The story of Cain and Abel from the Christian Holy Bible is common knowledge but to recap. Cain and Abel both offer sacrifices to God: Cain offering produce and Abel offering livestock. God favored Abel’s offering and in a fit of jealousy, Cain murders his brother. When God asks Cain where his brother is, Cain responds, saying “I do not know: am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:1-18).
As I went on my run this morning, this story came to mind. It is a story of judgement and mercy. But it is Cain’s response to God that struck me this morning: “am I my brother’s keeper?” It is this aspect of the story that seems so salient in our current predicament. We are well into a global SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, where more the 20 million people have been infected and approaching 1 million deaths (WHO: Aug. 11, 2020).
I live in the United States of America and the country is embattled in a struggle between those who believe that we have a moral obligation to mitigate the spread of the virus by adopting mask-wearing and physical distancing practices and those who believe we have a moral obligation to maintain self-determination and freedom to behave as we want. These two approaches provide answers to the very question posed by Cain in Genesis: “am I my brother’s keeper?” One camp answers “yes, I have a responsibility to my fellow human being” and the other answers “no, I need only be concerned with myself”.
A quick Google search will bring up videos of people at local council meetings yelling about how mask ordinances impede on their personal liberties and violate God’s creation by denying them their ability to breath using the means God bequeathed them. This discourse is an appeal to individual rights cloaked in vague references to religion. The appeals to religion can easily be turned on their heads as the same kinds of logic can be applied in the other direction: God gave us the ability to discern threats to health and the tools to address them and not using the intellectual ability gifted to us by God is to deny his glory.
Responding to their reference to their independent rights is another concern. Having individual rights comes with a set of responsibilities. To live in a society in which we are able to exercise rights means to negotiate those rights along with the responsibilities that we have to one another. This means giving up some of our rights under certain circumstances so that we can protect one another and honor the rights to health and life of others. We give up rights to do whatever we want all the time in order to create a working society. We have no right to kill whomever we want or take things that don’t belong to us. We set speed limits, avoid smoking in public spaces, and avoid drunk driving to protect our fellow citizens. We deny ourselves these rights for the betterment of society.
These things have become convention and policy the mandates masks in public spaces in novel. I think even more than mask mandates being novel, the act has become a politicized badge that marks one’s place in the political landscape. The issue has become polemic with many Republicans and Right-wing pundits adopting a staunch anti-mask sentiment, even going so far as to attack people wearing masks. Some respond by begrudgingly wearing masks marked with statements and imagery broadcasting their displeasure in having to wear one.
While this has become a highly politicized issue, I believe it represents a more fundamental moral issue, an issue that is central to the question posed by Cain in response to God’s inquiry: “am I my brother’s keeper?” How we collectively answer this question (not merely own own personal response) says a lot about the kind of society that we live in and the kind of future that we have. Can we take responsibility for one another and accept that our futures are intimately tied together? Can we see ourselves in our brothers and sisters and take responsibility for their well-being as a measure of our Humanity? What is a future where we are only concerned with ourselves and is this a good future? What are the values that we want to identify with and teach to our children?
If we answer “am I my brother’s keeper?” with a resounding “YES!” then we must suffer (just a little) through minor inconveniences. We must deny ourselves some of our rights. But in doing so, we demonstrate a commitment to one another that can result a new solidarity that we have engineered out of our lives. What could be a more righteous act than to sacrifice for one another, to give of ourselves something that creates a moral foundation and path that can lead future generations in a more caring and equitable future?
Disclaimer: I am not a religious person. However, I find that using familiar stories are good ways to explore who we are as humans and what we can be.