“Am I my brother’s keeper?” It’s a question as old as the story of Cain and Abel, two brothers who competed with each other for God’s blessing.
As the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible recounts, Cain became jealous and slew his brother Abel. “Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ ‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’” — in other words, why should I care about anyone but myself? “The Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.’” [Gen. 4:9-10]
This timeless legend highlights one of the key questions of human existence: Should we be concerned with the wellbeing of others, or only for our own individual gain? When we look at our brother or sister, do we see someone to be beaten and defeated — even destroyed if necessary for our own benefit — or do we see a fellow soul with whom we are called to walk in the journey of life together, watching out for one another and assisting each other with caring and kindness?
A related question: Who is my brother? Should we only be concerned about our literal, flesh-and-blood family, or are we part of a greater family of God? In the Gospel we read that when Jesus was speaking to crowds of people, “Someone told him, ‘Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’ He replied to him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ Pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’ [Matt. 12:47-50]
Yesterday, April 10, was Siblings Day, an unofficial holiday when people celebrate their relationships with their brothers and sisters. That’s an important thing to do — and it’s also an appropriate time to reflect on the way in which we can be brothers and sisters in the spirit, as taught by Jesus Christ.
Perhaps because I’m only child, I have always valued strong friendships and community life. Despite growing up in a non-religious family, I became a person of faith and a churchgoer, and for three years I was a member of an intentional community where people lived and worked together with a spiritual vision of building a better world.
But such commitments are becoming rare. We live in an extremely individualistic time. Fewer people than ever before are getting married and having children, and in “advanced” societies such as the United States, life increasingly is a zero-sum game in which somebody is going to be Cain and somebody else is going to be Abel. Better compete really hard in school, in your career — indeed at every moment of your life — so that you become the one with a kickass investment portfolio instead of a dead-end gig worker hoping you can barely pay next month’s rent.
Serious Christians throughout history would look at 21st century America, with its excessive individualism and hyper-competitive consumer capitalism, as a stereotypical example of “the world” that as followers of Christ we find ourselves living in, but to some degree are called to renounce — for our true citizenship is in another world, the Kingdom of God. In that world, a more cooperative spirit prevails. In that world, we strive not to destroy our brother, seeking the advantage, but rather to lift each other up, that we may all ascend with Christ to our Heavenly Father as brothers and sisters in one human family.
Jesus teaches his followers to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” [Matt. 5:48]. Of course, this is much easier said than done. The beginning of striving for spiritual perfection is to recognize that we should be better, aim higher, than the typical way of life we see around us in worldly society. “What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight,” says Jesus [Luke 16:15]. “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind,” says the Apostle Paul [Rom. 12:2].
To help us do this, we should detach ourselves from people who wish to conform to this world rather than to a higher calling. As Paul advises, “Come out from them and be separate, says the Lord.” [2 Cor. 6:17].
In the early centuries of Christianity, some people who wanted to be holy would go off and live in the desert by themselves as hermits. But the problem with avoiding other people is that it offers few opportunities to practice the spiritual virtue of love, which as Paul declares, is essential: “if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” [1 Cor. 13:2].
Harmonizing these principles — the separation of sincere Christians from a corrupt world, and the moral and spiritual imperative to love one another — led to the rise of monastic communities. Around the year 320, a hermit named Pachomius is credited with founding the first Christian monastery, located in Egypt, where more than a hundred monks came together under his leadership and began living as brothers in the faith.
Saint Pachomius the Great, as he is known today, established a formal organization and rules for both monks and nuns to live together in spiritually based communities. Life in these monasteries and convents included a balance of work, prayer, study, communal fellowship, and solitude. Members held their property in common rather than accumulating wealth for themselves.
Saint Basil the Great, one of the brothers of Macrina the Younger, whom we learned about earlier in this service, expanded upon the work of Pachomius and is known as the father of Eastern Christian monasticism. He is also revered in the Western church, especially because of his influence on Benedict of Nursia, who became the most influential figure in the monastic tradition of Catholicism.
In the 6th century, Saint Benedict founded twelve monasteries in Italy and developed the most comprehensive “Rule,” or system of monastic community practice and organization, in Christian history. The Rule of Saint Benedict opens by summarizing the purpose of a religious life: to renounce one’s own will and serve “the true King, Christ the Lord,” in a spirit of devoted obedience. To do this, Christian disciples should live in community with their brothers and sisters in the faith — a “school for the Lord’s service,” in which the “way to salvation” shall be taught — “through patience shar[ing] in the passion of Christ, that [they] may deserve also to share in his Kingdom.”
