Open Forum: ‘Our brother’s keeper’
Posted: October 8, 2012
When God asked Cain where his brother Abel was, Cain replied, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The word “keeper,” in context, means jailkeeper. “How should I know where Abel is,” replied Cain. “Abel is a free man, I’m not his jailkeeper.”
But, of course, worse than being Abel’s jailkeeper, Cain was Abel’s murderer.
Over the centuries, the meaning of Cain’s reply has changed. By the early 19th century, the meaning of keeper had shifted from jailkeeper to guardian in the following sense: We are all called to be each other’s guardian. The poor and working class, as well as the merchants and others in the middle class, as well as the rich.
Joseph Tuckerman of Boston, who might be described as America’s first urban missionary, popularized this interpretation. He preached that the poor have the same calling as those more fortunate — namely, to be productive and self-sufficient, if this were at all possible. He spent his lifetime trying to eradicate poverty and the welfare programs of his day, and to replace dependency and isolation from society with work and community.
Tuckerman was a part of a transatlantic movement within the Christian community, a movement that was both Catholic as well as Protestant. In Munich, the system of welfare was replaced by a workhouse, over the entrance to which a sign was posted, “Here no charity is given.”
In Hamburg, the city was broken into small districts and teams of visitors — some volunteer and some professional — sought to address the specific problems of each resident, to enable everyone who could to be self-sufficient, and to effect arrangements for those who couldn’t be completely self-sufficient.
In Great Britain, the reform of the poor laws, effected first by Thomas Chalmers in Scotland, led eventually to a complete replacement of the welfare system by self-help charities.
In this country, through the 19th century, there arose the private charity system. This system included employment agencies, and sponsored work places, adoptions and orphanages, reform schools, the suppression of begging, the teaching of English to immigrants, and the organization of emergency relief in response to recessions and disasters such as the Great Chicago Fire.
But, toward the end of the 19th century, there came a new movement, the progressive movement. Its focus was on the reform of society, not on the reform of the individual — and, to redefine poverty as having less than a certain amount of income, instead of being dependent on others.
Through the next century, this movement was successful in relieving more and more people through government welfare programs so that the point was reached where nearly a majority of the people receive money from the federal government and do not pay anything in federal income taxes.
And, along with the growth of dependency, there has come epidemics of single-parent households, ruthless teenage criminals, and childhood obesity, along with the erosion of the incomes of the middle class, the rise of poverty, and a moribund economy.
Once great cities such as Chicago are engulfed with murder twice the rate of the drug-infested regions of Latin America, or like Detroit, abandoned. Selected states, most notably California, lurch from one financial crisis to another. And, the federal government now routinely runs trillion-dollar deficits.
The answers to these problems, we are told, include higher taxes, the nationalization of our schools, government regulation of our private lives in matters such as food, the promotion of birth control and abortion, and the euthanizing of the sick in the name of national health insurance.
Government, once it becomes our keeper in the sense of guardian, eventually becomes our keeper in the sense of jailkeeper. And, even worse, it becomes our murderer.
Clifford F. Thies is a resident of Winchester.