The Root of Injustice: Am I My Brother's Keeper?

As we explore social justice — what it looks like and what it means — we could perhaps learn a lot by looking at its opposite: injustice. Where did injustice come from, and what does it look like?

In the Scriptures, we see God responding to injustice when he leads Israel out of Egypt. In one massive exodus of an entire people group, God parted the Red Sea to set them free from the oppressive yoke of slavery. Here, they were being used by Pharaoh and his people to perform slave labor, reduced to less than human beings to perform less than human work.

But even before the exodus, we see God overturning Sodom and Gomorrah because of the evil being done by every person. And prior to that, when the intent of everyone’s hearts “was only evil continually” in the time of Noah (Gen. 6:5), God allowed a flood to wash over all mankind, save for one righteous man and his family. These are instances where the root of evil in people’s hearts kept them from God and from doing good to their neighbors so that God was moved to exercise justice.

But even still, we can go back further. In the encounter between Cain and Abel in Genesis 4, we seem to find the root cause of social injustice. Cain is found to have killed his brother Abel and then asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Here is human selfishness in its plainest light, with one man pursuing life on his own agenda, unconcerned for the impact his own pursuits will have on those around him, even to the point of negligence and death.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” This is the question at the heart of all injustice in the world. It is the same root at work today when the rich get richer by exploiting the poor in sweatshops, when the rich get richer by processing bad mortgage loans without full disclosure, and when the rich get richer in third world countries by sending whole families into slavery for a debt they will never be able to repay because of the exorbitant usurious sum.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” We see this question at work in the moment of the fall, even. When the serpent tempted Adam and Eve, he was ultimately giving them an opportunity to look out for themselves, to doubt God, and to blame each other, and this is exactly what they did. When God came looking for them, Adam pointed the finger at Eve and Eve pointed the finger at the serpent. No one took responsibility for the sin in his or her own heart, and it affected all the relationships involved. Ultimately, this set the course for the rest of humanity to do the same. In the moment of the fall, all of humanity became bent on self-preservation and self-preoccupation.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” God’s response, the response of justice to this question, is a resounding yes.