All Commentary
Wednesday, August 1, 1956

Bums or Brothers?

The Reverend Mr. Sollitt is minister of the First Baptist Church of Midland, Michigan.

He was a tall, ungainly youth, but likable. He was sick much of the time; sometimes we felt he was less sick than he said. He had graduated from high school but could not afford to go to college, and didn’t think he could earn his way as I had done.

His father had died and his home been broken up. He needed an eye operation and had symptoms of ulcers. He was my brother (by marriage) and he came to live with my wife and me in a Vermont parsonage.

That first winter, he spent much of his time in bed—too much, it seemed to me. He had a mechanical turn of mind; and since we had given him the job of caring for the furnace, as he lay in his bed upstairs, he dreamed up an electrical device for opening the furnace draft without getting out of bed. We joked about how lazy he was, but secretly admired his American ingenuity and aptness for devising new and better ways of doing a job.

The eye operation was performed. The ulcers were treated. He was still not well. But with the coming of spring, my wife and I agreed that it was time to stir the nest.

How well I remember the day I loaded him into my 1934 Chevrolet and took him up into the hills to a farm where I knew the farmer needed help, told him to get out and not to come back until he had proved he could make a living for himself.

I am sure he must have felt as panic-stricken as I felt guilty. It was no easy thing for either of us to do. Yet from that fateful morning stems the beginning of my brother-in-law’s improved health and his success.

Today, his inventive genius is being used in aeronautics. He is a tool designer in one of our West Coast plane factories. He is happily married, has one child, owns his own home in Los Angeles, and is a credit to society. I am proud of him. He could easily have been a hypochondriac, a perpetual recipient of relief—or a bum.

During those days in 1934 and ‘35, there were so many unfortunate people in the United States and so little money in circulation and so much emphasis on taking care of those who could not take care of themselves, that one question kept haunting my wife and me. It was the question Cain is reported to have asked of God: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

It is a perennial question. And with a certain sort of sentimental smugness, the church has often assumed that it must of course be answered in the affirmative. So churchmen joined with politicians in dividing what had been a fairly homogeneous society into two classes M the keepers and the kept. Ever since, we have been wondering what happened to brotherhood.

Politicians have risen to power by dividing society into these classes and then playing class against class. And the church has stood on the sidelines cheering for the underdog (especially when he was on top), not realizing that you can’t divide brothers into classes antagonistic to each other and still maintain brotherhood between them.

True, there have always been those in every society who could not take care of themselves M the blind, the mute, the orphaned, the aged, the ill, the feeble-minded, the insane—but until recently, public opinion did not look upon a kept-person career as a particularly laudable achievement. Today, a scramble is on to get out of the keeper class into the kept class—to be bums instead of benefactors, with no one thinking much about being brothers.

Those who cannot take care of themselves should be taken care of, and in the most brotherly way possible. But there is often a more brotherly way of dealing with people than just keeping them. And it may be the way that seems least brotherly at the time.

Cain, the keeper of the fields, plowed, planted, cultivated, and harvested. It was his job as keeper of the fields to help the fields produce. And to do that, every modern farmer knows he has to do more than feed seed and fertilizer to the soil. There is plowing, harrowing, and cultivating to do.

Abel, the keeper of the flocks, guarded, guided, tended, and bred the flocks and helped them also to produce. It was his function as a shepherd to care for his sheep. But the point of the whole thing was to help them to produce wool, mutton, and lambs. And so, in addition to feeding time, there was also shearing-time and lambing-time. It was not all cool waters and green pastures.

What is a brother’s function today? Is it to be his brother’s keeper in the sense that he feeds him, clothes him, houses him, and provides him with false teeth and glasses? Or may he do none of these things and be a better brother, if in withholding them he helps his brother produce something to justify his existence on earth?

Obviously there is more to being a brother’s keeper than just keeping him in food, clothing, beer, and television. Together, brothers must keep each other in attitudes of self-respect and mutual helpfulness, but dividing them into the “keepers” and the “kept” destroys all this. Keeping for both parties a sense of social usefulness is the exact opposite of building up between them a keep-er-and-kept relationship in which social usefulness is a consideration of neither.

Perhaps the government ought to rethink some of its social legislation in the light of what it is doing to the American people. Certainly the church ought to rethink its attitude toward the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and seriously consider whether it is possible to be your brother’s keeper and your brother’s brother at the same time. And it seems to me that when we begin to think straight on these problems, we will come up with some very different conclusions than we have heretofore affirmed.

1. Brothers cannot be divided into two classes—the keepers and the kept—and remain true brothers. If we are forced to be our brother’s keeper, as when government taxes the industrious to keep the indolent, and to keep them from ever being anything but indolent, certainly no feeling of brotherhood is induced by the process. If, on the other hand, we voluntarily assume a paternalistic attitude toward our brother, our paternalism is apt to knock our fraternalism into a cocked hat and we become, not his brother, but something arrogantly superior.

And isn’t there something about the prolonged acceptance of social favors which makes the recipients think of their benefactors as servants instead of brothers? By no stretch of the imagination can it be assumed that one brother is predestined to be a perpetual benefactor and another a perpetual beneficiary, or that if this is the case, true brotherhood can long remain.

2. It is no mark of distinction or evidence of merit to want to be a kept person. The very word “keeper” has unpleasant overtones. It makes us think of a jail, or an insane asylum, or a place where dumb animals are trained to do tricks, or a socialist government which is a combination of the other three.

By any of Webster’s definitions of the word “keeper,” keepers are needed only for criminals, dumb animals, things about to spoil, museum pieces, graveyards, and the relatively few human beings who are mentally or physically unable to take care of themselves, or unwilling to do so.

We need to take some of the attractiveness out of being kept persons, but we cannot depend upon politics to do it for us. Politicians find that making dependence upon government respectable pays off in re-elections. People like to believe that the easy way is the moral way, and that simply being born is qualification enough to demand the right of being cared for at the expense of others.

3. The way to make a bum out of a brother is to do for him what ought to be expected of him. What passes for softheartedness is often nothing but softheadedness. What passes for brotherhood is often just taking the easy way out and furnishing the dime for the cup of coffee, instead of doing the harder thing and furnishing the incentive for becoming a self-supporting member of society.

The time is at hand to stop this nonsense about being our brother’s keeper and to start being our brother’s brother. For brotherhood is not only a relationship. It is also an attitude which grows out of a relationship. And the relationship of “keeper” and “kept” never has—and never will—produce the attitude of true brotherliness. []

Reprinted by Special Permission from The American Mercury Magazine, March 1956.

The “Protective Spirit”

The terrific urge to prevent another person from making a “mistake” must be resisted if liberty is to be preserved. The “protective spirit” that leads a fond parent to prohibit his child from acquiring mature judgments, as he substitutes his own opinions for those of the child, leads the dictator to act as he does in “protecting” his political children. There is no possible way to allow a person to be right without also allowing him to be wrong. The only way to avoid responsibility for another’s mistakes is to allow him the full glory and reward of being right, as well as the full dishonor and penalty of being wrong. Only in this way can one person isolate himself from the mistakes of another, whether it be a Stalin or a neighbor.

F. A. Harper, Liberty: A Path To Its Recovery

  • The Reverend Dr. Sollitt is Pastor of the First Baptist Church, Midland, Michigan.