them—they have become my mom’s children and so my brothers and sisters. All I can think about is what Okoye says in Black Panther: “Guns. How primitive.”
I don’t have all the answers, but I know it’s up to the privileged—like me—to recognize our advantages and thoughtfully preserve and advance the lives and livelihoods of others less privileged, and less protected. Life is a gift, and most Christians are raised to believe that. It is the breath of God and His Spirit in us, so why do we continue to remain silent when we see someone desecrate a delicate and holy gift with violence and malice? Jewish philosopher Martin Buber writes, “when you (encounter) life you encounter the living God,” so to end 17 young lives with such premeditated malevolence . . . are you not killing God himself?
In the oddest of ways, all these thoughts seem to hit me all at once as February progressed. Black Panther empowered a whole movement of Pan-African pride and challenged the very real questions of a community’s responsibility to each other through their history of colonization, pain, abuse, slavery, healing and progress—how sacrificing security, comfort and luxury for the sake of the greater good become very real matters when life becomes dangerous.
Then I see these high schoolers going to town halls and using their voices to compel the government and adults entrusted to protect them to action. In the face of tragedy, they stand firm under the scrutinizing eyes of the public and those in power, choosing to protect those who will follow them—those who will sit in the same chairs and walk the same bloodstained hallways they do.
Those who are silent in situations of injustice are no better than the perpetrators. It’s not just enough to know and empathize. You have to act. You have to keep your brother safe.
I may have grown up an only child, but I quickly learned that the world did not revolve around me. I was blessed to have loving parents, so much so that when I saw my mom comforting another kid crying during Sabbath School I got angry.
I went up to her with tears in my eyes and yelled at the other distressed toddler, “That’s my mom. Get your own!”
I hit him. And then I hit my mom. This kid had the audacity to be sad in front of my mom and steal her from me, take away the love and support of my mother, and have me turn into the bad guy for wanting to keep her for myself. She was my mom.
Mom pulled me aside, and in a firm but soft voice she consoled me. I asked her if she still loved me.
“I’m still your mom,” she said. “Of course I love you, but he’s hurting and his mom’s not here anymore. Let’s share my love with him, okay?”
I grudgingly let my mom go, because if anyone could fix a problem it was her. Maybe I didn’t have to be his keeper, but I learned to be his brother.