We call it the “golden rule” or law of reciprocity. As you wish that others would do unto you, do so unto them … Be merciful, then. (Luke 6.31,36) And it can be found, in one configuration or another, in every religious faith, every ethical tradition, and every philosophical school. It predates Christianity; it is echoed in Judaism and ancient Eastern religions. In fact, it goes way back to … Fred Flintstone, who once helped a stranger robbed and left to die, saying: “I’d want him to help me.”
It seems simple enough; it even sounds easy enough to apply. Don’t do anything that you wouldn’t want other people to do to you. Don’t harm; don’t cheat; and don’t lie. Don’t disregard; don’t mistreat; and don’t discriminate. All of us feel that we can – more or less – live by the golden rule. Add to that a moderately regular church attendance, an occasional donation to charity, and the right connections in religious circles, and we may be assured some sense of self-complacency for this life and, quite possibly, the next.
But in Christianity, the golden rule is not really a rule at all. There can be no rules in a merciful attitude; there can be no laws for reciprocal behavior. As George Bernard Shaw says in Man and Superman: “The golden rule is that there are no rules.” So while people claim that the golden rule is at the core and root of every religion, I would suggest that the golden rule is above and beyond every religion and race; it defies any bias or discrimination. The golden rule is actually about compassion and justice, about the inseparable link between promoting love and practicing fairness.
This is because the golden rule is above mere rules and regulations, beyond negative prescriptions and prohibitions. In the Gospels, Christ says: “Do to others.” The exhortation is not: “Do not do to others.” It is one thing to say: “Do not pollute or destroy.” It is quite another to say: “Preserve the planet’s resources.” I wonder if this principle lies behind the principle of inalienable human rights in the Declaration of Independence. It surely lies behind an economy of generosity instead of egocentrism – the difference between a sustainable world (a worldview of compassion) and an intolerable world (a worldview of competition).
You can’t play games with the golden rule. You can’t hide behind it as behind some moral or pious façade. With the golden rule, the move is always yours; the ball is always in your court. To adopt terminology from my own birthplace, it’s the “boomerang syndrome”: imagine your actions immediately rebounding or reflecting on you.
Pretend, for instance, that the Dakota Access Pipeline cut through your backyard, not the sacred space of Native Americans. Imagine what the reaction would be if the oil was diverted beneath the property of the most affluent or most influential in the region. What if the pipeline affected your basic drinking water, your life source, your own “standing rock”? What would you do? How would you react? How much would you tolerate? How far would you go?
Would you consider it an act of aggression? Would you perceive it as an expression of racism? Would you discern the glaring connections between the poverty of the local indigenous peoples and the almost four-billion-dollar-profit of the distant energy company? Would you stand in silence with the indigenous tribes out of respect for the integrity of God’s creation and the sacredness of water? Or would you perhaps remain oblivious to the blindness of greed in the alleged name of progress?
The Sioux protest in North Dakota may be for tribal and treaty land. But it stands as a larger symbol of the earth as the sacred body of God. The golden rule obliges us to act as if the land was our own body, our own lifeline, our own sacred covenant with the living God. After all, we are called to behave “as we would have others do unto us” and what is ours. So, “be merciful, even as your father in heaven is merciful.”