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The Golden Rule



Considering the fact that I have written hundreds of articles aimed at helping people to grow spiritually, it seems almost unforgivable that I have waited a lifetime to get around to writing about something that is probably as basic as anything I've ever said about faith, love, or sincerity; and that 'something' is the concept often referred to as The Golden Rule.

I have two excuses, both of them pretty weak.  First, the concept of The Golden Rule has always seemed so fundamental and simple that I assumed people already knew it.  And the second excuse is that when I have consciously thought about how deeply it affects everything I do, it seemed too complex to describe in a few words.  Too simple and too complex at the same time!

The Golden Rule--for anyone who doesn't already know--is usually expressed as "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."  It comes from something Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, using slightly different words, but expressing the same thought.  (Matthew 7:12)

Can you see how simple and obvious it is?  If you don't want other people
beating up on you, then don't beat up on them.  But it reaches out from
there and can end up covering every aspect of our lives and our society.  To the extent that we live by it we become what God intended us to be.  To the extent that we do not live by it, we become the exact opposite.

But most people, while acknowledging the common sense in The Golden Rule, and while desperately wanting others to treat them in that way, do not practice it themselves, except in the most primitive ways.

You see, it is only as you START to practice The Golden Rule that you begin to see how all-encompassing it really is.  Even the dilemma I mentioned above (that we want others to practice The Golden Rule toward us, but forget to practice it ourselves when the tables are turned) is an example of the Rule being ignored.

We can see, for example, the faults in others (and we push pretty hard for
them to change), but we find it much harder to see the same faults in
ourselves (and we get offended when others try to get US to change).

Jesus accused the religious leaders of doing this, i.e. straining at gnats
and swallowing camels.  Such hypocrisy is The Golden Rule being turned
inside out.

A common example that often crops up in the media is the clamour for harsher penalties for law-breakers--drug addicts, drunk drivers, thieves, and people guilty of violent crimes.  Yet if any of us finds ourselves in trouble with the law we scream 'victimisation' at the top of our lungs.  Yeah, we did exceed the speed limit, we did fudge a bit on our income tax, we did shove someone in the midst of an argument and it quickly escalated, but basically we're not bad people.  In other words, we who are so quick to demonise and call for justice against others always assume that mercy should be shown toward ourselves.

One of the biggest hindrances to people practicing The Golden Rule is that we convince ourselves that there is some huge gulf between the sins that we commit (or the injustices that we suffer) and the sins that others commit (or the injustices that they suffer).  Obviously there are degrees of
difference, but the more you at least try to reverse roles, the more you
will get those gaps into true perspective, and you may even discover at
times that the other person has been FAIRER (or has suffered a worse
injustice or been more innocent) than we have been.

The Australian public, for example, has been whipped into hysteria against refugees... calling them illegal migrants and even terrorists, without a thought for who they really are.  Almost every one of them have (usually after years of deliberate delay and often incarceration by the Department of Immigration) eventually passed the rigid tests necessary to be considered genuine refugees, fleeing genuine (and often horrific) persecution in their home country.  Obviously very few of us have put ourselves in their shoes and tried to show the level of sympathy and comfort that we would want to receive if we were fleeing for our lives after seeing family members mercilessly raped, tortured, or murdered.

We often need to alter some of the details in order to create a Golden Rule situation in our minds.  It's not good enough, for example, for us to say, "It's their own fault for living in a totalitarian government, or for
belonging to that religion."  In such cases, we are excusing ourselves from empathising with them because they are 'different'.  But the real spirit of The Golden Rule is based on use of your imagination.  Make the country they are fleeing from your own.  Make the government your own, and the religion your own, and THEN imagine how you would feel.

Child psychologists have found that in the very first years of life, a
toddler is incapable of imagining anything from any other perspective except its own.  If the child can see something, he or she assumes others all see the same thing, regardless of where they are standing.  And in a similar study, they learned that if the child cannot see something, the child
assumes it no longer exists.

