We Are Our Brother's & Sister's Keepers, Part 2 - Kyle Hanawalt
If you were with us last week you heard Vince bring the Church into a conversation that he and I have been having for a while.
Over the last year or so, Vince and I have found ourselves referencing and coming back to one particular story of the Bible again and again. It has felt super relevant and helpful for us in thinking about everything from politics, to personal relationships, to issues around privilege, power, race, gender. Pretty much everything.
And this is the story of Cain and Abel.
It’s one of the 4 basic stories That make up the first 11 chapters of the first book of the Bible, Genesis
You have the stories of
Creation and Adam and Eve
Cain and Abel
And the tower of Babel
And these 4 stories together work as a sort of the prologue to the rest of the book of Genesis and really to the whole Bible, and their purpose was to pose big questions about the origins of life:
Who are we?
Where did we come from?
What does it mean to be human?
And who is God in relation to us?
Now as someone who grew up going to church, I spent a lot of time learning about two of these stories in particular.
Adam and Eve
Honestly, I think it’s because these two stories have animals involved.
And what kid doesn’t love a story full of animals. As long as you don’t spend to much time thinking about the human wide genocide part of it, it seems totally kid friendly. However, in recent years, our feeling is that the stories of Cain & Abel and the Tower of Babel are more pressing for our times, and seemingly more overlooked. The Tower of Babel has a powerful message That God is not tribalistic and actually doesn’t want us all to be the same And, as Vince helped us begin digging into last week, SLIDE the story of Cain and Abel demonstrates that we humans have a real accountability to each other (you can check out last week’s talk on our podcast for a deeper dive) For today’s talk, my wondering is if there is no other story that might be more needed and yet challenging for modern Americans to receive. Reading from the story in Genesis 4, After Cain’s disappointment leads to rivalry and resentment towards his brother. Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”
And the implied answer from the story is:, Yes, you are, and we all are
By the innate dignity that all human have in being made in the image of God, and by the reality of our shared humanity.
We are each-others keepers. We cannot wipe our hands clean of whatever evil or injustice that others are afflicted with. In some way we are accountable to the experience of other humans. I once heard Cardinal George Francis speak and he said something that has stuck with me. Quoting him “We far to often think of human flourishing as a matter of addition. We are just trying to get the total sum of numbers as high as possible. However, to God it is really a matter of multiplication. If there is a single 0 in the equation, the whole thing is worth nothing.”
Now I think it is a hard thing to wrap our brains around period, but I think it is uniquely difficult for those of us who are in the Individualist and Capitalist American culture. Now, I don’t think being individualist or Capitalist is all a bad thing, it just means we have unique blind spots. There are certain things culturally speaking harder for us to navigate than for people who live in different cultures. We live the land of opportunity, that celebrates a self narrative that anyone can make something of themselves. We have a culture that prizes personal responsibility, You get out of it, what you put into it. It is up to you to pull yourself up by the bootstraps. We are capitalist, our value to each-other is largely transactional - about supply and demand. Do you have a demand that I can supply? Or a supply that I demand?
In the end - it comes down to you to shoulder the burdens of your failures and you who get to enjoy the spoils of your successes. Again, not an altogether bad thing, but it makes it challenging to really embrace that we may be accountable to each-other beyond fulfilling my side of the social, or economic transaction. It also makes it really hard for us accept that our choices have real world impact on the people around us.
So, we tend to abdicate our responsibility in other people’s experience of life unless we can point to our direct personal responsibility.
We get that if I punch you in the face, I bare some responsibility for your injury
We get that if I steal from you, then I bare some responsibility for the theft
However, because of our cultural framework it can be really hard to come to terms with the reality that we would have any accountability to other people for things we don’t have direct blame for.
What does it mean that I am my Brother’s keeper who is living in generational poverty?
What does it mean that I am my sister’s keeper who is experiencing homelessness?
What does it mean that I am my brother’s keeper who is living in another neighborhood of Chicago where gangs seem to be the best opportunity available?
What does it mean that I am my brothers and sisters keeper to the the hundreds of thousands of refugees in our world today who have to choose between returning home to live in the midst of war and violence, or living for years in a refugee camp?
What does it mean that I am my sister’s keeper who is experiencing the challenges of not being a white man in this country?
