My Brother's Keeper

September 22, 2013
Rev. Dr. Leonard DeRoche

The topic for this month's sermons is kinship. Who are we related to and what are the bonds that hold us together? Early this month I talked about blood vs water. This subject is not that easy nor that straightforward. I Googled "My brother's keeper" and found many shelters by that name for those living rough throughout the US. I believe the concept is more complex than just offering some minimum support for those who are down, permanently or temporarily. What responsibility do we have to peoples oppressed or victimized in locations like Somalia or Syria, as well as the slums of our cities? What about those who have not healthcare or those who are still suffering from the effects of the recession, or those with issues of mental health or addictions? These are complex issues whose solutions or approaches are affected by our deeply-held assumptions about our society and culture.

The first biblical reference to my brother's keeper is found in Genesis and it is the story of Cain and Abel, the two sons of Adam and Eve. This is probably not the best example of kinship relationships that could be found, but exhibits the primary emotions of jealousy and anger with the mythic symbolism of the first human born and the first human to die. This mythology gives rise to the archetypes of fratricide. Anyway, this short story was full of themes that beg to explore the theme. In the story Adam honors Abel's sacrifice of livestock as a herdsman but not Cain's agrarian offering of produce. So in jealousy and rage Cain kills Abel and later when asked about his brother, he made the classic statement, "Am I my brother's keeper?"

The story is the subject many interpretations. Abel is your first murder victim, while Cain is the first murderer, and can represent evil. It has been seen as a myth of the conflict between the nomadic lifestyle and agrarian culture; the fight between paleolithic and neolithic humans, or the fight between the various prehistoric humanoids to claim our species. As a theme it persists into our frontier days. In this context it says that progress involves violence, but calls us back to our humanity with the rhetoric question, "Am I my brother's keeper?"

The arguments we hear coming out of Washington are in line with this question. Congress's decision to break the farm subsidy from food stamps from one bill into two is one example. First, the vote to support agri-business and the subsidy that supports ethanol production and defunds close to $40 billion from food stamps begs the question "Am I my brother's keeper but also who do we/I see as our brother?" But it also asks what assumptions do we have about each program. In some archetypal way, farming is seen as a family-affirming enterprise, when in reality, small family farms are almost defunct. Some see us as supporting the noble profession by feeding the world, yet again in reality, forty per cent of our corn production goes into to fuels. Conversely, cutting food stamps is denying the reality of the effect that the economy has had on a segment of society. The back argument is in the assumptions that back up these issues. Do people need food stamps because they can't make enough to support their needs or because they choose to allow the greater society to support them? The same argument can be made for healthcare and the funding of Medicaid. That asks are we with good generous hearts contributing to the solution or the problem. And asks are we a big enough society to be able to subsidize both people and corporations?

One place to ask about who is our brother is along our border with Mexico. One of my experiences going through seminary was to spend three weeks on the border with Mexico.

The trip was organized by a Quaker group who ran these experiences as a charity to experience the conditions of the US-Mexican border. Since the immigration bill has been in the news since the winter it is worth considering. On January 2, 1996 I departed the Philadelphia airport in a snow storm for Tucson and Mexico with a group of UU seminarians and returned tired and dehydrated with a sunburned bald spot. I found my car had been buried in a snow bank. I received no pity from my family as they pointed out that I missed 42 inches of snow. Now, 42 inches of snow isn't very impressive to someone who has lived in Caribou, Maine, but this snowfall fell in my 40 feet of driveway and 120 feet of walkways which then needed to be shoveled. Put another way, this was 630 snow shovels full of the white stuff. What was more significant was that my then-teenaged girls did not go to school for eight days. My experience paled in significance.

There was a requirement in my seminary that we take a trip to another country and culture and experience it and observe how the religious community worked in this culture. I had lived fifteen years out of the United States and while living in England I had traveled fairly extensively in the Middle East and I felt I could spend my money better other ways. So I decided to do our trip to the borderland area of Mexico.

With the recent election of President Fox into the presidency of Mexico, our southern neighbor entered a new phase in its democracy. Someone during the 1996 visit tried to explain the Mexican government with a joke about an American, a German and a Mexican bragging about their countries. The German stated that they produce the best motor vehicles that are made anywhere. The car's perfection guarantees not even opening the hood for the first 50,000 miles. The citizen of the US piped up to talk about our communications capability. "We have such a grasp of computers and communications that within minutes of our polls closing we know who has won the election". (This was pre-Florida, mind you.) The Mexican then joined in and said "That is nothing. We Mexicans know who won the election six months before it is held." And they do. Prior to Fox's election the previous party had been in power for 75 years.

Our trip was arranged by the Borderland Theological Center, an organization developed to inform groups from trade unionists to high school students about the nature of our common border with Mexico. The US-Mexican border is unique because it is the only boundary in the world where a first world country directly borders on a third world country. Let me repeat that, it is the only physical border in the world where a first world country meets a third world country. The Center informed us both cognitively by introducing us to border people and encouraging us to ask questions, and experientially by having us live with the people of the border. We ate what the locals ate and lived as some of locals lived in cardboard houses. From this experiential awareness of the border comes a sense of hope and hopelessness for the people on both sides of the border for finding a humane solution to poverty and opulence existing side by side.

