Leading Ethically Only is an educational outreach of Leadership Ethics Online (LEO). Essays range widely--from ethical analysis of the news, to ethical challenges to leaders in society, to personal reflections of an ethical nature. We welcome your thoughts and criticisms to make us better.

Monday, June 28, 2010

We Are Our Brother's and Sister's Keepers: Genesis 4:1-12

Cain Killed His Brother, Then Denied Responsibility

Read the text above.  Cain killed his brother, Abel, from jealous wrath.  God asked Cain, "Where is your brother?"  Cain lied, then asked, "Am I my brother's shamar?," which in Hebrew means keeper, observer, and preserver.  Cain disavowed he had any responsibility to watch out for his brother's protection, welfare, or preservation.  The question put to Cain was not because God did not know where Abel was.  The evidence of the murder already was known.  God told the fratricide, "What have you done?  Your brother's blood cries out to Me from the ground."

The question was asked to see if Cain would take responsibility for what he had done.  He knew what he had done.  He feigned ignorance.  He answered he had no binding obligation to his brother.  Cain's punishment was two-fold.  (1) His labor was cursed.  His work no longer would provide food.  (2) He was forced to spend the rest of his life as a wanderer on the earth.  Having harmed his own family, Cain would find no permanence, only instability, for the rest of his days.

Are There Cains Among Us in America?

While no Americans intentionally murder their fellow citizens (though sending them to war on false pretenses wills them no good), the tradition of Cain is alive and well among us.

We have some citizens who intentionally have deprived millions of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."  Like Cain, some taken away the means to live:  jobs, homes, savings, retirements.  They did this, like Cain, from focusing on themselves and what they wanted, rather than what was good for those they destroyed.  And their destruction has led to death for some.  From desperation, some of their victims have slain their own families then committed suicide.  Others have committed crimes to feed their families, and still more consider that option.

The heirs of Cain answer for their harms to their fellow Americans as he did, "Am I caretaker and overseer for their welfare?"  We have some wealthy citizens who truly believe they have no moral obligation towards any but themselves.  If questioned concerning their conduct, the only duty they allege they have is to keep their conduct within bounds so it is legal, and they are not subject to prosecution.  And because they have many kinds of attorneys, with wealth to pay them, the likelihood of ever being punished is very low.

Chief Justice Earl Warren:  No Cain

I recently came across an old biography on Earl Warren.  I have just started and probably will have more to say about what I learn there.  However, one thing I have learned about him applies to this essay.  Warren's father was a first-generation immigrant:  hardworking, thrifty, honest, and dedicated to his family.  He worked for the Union Pacific Railroad, which controlled California's politicians for years.

During the depression that followed the stock market crash of 1893, three million railroad workers were unemployed.  The Pullman Company in Chicago slashed workers' pay by 25%, leaving men $1 to feed their families for two weeks, after pay deductions to live in company-owned homes.  In May, 1894, 250,000 members of the American Railway Union (ARU) walked off the job to protest the firing of three members of a grievance committee.  Chicago was a railway hub and that strike shut down rail traffic.  The U.S. Attorney General said workers had taken the nation to the "ragged edge of anarchy."

The rail strike spread to California and Warren's father and 3,000 other workers for the Union Pacific and Sante Fe struck sometime around June.  Newspapers called their strike the "Debs Rebellion." Eugene Debs founded the ARU (and the International Labor Union) and was a socialist dedicated to fairer treatment of labor.  On July 3, federal troops of the First Regiment were called out to reopen the railroads in Los Angeles.  The railroad strike of 1894 eventually was broken, and all the strikers lost their jobs and were blacklisted.

Chief Justice Earl Warren's father and family had experienced what a powerful corporate oligarchy like the Union Pacific Railroad could do to workers.  Later in life, he saw how power and wealth often controlled the law and used it to harm the welfare of average people trying to survive.  Warren himself was an average law student, but he had a social conscience.

When he eventually sat on the Supreme Court, his biographer wrote he used a simple question to guide him in seeking good legal judgments for all Americans:  Is it fair?  The results were profound for American history.  The phrases, "separate is not equal...read him his rights...one man, one vote," never would have become common stock in our national vocabulary, without the work of the son of Norwegian immigrant, Methias Varran.  We know him as Chief Justice Earl Warren.

Some American Cains Use the Law

When I was a boy, I was raised by my parents to believe that a moral person also was "law-abiding."  Because we were farmers, the Willises tended to be socially and economically very conservative.  Yet I grew up during the 1960s and 1970s.  The Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, Watergate, these events and more showed that some American laws needed change, and even one President abused his legal powers (though he was not punished).