I think back to a study I read in Psychology Today a couple years ago, It was a long term study that looked at the health trends for African American women in America, finding that they had higher rates of stress based health problems. Health issues like Heart disease and hypertension. Things we know to be correlated to stress.
It then looked at those same stress based health indicators for dark skinned African women who immigrated to the United States. And accounting for variables of things like economic status, they did not find the same stress based health problems in Immigrated African Women
However, when they looked at the daughters of the African Immigrant women, who had been born in American, and thus had lived their whole lives in this society, they found that the stress based health issues appeared in the same levels as multigenerational black American women.
In short, from a physiological and psychological perspective - it is quantifiably more stressful to live life in America if you are a black women.
Is that my fault, did I do that? No… Am I running around and making life as miserable as possible for every African American women I know. NO…
However, just because I can’t claim direct personal responsibility does that mean I get to wipe my hands clean? That I get to say, well that’s not me.
Or, am I still accountable to my sisters?
I believe what God shows us in Cain and Abel, and what God has shown me in every attempt I have made to follow him - Is that I absolutely am my sister’s keeper in this. That just because I don’t feel the impact of something directly or because I am not directly at fault, does not mean that I get to look at God and say, I’m not my brother’s keeper.
Which is why it is particularly sad to me when throughout history people have used God in their rationale of why they aren’t accountable to the suffering of others.
There are countless historical examples of people rationalizing the systematic oppression or suffering other people, because those suffering were not Christians.
Here is the thing about us being each other's keepers, It isn’t just that we are the keepers of those like us, or those who think like we do, or believe what we believe. If our faith in Jesus leads us to feeling less accountable to those who don’t follow Jesus, we have majorly missed the point.
Today, we in America, don’t see the same levels of religiously rationalized violence that we once did, thankfully. But, in the modern American church we still have plenty of examples of people using their “faithfulness” to God in wiping their hands clean of their accountability to others. Whether it’s the many Americans who call it faithfulness to God when they ignore scientist and the effects of climate change.
Or, it’s the many Americans that who call it faithfulness to God when they pronounce that they are going to heaven and those “others” are going to hell Or, it’s when I used to call it faithfulness to God, to wipe my hands clean of the suffering, hurt, and trauma of our LGBQT brothers and sisters. Whenever we go down the path of unloading our accountability to others, particularly the suffering of others in name of faithfulness to God, Like, gee, I didn’t make the rules, God did, so whatever pain or hurt, or exclusion, or removal of dignity you experience, It’s not on me. I really wish I could love and include you, and not make you feel less than, but again it’s not up to me. sorry That is missing the whole point, and really it is excusing our own cruel behavior by putting it on God. We don’t get to do that. That is on us, our desire to not have to sit in our discomfort.
If we are rationalizing the suffering of others by claiming faithfulness to God, we need to go back to the drawing board and start asking some very different questions.
So, does this mean we are meant to carry the burden of all wrongs in this world, I can barely manage the hard parts of my own life? - In short, no.
Being our brother’s and sister’s keeper does not mean that we carry the burden of everyone.
I don’t mean to say that we shouldn’t have boundaries.
There are absolutely times and people with whom we need to have distance and boundaries, that if we were to try to help them, it would actually be unhealthy for us. It would be bad for us.
We shouldn’t overextend ourselves out of some sense of obligation to others. The hard truth is, it actually doesn’t come down to us. There will always be more injustice and suffering in this world than we can fix. And the reason that I think it is a hard truth, is because I like to believe that I am a good person, I like to believe that it is possible to win at life. That I can pass the purity test of a someone who stands for justice. I can pass the purity test of always being everything those in my life need from me. But this is a hard truth because we will always fail these purity tests There will always be more that we could do but aren’t That is because we are finite and limited beings. And there are many times that we are the one actually needing help. So, this should humble us. It does humble me that I am accountable to people that I let down everyday. I am the keeper of people whom I fail to keep - everyday. None of us are pure social justice warriors who stand above reproach. And I think it is actually good for me to be humbled to not think of myself as holier or better than all those other people The sheer magnitude of injustice in this world should humble us. But, don’t let it paralyze us, or harden us, or desensitize us And there lies the challenge - to not wipe our hands clean of our accountability to others, but also not carry the burdens of the world on our shoulders. And I really wish I had a clear answer to give you. I really wish I could say, now this is the magic formula. But, I don’t have one, I don’t actually think there is a clear one size fits all for this. And this is, where for me, God has come in.
