Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Am I my Brother Keeper when it comes to Debt?

Posted by kirkcaudle on December 29, 2009

One subject that we always hear from the leadership of the church is to stay out of debt. I think we seem to be hearing more about it now than ever. There are exceptions to this to be sure, (education, house, etc.) but I think most of us understand that. In 1998, President Gordon B. Hinckley said, “I urge you to be modest in your expenditures; discipline yourselves in your purchases to avoid debt to the extent possible. Pay off debt as quickly as you can, and free yourselves from bondage … If you have paid your debts, if you have a reserve, even though it be small, then should storms howl about your head, you will have shelter for your wives and children and peace in your hearts” (Ensign, Nov. 1998, 54). Again, I am sure most of us would agree with President Hinckley’s remarks.

We have then been told, “Debt can take its worst toll on our marriage relationships” (Rulon T. Burton, “The Dangers of Debt in Marriage,” Ensign, Sept. 1984, 49). And Spencer W. Kimball said, “All my life from childhood I have heard the Brethren saying, ‘get out of debt and stay out of debt.’ ” (In Conference Report, April 1975, p. 166.). Now it is easy to find quotes about staying out of debt from church leaders, they are abundant. However, that brings me to my question:

Do we have any responsibility in assuring those around us stay out of debt?

For example, imagine I am the Bishop of my ward, I stand up in sacrament meeting and give a talk about living within your meanings, and not taking on unnecessary debt, I might even use the above quotes. Then let us say I have a job at Best Buy (no offense to Best Buy workers) as a salesman. That Monday someone in my ward walks in the door, and I do everything I can to sell them a TV for $3,000 dollars. Knowing they cannot pay for it, I recommend the credit card. I feel this is ok because it is “my job” and “not personal.” This analogy can work with any employment that consistently pushes unnecessary debt as a way to stay in business, and prey on the weakness of others. Other good examples would be working for a payday loan business, or even Visa themselves.

In D&C 52:40 it states, “And remember in all things the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted, for he that doeth not these things, the same is not my disciple.”

Could we say that those who willingly, and with full knowledge, land others in debt “doeth not these things” and thus are not true “disciples?” Or is that saying too much? After all, debt does more to destroy marriage than almost anything. After all, President Hinckley did say to “free [our]selves from bondage,” so why not free others, or better yet, why not make sure they do not get trapped in the first place?

Is there a difference if I make a living on tempting people to break the word of wisdom and tempting them to live beyond their means, even if I keep both commandments myself?

So I guess my main question is, do we have an ethical responsibility as church members to assure those around us stay out of debt, as we have a responsibility to stay out of debt ourselves?

54 Responses to “Am I my Brother Keeper when it comes to Debt?”

  1. Robert C. said

    Kirk, I very much agree that being our brother’s keeper entails that we think very carefully about the impact of our actions and choices. I think this takes courage and faith. For example, perhaps we need to find a job that pays less but we feel is more ethical. Or perhaps we should support certain businesses rather than others because we think their practices and vision of the world is more principle (though being self-righteous about such decisions, or being overly deluded about the impact our individual decision will have can be self-defeating). Being more socially conscious and community minded (in our families, wards, neighborhoods, cities, and states) is something that our General Authorities continually admonish us to do, and I think your thoughts are very much in line with that (and with scripture more generally, as you imply with the reference to Cain in your title).

  2. BrianJ said

    Kirk: welcome to the blog!

    I like the question you raise. I think my short answer is: no, we do not have the same ethical responsibility for others’ actions or decisions as we do for our own. The problem with the specific example you raise is that nearly all people who buy that $3000 TV can afford it; they may not be able to afford it and their iPhone, SUV, vacations, clothes, etc, etc, etc, but they most certainly can afford the TV on its own.

    I guess I’m wondering what exactly was so offensive about Cain’s reply, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

  3. Great question. I would say that tempting someone in this way or any other way (violating the commandments, for example) does constitute sin (accessory to sin) and would make this bishop nothing short of a hypocrite.

  4. Clive said

    Hello all,
    Several years ago I used to work in a major branch of a big electronics chain here in the UK. In the same mall several other members of the Church also worked. After a policy change within the company, I was put into the position of being required to push (more than push – to force by whatever available means) credit and unnecessary insurance with high-value electronic items such as TVs and Apple computers. I refused (as I also refused to work Sundays), expecting to lose my job as a result. Instead to my surprise I was kept on, but mostly in Customer Services and Technical. This was at a time in my life when losing the job would have been terrible for me and my family – we were in debt and had lost a massive amount of money through a house sale problem.

