Am I My Brother's Keeper?

One of the great principles that tends to be ignored in our debates about economics, social justice, and governmental involvement in the lives of the people is solidarity.  We argue about how involved the government should be in our lives, what kinds of safety nets it should provide, and to what extent it should mandate and appropriate in order to provide for the most needy of society.  We argue about how well certain economic theories–capitalism, Keynesian economics, socialism, etc.–work in providing justice, or even providing just shelter and food.  We argue about subsidiarity, and how it should be practiced, and while that touches on solidarity, it doesn’t fully overlap.

One of the arguments about governmental involvement is how the aid provided is cold and distant.  By the time  the welfare check is spat out of the massive, convulsing, bureaucratic mess that is the government, any principle of charity has been rendered flat.  The recipient is a name on the list, judged worthy to receive a handout based upon an entry in a database.  At first this seems like an argument of aesthetics.  If a man receives a welfare check from the government rather than from friends in the community or local charities, he still receives the money he needs to survive.  Yet there is a deeper problem here than merely looking at from whom the money comes, or how much charity exists in the entity delivering assistance.  The continual reliance on the federal government to solve our problems aids in the breakdown of solidarity.

Is it any wonder that we have become so polarized, so factious, so estranged?

Well, maybe it is a wonder.  Let’s review.  There are many factors at play currently, but some of the major players appeared in the late 1940′s, after the end of World War II and the beginning of a booming era.  The United States emerged from the war as a global power, and with the war efforts largely reduced, most of her production quickly redirected towards the consumer.  Most people who lived during the Great Despression and World War II had to make do with very little, and that still shows today.  (My grandmother still picks up anything usable discarded in the streets, frequents garage sales for most of her shopping, and hands down to us grandchildren anything she does not intend to use.)  Yet after the war, because of the massive production, everyone, it seemed, could buy their own television, their own, car, their own toaster, their own…  In the aftermath of a time when people had banded together as close as they could in order to either make it through economically challenging times or to support the troops abroad, the ability for each family, each person, to own his or her own stuff helped fuel a marked streak of independence.

Of course, there has always been a huge streak of gungho, “I can do it myself” independence in the American spirit.  But this new streak of independence was marked–and is still marked–by the excessive consumerism and entitlement.  And it drove us to rely less and less on each other, until it became a mark of virtue to depend on no one, and a mark of vice to need help in times of trouble.

A second player in wreaking havoc on solidarity was the interstate system, originally meant to help transport troops and equipment quickly from one side of the nation to the other.  Of course, these roads did not come into existence until President Eisenhower initiated the interstate effort in 1954, and once constructed, they were open to public use, as well.  And the effects were dramatic: commerce exploded as goods could be shipped with ease across the nation, and the family unit shifted from extended to nuclear.  As travel became much less expensive in both time and money, the dense urban areas saw an outpouring of population into the suburbs and then into more distant areas.  Whereas seeking a job across the nation was uncommon before the war, afterwards it became much more common for people to take employment hundreds of miles from where they were born.  Thus family connections became strained or lost, and communities became composed more and more of people who did not know each other.

The third player was the rise of the Baby Boomer generation, the first post-war generation that was born and raised in a time of wealth.  From early on, they had everything their parents lacked, and this surplus bred a body of people who could devote their time to other matters.  It is quite true that many of this generation were selfish and spoiled, and they gave rise to a new mantra that has further permeated our society: “As long as it doesn’t hurt anyone, I can do what I want.”  This creed was not just opposed to authority, but also opposed to solidarity.  It sought to remove the interconnectedness of humankind from public thought to justify selfish pursuits.

Other contributing players have been the steady rise of the federal government, both in terms of leadership and safety nets; the rise and dominance of political correctness; nativism; lawsuits; and so on.

Each of these elements, either maliciously or accidentally, have contributed in severing the ties that bind us together a members of a community, members of a nation, and a members of the human race.  The effect is such that some of our most charished principles–subsidiarity and charity–have been dealt a harsh blow.    Thus it is no wonder that more and more people are turning to the federal government for aid before looking elsewhere.  In a city surrounded by strangers, who are we to turn to?  Haven’t we be taught from young age not to trust strangers?  Haven’t we learned that we need to lock our doors at night and isolate ourselves from all the dangerous people around us?

