Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, "With the help of the Lord I have brought forth a son." Later she gave birth to his brother Abel.
Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.
Then the Lord said to Cain, "Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it."
Now Cain said to his brother Abel, "Let's go out to the field." And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
Then the Lord said to Cain, "Where is your brother Abel?"
"I don't know," he replied. "Am I my brother's keeper?"
Somehow, Cain's presumptuous question has become the central political question of our time.
"Am I my brother's keeper?" isn't merely a presumptuous question from a spoiled brat, rotten to the core. The way one answers the question is a matter of character, of how one understands one's place in the world, of basic morality and decency. It is what delineates whether one champions the weak and the meek, the poor and the sick, or the powerful, the wealthy, and the privileged.
And last night, in an oration that brought tears to my eyes, Barack Obama illuminated with crystal clarity exactly how he and John McCain answer the question, "Am I my brother's keeper?"
For over two decades -- for over two decades, he's subscribed to that old, discredited Republican philosophy: Give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else.
In Washington, they call this the "Ownership Society," but what it really means is that you're on your own. Out of work? Tough luck, you're on your own. No health care? The market will fix it. You're on your own. Born into poverty? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, even if you don't have boots. You are on your own.
We Democrats have a very different measure of what constitutes progress in this country.
We measure progress by how many people can find a job that pays the mortgage, whether you can put a little extra money away at the end of each month so you can someday watch your child receive her college diploma.
We measure progress in the 23 million new jobs that were created when Bill Clinton was president when the average American family saw its income go up $7,500 instead of go down $2,000, like it has under George Bush.
We measure the strength of our economy not by the number of billionaires we have or the profits of the Fortune 500, but by whether someone with a good idea can take a risk and start a new business, or whether the waitress who lives on tips can take a day off and look after a sick kid without losing her job, an economy that honors the dignity of work.
The fundamentals we use to measure economic strength are whether we are living up to that fundamental promise that has made this country great, a promise that is the only reason I am standing here tonight.
Much empty rhetoric has been spewed in recent years about how "we are all in this together." After 9/11, the whole world proclaimed "We are all Americans"; BushCo declared "You're either with us or against us"; political events frequently culminated with Sister Sledge's "We Are Family." We are supposed to believe that we are all brothers and sisters in a twenty-first century, real-life version of a 1950s sitcom.
But we are most definitely not "all in this together."
We live in a world where global climate change, oil dependency, racial and ethnic strife, poverty, hunger, lack of educational opportunities, and myriad other problems threaten not only we United States citizens, but all people everywhere.
We live in a country where a substantial number of people continue to believe that it is acceptable to deny basic equality and fundamental civil liberties to others on the basis of race, creed, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, or socioeconomic status.
We live in a country where the t-shirt you wear, the bumper sticker on your car, or the innocuous words you post on a blog can get you beaten, arrested, or placed on a terrorist watch list.
We live in a country where military service is fetishized, anointed with piety and righteousness, an excuse for all manner of sins no matter how long after discharge from the service they were committed. Military service is surely a worthy endeavor, don't get me wrong. But we live in a country where other means of serving the nation -- Americorps, local community service, becoming a public school teacher or social worker, providing healthcare to undercovered communities, etc. -- are denigrated and those who take on such roles anyway subjected to ridicule by our so-called leaders and forced to make tremendous personal sacrifices to do their jobs.
We live in a country where a substantial proportion of the population believes that other people's problems -- especially racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, the poor, and those without adequate access to quality educational opportunities -- are their own damn fault and have nothing to do with them, and their problems are the fault of generic brown people, atheists, or San Francisco liberals.
We are not "all in this together." We are not all family. And too many of our "brothers" have stepped on the necks of the least among us for too long.
We have serious problems, and we need serious solutions. And no matter how many slogans we may here over the next two months, telling the American people that they're only imagining our economic woes, or that they're somehow not supporting the troops by calling for them to be brought home, or that they're unpatriotic because they don't always wear an American flag lapel pin made in China, only one of the two candidates left has proposed any serious solutions.
John McCain isn't able to do much of anything other than to have his advisors tell us that our problems are all imaginary, or yell at us to get off his umpteen lawns and respect his POW-ness. And none of the pageantry associated with adding Sarah Palin to his ticket changes that. To John McCain, as Barack Obama put it so eloquently last night, you're on your own -- you are most decidedly not your brother's keeper.
Barack Obama can help us redeem our nation and fulfill the promise of America. Obama reminded us last night that the purpose of government is to help those who need it most, that the American Dream is not supposed to be limited to those who are white, wealthy (as defined in part by an income of at least $5 million per year), heterosexual, born in the USA to parents who were born in the USA to grandparents who were born in the USA and so on for several generations, and Christian-of-a-certain-variety. We are the keepers of not only our brothers but our sisters, mothers, fathers, cousins, neighbors, and friends.
The Biblical story of the two brothers, Cain and Abel, hinges on jealousy, yes, but it also is based fundamentally in character. As a nation, it is time we acted less like the selfish Cain, whose behavior doomed him to a life of suffering.