    Since that time, we as a family have done our best to pay off and stay out of debt, and we have recently managed to become solvent again. This is with eating basic foods, little meat, no holidays, and other cost cutting measures.
    The present economic climate does not encourage people to save money, but it is necessary to save, and to cut non-essential expenditure.

    It is our moral responsibility to help our brother or sister in the Church (and the world) avoid debt. Debt is part of Satan’s plan to bring unhappiness and contention to people, and to build the coffers of his own chosen people.
    It is so obvious to me that Heavenly Father does answer our prayers if we pray in faith!

  5. DonC said

    In a perfect world, like the law of consecration, we should. We should do all we can to keep others out of debt. Being in the military it seems like you have to bend the truth or even lie to even gain rank. On your performance reports you have to way over exaggerate and if you don’t you get a bad score and can ruin your whole career and never get past E-6 at 20 years.
    I guess if the spirit tells you to do something that you know is really going to make your life harder in the long run you do it anyway, but there are so many that will take advantage of what you feel is right. I think if you feel like you are forcing someone to go into debt and hurting them a lot you should not do it.

  6. Robert C. said

    Brian, can you elaborate on your question about avoiding a “am I my brother’s keeper”? This idea seems to directly tied to other core teachings of the Gospel—like loving others, sharing each other’s burden’s (Mosiah 18), not digging pits for our neighbors (2 Ne 28:8), etc.—that I am very surprised by your question.

  7. BrianJ said

    Robert: the post just made me wonder exactly what upset the Lord. Here’s the passage:

    Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” And he replied, “I don’t know! Am I my brother’s guardian?” But the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!”

    The Lord could be angry for a lot of reasons:
    1. because Cain lied
    2. because Cain was being smug
    3. because Cain killed—it wouldn’t have mattered if he had told the truth or not, the Lord would still have been mad
    4. because Cain didn’t love his brother
    5. because Cain hated his brother

    I’ve just never really thought about this part of the exchange between Cain and the Lord. The Lord never explicitly answers the question about being our brother’s guardian/keeper/overseer, or to what degree he expected Cain to “keep” Abel. Surely there is an extreme to this “keeper” business—as in Peter Peter the Pumpkin Eater?

  8. Lori said

    I found this post very interesting because I had been contemplating a similar idea myself. I have an MBA with a focus in marketing and though my career pre-motherhood focused on market research rather than marketing, who knows what I might go back to after raising my children. The idea of doing the marketing interests me a lot, but I have wondered how I would feel pushing certain products. Some of the companies that have the best marketing departments sell products I’m not sure I’d want to encourage people to buy – but they have the best jobs.

    I’m pretty sure I would be happier doing something that doesn’t encourage bad behavior in others.

  9. I’m fairly certain that foregoing opportunities because they conflict with our principles is what sacrificing for God is all about. ^_^.

  10. KirkC said

    BrianJ, I like the list of possible reasons for which the Lord could be angry with Cain. I would like to revisit this issue in a bit after I think on it a bit more.

    We seem to have somewhat or a disagreement on what is and what is not ethical for us as members of the church to do when it comes to placing others in debt. See Brian’s comments vs. Clive and/or Skylers.

    In the Old Testament usury/interest was mostly used against the poor and needy, much as interest/credit is often applied to the poor today. Everyone wants to make the most money possible from people that want things now.

    I think it is clear that in the Old Testament that while God permitted loaning money to the poor, it was forbidden to tie anyone into a long-term contract. This was common outside of Isreal, but those in the Church were held to a higher standard. And when loans were given to the poor, interest was not charged. The reason for this was because the point was to help the poor, not profit from there loss (Deut 15: 7-8). When Israel followed this commandment of lending short-term without interest the Lord would bless them (Deut 23: 19-20).

    Now I understand that we need to use caution when we use OT scripture in modern-day, but I think Jesus follows much of this same thinking in the New Testament. I am currently looking at ways this is also shown in the BOM, because I think it is there in a few places.

  11. KirkC said

    Lori, I think your comments are intriguing. I know many people that are going to school for there MBA, and few think about the things you just mentioned.

    For as much as we preach about love and charity, the majority of Church members appear to follow money, and not knowledge when it comes to education. For example, look at BYU, it has almost completely transformed into a business/law school. It is a school that people go that are money driven. The humanities are all but dead at BYU. Those of us that study, philosophy, religion, history, etc. must go else where for Grad. and PhD. work in these fields.

    The motivation for making money (by taking advantage of the poor and needy) appears to overshadow learning,(and thinking about) how to better help the poor and needy.

    I don’t mean this to sound harsh, or disrespectful, but I don’t know how else to describe the goal of “market research.” It has nothing to do with charity for the poor, and everything to do with taking advantage of them.