There are some historical perspectives of which we were reminded by Mexicans and Mexican-Americans that I would like to share. First the territories of Texas, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and California have a very ancient Spanish and Mexican presence that goes back to the missionary period. Many of the Mexican Americans' families have lived in the area since the 1600's. These territories were then annexed or conquered by the U.S. during the years of 1845-1848. The natives, both Native American and Mexican, were treated as foreigners. Their language suddenly became a foreign language and their occupations became the marginalized job is of society. Many of these original families still feel this marginalization by our Anglo society. The educational and economic systems were not the agrarian systems they felt comfortable. Most of all they were stereo-typed as foreigners in their own lands.

The trip's lectures developed two distinct topics. The first concerned the issue of the border and immigration as seen from a U.S. perspective. These I saw as both political and pragmatic. Politically the border and immigration are emotional issues that politicians at all levels of government want to capitalize on and use for attracting support. This border has been a political football for at least 20 years. Right now, we hear that to guarantee immigration reform we have to put almost 40 billion dollars into protecting the border with increased INS agents and fences. Yet the immigration is actually going south, because low income jobs are more available in Mexico, while many of our politicians north of the border appear intent on using these issues to raise emotion to mask the underlying conditions of insecurity in the nature of U.S. future economic and societal growth. What I found most interesting was the relationship between the towns of El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico. Juarez's population is estimated at 1.5-2.0 million and El Paso is about 700,000. El Paso was rated the safest large city in the nation for the last three years, while Juerez was called "the most violent zone in the world outside of declared war zones" in 2009. Since Juarez and El Paso, have existed they have had a symbiotic relationship. Up to 80 per cent of the population of El Paso are of Spanish descent and have maintained many family ties with relatives in their twin city. Over the past twenty years both towns' populations have doubled. This growth is indicative of all the growth along the border due to joint U.S. and Mexican governmental policies dating back to the 1960's, especially their encouragement of an industrial zone and the NAFTA agreement. This industrial zone includes over 2,000 international companies along our joint border. It is believed that Juarez generated 10,000 new jobs this year. This is the primary reason immigration has been moving south. I believe the border is closed primarily because of our xenophobia.

A significant component of the immigration policy is denying access to the U.S. to what the Border Patrol refers to as illegal aliens. This term itself is very emotionally loaded and suggests that the individuals seeking access are markedly different from the inhabitants north of the border. This image is strengthened by movies like Alien. This term does not stress our sameness. De facto the peoples along the border have more culturally and ethnically in common with each other than many other groups within our country. The Immigration and Naturalization Service maintains that access for visits is obtained by just producing some basic documents. But these basic documents are not available to the average Third World inhabitant. A bill for electricity or phone, listing your name specifically, is one of these requirements. In a cash culture where many families may receive their utilities from a shared source, the single individual on the invoice would be the only person to meet this requirement. For generations the residents of Juarez have come across the river to El Paso to do work the more affluent Texans will not do for the wages. These are jobs like child-minding and gardening. These workers never crossed the border legally. There is no legal way they could obtain the papers necessary to come the one mile to their jobs without becoming resident aliens and gaining a green card. At its quickest, this is a three-year process. These Mexicans do not want to change their citizenship. They live in Juarez. During the average week, 80 per cent of the illegals apprehended by the Border Patrol in the El Paso sector reside permanently in Juarez. These people are not threats to U.S. sovereignty. Yet the statistics which our government flaunts to justify increased spending to protect our southern border portray all illegal aliens as security threats. Many inhabitants of El Paso do not see the threat of gardeners with hedge trimmers nor cooks with their pots. One saying they have in the area is 'if Juarez has a cough, El Paso gets a cold." Since the new border crackdown, over fifty major retailers in down town El Paso, within a mile of the border, have gone out of business. I saw many others which were closing down. While our southern neighbors face complex procedures to cross the border, in the three weeks I was there and crossed about four times into Mexico. I, with my fair complexion was not even questioned. This has become worse since the Department of Homeland Security took over the INS.

As I earlier said, Mexico is the only third world country, which borders on a first world country. Crossing the bridge which spans the international border between El Paso and Juarez is walking into a very different world. El Paso contains modern stores with wide, well-kept sidewalks. Juarez looks like a movie set with architecture out of the 40's and sidewalks with pot-holes that looked like strip mines. I resorted to walking looking constantly at the ground as did everyone. This act in itself makes the people walking the streets appear depressed. Mexico has no public assistance so their method for caring for the poor or physically impaired is by supporting them in their begging. I was used to this from my visits to some Middle Eastern locations but I had never before seen it as a form of welfare or social services. Now this form of welfare is not humane, but it sure makes the faces of welfare much more real than paying taxes with computerized filing of returns.

I can readily admit that my time in the border area left me with more feelings that economic justice will occur slowly and over many generations, than what I would like to see occur. I believe that the immigration issue will only be remedied when we have some parity as with Canada, as in all boats rise with a rising tide. In thinking about a response to our brothers, I am reminded of the story told by Loren Eiseley about walking along a Pacific beach and seeing miles away down the sand what appeared to be someone doing a movement that looked like ballet. The person would drop to their knees facing toward the land and pick something up and then like a discus thrower whorl toward the water. As he walked closer he noticed that the man was picking up a single starfish from the beach that was littered with thousands and throwing them into the surf. He was struck by the fruitlessness of this effort and expressed this to the thrower when he got close to him, "that he could never make a difference to these thousands of dying creatures". The thrower looked at this and held up one starfish and stated, "I can make a difference with this one." And it answers my question.

In an ever-evolving and never-ending world. Amen