Dusting Off the “Golden Rule”

“Treat others the way you want to be treated!”

I don’t know about you, but that’s been a mantra in our house ever since our kids were little.

“Would you like them to treat you that way? No! So treat them the way you want to be treated!”

Of course, this parental advice is always delivered in a calm voice, with an encouraging smile. Because that’s the way we would want to be treated. Ahem.

We all know the “Golden Rule,” it seems. It usually comes out something like that: “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” Here’s the way the NRSV renders Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:12: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.”

In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you.

“Treat others the way you want to be treated!”

Here’s the thing. This is not just a good rule of thumb for kids, so they can get along with each other—though it helps with that. Nor is this merely a basic principle for adults, so we can get along with each other—though it helps with that, too.

No, the idea Jesus prompts us toward is much deeper, and much more challenging: Jesus is calling us to nurture empathy and cultivate compassion for others—and then to act on it in love. Jesus, in other words, is calling us to foster an active “moral imagination.”

Through childhood and adolescence and early adulthood most of us develop at least a somewhat healthy self- and other-awareness.

We learn that we are distinct “selves,” unique persons, each with our own interests and desires and hopes and fears. But we also learn that others are also distinct “selves,” unique persons, each with their own interests and desires and hopes and fears. And, along the way, we learn that each one of us, though distinct and even unique, have all kinds of important things in common with everyone else: basic needs for health and warmth, security and freedom, belonging and intimacy and respect and significance.

This process of developing a healthy self- and other-awareness is critical. But the process can be long, and hard, and fraught with all kinds of potential pitfalls.

That’s simply because we have a hard time really seeing the world through anyone else’s eyes other than our own. It’s hard—to use the words of Harper Lee in To Kill a Mockingbird—to “climb inside another person’s skin and walk around in it.” In fact, it’s impossible to fully do that—everything I feel and think and say and do is in this body, perceived through these eyes and ears, processed through this brain, lived out with these hands and feet.

Yet we do have the capacity for compassion. Recent research has confirmed it: empathy can be learned. God has given us this gift.

But how do we develop our in-born capacity for compassion? How do we nurture that God-given gift of empathy?

The answer, I think, is found in another gift from God: our imagination.

If we want to truly love others, if we want to do so with empathy and compassion, we need to exercise our imagination.

What is it like to be that person? What is it like to have had their upbringing, to be in their circumstances, to face their challenges? What is it like to bear their fears and anxieties, to have their passions and interests, to hold their hopes and dreams? What is their story, and what would it be like to live in their story?

If we want to truly love others, we need to imagine ourselves in their shoes. We need to imagine being them in their shoes.

There are all kinds of ways we can develop this kind of “moral imagination.”

One is by simply listening to others. Active listening, that is: giving our entire attention to the other, being fully present with them, drawing on our own experience to feel what they are feeling. And diverse listening: pushing through all our normal discomfort and anxiety, and talking with people who are different from us, letting them tell their story.

Another is through prayer. Praying for others plants their names and faces and stories in our minds and hearts as we bring them before God. Praying not just for those people we like, those who are close to us, but even for those we dislike, those who have harmed us.

A third way to develop our moral imagination is through reading. Not just any reading, mind you, but reading what’s often called “literary fiction”: novels or short stories with complex characters in a vivid setting, facing challenging issues in a realistic way. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is actually a great example, and a great place to start. Several studies have confirmed that reading good fiction pushes us to imagine ourselves in the stories of a wide variety of people who are not at all like us, and this can translate into greater empathy and compassion when we encounter diverse people in real life.

Simple things—and I’m sure there are others. When we do these kinds of things, we develop our God-given moral imaginations, our ability to empathize with others and show them genuine compassion.

And when we do that, we are starting to grasp the deeper idea behind Jesus’ “Golden Rule.”

In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you.

For Jesus, this was not just a “Golden Rule”: a nice phrase to hang above a door or engrave on a bracelet.

For Jesus, this is the key to our humanity. It sums up the Law and the Prophets, the whole Bible. All our obligations to each other under God are encapsulated in this.

Even more, for Jesus, this was a way of life. Being moved by compassion for others, imagining himself in their shoes, imagining being them in their shoes.

And then stepping into their shoes and walking with them through their brokenness and suffering, even bearing their brokenness and suffering when it was most needed—even to the cross.

In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you.

This post is adapted from a sermon I preached at Morden Mennonite Church on September 25, 2016, in the series “Stirring Our Imagination.” Second image from Scarboro Missions via Harry Gensler.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

How Should We Then Love?

Love is All We NeedScripture and Jesus on Love | What is Love?
Love, Above All | How Should We Then Love?

I started the week by getting up on my soapbox and boldly declaring: “Love is all we need, folks! All we need is love!”

In our complex, chaotic, confusing world, we Christians don’t need greater certainty about our particular brand of doctrine. We don’t need to find the latest and greatest or oldest and truest form of worship. We don’t need more political engagement, more activism for the Christian cause.

Theology, liturgy, politics, and more are not inherently wrong, of course, and can even be very good, even vitally important—but none of these is the one thing we most desperately need.

We need to love each other.

All we need is love.

Love is all we need.

I’ve spent the last three parts in this series making my case for this claim, and sketching out what this love looks like.

I say, “Love is all we need,” because I believe Scripture points us to this. I believe Jesus points us to this. That was part two.

I say, “Love is all we need,” because I believe all other divine commands and human virtues—including holiness and truth-speaking—are subsumed under love, governed by love, even defined by love. That was part four.

I say, “Love is all we need,” because I believe the love Scripture and Jesus point to is not mere tolerance, or mere affection, but something far more, far more substantial, far more necessary. That was part three.

But what does this love look like in practice? In the nitty-gritty of the real world, where the rubber meets the road of life, what might it look like for us to love each other in the way of Jesus?