    • Jim F. said

      Strange point of view, Kirk. The humanities are no more “dead” at BYU than they ever were. We have never been a strong graduate school of humanities. But a person can get a very good undergraduate education in the humanities at BYU, preparation for work at a top-notch graduate program. That’s much better than offering students a second-rate undergraduate education followed by a second-rate graduate degree. The fact that we don’t have a dead-end graduate program in humanities at BYU, but send students on to do work at very good schools from which they are more likely to find jobs is a sign not of death but of life.

      I don’t know how either you or I would know that the majority of the members of the Church follow money in education, but I wouldn’t use the status of the humanities departments at BYU as evidence that they do.

    • m&m said

      re #11,

      I also want to add that BYU is highly ranked for its ethics training of business people, so I think it’s important not to lump all business people or MBAs together as only caring about money.

      That said, I have been involved somewhat in discussions about teaching ethics at BYU and one thing that is very clear is that there is a lot of gray, and there is variation in where and how people will draw lines in order to “maintain their standards” in the business world.

      I wrote a post about this once, actually, presenting some various scenarios. I wish I could get a hold on the list of ethics scenarios that we helped brainstorm years ago…. It’s an interesting exercise to hear real-life situations that businesspeople have faced, and to ponder what you would do. Not always easy!

      • KirkC said

        I was referring to the lack of humanities as a major at a graduate level. In any case, I should not have made this comment. I retract it, it was ignorant or me to say. I have never attended BYU and was using second hand information given to me from those who have about the lack of humanities offered for those who want to further their careers in History and/or religious studies.

  12. Robert C. said

    Brian #7,

    Regarding how to interpret Cain’s expression, I think this is a very interesting (and timely–won’t we cover this in Sunday school soon?) passage to think much more about. Ultimately, however, I think it’s hard not to read Cain’s statement as a kind of bad example of how to think about one’s responsibility toward others, esp. one’s brother.

    As a teaser for now, here is Gordon Wenham’s take on the verse:

    God’s opening question, “Where is Abel your brother?” like 3:9, is essentially rhetorical, for God knows where Abel is (v 10). It invites Cain to acknowledge his responsibility for his “brother.” Note again how the story repeatedly draws attention to the fraternal relationship.

    When Adam was challenged, he at least told the truth if not the whole truth (3:10), but Cain tells a bare-faced lie, “I do not know,” and follows it up with an impertinent witticism, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Since Abel kept sheep and shemer is a term for shepherds (cf. Exod 22:6, 9; 1 Sam 17:20) Cain’s reply could be paraphrased “Am I the shepherd’s shepherd?” It may well be that Cain is overstating his responsibility toward his brother in order to deny it completely, for no man is called on in the OT to act as another’s keeper (so P. A. Riemann, Int 24 [1970] 482–91). “To keep” a man would involve keeping an eye on him all the time, which could be somewhat intrusive. Yet biblical law expects a man’s brother to be the first to assist him in time of trouble (Lev 25:48). Cain might not have expected to “keep” Abel, but as his brother he certainly should have been ready to act as redeemer and to avenge iris blood when he was murdered (Num 36:12–28). His outright denial of responsibility shows he is “much more hardened than the first human pair” (von Rad, 106).

    Wenham, G. J. (2002). Vol. 1: Word Biblical Commentary : Genesis 1-15, p. 106. Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

  13. Robert C. said

    Kirk #11,

    Those are pretty strong statements. This will be fun to discuss in more depth when I have more time. For now, a couple of notes:

    1. BYU has a mandate to focus on undergraduate education which is an obstacle to graduate studies (besides law and MBA). This is a more complicated issue than your gloss suggests.

    2. I also don’t buy your gloss on marketing, though I do think there’s a nugget of truth in it.

    3. The larger issue, however, has to do with the challenges of being a disciple in a capitalist society. There are strong economic arguments that suggest capitalism actually allows much more “leisure” time to study the humanities, etc., even though our culture is such that this isn’t how our leisure time is usually used. There are also many arguments to be made that capitalism, and the work ethic that it induces, is very conducive to gospel principles such as stewardship, responsibility, diligence, etc. I’m not saying these are conclusive arguments, just that I think a deeper appreciation of these arguments might help you be more tolerant and sympathetic of alternative viewpoints, and ultimately be more conducive to tackling these difficult and complex issues. To that end, here is one place we might begin some discussion of this (an article on business in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism).

  14. Lori said

    Kirkc, you make some valid observations about BYU’s educational focus. However, I have my MBA from there, my sister has an MPA and one brother a law degree from there, so I obviously don’t think getting a business or law degree is a bad thing. I do have a humanities undergrad – French and German Teaching. But, I am glad I have a degree and job experience that would allow me to support my family alone if necessary. I’ll be the first to argue that jobs and their pay is all screwed up in this country. If it weren’t, I would be willing to use my teaching degree, but I could make 3 times as much in business and could never support my family on a teacher’s salary.

