The first brothers in the Bible are Cain and Abel. Their story is told in Genesis and Moses, in which Cain falls out of favor with God and into the favor of Satan, leading to him committing a great sin. According to Genesis,
“Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him. And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper? And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground.””
The Book of Moses has fantastic insight into the version of this story told in Genesis. When Cain counsels with Satan and plans to kill his brother, he learns of a great secret, which he explains, saying,
“Truly I am Mahan, the master of this great secret, that I may murder and get gain. Wherefore Cain was called Master Mahan, and gloried in his wickedness.”
Here Cain learns particularly how not to be his brother’s keeper through the “great secret” conferred to him by Satan. I appreciate this passage not only for its Old Testament-style intensity, but also for how I believe it is applicable to all of us, even those who may not be interested in murder per se. There are many kinds of exploitation, some of which are literally violent and others of which are figurative. In striving to be our siblings’ keepers, we have to recognize that the “great secret” of exploitation applies to all of us.
If Cain is the ideal example of how not to be a good brother, I believe Jesus Christ is an ideal example of how to be a good brother. He lived and He died for us, his siblings, and he called for His disciples to do the same by following Him, saying in Matthew chapter 16, “Whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” Thousands of years later this is still a challenging and radical notion that often feels impossible to live, especially when we are in Cain’s mindset, which is that we gain by hurting others.
Sometimes we think of ourselves, and our love, care, gifts, and talents like we would think of money. We imagine that we are in finite supply, that we are to be hoarded and that if we give of ourselves to someone else it takes away from our time or energy. When we imagine trying to be unselfish with this attitude, losing our lives in the gospel truly means our lives are truly lost to us. But when we take the promises of the gospel seriously, we know that Christ is not challenging us to give of ourselves fully, that is He is not suggesting that we will be taken away, rather he is challenging us to share ourselves fully and finding ourselves in doing so.
Rather than being finite like money, the Spirit of God, which is the source of our love and gifts and which is who we really are, burns like a fire as suggested by William W. Phelps in the beloved hymn. A candle can be used to light other fires without taking anything away from the original flame. I love watching a birthday cake be lit, when a single candle can pass along its light to every other candle, illuminating the entire cake for its recipient. Matthew quotes Jesus telling his disciples, “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” Here Jesus encourages us to share our light and I think it is significant that putting a light under a bushel suffocates a flame whereas a light placed on a candlestick not only illuminates its space but also has better access to the oxygen it needs to keep burning. Sharing our light makes it brighter.
If we know exactly how not to be our sibling’s keeper, which is to murder, harm, or exploit them for our own gain, then what does it mean to be our sibling’s keeper? I believe at its heart, siblinghood requires an attitude opposite of Cain’s and aligned with that of Christ: that the service and love we give our siblings is not diminishing to the giver, but expanding, enlarging, and illuminating.
Imagery and language of siblinghood is very strong in our church as well as in the gospel. In our theology, we consider the central figure of Jesus Christ to be our older brother and we carry the importance of our siblinghood culturally as well. I love coming to church and hearing people of all ages and walks of life recognizing each other by title as brothers and sisters, and I look forward very much to being called Sister Asplund full time. To be a sibling is to be familially connected as equals and the title of Sister to all the wonderful Mormons I know is one I consider a great honor. In 1973, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles published a pamphlet wherein they said, “It is significant that of all the titles of respect and honor and admiration that are given to Deity, He has asked us to address Him as Father.” Similarly, I believe that it is significant that of all the possibilities, we have chosen to call our fellow saints Brother and Sister.
In my time near Philadelphia I had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with many wonderful people in the Quaker community, which is also called the Religious Society of Friends. I believe if Mormons had a correlating title, we would be the Religious Society of Siblings.
The practice of being our siblings’ keepers operates primarily in three spheres: the home, the church, and the world. Being a good sibling means something slightly different in each of these contexts, but in each of them, we find that building up our siblings builds us up as well.
Our relationships with the people in our families and homes (biologically and geographically as well as figuratively), are central in the church to how we progress spiritually. Families are important for many reasons, one of which is that they serve as a kind of lab for learning how to treat and get along with other people. Along with being united with our bodies and using our agency to find our way back to God, one of the defining experiences of mortal life is being stuck with other people and learning to love it.
