When people think about religions, perhaps the most well known facet of religion is the Golden Rule. In its biblical form, the Golden Rule simply says, “Do unto others what you want them to do to you.” This rule is found in a couple of the New Testament gospels. But the neat thing about the Golden Rule is it occurs in some form in all major religious traditions. It is certainly not a Christian thing alone.
Sometimes, the Golden Rule is described as the law of reciprocity. It is similar, but I would argue it is not the same. The law of reciprocity simply says, “I do something for you, so that you will do something for me.” In this law there is the expectation that you will do something for me. In fact, that is why I do something for you. It locks you in, so to speak, to do something for me.
The Golden Rule, on the other hand, is simply a gift. You are going to treat someone else like you would like to be treated. There is no expectation that you will do something for me. The Golden Rule puts no one under obligation. In that sense it is grace---a free gift. Clearly, if people abided by this Rule, life and our communities would be much saner and safer.
I bumped into the Golden Rule again when I was doing some research for a presentation that I soon will make. I have a presentation to do about Martin Luther King Jr. It has been fun to remember the Civil Rights leader. I am old enough to recall much of what he did. It is easy to claim two things. On the one hand, he had a lasting effect on our American society. A good bit of legislation was passed to solidify the gains he and many others labored to bring. On the other hand, it is a little depressing that racism still exists in our midst. In retrospect we know that simply passing legislation outlawing discrimination is not sufficient.
Part of what I read in preparation for my presentation on King was Pope Francis’ recent address to the US Congress. The Pope was making his initial visit to our country and had the awesome opportunity to speak to both houses of Congress. What he shared about King led him to the Golden Rule. Having cited the Golden Rule, the Pope developed the themes of that Rule in three ways, which I would like to share and offer some comments.
The first thing the Pope asks of all is straightforward. “Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated.” This is an interesting beginning point. It assumes we would like to be the object of other folks’ passion and compassion. I interpret that to mean we all want others to care for us. I know that is my hope. If everyone cared for me, I would have no worries about any other human being. I would never fear anyone and I would expect the best from all.
And if I every get in trouble, everyone would offer me compassion. That is about as good as it gets. Compassion means that everyone would do everything possible to make sure I had what I needed, that I had their understanding if I made some mistake and that I would have everything they could offer if I were to suffer. This would almost be like having God in my corner. But maybe that is what the Pope is after. Perhaps the Pope knows that most of the time, God deals indirectly with us through other people. Those who are passionate and compassionate for us are truly God-like in their behavior on our behalf. Thank God!
The second theme the Pope lifts out of the Golden Rule is wonderful. He asks, “Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves.” If everyone around me were working to create more possibilities for me, I would be flooded with good possibilities in many directions. This would open up amazing futures for all of us. Think how it would eradicate frustration, hate and war. Peace would be the fruitful product of such action.
The final theme the Pope extracts from the Golden Rule, as he reflected on Martin Luther King Jr, is again quite simple. “Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves.” I find it fascinating that the Pope is intrigued by how we help each other grow. The Pope knows if the world continues with business as usual, things will not be good. Martin Luther King Jr. knew the same thing, as he pondered the plight of African Americans. Often the status quo is not a good thing.
This is where the Golden Rule does not feel like the same thing to all of us. Some of us---like me---have been much more fortunate in life. Much of the way I have been fortunate has nothing to do with my own accomplishments. As such, the Golden Rule might feel more challenging to someone like me. It might feel like I have more to lose. But maybe that is the point.
Each of us has to personalize what the Pope asks. We are asked to be compassionate, to create possibilities for others and to help others grow. I am sure this is what Jesus wants. And if I get serious about my spiritual journey, this is my agenda, too---follow the Golden Rule.