    I have to take issue with your characterization of market research. The goal of market research isn’t to find ways to exploit customers, but to find out what they want so that products can be tailored to their needs and wants. That isn’t to say that some companies doesn’t have other goals. I worked for a Utah company once doing market research and I eventually quit because I thought they were unethical in how they ran their research, but most companies that I worked with and for had only good intentions.

    Marketing, on the other hand, can be about manipulating people into buying your product. I especially take issue with marketing directly to young children. The more my children quote commercials, the more I dislike them. It doesn’t have to be, but it is more likely to be manipulative than market research.

    I wouldn’t throw out the entire industry, but I would be cautious about how a company operates before I went to work for them.

  15. KirkC said

    #13 Robert, if my stance sounds offensive, then I apologize, that is truly not my intent. In fact, I am less interested in being right, and more interested in thinking about the ethics of the situation. I believe the methods in which we reach our conclusions are often just as important as the conclusions themselves. So please do not take any of my thoughts personally.

    My main point/opinion is that our occupation should be in line with what we teach over the pulpit and from scripture. There are a variety of ways to make a living, and we choose what we will and will not do. Occupations that ensnare others in debt are some of the most fruitful means of employment in our society. I feel we have a responsibility towards each other to practice what we preach on this issue, as we do other issues, such as the Word of Wisdom.

    For example, if a member maintained a brewery, and sold beer to everyone in the town, we might frown upon that, even if the member kept the WOW himself and never drank. However, if a member is a salesman, or a loan shark, that person is viewed as just another guy with a job. This might be especially true if he is in a wealthy ward where many of the members have the same type of employment.

    I think many individuals in the church are sucked in a form of Ethical Egotism; everyone doing what they feel is in their best interest to do. That is really the very nature of many of the businesses we work in. Many will finance anyone as long as it reaches their bottom line, no matter what the consequences for the individual. I just happen to disagree with getting wrapped up in all this. I side with Kant, we should never use an individual as a means to an end. The individual themselves must be the ends, not the means. Therefore, to take advantage of the poor by charging them interest to increase your bottom line would not fly. The individual is used only as a means to make more money (the ends).

    #14 Lori, I am in no way trying to imply “all” those who hold law or MBA’s fall into these categories. I know there are great members with sincere motives that hold these degrees. I’m sure you are one of these :)

    I hope this makes my stance somewhat clearer than before, and I am not just digging myself a deeper hole! And thanks for all the responses so far. I was afraid my first attempt at a blog post might flop!

  16. KirkC said

    Robert, thanks for the link to “business” in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism. Paragraph 5 seems to be most relivent to our conversation here:

    “The theology of the Church is also supportive of honest business . . . The Church teaches that property and wealth are stewardships and that all people will be held accountable to God for what they have done with the time and resources entrusted to them (Young, p. 301). Church leaders continue to encourage members to live within their means, to save and be frugal, and to remain economically independent by avoiding debt.”

  17. joespencer said


    Your reference to Kant makes me want to start a discussion about Mormonism and ethics. (It is a curious thing to teach ethics courses at Utah Valley University, a place where I don’t want to bring Mormonism into the classroom myself and yet where most of my students are LDS….) Though I think Kant can be helpfully redeemed (see, for instance, Slavoj Zizek’s discussion of Kant and Hegel in The Parallax View), I don’t know that I can follow him very far. I’m certainly less than comfortable with his notion of taking human beings as “ends in themselves.”

    But I don’t want to threadjack… and it is probably a discussion for LDS-Herm anyway….

  18. Robert C. said

    Kirk, I’m glad you bring these issues up. I think they are esp. timely in light of Pres. Monson’s talk about the poor. So of course I’m not offended or anything. In my experience, these issues can be very polarizing, so I am anxious to talk about them, but in order to avoid contention, I think it’s esp. important to be respectful and open-minded about alternative viewpoints and avoid sweeping generalizations. That said, on to the substance of the discussion (relatively briefly—I’m hoping this will be a discussion we can continue in several different posts, for several weeks, months or even years):

    By mentioning Kant, I think you have already stumbled on an interesting tension. One danger of a Kantian approach is that it tends to be more self-centered than other-centered. That is, if we take a more utilitarian/consequentialist approach to thinking about the poor (which is what raised these issues in the first place), then there’s a strong sense in which it is less ego-centric. Who cares about my own morality and intentionalities, let’s focus on taking care of the poor, without obsessing over the individual morality entailed. Of course this is a dangerous view, but it is essentially (though an extremely simplistic description) of most economic perspectives on the matter. Of course this utilitarian view is deeply problematic, but I think it needs to be reckoned with if we’re going to be serious about taking care of the poor (and not just have, say, good-but-naive intentions of taking care of the poor).

