BYU-Idaho released a video last week on YouTube encouraging students to monitor their roommates’ behavior to determine if a roommate has a porn addiction (or implied masturbation issue). Then, in my ward, we had a lengthy discussion in Sunday School about God’s expectation that we should be our brother’s keeper, leaning heavily on a 1986 General Conference talk by E. Oaks. In a BYU class in the late ’80s, a teacher of mine pointed out that we are not required to be our brother’s “keeper,” and that the Lord pointedly ignored Cain’s belligerent question.
Let’s revisit the story of Cain & Abel found in Moses 5 (an extended account of the Genesis story). This is a very familiar exchange, and one that includes the infamous phrase “my brother’s keeper.” Many Christians (not just E. Oaks) have taken the phrase as an admonition to care for others, to take responsibility to keep others in line with gospel teachings, and to correct their behavior at times. But is this interpretation justified by the story?
13 And aSatan came among them, saying: I am also a son of God; and he commanded them, saying: bBelieve it not; and they believed it not, and they cloved Satan more than God. And men began from that time forth to be dcarnal, sensual, and devilish. . .
. . . 16 And Adam and Eve, his wife, ceased not to call upon God. And Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bare aCain, and said: I have gotten a man from the Lord; wherefore he may not reject his words. But behold, Cain bhearkened not, saying: Who is the Lord that I should cknow him?
We see here that Cain loves Satan more. Also, it seems that Satan is out there, getting to know the people and making promises, whereas the Lord is aloof, waiting to be asked to the dance.
Mormons love to point out that only animal sacrifice was acceptable. From a broader perspective, this story has been used to illustrate the conflicts between farming culture and animal husbandry as part of human evolution. It always reminds me of “The Farmer and the Cowman Should be Friends” from the Rogers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma. It’s an age old conflict. Also, does “fruit of the ground” mean it wasn’t the best fruit? Or did it have to be animal sacrifice instead of fruit, meaning Abel wins no matter what. No wonder Cain desired his flocks.
This verse always makes me wonder, who is the Lord? Is Satan referring to himself as the Lord (meaning Cain’s Lord because Cain loves him best)? Otherwise, why would it be at Satan’s behest Cain makes an offering to the Lord? Is Cain making an offering to Satan? If so, which offering? The fruit of the ground, or his brother Abel?
19 And in process of time it came to pass that Cain brought of theafruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord.
22 And the Lord said unto Cain: Why art thou wroth? Why is thy countenance fallen?
23 If thou doest well, thou shalt be aaccepted. And if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door, and Satan bdesireth to have thee; and except thou shalt hearken unto my commandments, I willcdeliver thee up, and it shall be unto thee according to his desire. And thou shalt drule over him;
You can see how Cain would find this odd cursing enticing. He is promised that if he doesn’t toe the line, he gets to rule Satan, not the other way around; it seems to me that that’s backwards. “Satan desireth to have you” but “thou shalt rule over him.” Maybe the Lord hasn’t figured out this cursing business yet.
This verse is problematic. First of all, all Cain has done so far is make a crappy offering, and he’s already been called the father of Satan’s lies and Perdition. What more does he have to lose by going completely off the rails? Way to parent, God. Second, God is saying he “wast also before the world” as if to imply that Cain’s pre-mortal life is the reason for his curse. This isn’t supposed to be the way it works, though. This life is a test. Everyone who came here already passed the pre-mortal existence and chose the right plan. Right?
I’ll skip ahead a bit to the brother’s keeper business, after Cain has slain Abel.
34 And the Lord said unto Cain: Where is Abel, thy brother? And he said: I know not. Am I my brother’s akeeper?
Note that Cain is the only one who uses this phrase, and he does it sneeringly or in faux innocence. The Lord doesn’t respond. Cain is essentially saying it wasn’t his turn to watch Abel, that he wasn’t Abel’s babysitter. And God doesn’t disagree. He never says “Yes, you are your brother’s keeper,” partly because Cain is pointing out rightly that his brother is his equal, a free agent like he is (albeit a dead one). And also that it’s just a diversionary tactic to throw God off the trail of his murder.
35 And the Lord said: What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother’s ablood cries unto me from the ground.
36 And now thou shalt be acursed from the earth which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand.
Oddly, the actual cursing that comes sounds a whole lot like a black thumb, inability to grow plants. Is that really a fitting punishment for murder?
What is a keeper?
First of all, what is a keep? When someone is in your keep, they are in your charge or your control. A parole officer is a keeper. A prison guard is a keeper. A babysitter is a form of keeper. Beekeepers, zookeepers, those are all “keepers.” Cain was making a joke, a probable play on the fact that Abel was a keeper of animals. He was asking God if it was his responsibility to guard his brother, to restrict him and track him the way his brother guarded his animals. God doesn’t respond to this ridiculous question because people, unlike animals, are responsible for our own choices. We should help one another as equals, but not force others or “keep” them like prisoners. He also doesn’t respond because far from caring for his brother, he has murdered him (which God already knew).
Which brings us to the recent video BYU-I has put out, encouraging students to police one another for porn use and masturbation, including turning in their roommates to ecclesiastical leaders. The video is disturbing for many reasons, several of which Jana Riess ably points out in the linked article: porn exposure isn’t always addiction, masturbation is a normal part of human sexual development (although apparently only guys do it), and grown ups tattling on each other is hardly healthy social behavior.
The word “keeper” is problematic. Being a shepherd is even problematic. Jesus tells his disciples “Feed my sheep,” but the metaphorical sheep belong to Jesus, one who is divine and perfect. They are not subordinate to other humans. While the video purports to teach students that they are responsible to care for those who are (spiritually) wounded, tattling is not a normal behavior for adult peers, particularly when the content of the tattling is normal behavior and the “friend’s” academic status is in jeopardy at the whim of the ecclesiastical leader.
What do you think?
- Are we supposed to be our brother’s keeper? Or to care for one another with respect and as equals?
- Is tattling appropriate? Under what circumstances? All BYU schools require as part of the honor code that students tattle on their fellow students for any known infractions. Is this really honorable? Is it right?
- How do we create healthy sexual attitudes in the church?
In my view, we’ve got the gospel mixed up here. Tattling on each other for sins is not living a Christian life, and it is often self-serving, not honorable behavior. Additionally, our negative attitudes about sexuality are often unhealthy and misguided. For a religion that believes in eternal sex, we sure do have some crazy notions about it.
Lastly, how did your ward present this lesson?