It is no wonder, really, that many people on the left scoff at those of us on the right when we claim that we should act by principles of subsidiarity.  It isn’t that they don’t believe that subsidiarity should happen; rather, they know that the way things are right now makes subsidiarity impossible.  The lack of solidarity means we are alone, isolated, with no one nearby to turn to.  The safety-net provided by the government isn’t just a last resort; it is the only resort.  With the bonds of solidarity broken, we cannot count on the generosity of the rich, or the mobilization of the local community, or even the contributions of the Church.

True, the characterization I just described is somewhat hyperbolic, but it is a state we are rapidly descending to.  There’s a strong belief that taking a job close to home is somewhat incestuous.  Taking a job from a family member is a grave evil called nepotism.  Relying on family to bail one out in times of trouble is a sign of failure and worthy of condemnation.  Easy office banter has to be screened for any signs of sexual harassment or discrimination.  One has to be sensitive to another’s status as a minority, or disabled, or of some manner special interest.  Someone who has lots of money is to be shunned as a snob and thief of other’s wealth; someone who has no money is to be looked down on and scorned.  Anyone receiving a huge paycheck is corrupt and greedy; anyone receiving government money is lazy and living off someone else’s labor.  Liberals are destroying the nation.  Conservatives are destroying the nation.  Moderates are destroying the nation. Anyone who doesn’t have an opinion is destroying the nation. The rich are pitted against the poor.  Majorities are pitted against minorities.  Men are pitted against women.  Employees are pitted against employers.  Big business is pitted against small business.  Government is pitted against the individual.  Atheists are pitted against the religious, and the religious are pitted against each other.

In truth, sometimes I’m surprised that we don’t simply hate anyone and everyone.

Yet we are called to solidarity.  We are called to work together, to know each other, to support one another.  And that’s a challenging thing to do, the way our nation is going.  But we need to do so.  As the Catechism states,

1941 Socio-economic problems can be resolved only with the help of all the forms of solidarity: solidarity of the poor among themselves, between rich and poor, of workers among themselves, between employers and employees in a business, solidarity among nations and peoples.  International solidarity is a requirement of the moral order; world peace depends in part upon this.

The problem we face is that as solidarity continues to break down, the stopgap measures we tend to employ only continue to tear solidarity apart.  I would like to cite a current dilemma occurring in my own state as an example.

Currently in Goshen County (north of Cheyenne, butting up against Nebraska, and whose most populous city runs about 5,500), there is a debate about whether or not students involved in extracurricular activities should be subjected to random drug tests.  The drug problem in the county has grown to problematic levels, and something needs to be done.  The easiest solution, it seems, is to test students for drug use, in hopes of either catching culprits or discouraging potential abusers.

This solution has roused the usual outcry we have grown accustomed to.  The policy infringes on the students’ rights, especially Fourth Amendment rights.  The policy is an invasion of privacy.  The policy treats all students like drug dealers.  The policy is misguided, because it only targets students who are least likely to use drugs.  The policy will actually discourage students from participating in extracurricular activities.

The overarching concern, of course, is that this policy punishes students who have no involvement in drugs.  But this view is misguided.  Students aren’t isolated beings who coincidentally congregate in the same place.  They interact with each other.  Their families interact outside of school.  Students and families all belong to an aggregate that we once called a “community”.

The truth is, because of the necessity of solidarity, we are our brothers’ keepers.  When someone in our community uses drugs, it is something that hurts everyone in the community, and it is partly the responsibility of the community.  This is, of course, not to downplay the personal role in sin, but is to emphasize how we not just have the ability to watch out for our neighbors, but also a duty to do so.

We have become so divided, so scared of interfering with someone else’s life, so hesitant to speak when we see someone doing something harmful, so craven about offering aid, that we have grasped at the belief that what another person does is not any of our concern.  And then we have problems that can only be addressed by the government, and solutions that draconically target everyone.  We have a drug policy that targets every student, that treats every student as a drug user, because the community could not be bothered to deal with the drug abuse rampant in its ranks.  The moral decay, unchecked because people refuse to deal with each other, to support each other in moral life, has brought about no other choice but to make governmental policies that target sinner and saint alike.