When I worked for the Kentucky Commission for Human Rights--which enforces federal and state civil rights statutes--I decided to study the history of civil rights in America.  I knew more about the history of Europe, in which I earned my PhD, than American history.  Because any nation's laws reflect its morality, I focused only on the history of U.S. federal laws.

The history of American law is morally schizophrenic.  On the one hand, you will see the widest range of laws favoring a small minority's power to amass wealth at the expense of common people.  On the other hand, when that minority's abuses and harms became so extensive and finally intolerable that millions rose in domestic unrest, rebellion, and sedition, only then did the most sweeping legal reforms occur, to preserve the Republic.

In the most recent period of unrest leading to federal legislation, only millions of Americans taking to the street--under King's leadership peacefully, but after his death with many riots and violence--the Voting Rights Act and then the Civil Rights Act were stopgap measures to quell another civil war.  Even then in the South, millions kept Blacks under their thumbs wherever local law enforcement was inclined to maintain the status quo.

The history of federal laws regarding the Indian Nations, labor, the rights of women, food safety, monopolies and price-fixing, and hundreds more subject areas, only arose from millions of Americans harmed, not from an anterior moral conscience driving laws to answer Justice Warren's question, "What is fair?"  Money and profits have driven the first drafts of most American laws, with morality and people forcing the second drafts.

This is the nature of our American legal schizophrenia.  Violence against the masses incited violent opposition by the masses.  I first heard the statement, "We are a nation of laws," from the mouth of James Baker, Chief of Staff for President Ronald Reagan.  When the federal traffic controllers went on strike--with concerns that their overwork could lead to public safety risks--Reagan fired them all without negotiation.  This act sent chills down the spine of labor unions all across the nation.

Since that time, many American corporations took their labor needs to non-democratic and Communist nations, where no American labor laws apply.  U.S. laborers were incapable of cutting their hourly pay and benefits as low as Mexican or Chinese workers, unless they were willing to go back to the times in American history when all workers lived in company houses and bought everything from company stores.  Unions still exist, but many American industrial jobs, those which are on our shores, are for non-union enterprises.

We always have been "a nation of laws"; however, there is no doubt that today's serial American crises are not due to the Abels, but the Cains among us who answer as their ancestor did:  "Am I to oversee the welfare of my fellow Americans?  Do I have a moral duty to know where my family members are or what has happened to them, as a result of my conduct?"

The Golden Rule

Jesus famously extended the command, "Love your neighbor as yourself," originally given in the Book of Leviticus, chapter nineteen, verse 18.  The Hebrew word there, rea, means friend, companion, and neighbor.  Jesus, in his relationships with both fellow Jews and Gentiles, showed love for all people.

He recognized in his day there were some who amassed great wealth yet who did so at the expense of fellow countrymen.  The story of Lazarus, which appears in the Gospel of Luke, chapter sixteen, is worth citing.

Now there was a certain rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, happily living in splendor every day.  A certain poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and earnestly desiring to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table.  The dogs were coming and licking his sores.
Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be comforted by Abraham.  And the rich man also died and was buried.  In Hades, the rich man looked up, in torment, and saw Abraham far away, and Lazarus in his care.  He cried out, "Father Abraham, have mercy on me!  Send Lazarus to dip his finger in water and cool off my tongue!  I am in agony in this flame!"
But Abraham said, "Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things.  But now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony."  The rich man then begged Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to tell the rich man's family, so they might change and not suffer as he was.  Abraham answered, "If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they listen if someone rises from the dead."
The rich man in life had seen Lazarus devastated by poverty, hunger, and disease.  Yet opulence and self-interest made the rich man blind.  His attitude in life was precisely that of Cain's, "Am I my brother's keeper?  Am I obliged to oversee his welfare?"  Abraham's answer is my own.  We already have had enough religious teaching and commands to love the neighbor.  The Cains in our land are on their own and will earn interest in the next life on the lack of investments made in the Abels they harmed, whose blood spills now in the nation through suicides, domestic violence, and growing crime.

A final word from Jesus is not too much.  In the Gospel of Luke (6:24-25), Jesus said, "Woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full.  Woe to you who are well-fed now, for you shall be hungry.  Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep."

To the Abels among us, I say, there is an American tradition for legal change.  Do not resort to violence, and thereby use the method used to harm you.  But take heart and unite.  Change the laws through legal means.  It has been done before.  It can be done again, though there are Cains in Congress who will fight you to the end!

1 comment:

Scott said...

John -- you might also point out that in the traditions associated with the historical Jesus he made the love of the neighbor EQUALLY important to loving God. Then he redefined the neighbor as the next person whom one sees -- and illustrated it with the famous parable of the "Good Samaritan" which I think would be better named "The Man in the Ditch," for only the man in the ditch could answer the question about who had acted as his neighbor -- and it was a hated Samaritan!