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On Family

Mary Klein
On Family (September 2014)

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” This was Cain’s retort to God after committing the first cold-blooded murder in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic record. And even though God banished Cain to a lifetime of “restless wandering upon the earth,” God remained silent on the question of Cain’s obligations to his brother. (Genesis 4)  An unknown number of millennia later, God finally clarified, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart. . . And you shall love your fellow man as yourself.” (Leviticus 19)

We are admonished to love our neighbors, and not to hate our siblings. Family is a caldron of strong emotions. Life isn’t fair, and family is the first place we learn that. God preferred Abel’s sacrifice over Cain’s, and Cain decided to get even.

Just as deeply felt in a family is love, despite whatever else. Countless bonds unite us: creating a home together, looking alike, sharing a common vision of what life could be, remembering the same events – and people – now gone.

Family loyalty, clan loyalty, national loyalty – the ties that bind us together too often pit us against “others” who are “not like us” and want to “steal” our things. This makes the advice to focus on loving our neighbor especially wise. For we can’t always see it when family ties are blinding us from seeing a bigger picture. The family story is not the whole story, and the family story might not be the truest one.

The expression, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” says more than the Golden Rule; it says more than “treat other people the way you’d like them to treat you.” It says that your neighbor is yourself. It says that each one of us is an expression of the entire life of this planet. What we do to the living creatures that exist outside our own little bodies, we are doing to our own life on this planet. To love your neighbor is to love yourself.

According Jonathan Haidt and Craig Joseph (The Righteous Mind, 2012), five basic moral foundations have evolved in homo sapiens, independent of culture, to aid our survival. All of these moral foundations underlie all of our decisions. For any particular decision, two moral foundations might say, “thumbs up,” while the other three say, “thumbs down.” Or vice versa. Or in other combinations. And further complicating matters, certain moral foundations exert more influence than others within every individual. So even though all people are influenced by the same set of five moral foundations, we each “hear” them according
to a unique “mix” of intensities.

The five life-and-death concerns that these moral foundations address are: care/harm (especially protecting children), fairness/cheating (regarding benefits in two-way partnerships), loyalty/betrayal (cohesive coalitions), authority/subversion (relationships within hierarchies), and sanctity/degradation (contamination).

The work of Friends is to search beneath such moral frameworks and to encounter the uniting force that sustains them. Moral frameworks can help us to see our neighbors as ourselves, but for discerning which actions to take, we need to draw from the deepest source that unites all life. In his second pamphlet concerning slavery, John Woolman wrote, “There is a principle which is pure, placed in the human mind, which in different places and ages has had different names. It is, however, pure and proceeds from God. It is deep and inward, confined to no form of religion, nor excluded from any, where the heart stands in perfect sincerity. In whomsoever this takes root and grows, of what nation whatsoever, they become brethren in the best sense of the expression.” (1761)

Friends seek direct experience of this principle, which helps us  get our bearings. It helps us recognize our roles and responsibilities in conflicts around the globe, however remote. We trust its Light to teach us how to do our part in helping our neighbors live.

Family Morality Slavery Peace John Woolman

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