The fourth chapter of Genesis tells the story of Cain and Abel, the first story of human conflict. Cain and Abel gave offerings to the Lord, but the Lord looked with favor on Abel, not Cain, causing Cain to be downcast and angry. Seeing Cain in his anger, the Lord said to him, “Sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.” Evidently Cain did not master it because when they went out to the field Cain attacked Abel and killed him. When the Lord inquired of Abel’s whereabouts, Cain responded, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”
God became angry with Cain for obvious reasons and banished him from the land to live a life of restless wandering, but Cain’s final question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” went largely unanswered; and unfortunately, it continues to be largely unanswered.
You may say that Christians should be able to confidently answer, ‘Yes! Of course we are called to be our brother’s keeper.’ The Bible is quite clear that we are to care for our brothers and sisters who need caring — the command to love our neighbour is, after all, part and parcel with the command to love God (Matt. 22:37-40) — but, the problem is that Cain’s question is not a yes or no question, it is a how question.
It is a question that goes beyond the idea that we have a stake in our neighbour’s well-being — any other notion would have been unthinkable in the Ancient Near East — it was a question that sought to get at the ways in which we are keepers of our neighbours.
We are certainly not responsible for all the conflicts in the world, but unlike Cain who used the question to deflect God’s attention away from the ways in which Cain failed to be his brother’s keeper, we must not deflect our attention away from human conflicts like the one currently going on in Syria. We may disagree about how our attention is best directed in these conflicts, but we cannot deflect these conflicts away as if we are not, in some way, our neighbour’s keeper.
We know that we are called to love our brothers and sisters, but how do we do that? How, for example, do I love and keep my Syrian brothers and sisters? How can I be a blessing to them in the midst of devastating death and destruction? Jesus gives us a picture of how this is to be done through his own life and teachings, but the details are largely left to us.
The first step involves two things: prayer and learning. These things may lead to further action, but further action should never be devoid of prayer and learning. I cannot help you with prayer, but below are a selection of articles to help you learn about the conflict in Syria and why the question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” remains a difficult question to answer.
What’s going on?
Max Fisher: 9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask (The Washington Post)
Daniel Burke: Syria explained: How it became a religious war (CNN Belief Blog)
Jon Huckins: Syria: The stuff no one wants to talk about (Sojourners)
Should we intervene?
R.R. Reno: Does Syria matter? (First Things)
Nicholas Kristof: The right questions on Syria (The New York Times)
George Packer: Two minds on Syria (The New Yorker)
Michael Scaturro: Why human rights groups don’t agree about what to do about Syria (The Atlantic)
Rania Khalek: Syria’s nonviolent resistance is dying to be heard (Al Jazeera)
Should Christians support intervention?
Jonathan Merritt: On Syrian conflict, three Christian perspectives (Religion News Service)
Mark Movsesian: Christians, American and Syrian (First Things)
Interview with Stanley Hauerwas: What makes America so prone to intervention? (The Atlantic)
Stanley Hauerwas: Just how realistic is just war theory? The case for Christian realism (ABC Religion and Ethics)
Jeremy Weber: Should U.S. Bomb Syria? Evangelical Leaders Take Surprising Vote (Christianity Today)
Flickr photo (cc) by Christiaan Triebert