Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Difference Is Why

The Difference Is Why
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
October 29, 2013
at Gibson Memorial Chapel
Blue Ridge School, St. George, VA
Genesis 4: 8-10

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

Of all the standards on the Code of Conduct it seems like we talk about the one that says, we will be our Brother's Keeper, by far, the most. It became a theme of last year. We talked about it all the time. It even became like a slogan. I remember hearing the phrase, "That was kind of a Brother's Keeper type thing" on many occasions, or hey, "Brother's Keeper" and every one was like, "yeah, totally, Brother's Keeper." It was so prevalent that I asked my students in their final exam exactly what they thought about the whole idea. I worded the question like this:

We have hammered “brother’s keeper” into your head so much this year that it may have become merely an empty slogan. Has it? What does it mean to you? Do we have a responsibility to care for each other? What constitutes a “brother”? What does “keeping” mean? Is the phrase, “brother’s keeper” the best representation of the idea of caring for others?

You'd be surprised at how varied the responses were, even after talking about it so much, going to show that talking about something constantly isn't always the best way to make a point. Sometimes, less is more, but even so I chose to speak on this topic today, perhaps from a different angle. I have a reputation for making people think, challenging students, I hope to do so today.
Before I get to some of the exam responses, do you all know where the phrase "Brother's Keeper" comes from? Yes it is the Bible, but no for you Tarantino fans it does not come from Ezekiel 25:17. No it comes from Genesis 4, the story of Cain and Abel, yes the account of the first murder in the Bible.

8 Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. 9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground![1]  

There it is right there, from the voice of the murderer asking, "Am I my Brother's Keeper?" and the question remains unanswered. God does not answer yes, and as I said before, there is no, "Blessed is he, who in the name of charity and good will, shepherd's the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children." Nope Tarantino made that up, or copied it from a kung fu movie, the story of Cain and Abel is it for Brother's Keeper in the Bible, so the Bible is at best inconclusive on the idea of whether we are really to be our Brother's Keeper, Psalm 121 v 5, includes the same Hebrew word we translate here Keeper, the word "Shamar," but in your own time I invite you to look up there, who is the subject of that verb in the context of the Psalm, perhaps a better Biblical interpretation of who keeps. But I'm not here to talk about the possible religious ideas that may divide us, but rather the identity that we all share in common.
We all are members of this community, and we have all adopted the Code of Conduct as our behavioral guide for living within this community, the high goals and standards we seek to live up to. We all have decided that this community of learning would be a better place, and would produce better young men, if they would learn, adopt, and exemplify the idea of Brother's Keeper. We see it as part of developing men of character, so its Biblical tradition, though interesting is not binding on how we see it and apply it in our lives. So how do we see it at work within our community? This is the heart of what truly matters after all.
Here are two examples of what some of my students last year said, one of them is positive and one of them is negative, but they reflect the two general trends of the responses I got:

·         First the positive one - “I love that they say be a brother’s keeper here because that’s what I look at a lot of the boys here as, my brothers, and even though we fight and don’t get along, I would always have their back no matter what.” 

This is typical of the positive ones, totally all about it, completely bought in, I've got my brother's back. That very phrase was repeated often in the 40+ responses I got. There were many just like this one, but they all seemed to be lacking in detail of real situations, real challenges, real wrestling with what it would really mean. But here is a negative one, also typical of what the negative ones say, and this one from a midyear student, which may be a better example of some of the true underlying perception of the standard, around campus:

·         As a new student, it was explained to me that brother's keeper means telling on people when they do something wrong. I had thought brother's keeper had a good meaning, but it has been lost to this other meaning.

