Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” “I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (NIV)
The poet John Donne once wrote that none of us is an island. We are all part of one great continent. He was warning us against seeing ourselves as isolated and independent human beings. If a human being suffers, it affects other human beings. And if humanity in general suffers, we cannot isolate ourselves from it. We are in it together.
Back in prehistory, Cain thought differently. He had killed his brother Abel and when asked by God as to Abel’s whereabouts, he offered a doubly misleading reply. First, he well knew where the corpse of his brother would be. Second, he disowned any responsibility for his brother. It was a denial of their common humanity.
It is true that we cannot in practice be everyone’s “keeper”. We cannot assume responsibility for everyone. Even those closest to us are not under our total control: there are limits on what we can do with them and for them. And yet, this ancient story tells us we cannot use such excuses to cut ourselves off from others.
We do what we can rather than wring our hands about what we can’t do. We recognise that the smallest things we do can have a big impact on others. We realise that in fighting for the legitimate rights of one group of people we are acknowledging our common humanity. We do not pretend that what we do and say and think has no significance beyond our own private world.
Within the Christian community, we term ourselves the body of Christ. We belong, we are interdependent, we affect each other for good or ill. Much modern culture pushes us towards individualism, but our faith urges us towards mutual belonging: continents and not islands.