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.
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One Response to Dusting Off the “Golden Rule”

  1. Michael Pahl says:

    A great question from a friend on Facebook related to this post: “How do you allow yourself to be moved by compassion for those who think they are great – not broken or suffering? Can you put yourself in their shoes? My moral imagination is lacking for some (think some political leaders). Jesus got quite angry at people who misused their power and kept others down – I guess we need creative prophetic denunciation for some?”

    Here was my response:

    Yeah, I know what you mean (I can probably even imagine which leaders you might be thinking of…). I struggle with that, and I’ve especially struggled with that when the actions of people like that have been directed against me or affected my family. It takes a conscious effort to exercise moral imagination and be empathetic – but it’s important that we try.

    Good point that Jesus got angry at people who misused their power. Part of our moral imagination, I think, involves feeling real anger at those “powers-that-be” that oppress others, especially others who are particularly vulnerable (i.e. that’s part of empathizing with those who are broken and suffering). But it’s tempting then to treat those human leaders as monsters, to de-humanize them, so we need to exercise our moral imagination on their behalf as well. What has happened in their life that has stunted their moral development? What fears and insecurities are driving them to think and act the way they do?

    Here I’m reminded of Ephesians’ admonition that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces of evil.” I’m also reminded of MLK’s principles of nonviolent resistance, one of which is that such resistance is “directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing the evil.”

    None of that empathy, however, requires that I support that person being a world leader with a nuclear arsenal at their fingertips… :-/

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