The exciting and noisy lab that is the Asplund household is where I first learned to be my sisters’ keeper. As with many families, I have had conflict with my sisters Eva and Lula over clothes. The two of them have excellent taste and the same curious eye to my wardrobe that I have to theirs. For many years I was possessive with my closet and didn’t want anybody else touching it. Under those conditions, of course, I was not granted access to either of their clothes, which I guess is only fair. Eventually, after coming to terms with the fact that my precious dresses might get ripped or stained in someone else’s hands, I loosened my grip and became much more liberal with lending and borrowing with my sisters. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me sooner that we all have three times as many clothes this way! I’m not perfect at this but in general I have discovered that sharing means more for all of us.
Of course this principle applies even more when it is not material goods we are sharing. Being part of a family has taught me that when other people are happy, I am happy, and when other people are miserable, I am miserable. In my time at home I often take on the role of task mistress during chore time and I’m sure each of my siblings are tired of the long lectures about the benefit of cleaning the kitchen, the most important and beloved room in the house for my mother, thoroughly rather than half-heartedly. I tell Cecily while I encourage her to really scrub the sink after loading the dishes, “Happy wife, happy life.” Of course this phrase is meant for husbands, but I promise Cecily that if she can provide her mother with a minty-fresh sink and sparkling countertops, the mood of the whole house will be lifted. I also promise Cecily, as she rolls her eyes at me that if she knows how to do dishes and always keeps a clean kitchen her roommates will love her, revere her, and probably bring her cake. Hopefully these lectures are falling on my own ears, as I’m sure the phrase “Happy companion, happy life” will also apply. Sharing a space with other people is an easy way for us to recognize that it is impossible to be happy when we are making the people around us miserable, and that the best way to keep a good mood personally is to contribute to a loving and generous family atmosphere.
The second site of siblinghood, church, is where we recognize and practice our siblinghood in the gospel, is vital to learning how to be our sibling’s keeper. Indeed, while religion serves many purposes, one of the most important, perhaps the most important, is that church gives us a space and a forum that is dedicated to serving, loving, teaching, and generally sharing our light with each other. We can learn all we need to know about the gospel through prayer and scripture study, but we need other people to serve in order to live to gospel and to expand the love we receive from the Lord by sharing it at church.
Just as families are a great chance for us to learn to love being stuck with other people, every ward is an amazing opportunity to love people we don’t hand-select to be around. When I moved to the East Coast to go to college, I thought that my ward was going to be full of like-minded liberal arts students who were glamorous East Coast natives who would teach me how to be chic and enlightened and agree with me about everything. Much to my surprise, my ward in Philadelphia was not my fantasy ward but was a real ward, like any other, full of fellow Utahns and people studying and working in fields that could not be less interesting to me. Every week I was surprised and delighted for the love I felt for my fellow brothers and sisters in the ward, even the ones who I would not have thought to choose to share company with. It was not despite all the differences among our ward members that we loved and learned from each other, but because of it. It was in this ward that some very unlike-minded people nurtured and supported me emotionally as well as by providing late-night rides to the airport, a couch to crash on when the dorms closed, and free dental advice. I don’t know how I would have gotten through college without the siblinghood of my ward. Being our siblings’ keepers in the church means recognizing that we have strength in diversity and that just as the Lord loves each of us, we can all love each other thanks to the varied and wonderful kinds of light we have to share.
Chieko Okazaki said, “Look around the room you are in. Do you see women of different ages, races, or different backgrounds in the Church? Of different educational, marital, and professional experiences? Women with children? Women without children? Women of vigorous health and those who are limited by chronic illness or disability? Rejoice in the diversity of our sisterhood! It is the diversity of colors in a spectrum that makes a rainbow. It is the diversity in our circumstances that gives us compassionate hearts. It is the diversity of our spiritual gifts that benefits the Church.”