There were many that dealt with this idea of telling on your fellow students who are doing something wrong. Within the context of these responses, two words are commonly thrown around: snitch and rat. Many of the people who had problem with this way of understanding Brother's Keeper raised this issue. The I don't want to be a snitch, or I'll never be a no good rat. There was even one response that was cynical enough to suggest that the faculty want students to snitch on each other just to get the "bad kids" in trouble, or to create spies in the school, like some kind of totalitarian secret police, always trying to put us on lock down, another structure of control to rebel from.
I get it, I understand that often there is distrust between student and faculty. I understand that it often comes with the territory of rules and authority, and a little rebelliousness is natural, good even, but there is a very important lesson here to be learned about the difference between being a Brother's Keeper and being a Rat. Though there are many ways to be your brother's keeper it's this point that I wish to make today because I've heard it talked about the most from you, and I have seen it applied this way the most.
My classes have always been ripe with discussion. We engage in many different aspects of life, and character, and philosophy, all centered around the ins outs and pitfalls of being a man in this crazy world. Often the discussions leave the literature behind and involve talking about real topical issues. There have been many times when the topic of ratting out friends has come up. I remember there was one where a few kids had been expelled, they were seniors, I was teaching seniors, and they had all been friends, my entire class and these boys, also in the class, and friends with them all was the prefect who turned them in. And he was taking it pretty hard, both from himself and from his classmates. I told them the same thing I'm going to tell you:
The difference between being a rat and being your brother's keeper is subtle. It's subtle because the action, the thing you do, in most cases is exactly the same. Both may involve turning in your friends, the difference and the only difference between the two is who you do it for and why? If you do it to protect yourself, you're a no good dirty rat. If you do it to make yourself feel better, you are a no good dirty rat. If you do it because I or anybody else tells you, you should, you are a no good dirty rat, because it's too big to pawn off on someone else, but if you do it, if you turn them in because you honestly are trying to help your brother, then and only then are  you your brother's keeper, and a man of true character. And that's hard man, that's so very hard. Since yourself and the pair of eyes looking back into your soul from the mirror are the only ones who know the truth about which you are, you may lose friends over it, you may alienate the person you are trying to help, you may get your friend kicked out of school, you may have to deal with ridicule like you've never experienced, but you may just help your brother in a way no one else could because you cared enough to go through all of that for them. And expulsion is not the end of the world, rather often a beginning, but in many cases the punishment is immediate and the help takes longer to surface, and it may never. So the question truly is: Do you care? When it's all over that is what really matters. Do you care about your brother? This school says you should, and that it's a matter of character, and character matters, mostly because it's not easy. If it were easy it wouldn't be special, it wouldn't be important, it wouldn't be character, and it wouldn't be real. It would just become another, one more example of hypocrisy in a world full of it. . . literally full of it.
It's not easy, nor is character determined by one action, but rather is learned and grown throughout ones entire life, and so grace is important within the system, grace forgives, but doesn't lower the standards, nor make it easy. Many people may seek to make it easy for you, cheapening character to the small, and the easily measurable. Be wary of that. I remember another time, when I was serving on the Discipline Committee, a student was before us, and he was in trouble for using dip, repeatedly. He kept saying that he wasn't the only one, and that the dip wasn't his, trying to make it seem like his involvement wasn't as bad. I said cool, whose is  it? He said, "I can't say." I said, "So it's yours." He said no, it wasn't, I said ok then whose is it? "I can't say?" So it's yours. We went on and around this for at least another 10 minutes. Finally he said, "It was mine." I said, "Ok" and was proud of him, not because he lied to me, not because he didn't tell me, but because he didn't try to save himself. I didn't make it easy for him, I think I even told him it would be good for him if he would tell us, but he didn't sell out his brother to save himself. He took his medicine the harder way, and to tell you the truth we already knew anyway whose it was. We often do.
I spoke last year about how character is who you are in the pit, when everything goes wrong, and many times it is taking the harder road. I challenge you to take that harder road, and to really care. Not because we require it, like we require you to go to a play or to a football game because it is important that you should, but because character, caring, being your brother's keeper is important enough that we don't require it. We can require you to act, we can structure you into functionality, but we cannot require you to care. It's something that must come from you and you only. We can only instill, and inspire, and instruct, and exemplify, and above all hope. . . its among the only hope we really have. Amen.


[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ge 4:8-10). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.