    Well, gotta run. Here is an outdated but potentially-helpful list of a few other resources on the topic of consecration vs. capitalism that I tracked down a while ago.

    Oh, also, I’m esp. anxious to study and discuss in more depth the usury issues you brought up, esp. in the context of our study of the Old Testament this year. If for no other reason, I think that modern revelation and our belief in prophets should problematize a simple application of the usury bans to today. (In other words, to really figure out the relevance of these usury issues for today, I think we need at least some discussion of Old Testament hermeneutics/interpretation.)

  19. KirkC said

    Joe, I am somewhat to surprised to hear that you are not a fan of Kant. I am not with him on everything, but I see his Humanity Formula as a strong point in his thinking. I appreciate the idea of everything inherently possessing an invaluable amount of dignity within itself.

    While I think this is somewhat of another discussion, I do not think it is entirely unrelated to the original topic.

    • joespencer said

      I think Kant is vital, but I’m not at all a Kantian. My concern with his “Humanity Formula” is precisely its emphasis on humanity. I think Alain Badiou (in his wonderful little book Ethics) is right that what is ultimately behind the formula is a kind of worship of death. (Cf. also Jacques Derrida’s The Gift of Death.)

  20. KirkC said

    #18 Robert, I have probably stated some things to generally. I agree. I sometimes think outloud while I am typing and regret some statements later.

  21. Robert C. said

    Kirk, Amartya Sen’s recent book, The Idea of Justice gives what I think is a pretty good critique of Kant. His basic argument is that there is a tendency among Kantians to become so distracted with questions of ideals, that they never get around to the nitty gritty of actually helping the poor. I think his idea of, effectively, a kind of redeemed consequentialism is actually quite good (and I see it complementing the direction I think Joe wants to go, though Joe would probably correctly argue that approaches like Sen’s don’t really pinpoint the heart of the problem as well as other thinkers do—nevertheless, Sen’s book is a relatively easy read, and it’ll be easy to find good reviews and summaries of the book online…).

    • KirkC said

      I looked this book up online an it sounds like a good read. Maybe I will pick it up this week and try and read it before school starts on Monday (along with the stack I already have)!

  22. BrianJ said

    “if my stance sounds offensive, then I apologize, that is truly not my intent.”

    No, no: please offend! We don’t want to be rude, but what’s the purpose of this site if not to “off-end” one another from time to time—point to mistakes, misunderstandings, flaws, weaknesses, overstatements, etc.? I don’t think any of us wants a site where others so cautiously read our words with powdered-silk gloves that they never issue any challenge.

    Robert: thanks for the quote from Wenham.

  23. joespencer said

    Hey everyone, you might be interested to see that this post made the MormonTimes bloggernacle review today: see here.

  24. Raymond Takashi Swenson said

    While Cain asks God the rhetorical question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God is not recorded as saying Cain IS his brother’s “keeper”. Being the “keeper” of a person, as being a “keeper” of sheep, would mean having control over their location and activities. While that is the situation of a parent toward a small child, it is NOT the relationship that adults have to each other.

    On the other hand, according to President Obama, being our brother’s and sister’s keeper is exactly the relationship he thinks the government should have with American citizens, including caring for all of their needs, such as health care. He said this in a telephone conference with a meeting of religious ministers, asserting that it is immoral for “wealthy” americans to allow people to not have health care. Basically, Obama is the personification of the nanny state. He doesn’t want us to be adults, taking care of ourselves.

    So I would submit that the form of the question posed is itself questionable. we are NOT expected by God to take care of the aspects of another person’s life that they need to do for themselves, including allocating their use of assets and their use of credit among various options (e.g. house, car, education, HD TV).

    On the other hand, the commandment is explicit in the Old and New Testaments that we should “love our neighbor as ourselves,” as explained in the parable of the Good Samaritan. A bishop who preaches against unnecessary debt on Sunday, but knowingly promotes it on Monday, is the equivalent to the Levite not just passing by the robbery victim on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, but actually stopping to rob him.

    No bishop could justify pushing illegal drugs or pornography. Pushing crushing debt that makes it impossible to care for a family’s most urgent needs is just as harmful. Such a bishop’s use of Fast Offering funds to later help that family pay utilities would be a double sin, essentially taking from the sacred funds of the Church when he could have done more to help the member by counseling prudent living.