The New Testament itself gives some practical suggestions.

Here’s Jesus: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matt 7:12; Luke 6:31). This has been analyzed and critiqued from every possible angle, but it seems to me this Golden Rule is simply Jesus’ rough-and-ready guide for putting “Love your neighbour as yourself” into action.

Before you speak or act, pause and think:

How would I feel if someone said this to me? If it would be a good or necessary feeling, say it. If not, zip it.

If I were this person, how would I react if someone did this to me? If my reaction would be positive, do it. If not, don’t.

What would I want someone to do for me if I were in this situation? Do it for them, if you’re at all able.

Then there’s the Good Samaritan story, Jesus’ own commentary on “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Luke 10:25-37). In the story, the Samaritan shows compassion for the Jew—typically hostile neighbours, these—caring for one who was violated, left destitute, left for dead. He treats the man’s injuries, brings him to a place of rest and ensures his continued care, all on his own dime, irrespective of who this man was or whether he was “worthy” of such care.

In a similar vein, James connects this neighbour love with how the poor are treated—not just in terms of caring for their material needs, but also in terms of showing them honour and respect (Jas 2:1-9). And John asks this piercing question: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (1 John 3:16-18).

“Go,” Jesus says after telling of the Good Samaritan, “and do likewise.”

That woman violated by her abuser—care for her in this way.

That family left destitute after a sudden job loss—love them like this.

That returning veteran dead inside from the trauma of war—show her compassion like this.

That whole mass of people without adequate health care, education, or even food for the table—treat them in this way.

That Muslim immigrant, that gay couple, that redneck conservative or that flaming liberal, whatever your “despised other” is—shower them with this kind of love.

Another angle on putting this Christ-like love into action can be seen in the many “one another” passages, mostly found in Paul’s letters. If “love one another as Jesus has loved us” sums up all the virtues and ideals for Paul, then all the “x one another” passages are expressions of this love.

“Love one another” means “patiently tolerate one another” (Eph 4:2)—yes, those people you dislike, or disagree with.

“Love one another” means “accept one another” (Rom 15:7)—welcome others with open arms, open homes, open tables, even those you might not normally associate with.

“Love one another” means “encourage one another” (1 Thess 5:11)—don’t tear down others with harsh or cruel words, but build them up with kind words (even on the internet).

“Love one another” means “honour one another” (Rom 12:10)—show respect to everyone, even the “nobodies” and “nothings” among you, those on the fringes around you.

“Love one another” means “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal 6:2)—we’ve all got them, those difficult burdens of life, so let’s lend each other a hand with them.

“Love one another” means “do not judge one another” (Rom 14:13)—unless you wear a robe to work and bang a gavel all day, that’s not your job, ever.

“Love one another” means “forgive one another” (Eph 4:32; Col 3:13)—just let it go, release them from the heavy burden of guilt and yourself from the choking tangle of bitterness.

And many more—all specific attitudes and actions that flesh out what it looks like to love one another in the way of Jesus.

The Golden Rule, the Good Samaritan, these “one another” commands—all of these connect to some ideas I’ve suggested already.

In my third post I described this Jesus-love this way: freely giving ourselves for others so that they might experience flourishing life together with us, even if we feel they don’t deserve it, even when it hurts us to do so. This “flourishing life” that is the goal of love, I suggested, is at minimum having our basic, universal human needs met—and this, too, can give us a window on love in action.

Clean air is a basic human need—so love might mean pushing for tougher regulations on polluting industries.

Clean water is a basic human need—so love might mean giving money for clean water initiatives in developing countries.

Nourishing food is a basic human need—so love might mean volunteering at a breakfast program in your local elementary school.

Adequate warmth in clothing and shelter is a basic human need—so love might mean donating blankets and jackets to an inner city soup kitchen before winter hits.

Simple health and safety is a basic human need—so love might mean supporting restorative justice programs in your community. 

Positive relationships with others is a basic human need—so love might mean learning about the complexity of human sexuality so you can better empathize with LGBT persons.

A sense of belonging in a group is a basic human need—so love might mean inviting your new-to-town neighbour to your weekly bowling night.

A sense of meaning or purpose, of experiencing and contributing to beauty, truth, and goodness in the world, is a basic human need—so love might mean starting a community children’s choir or a neighborhood book club.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question, “How should I love others?” Each person is unique, each interaction between people is unique—and each person needs love, every single time we interact with each other.

We can’t do all these things I’ve suggested in this post. We can’t do everything we could ever imagine. We can’t love everyone. We can’t even love all the time.

But we can love this person. We can love in this moment. We can start with one act of love, however small, and let it grow from there.

That’s how kingdoms are born, after all.

Treat others the way you would like to be treated, in your attitudes, your words, your actions toward them.

Give yourself—your time, your energy, your attention, your compassion, your money, your things, your very self—for others.

Do these things, striving for flourishing life together: our basic needs as human persons met, all shared together.

And do these things for all others you encounter: neighbours and enemies, friends and strangers, family and foreigners, good and bad alike.

Sounds simple, and in a way it is. Love cuts through the chaos and confusion of our complex world, it slices through all our insistence on right doctrine or correct morality or proper ritual, right down to what matters most.

But it’s not easy. It is the most difficult thing we can do in life, loving each other.

It’s also the most important.

This kind of love is the foundation for true justice.

This kind of love is the basis for lasting peace.

This kind of love is the source of flourishing life.

This kind of love is the love that God is, the love that God has shown us in Jesus, the love that God calls us as followers of Jesus to live out, energized by the Spirit.

We need to love each other.

All we need is love.

Love is all we need.

Love is All We NeedScripture and Jesus on Love | What is Love?
Love, Above All | How Should We Then Love?

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.