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How can we expect to get along with our brothers and sisters (both symbolic and real) when at the very beginning of the story Cain kills Abel — the proverbial sibling rivalry.
I’ve been thinking all week about brotherhood because of Paul’s appeal to the Colossians in chapter 1 vv 1-2, and mainly about how impossible it is to maintain civility between brothers, particularly in this fractured world. But perhaps that’s his point.
I have a younger brother, by two years, that I haven’t seen for more than a decade (he lives in Australia) and who I haven’t spoken to in years. The last time we spoke was in the midst of a family crisis (not of our making) and because there hasn’t been a family crisis since then, I guess we’ve had nothing to say. It’s not because there’s a problem between us (I don’t think) — it’s just that we’re so different. He isn’t academic, I kind of am. He works on the mines, I work in my spare time. He wore a mullet in the ’80s to be more like the bogans we encountered when we emigrated from the UK. I wore a mullet by accident. He loves your Jimmy Barnes, your ’80s hits, your rock ballads. And I love them too, I just don’t admit it.
As different as we are, I think Andrew is blessed with the freedom to be more comfortable about who he is than I am. You can dress our differences up as intellectualism vs anti-intellectualism, arty vs blue collar, whatever. But at the core, I think he’s just someone who’s happier in his own skin (I used to at least be able to quip that he had more of it — not any more).
Growing up, Andrew was “the naughty one” but it’s difficult to say what came first, the behaviour or the label. In a way it was totally warranted, but in another he was just being a kid, and being the kid that he was meant that he more readily broke the rules of our small Brethren church than I did. I was the “good one”, which actually just meant that I had first dibs on learning how to look the part and misbehaving when no one was watching. Andrew probably paid the price for my sins, like any good scaepgoat.
But his worst moment was all his own doing. It happened one Sunday morning during open worship, when Andrew decided now was the time to play with the cap gun he’d smuggled into church in his pocket. That’s right, women without hats were stopped at the door. But any bugger could bring a gun to the Lord’s Supper. Andrew fired it while Mr Foster was on his feet. Mr Foster had a heart condition and wasn’t on his feet for long.
Andrew never lived it down.
One of my favourite movies about brothers is the Brad Pitt fly-fishing film A River Runs Through It. The film expertly portrays the reality that sometimes (often times) brothers are just very different people. In this case, as in my story, one is inclined towards study, the other towards getting drunk and having a bet. It also portrays how brothers are best placed to recognise those differences in one another, and to see the beauty of those differences. When the older brother Norman returns home, having moved away for college, and goes fishing with his younger brother Paul (Pitt), he stands amazed at the beauty of his original casting technique, which has broken free of their Presbyterian father’s metronomic approach. Norman narrates: “He called it shadow-casting … keeping his line above water long enough, and low enough … to make a rainbow rise. And I realised that in the time I was away … my brother had become an artist.”
I think perhaps only siblings can see this in one another, the full impact of both their brokenness and their beauty.
In a way, brothers (siblings), represent perfectly what love is — the togetherness and the differentiation of it, both of which are required for true encounter between self and other to occur. If love (as Karl Barth defined it, and which happens to be my own starting point) is the treasuring of the otherness of the other, then brothers have an advantage, in that their otherness (in the context of their togetherness) is established from birth. Brothers can be, and usually are, extraordinarily different, but yet they remain brothers. The architecture of love encounter is built into their very existence.
Perhaps there’s an echo of this idea in Paul’s use of “brothers” in his greeting to the Colossians, which I highlighted in a structural analysis of the text on Monday (catch up here if you haven’t already read it). The term “brothers” is never intended to imply “same as” — “same as” is rarely the basis for oneness (unity) in the Bible. Oneness, unity, community, is typically a “together with” rather than a “same as”. So when Paul writes to the people of Colosse and addresses them as brothers, he doesn’t presume upon them being the same, or even sharing the same code, or answering to the same ideology, like what occurs in an outlaw motorcycle club like Sons of Anarchy (see Wednesday’s article here). It’s an appeal to togetherness, a standing with, a mutuality based on their shared knowledge of who the Father is that has been revealed in Jesus. Like two very different brothers with a common love of fly-fishing … standing in the river and casting the line just above the surface to make the rainbow (trout) rise … they share a love of something other than and greater than themselves, a transcendent beauty that captures them without ever diminishing who they uniquely are.
But what happens when that differentiation goes toxic? What happens when one of the brothers, seeing the differences and even recognising the other’s otherness, is not captured by the beauty of it but is threatened by it, and seeks to destroy it, or deny it, or cut it off, or control or consume it? Well, at that point it’s no longer love. And honestly, it’s the type of fracturing we’ve seen globally over recent years, between not only brothers and sisters in the church, but among actual siblings (and other relations) within families. I’m talking about the divide that’s occurred in the age of Trump, which began as arguments about politics, but during the pandemic morphed into craziness about masks and vaccines and supposed global conspiracies. Somehow Bill Gates and 5G got thrown in there, then QAnon fringe craziness was suddenly made mainstream, and before we knew it outlandish conspiracies about fake presidents and babies and the benefits of taking worming tablets to keep us protected against a coronavirus swamped our timelines.
What I want to know is, where does Paul’s appeal to brotherhood get us when the people we used to sit next to in church are the very nutters using Facebook to disseminate lie after lie, conspiracy after conspiracy, while the ideologies they’re following become more extreme, and more hateful?
I’m not immune from this. I’ve written before of the very real problem I have with some people close to me who share the most hateful nonsense online, which I know for certain, especially as a fact-checking journalist, is based in lies and wilful deception. I’m honestly ashamed at my own feelings about these people a lot of the time, and about my inability to see how I could ever have relationship with them again.
But then I come back to verses like Colossians 1:1-2 … brothers … in Christ … of the Father.
Arrrgh! Where does it all end up?
In reflecting on all of this, I went back to The Brothers Karamazov, literature’s greatest account of brothers grappling with their frailties and the pain of family breakdown in the context of faith and doubt, love and violence. The greatest chapter within the greatest novel is The Grand Inquisitor, in which the “rebellious” brother Ivan confronts his faithful brother Alyosha in a restaurant and taunts him with a poem he has in his head about Jesus turning up in Spain at the time of the Inquisition. In Ivan’s account, Jesus is thrown in a cell by the Inquisitor, who fears Jesus will get in the way of the church’s work, which is essentially to take up the offer that Satan presented to Jesus during the temptation in the desert, of “miracle”, “mystery”, and “authority” — which Jesus rejected, but which the Catholic Church has adopted as its raison d’être.
There’s a lot going on in the chapter (go read it, it is amazing), but the impact of it is to reinforce the wedge between the brothers — the one cynical, the other faithful. It’s a parable for our times, in which the gulf between people who once shared table fellowship seems an unbridgeable chasm.
At the end of Ivan’s account of his “poem”, the contemplative Alyosha doesn’t respond as someone on the far side of a chasm. He reaches over and kisses his brother softly on the lips (as Jesus does with the Inquisitor in Ivan’s poem, once the Inquisitor has finished outlining his case against him). Alyosha’s kiss is the opposite of the Judas kiss in the garden. It isn’t an act of betrayal, but an act of healing grace.
These are difficult times to be brothers and sisters “in Christ”. I feel the impact of the divisions between us as much as anyone. But I wonder, is it possible to remind ourselves of the beauty in the other even when the other feels so far away? And how would Alyosha, or Jesus for that matter, respond in our place.