    Not all commerce is evil, of course. Indeed, if one has taken care of a family’s basic needs, getting a $3,000 HD TV may be justified, such as (a) it is a way to entertain the family that is much cheaper than going to the movies at $8 to $10 a ticket, (b) a family member may have limited mobility out of the home and a large-screen HD TV may be helpful to alleviating depression, or (c) one is in an income bracket that the expenditure is relatively reasonable (I think, for example, Mitt Romney could afford one).

    There are, on the other hand, the kind of scams that Mormons are famous for being taken in by, essentially because they have an inner greed and an expectaton that “God owes me” because they have been faithful tithe payers. Being involved in something close ot a Ponzi scheme would be a crime, plain and simple, and something any Church leader should avoid like the plague. There is a special place in Spirit Prison reserved for those who abuse the truse members place in church leaders.

    • Very well said Raymond! My thoughts exactly…

    • Jim F. said

      But the Hebrew word for “keeper” in Genesis 4:9 is only incidentally a keeper of sheep. The word means “guard” or “watchman.” It is the word used in Genesis 2:15 (“to dress and keep” the Garden) as well as in Genesis 17:9 (“Thou shalt keep my covenant”) and Exodus 31:14 (“Ye shall keep the sabbath”). Jacob describes God as his keeper (Genesis 28:20). These uses don’t necessarily suggest control over that which is kept. Raymond’s exegesis of the phrase seems to me to understand the word “keeper” too narrowly.

  25. KirkC said

    #24 Raymond, great comments. Although I would disagree with you somewhat on the political front, this is actually the kind of post/response I was looking for when I posed this question. You listed practical things we all deal with everyday and are relevant to our positions as both church members and members of our individual societies.

  26. Lori said

    Interestingly, one quote I remember very vividly from my BYU MBA days was a professor who said that “the price we pay for living under a system (capitalism) that allows us monetary success is to pay for those for whom this system doesn’t work”.

    And from a BYU MBA Ethics class, “you cannot judge the behavior of someone whose life has not been as privileged as yours by the same standard as your behavior”. This was something that the majority of my classmates just didn’t get at all. Even though I’m a woman and not quite in the privileged white male class of our society, I’m close enough and have had enough experience with the very poor (especially here in MS where I live) to know that those who have lived an underprivileged life don’t even understand the options that are available to them, much less how to made decisions about how to take advantage of them.

    While I wouldn’t interfere with an individual’s right to make a choice of what to spend her money on, I would feel that it’s my responsibility to make sure that she understood the consequences and be completely honest about its cost.

  27. Paul Norman said

    Commenting again on the “brother’s keeper” concept, I have never liked hearing Church leaders urge us to be our brother’s keeper. Having spent a few of my early years on a farm, I feel the whole concept is rather degrading. We kept pigs, chickens and cows to exploit them. Sure we fed them and kept them from harm, but not because they were pets. Even our cats were kept mainly for keeping the mice and rats down. One hears of the loving relationship that middle eastern shepherds have for their sheep, but I suspect that when a sheep gets too old to produce wool of commercial quality it goes into the stew pot.

    Cain was trying to avoid responsibility with the question, asking the Lord if he should be Abel’s master–limiting Abel’s freedom (What? You want me to be like Lucifer and try to limit his agency?) Just because the bad guy asked the snotty question, does not make the underlying concept valid.

    In the example used in this blog, I come down on that Bishop as being hypocritical. He should urge his customers to save for the $3K TV, if he knows they cannot avoid using their credit cards to buy it.

    • Jim F. said

      Do you see the same problem with “commandment keeping”?

      • Paul Norman said

        Clearly keeping commandments is not the same as keeping (or shepherding) animals, which was what Cain meant when he asked the question. The keeper or shepherd makes all the important decisions–even life or death decisions. I admit that the Church leaders don’t mean it to that extent of “keeping.” I just find it creepy that they use Cain’s question as a jumping off point for teaching the principle that we ought to look out for one another.

    • Robert C. said

      Reinforcing Jim’s point that “keep” can take on a range different meanings and intensities, as I recall the rhyme:

      Peter Pumpkin Eater had a wife but couldn’t keep her, and so he put her in a pumpkin shell and kept her there very well.

      It seems to me that this is funny—or ironic, or whatever the right term is—precisely because the second use of keeping carries an extreme (to a laughable degree) sense of the term “keep” that is being juxtaposed against the less intense sense of the first use of the term.

      I think it is precisely this range of possible connotations that makes the word-play so rich in Cain’s question that Wenham translates, “Am I the shepherd’s shepherd?” (See comment #12.)

  28. BrianJ said

    Robert: now I think that this same juxtaposition of extremes must be at play in the exchange between the Lord and Cain. The Lord never implies that he expects anything close to the degree of keeping (i.e., control or influence over) that Cain actually employs—and flippantly lies about—against Abel. Could it be said that this is what angered Cain in the first place: that he could not control/rule over his brother? If so, then the answer to Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”, is also the reason for the murder.

