Are we our brothers’ keepers?
One of the consequences of mortality is the necessity of earning our daily bread. We do so as employees, as business people, and as investors. In all of our earning activities, we have the challenge of dealing fairly and considerately with others.
Our duty is clear. The Saviour gave us the Golden Rule: “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” (Matt. 7:12).
Satan’s position is the opposite. He sponsors self-interest, raw and unrefined by any other consideration. One of his most effective tools is the temptation to take unfair advantage in order to get gain.
Cain set the pattern of the world. Cain coveted the flocks of his brother Abel, and Satan showed him how to obtain them. Satan taught Cain that a man could get worldly wealth by committing some evil against its owner. The scriptures say that Cain killed Abel, “for the sake of getting gain”, the flocks of his brother. Seeing this, the Lord asked Cain, “Where is Abel thy brother?” Cain first attempted to cover his sin with a lie: “I know not.” Then he added a rationalisation: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Are we our brothers’ keepers? In other words, are we responsible to look after the well-being of our neighbours as we seek to earn our daily bread? The Saviour’s Golden Rule says we are. Satan says we are not.Tempted of Satan, some have followed the example of Cain. They covet property and then sin to obtain it. The sin may be murder, robbery, or theft. It may be fraud or deception. It may even be some clever but legal manipulation of facts or influence to take unfair advantage of another. Always the excuse is the same: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
We live in a world where many look on the marketplace as a ruthless arena where the buyer must beware, where no one is obligated to do more than the law requires, and where fraud isn’t fraud unless you can prove it in court.
Some seize wealth by trafficking in illegal drugs or prostitution. Traders in these products enrich themselves by transactions that ruin the bodies, minds, or morals of their customers.Other criminals live by stealing. And not all stealing is at gunpoint or by dark of night. Some theft is by deception, where the thief manipulates the confidence of his victim.
The white-collar cousin of stealing is fraud, which gets its gain by lying about an essential fact in a transaction.Scheming promoters with glib tongues and ingratiating manners deceive their neighbours into investments the promoters know to be more speculative than they dare reveal.Difficulties of proof make fraud a hard crime to enforce. But the inadequacies of the laws of man provide no licence for transgression under the laws of God. Though their method of thievery may be immune from correction in this life, sophisticated thieves in white shirts and ties will ultimately be seen and punished for what they are. He who presides over that Eternal Tribunal knows our secret acts, and he is “a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Heb 4:12).
Followers of Christ have the moral responsibility of earning their livings and conducting their financial transactions in ways that are consistent with the principles of the gospel and the teachings of the Saviour. An employee who receives the compensation agreed upon but does not perform the service agreed upon earns part of his living by injuring others.So does an employer who is unfair to his employees. Of course, we understand that what an employer can pay his employees is limited by what his business can obtain for its products or services in a competitive marketplace. Contracts also impose limits on legitimate economic expectations.
The consumption of alcohol is increasing among our population especially our youth. Targeting young audiences, advertisers portray beer and other liquor as joyful, socially desirable, and harmless. Producers are promoting new types of alcoholic beverages as competitors in the huge soft-drink market. Super markets and local stores and gas filling stations stock alcoholic beverages side by side with soft drinks and ice creams. Can Christians who are involved in this commerce be indifferent to the physical and moral effects of the alcohol from which they are making their profits?Other examples could be given, but these few are sufficient to illustrate the principle that the Golden Rule applies to our earning activities. We are our brother’s keeper, even in the marketplace.
I am aware that this is a high standard which cannot be met overnight. But it is important to recognise our responsibility and begin to work toward it. And we should do so joyfully. We should remember that the principle that the Golden Rule governs our earning activities is difficult to apply in practice. We should not consider employees responsible for policies they regret but cannot control. A decision that is made by the owner of a market should not inflict feelings of guilt on a conscientious but powerless Christian who runs the checkout stand. Similarly, a part-owner does not have freedom to impose his standards on business policies if he has partners who do not share his moral concerns. An incorporated business may be controlled by stockholders who have no concern for the destructive human effects of a profitable product or policy.
We live in a complex society, where even the simplest principle can be exquisitely difficult to apply. I admire investors who are determined not to obtain income or investment profits from transactions that add to the sum total of sin and misery in the world. But they will have difficulty finding investments that meet this high standard. Good things are often packaged with bad, so decisions usually involve balancing. In a world of corporate diversification, we are likely to find that a business dealing in beverages sells milk in one division and alcohol in another. Just when we think that our investments are entirely unspotted from the world, we may find that our life insurance is partially funded by investments we wish to avoid. Or our savings may be deposited in a bank that is lending to ventures we could not approve. Such complexities make it difficult to prescribe firm rules.
The motive of Cain is at the headwaters of wickedness. Cain’s sin was murder, but his motive was personal gain. That motive has produced all manner of wickedness, including murder, thievery, and fraud. That motive is also at work in the legal but immoral practices of those who get gain by preying on the weaknesses or ignorance of their neighbours. Always such activities involve Cain’s ancient rationalisation: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
In contrast, the Saviour taught us to “loveour enemies, bless them that curse us, do good to them that hate us, and pray for them who despitefully use us and persecute us”. When we have that duty toward our enemies, we cannot allow ourselves to do less for our partners, our customers, our employees, and others with whom we deal in the marketplace.
What a beautiful and happy world this would be if all of us would strive to live these principles to the fullest. Our efforts and influence would affect millions. Examples improve society more than sermons. Most people would rather see a sermon than hear one.May God bless us to live the Golden Rule in our earning activities. As we seek to be our brother’s keeper, we will be attempting to follow in the footsteps of the Master.
By Samuel Enos Eghan