He has come in to help me not become complacent to the injustice and suffering of others, and to not carry that burden on myself. I frequently pray for help in handing my burdens over to God. I certainly want to fight for educational equity, I certainly want to be part of caring for our planet, pursue solutions to poverty and prison reform, and so on and so on, but I cannot carry those burdens, so I ask God to take them, not to let me off the hook, not to excuse why I stand by and let injustice happen, but rather to free up my soul to actually fight and do what I can
So I have a couple suggestions to leave you with. First, Do something. Do not let the amount of injustice in this world paralyze you You can’t do everything, you can’t take on every issue, but you can start with something. A big part of what we consider our mission as a church is to provide avenues for people to do something -- again, this doesn’t come naturally to us in individualist, capitalist Americans, so use Brown Line Vineyard as a resource, or one of the many amazing organizations doing amazing things in Chicago Maybe it is volunteering on 3/29 which the next time we here at BLV are staffing the Warming Center for our neighbors experiencing homelessness. Or maybe it’s volunteering to tutor, at one of the before or after school programs we connect with Or maybe it’s helping refugee families through our friends at World relief. Or maybe it’s changing some consumer habits to try better care for our planet. I don’t know what it is, but start somewhere
And secondly, I want to encourage you to make your discomfort a spiritual experience… sit in your discomfort - and bring it to God in prayer and be vulnerable to bring it to others
When I started to look at the world around me and through the lens of someone who is accountable to my fellow humans. It was super uncomfortable.
I think particularly as americans we really hate feeling uncomfortable. We generally do everything we can to unload our discomfort.
However, I have really come to appreciate what being uncomfortable can mean for me.
I think of two examples where I still feel uncomfortable on a regular basis. One is, everytime I see someone who is experiencing homelessness. It just feels so wrong that we live in a place where not every human can expect to basic shelter and food. I feel discomfort A younger version of myself would tell myself whatever I could to unload that discomfort.
I tell myself - I can’t do anything about it Or, He probably could get a job if he wanted to Or, even just try to distract myself and forget about it. Now, I try to let myself feel uncomfortable.
You know, it isn’t ok that there are so many people in our city who live in such cycles of poverty that they live on the streets. That should make us uncomfortable.
Now, I may not be able to fix the problem big picture, but I certainly am not going to do anything about it, if I don’t allow myself to feel the injustice of it. The second example is really is anything that has to do with racial equity So, today, I talk about my experience of being a privileged white man all the time.
I have a second job that is all about advancing educational equity. Talking about race and privilege and helping other people navigate this, and trying to do real on the ground things to change our schools literally helps me pay my bills. And do you know how I got here. It was years of really difficult work of sitting in my discomfort. Sitting in the things that feel wrong and unjust. Sitting in the realities of the jobs and opportunities that I found myself having that I can absolutely say I would not have had if I was not a white man. And then not wiping my hands clean, by saying - well maybe it opened to door, but I made the most of it. No, by taking that discomfort and bringing to God and to the other people in my life. You know what outcomes in our country along racial lines, should make us all feel a lot of discomfort. And what happened when I started sitting in this discomfort, I felt God start to activate me. I started seeing opportunities to actually do something about these problems And it helped me not become defensive of the discomfort.
It helped me not go down the path of defending myself as a white man, “well I didn’t do anything, I am not racist.” When I brought my discomfort around issues of race to God, he just dialed down my anxiety. Because it isn’t about me, it just isn’t. And by trying to defend why I personally am not to blame, I empower myself to abdicate any and all responsibility and accountability to my fellow human beings. So, Yes, sitting in my discomfort did highlight what I maybe should be doing to make a difference You might notice that the very things that make me feel most uncomfortable are also the things that we as a church spend the most time and energy trying to make a difference But, even more than that - my discomfort has made me into a far less cynical person, a far softer and empathic person I feel more able to see things from other people’s perspective I am more ok with being wrong I am kinder to service workers I can connect with kids better. Genuinely my heart just feels softer and more open to other people And I think that gets to point of being our brother’s and sister’s keepers. Seeing ourselves as accountable to each other, is not a burden, it is a life that is less lonely, more hopeful, and more able to connect with the other awesome people that makes this world.
If you can stand with me I want to pray