    The parallel between Cain and Lucifer is then striking: in both scenarios, the disagreement was over what it means to be a “keeper.” Cain/Lucifer wanted to rule over others and, seeing they could not, chose to destroy what they could not control. In contrast, Jesus (I won’t draw the parallel to Abel since we really don’t know much about him) chooses to rule in a very different way—one that safeguards our agency.

  29. KirkC said

    Robert/Brian, you are both really making me reconsider how I think about the original question of this post: “do we have an ethical responsibility as church members to assure those around us stay out of debt, as we have a responsibility to stay out of debt ourselves?

    In fact, as this disussion surounding Cain and Abel develops, I think there is a better way to phrase the question, I’m just not sure how. Maybe something to the effect of, “when it comes to debt, are we as church members have a responsibility to be the ‘shephards of shephards’ in some sense?” I’m not sure if that phasing works, but I think there is something there. I’d really like to formulate a better question using these knowledge.

    Also, Brian’s #28 might give some thinking points on this issue for us to ponder in our own lives. “What angered Cain in the first place: that he could not control/rule over his brother…If so, then the answer to Cain’s question, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’, is also the reason for the murder. The parallel between Cain and Lucifer is then striking: in both scenarios, the disagreement was over what it means to be a ‘keeper.’ Cain/Lucifer wanted to rule over others and, seeing they could not, chose to destroy what they could not control.”

    I find this intriqing because debt is about control/rule. A debtor that has no control/rule over a someone who owes him money would not be happy. Maybe a debtor destroys what he cannot rule in someway? Again, not sure exactly where to go with this, but I think there is something there.

    Then Jim (#24), provides an even deeper component to this discussion by citing the Hebrew word for “keeper” as it is used in Genesis 2:15, Genesis 17:9, Genesis 28:20, and Exodus 31:14. Maybe I am going to far with this (feel free to correct me Jim), but all these scriptures seem to deal with making a covenant in one way or another. Therefore, it makes me wonder if being a “shepard of a shepard” implies entering into a covenant of some sort? Maybe if you lack a covenant relationship, you lack being a shepard?

    So maybe the question is: “do we have an ethical responsibility as church members [as shephards of shephards] to assure those around us stay out of debt [or any sin maybe], as we have a responsibility to stay out of debt ourselves [because of covenants we have made with God make us different that others]?

    Hmmm. Lots of thinking out loud here, but this whole Cain and Abel thing has really got my mind moving.

  30. KirkC said

    #27 Paul, are you implying that to be your brothers keeper implies an abuse of power of some sort?

    You said, “I suspect that when a sheep gets too old to produce wool of commercial quality it goes into the stew pot.” So the Shepherd simply uses the sheep as means to an end?

    I’m not trying to put words in your mouth, I just want to be sure I totally understand your outlook. I have never heard anyone put forth this view.

    • Paul Norman said

      Keeping animals as a way to make a living is a very different thing than keeping a pet. If you have not lived on a farm or ranch, you may not have a good sense of that.

      The Saviour himself used the love of a shepherd for his sheep to make a point about love, so I would not say that there is no relationship besides pure exploitation. I just flat do not think the shepherd to sheep relationship is not a very good analogy for how we treat one another in the church. See D&C 121:4-44. The shepherd (or any other commercial animal keeper) does NOT give his animals choices to make. The shepherd who left his 99 to seek the lost one did not use persuasion to coax it back; he picked it up and brought it back.

      I have long suspected I am the only one in the Church who finds the brother’s keeper thing irritating, although Orson Scott Card has one of Zipporah’s sisters expressing somewhat similar views in the book Stone Tables.

      Like I say, I agree that we should watch out for each other and help one another out as needed. I just do not want to be “kept” in the way Cain seems to have meant it.

      • KirkC said

        So we should watch over eachother like family, and not farm animals. Keep an eye on eachother for a reason other than responsibility or because you gain something for it. Sounds simple, but much harder in practice.

        I understand where you are coming from.

  31. It seems to me that Cain was pulling a straw-man argument with his question. The answer as actually asked was obviously “no”, but it had nothing to do with murdering Abel. And of course, the LORD knew that, as did Cain.

  32. Robert C. said

    Paul (#27.1.1), for the record, it’s not just in our Church that this phrase is used—I think it’s a pretty standard expression in our (Christian) culture. (I don’t have a great source for this, but Googling “brother’s keeper” brings up many pages using the phrase in the same way as we’ve heard over the Mormon pulpit….)