In recognizing that sharing our joy increases it, we can also learn that sharing our church builds up our experience, especially when we can share our church with people of diverse circumstances and spiritual gifts. President Uchtdorf’s recent conference talk wherein he encouraged his audience to “Come join us!” resonated with many, and I believe we have a responsibility to be on both sides of that statement: accepting as well as extending the invitation to “Come join us!” to anyone who wishes to keep us as siblings in the church.
The largest, most diverse, and in many ways most challenging platform of being our siblings’ keeper is global. Many of us know that we are all children of God, but we often take our common heritage for granted. Imagine with me, for a moment, how powerful it would be if everyone in the world, ourselves included, could truly see each other as siblings. Unfortunately, the saints as well as everyone else often fall short of the power and potential of this knowledge. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We’ve learned to fly the air like birds, we’ve learned to swim the seas like fish, and yet we haven’t learned to walk the Earth as brothers and sisters.”
All over the world, both in Dr. King’s time and today, there are numerous ways in which people use Cain’s great secret, both on a micro and a macro level. It is our responsibility to our spiritual siblings both to resist the temptations to participate in the exploitation of others for our own gain and to challenge this exploitation when we encounter it. The most powerful antidote to the practice of trading another’s life or well-being for personal gain is true siblinghood, where we unite with others to gain not just personally but together.
The scriptures have two great examples of meeting exploitation by being a sibling’s keeper. These stories are very different but I believe we must all embody both of these examples at different times in our lives. The first is The Good Samaritan, who saw a man of a very different background from him who had been taken advantage of and injured. The Good Samaritan treated him not like a personal and cultural stranger but like a brother, bringing him to food, safety and shelter. When we encounter individuals in need of keeping, it is our responsibility and our privilege to share our love and light with them.
The second is Moses, who found an entire people in bondage. Moses lead a life of ease and power but discovered that his brothers and sisters’ lives were being taken over in unfair enslavement and was called to give up his power to become a keeper of his siblings. Moses is an excellent example of siblinghood because he finds his own freedom through leading the liberation of his people. Just as we will find individuals who are left injured and without resources, we will also find entire groups of people under different forms of enslavement and just like Moses and The Good Samaritan, we will be called upon to be our siblings’ keepers and share everything we have with them. Dr. King again has wise and stern words for us, saying in his Letter from Birmingham Jail,
“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”
Fortunately, as Dr. King mentions, we are not alone in being good siblings on a global scale, because we have the opportunity to be co-workers with God. Again we see that our service not only can be very powerful in the lives of others, but brings us closer to God. We are truly blessed by opportunities to behave as the kind of good siblings Moses and The Good Samaritan were.
The world opens up when we recognize the true nature of keeping each other as siblings. Many of the people I have spoken to outside of the church about my mission are shocked at my willingness to serve, especially without being paid. They can’t believe, in their words, that I am “giving up” eighteen months of my life for this. These conversations often involve a tone of respect which I appreciate but don’t believe is well-placed. I am not making a great and terrible sacrifice as many would suggest. I am not “giving up” eighteen months of my life, I am sharing eighteen months of my life and my full-time efforts and care, as so many have before me. Externally, it makes sense that going on a mission would seem like a great burden or sacrifice, but through the power of siblinghood in the gospel, I know that sharing my life, even with strangers who certainly will reject me sometimes, is a great privilege and blessing. By forgetting myself and going to work, I will not only find amazing people who will uplift the church with their talents and gifts, but I will also find myself enriched and filled with love that expands as I give it.
In returning to Jesus Christ, our ultimate muse of keeping each other, I am interested in something John says in chapter 15 of his gospel: “Greater love hath no man that this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” I always found this scripture intimidating, especially at times when I have brought with me the attitude that giving something is the same as losing it, but studying and pondering for this talk has given me a new light to view it in. The scripture becomes comforting when we consider the context of Christ’s sacrifice: three days after laying down his life in great love, Christ found victory over death and found his life not diminished but expanded not only through his resurrection but also through the love we are able to share with him by serving and keeping our siblings. My dear brothers and sisters, we are so blessed to have each other to serve and to keep, and I am so grateful for all of your love and support as I work to share myself fully with my siblings in Baltimore.