Am I my brother’s keeper?

We try here at to avoid knee-jerk reactions. So often our immediate impulse, when faced with shocking events, is simply to lash out in an emotional and habitual manner. We strive to avoid this kind of impulsive action, though I’m sure we sometimes fail. All of us sometimes fail. When the Arizona shooting occurred, I fought the impulse to run to my keyboard. Many other commentators did not, and I can understand the fact that many of them work on deadlines that do not apply to me so I won’t offer recriminations. Recriminations abound in our society, adding to them seems fruitless. But I’m glad that I had the opportunity to think and listen for a while before responding. As both of my loyal readers know, I’m not a terribly partisan fellow. I’ve voted for Republicans, Independents, and Democrats in my voting life. And as this blog has shown over the years, I’m interested in politics primarily as a source of lessons and metaphors regarding the challenges of living with difference. I look to the political realm to help me reflect on the ecclesiological world: How can we worship and work together as a single Body of Christ even as we maintain our doctrinal, social, and stylistic differences? With this in mind, I can’t and won’t respond directly to the tragic deaths and injuries in Arizona. Any second hand analysis that I might offer would be useless. Instead, I’ll merely talk about personal responsibility and re-ask Cain’s questions, perhaps the most profound question ever put to God in the Bible. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

When I was in highschool, the final month of my senior year in fact, a junior at our school took a gun and murdered his family, kidnapped his girlfriend, and then took his math class hostage. I had friends in that classroom who were profoundly scared and some who were profoundly courageous. The next few days were a blur. Once the standoff ended, the news vans arrived and we looked on as our tiny little Kentucky town became the center of a national debate on youth violence, music, “goth” culture, and guns. Columbine would come later, as would the Oklahoma City bombing. Each time our nation was shaken with violence a national conversation on the causes of violence and the reach of individual responsibility erupted, but soon petered out as other stories and conversations grabbed our attention. Public trials briefly revisited the issues, but years and decades later the events seem largely forgotten, their lessons, if any, lost to the past. When emotions were raw and reactions were fresh, folks in the media, in the malls, in the pews, and around kitchen tables all asked the same questions. How could this have been avoided? Who is to blame?

The obvious answer is that the murderers are to blame, the triggermen and the bomb makers. But the conversation is never that simple. The question our nation asks itself now, even if this goes unarticulated, is the same question so many folks ask themselves after any violent tragedy: How did our society create such a person? Where did we go wrong? Today, I have no answers. But I can tell you where I went wrong in high school.

As a young almost-adult I was so busy fighting to keep my own head above water, fighting the jock culture, fighting for college scholarships, fighting for social status, that I did not stop to notice the sad loaner who seemed to have given up fighting. What’s worse, I distinctly remember a time, years earlier, when one of my friends and I went out of our way to mock this kid to his face. Rule number one of the junior high social status ladder: protect your status, no matter how low it is, by keeping those below you where they are!

At that time, when the national media discussed the factors that contributed to the murderer’s actions, they talked about his books, his clothes, his video games, and his gun. No one dared to suggest that his fellow students were even partially to blame. And they were correct. We were not to blame in any legal sense. We did not give him a gun. We did not provide ammunition. We didn’t pull any triggers. We had no liability. In philosophical terminology as old as Aristotle, we had nothing to do with the efficient cause of his actions; but we didn’t help.

Imagine standing before the creator of the universe and offering up this same excuse. “No God, I am not responsible. I was young. I didn’t pull the trigger. I didn’t kill. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

I’ll be entirely frank with you. All these years later, I do not lie awake at night thinking about what happened in high school. In all honesty, I probably don’t think about it more than once or twice a year, and then only because some news event brings it to mind. I am not racked with guilt, and for the sake of my family and friends that is a good thing. But I know, all these years later, that I do bear some responsibility for what happened. Call it a sin of omission rather than a sin of commission if that helps, but I know that I did nothing to make that vulnerable person’s life more tolerable. And I know that I am my brother’s keeper. My fellows are my divinely appointed responsibility, legal liability or no.

What could I have done? I could have smiled. I could have refused to participate in the social pecking order. I could have offered a kind word. These simple but difficult actions may not have prevented the murders, just as the removal of one straw from the back of the proverbial camel may not have prevented it from breaking, but . . . I’m not even sure how to finish that sentence. . . . but I didn’t do anything.

When tragedy strikes, who is to blame? Predictably the far reaches of the political spectrum lay blame at the doorstep of their ideological opposites. How do we prevent this kind of thing from happening? Reactionary proposals offer to solve all of our ills with a single panacea. By suggesting such one-dimensional solutions they offer a one-dimensional diagnosis and imply a one-dimensional cause. We don’t live in a one dimensional world. Watch us run from taking responsibility. Watch us deny our own culpability. Watch us protest too much, “I did nothing!”


I did nothing. “Cain, where is your brother?”

Legal responsibility, financial liability and moral culpability are not the same. I stand before the Lord of the Universe guilty for having done nothing. “Just as I am without one plea,” as the hymn tells us, “but that my Savior died for me” What chance I have is purely a product of unearned Grace. As we humans run from responsibility, the central Christian story reminds us that Christ ran toward it.

Let us be followers of Christ in this as in all things.

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