And what will the effects of this policy be?  First, it will create more dissention, more division.  The gulf between the “academic” and the “druggie” will widen as the first feels that he is unjustly targeted by the second.  This self-righteousness will only breed further contempt and further refusal to do anything about the drug problem (other than maybe indignant cries that such felons should be locked up forever).  Parents who have students that use drugs will face further social ostracism.  And the bonds of solidarity will continue to die.

The only way to reverse this process is to engage in the challenging task of restoring communal bonds.  We have to be willing to step beyond ourselves, beyond social stigmas and expectations, to reach out to our neighbors and engage with them.  We need to know their stories, their difficulties, their strengths.  We need to be willing to aid them in need, and in turn be humble to ask them for aid when we are in need.  We need to realize that we are our brothers’ keepers, and that our brothers’ sins do reflect back on us.  We cannot be content like the Pharisee who prayed, “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity–greedy, dishonest, adulterous.”  Any time we pray like that–and don’t for a moment believe that we don’t–we estrange ourselves, we break the bonds that tie us to others, and we rip apart the solidarity we need to heal our broken world.

5 Responses to Am I My Brother's Keeper?

  • jh says:

    Great post and I agree with much of it.

    Let me offer this thought though. Often because of the political emotion of the topics there is perhaps a tenedency to think things were better in the good ole days before the big ole Federal Govt came on the scene.

    This is of course is not exactly true. There are still a few people in my state that are alive that were kids in the days of Huey and Earl Long. I am at times floored by the real poverty and devastation so many people were facing. Were there good times ?yes but there are reasons while Huey and Earl were so loved with their massive govt assistance to the poor. For that matter there is a reason in the deep South and the nation FDR was viewed as a patron Saint by many common people for decades.

    So there were real serious flaws

    That being said I think you are on to something. THis country just economic wise is different than it was in 1800. However for many of the problems we face a heatlhy dose of Federalism can still be applied.

    THe communial bonds that you talk about must be reestablished. However you are right it is no easy task. Especially in a world where big families are looked at with scorn

  • Ryan Harkins says:

    Well, I’m not try to assert that the past times were the good ol’ days. Rather, I wanted to paint a picture of how we got to the current dilemma, which I think wasn’t much of a problem (or at least not as much of a problem) in the earlier decades of the 20th century (though I think the 1880′s to the turn of the century some some similar problems). Indeed, past days carried their own problems, their own great struggles. I believe that problems with solidarity have risen and fallen over the centuries, and that currently we’re seeing a drastic collapse of solidarity in our nation.

  • Schevus says:

    I completely agree. I have seen so many people refuse necessary help because of pride. I try to make people understand that it’s ok to need help sometimes and it’s necessary that we be willing to give that help. Best wishes.

    - Schev

  • j. christian says:

    I sense a strong impulse toward solidarity in much of the current valuation of non-judgmentalism and inclusivitiy above all else. This is the Freshman Dorm Mentality: Let’s erase our points of difference in the hope that we can all get along. Maybe we end up “getting along” just fine, but ultimately these are superficial bonds — we have many acquaintances but few lifelong friends. Though we still long for it, what we have isn’t solidarity or community, but something much weaker. Erase enough of our differences and all that we have in common is our DNA.

    Even as we try to erase our differences, more behaviors seem to rise to the level of moral categorical imperative. If I have a barbecue in my backyard, will my vegan neighbor ostracize me? I have to worry at every turn not only that I’m being impractical, but that I’m being *immoral.* How can we have solidarity when so few of us share a common view of the summum bonum?

    Maybe that’s the rub: we have a staggering lack of imagination when it comes to our ideas about the common good and what human flourishing means. There is no sense of shared telos that we can all turn to and demonstrate how this action flows to that good. This state of affairs probably follows from many of the historical/social trends that Ryan described. We’ve become atomistic individuals, making choices that are unassailable simply because they’re our own. It’s true that there was no “golden age” or good ol’ days when everyone agreed on everything; but at a minimum there wasn’t a sanctification of all paths no matter how outlandish. It seems for real solidarity and community to exist, there have to be at least a few axioms about ultimate reality and the ends of human striving shared among all persons.

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