Saint Benedict’s model for the monastic life was the family, with the abbot or head of the monastery as father and all the monks as brothers — or, in the case of convents, the abbess as mother and the nuns as sisters. Everyone in the spiritual family was expected to practice a disciplined life based on the philosophy of Ora et Labora (“pray and work”), devoting eight hours per day to prayer and meditation, eight hours to manual labor such as in crafts and farming, as well as copying books and performing works of charity, and eight hours for sleep. All monks and nuns were celibate, forgoing the married life so that they could fully devote themselves to the brotherhood and sisterhood of the religious community.
The system of Benedictine monasticism became very successful in Europe in the Middle Ages; and although much diminished, it still exists today. But for the average Christian who does not wish to give up marriage and family and practice celibacy, there is another, more moderate path of Christian community life that emerged in the Reformation Era, which has become a significant tradition in Protestantism.
The Anabaptists — not to be confused with the mainstream Baptists — were one of the more radical church reform movements that emerged in central Europe in the 16th century. Founded by a monk named Michael Sattler who left the Catholic Church, and other key figures such as Menno Simons, Jakob Ammann, and Jakob Hutter, the Anabaptists today number over four million people who belong to several denominations including the Mennonites, the Amish, the Hutterites, and the German Baptist Brethren.
Anabaptists believe that every soul must make a personal decision to commit their life to Christ and be baptized as an adult, whereupon they are called to live a life of holiness and close-knit community with fellow believers, rejecting many of the popular but morally questionable fashions and practices of a materialistic world. Some, such as the Amish, go so far as to reject most modern technology, while others, such as the Hutterites, are much more open to it. Hutterites live in communal towns, sharing all their property and material resources equally, and some of them are in fact quite technologically advanced, like ecovillages — but with an ultra-Christian lifestyle.
The German Baptist Brethren, also called Schwarzenau Brethren or “Dunkers,” are another intriguing group. They originally believed in universal salvation, and were among the first to bring Christian Universalism to America when they emigrated there in the 1700s. As the Universalist minister Elhanan Winchester wrote in 1803, “[S]uch Christians I have never seen as they are: so averse are they to all sin … They are industrious, sober, temperate, kind, charitable people … and whatsoever they believe their Savior commands, they practice without requiring or regarding what others do.” Unfortunately, the Dunkers later abandoned their belief in the salvation of all souls.
The Christian Restorationist movement of the 1800s shared some of the same characteristics as the Anabaptists, emphasizing a spiritually disciplined and fraternal community life that was set apart from the world at large, based on the teachings of the Book of Acts. The Latter-Day Saints and the Seventh Day Adventists are two of the most significant denominations that emerged from the Restorationist tradition.
Today, the New Monastic movement seeks to recapture the spirit of earlier monastic and holiness traditions emphasizing the sanctification of the soul through the discipline and brotherhood of spiritual community, while expanding the vision of Christian monasticism to include married couples with families. Similar to the Anabaptists and the Restorationists, this represents something of a middle path between total renunciation of ordinary life and a full embrace of mainstream society.
As humanity moves into an era of ever more rapidly accelerating technological and social change, I believe it is likely that growing numbers of people will find interest in Christian traditions that teach that we should reject — at least to some degree — the extreme individualism and materialism of normative 21st century life, and instead live in conscious community with fellow souls who wish to support each other in wholesome programs for spiritual growth. Although the brotherhood and sisterhood of old-fashioned monasteries and convents might never regain the popularity it once enjoyed, perhaps it doesn’t need to. We can learn the lessons of the past and apply them to creating a different but better future.
One of those lessons that I think all Christians should reflect upon is the teaching that we are, in fact, our brother’s keeper, if we wish to live in a way that is pleasing to God and healthy for our souls. As we live in a world that all too often fails to take care of people who need help in their journey of life, each and every one of us should consider what steps we might take, in our own manner of living, to support and encourage a better way, and to participate in communities and institutions that foster a robust spirit of Christian brotherhood.
The Universal Church of the Restoration is committed to this ideal, so please stay tuned. In the coming months, God willing, we’ll be talking more about what we can do to advance the cause — and not only to talk the talk, but to walk the walk of a called-out life together in an increasingly lonely, disturbing, and confusing world.
Watch on video (starting at 8:02):