    BrianJ #28, brilliant! I would say that you have very nicely used this verse of scripture to open up a central problematic that political philosophers have been wrestling with for quite some time—which means that deep down you really do love philosophy! :)

    Kirck #29, I like how you’ve taken the issue Brian has so nicely articulated and brought it back to the specific question of debt, framing it in terms of free agency.

    I think I’ll start a new post that takes these questions up in a slightly different way. Stay tuned….

  33. […] Am I my Brother Keeper when it comes to Debt? […]

  34. NathanG said

    Here’s a passage from the Book of Mormon that might be interesting to explore in context of this discussion.
    3 Nephi 6:10-11

    10 But it came to pass in the twenty and ninth year there began to be some disputings among the people; and some were lifted up unto pride and boastings because of their exceedingly great riches, yea, even unto great persecutions;
    11 For there were many merchants in the land, and also many lawyers, and many officers.
    12 And the people began to be distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learning; yea, some were ignorant because of their poverty, and others did receive great learning because of their riches.

    So is the Best Buy salesman used in the original post one of the merchants mentioned? Are merchants good? bad? Why might merchants be bad if they are? Are merchants bad because they push debt (I don’t know if they were debtors in the Nephites’ time)? Why is debt bad? We have heard plenty of how interest is constantly accruing and debt becomes a master, but are there other reasons debt is bad? Is debt the result of pride (bottom up pride President Benson refers to)? Is the need to buy on credit evidence of class distinctions in society and desires for the poor to have what the rich have? Should we avoid pushing debt on others because it caters to their pride or sense of entitlement (a $3,000 TV is produced and by golly, I deserve to have one?) Or, is the question, should we avoid jobs that promote class distinction or inequality of any other kind.

    I can’t help thinking of my own profession in light of this post. I am a physician, although still in my residency and not yet seeing a correlation between the work I do and my personal pay. Are doctors and other healt care deliverers under ethical condemnation for making health care so expensive? I work in diagnostic imaging which is definitely an expensive part of health care. Should my work be treated differently because it is somehow beneficial where the TV may not be? From my viewpoint, many imaging studies are not all that warranted, not intended to cast doubt on your own physician, but to say that the standard of care has become quite expensive in many problems that may or may not mandate medical intervention.

  35. […] Am I my Brother Keeper when it comes to Debt? […]

  36. DonC said

    If you look at it though most jobs try to take advantage of people. People want to make money and find cheap labor. I don’t think it will every go back to where everyone had something that was need, like food, clothes, and shelter.

  37. Robert C. said

    I just noticed this review of Nibley’s Approaching Zion in the most recent FARMS Review which makes some good counterpoints to applying Nibley’s thoughts on the Law of Consecration too unthinkingly to one particular political prescription….

  38. KirkC said

    Here is something somebody wrote to me regarding this topic, it goes well with the topic (this post is edited to stay anonymous):

    Congrats Kirk! Very interesting topic! I wasn’t able to fully ( more importantly focus on it as I’m making breakfast and tending to kids at the same time) read all the Responses, but I did see that you were highlighted on MormonTimes!

    You know I had an experience that bothered me a lot which you might get a kick out of.

    About 1.5 years ago my previous bishop and his wife started [selling a popular diet food product]. Well they lots a lot of weight and started selling it. So OK I was interested but hated how pushy they were, when I said I couldn’t really pay for it with cash, she says to me well can you put it on your credit card?
    It was about $500.
    I was a bit floored.
    Its her personality to be a bit of a bully, pushy prob is a better word. She is a nice person and would help you, but she is really strong on her opinions and how she gets things done.

    I was thinking, whoa, really? Are we not supposed to be using our Credit cards unless its an emergency, and isn’t it a rule of thumb not to use on food?

    So who is the winner in that situation. For me to buy the stuff and lose weight? Or for her to get someone else signed up, so they get THEIR food cheaper. Hmm. It was thought provoking.
    We did use it for a while,. and yes lost some weight, but my sons surgery came up and it all went to hell after that.

    When I stress I eat and it was a super stressful time for us.

  39. KirkC said

    Here is one more response someone e-mailed me (used by permission). This person is Muslim, but wants to make clear they are not an “authority.” Here it is:

    Kirk, in Islam we believe that to “eat Riba” (consume interest) is haram (forbidden). Personally, (not speaking for Islam) I think that when we benefit from the failings of our brothers and sisters, we become the worst kind of vulture. Are we responsible for their shortcomings? Of course not, we are responsible for our own. We also believe to sell … See More alcohol, pork, etc to others…even non Muslims is also forbidden. I think our responsibility lies not in the weakness of the person, but in our taking advantage of it. A drug dealer who doesn’t use his product might be a good analogy.

    Good blog BTW :)

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