Sadly, many adults do not progress much farther than this.  It's because we are all closer to ourselves and our own feelings than we are to the feelings of others, and so it takes strong effort to put ourselves in the other person's shoes.  If, for example, I am wide awake and excited about
something I want to share by telephone with a friend in England or America, I have to restrain myself enough to calculate what time it might be in that part of the world, lest I wake them up in the middle of the night with something that isn't all that important.  But it's surprising how many
people are apparently incapable of doing this.  They function at the level
of a two-year-old, and just pick up the phone and dial, then say, "Oh what
time is it over there?" when they get a sleepy answer at the other end of
the line.

For such emotionally immature adults, all of life is viewed only from their
own perspective.  And it is depressing just how many people this includes. It is why movies sometimes show someone holding up a newspaper with the significant headline facing the audience as they comment on it.  The audience responds more quickly to that, and gives little thought to the fact that the actor must be looking at something quite different on the other side of the page.

Until we can become as good at imagining what it's like to be in someone
else's shoes as what we already know it is like to be in our own, we will
never be able to appreciate the true value of The Golden Rule.  Because it is harder for us to see things from the other person's perspective, we must make more effort and give more allowances to the other person before we can even approach a concept which is equally just for both sides.

This is particularly true of legal precedents.  Judges are often accused of
being too easy on offenders.  But judges deal with thousands of real people like you and me, day after day.  They see them as real people, with extenuating circumstances that led to their particular crime, with genuine sorrow for what they did, and also with some doubt as to whether some of the accused people actually even committed the crime.  Judges also have it on their own personal conscience if they make a mistake.  Maximum penalties often do not seem appropriate to impose, especially for first offenders. And convictions do not seem fair where there is a reasonable measure of doubt.  There is a principle that is widely understood amongst legal experts, and that is that letting a guilty person escape conviction is generally less destructive to society than punishing an innocent person.

Nevertheless, media witch hunts waged against certain offenders and ethnic groups are leading to a significant erosion of our human rights in Australia and in other Western democracies.  Whole countries are turning a blind eye to such things as torture camps because it suits our desire to judge other people in a way that we would never want to be judged ourselves.

In Australia we have a young man who volunteered to fight for the Taliban in Afghanistan at a time when there was no law against doing so, and Australia was not at war against the Taliban.  Because he had broken no law, the Australian Government conspired with the American Government to ship him to Guantanamo Bay prison (and some would say torture) camp. Guantanamo Bay was necessary because there were no laws in America that would support what was being done there either.  If there were large numbers of people in either country who could exercise The Golden Rule to the extent where they could say, "Would I think it was fair if I was jailed indefinitely without any rights, for breaking a law that never existed at the time I supposedly broke it?"... if there were large numbers of people who could ask themselves that simple question, Guantanamo Bay prison camp would not exist.

I spoke with Fred Nile's wife many years ago when she was campaigning for legislation to ban any group of more than three people on the streets of Brisbane, labelling it an unlawful assembly.  I tried to get her to think
about how the same rule could one day be used against her, against her
church, against anyone.  "Oh no," she said.  "It would only be used against undesirable groups."  Do you see the blindness that comes when one is not willing to turn the tables and apply the same reasoning against themselves? She was unwilling to even contemplate being treated herself the way she wanted to treat others.  In her mind, it was just never going to happen.

Let me give another fairly trivial example.  Imagine you are trying to speak
a new language or even to pronounce a foreign word or name.  Take the
Spanish name Jose for example.  It means Joseph, so you could just say, "I'm only going to call that person Joseph."  Most people would see that such an attitude would not be fair.  After all if you were English and your name was William, you would expect people to call you William and not Guillermo (Spanish for William).  But others might say, "Okay, we'll call him Jose, but we're going to pronounce it the way it is spelled, and not pronounce it as hoh-zay, because in this country we pronounce a J like a J, etc."  What they are doing is not treating the other person the way they would like to be treated themselves.  If Muslims, for example, call their religion Islam and themselves Muslims, then why do Westerners still insist on calling them Moslem or, worst still, Mohammadens?  Obviously, because they are not following The Golden Rules.  And such stubbornness leads to all kinds of tensions and misunderstandings between people the world over.  Very strong accents are often nothing more than stubborn resistance to pronouncing things the way people in the other country pronounce them.  Even today, the British insist on making the name Gandhi rhyme with candy, when it is really pronounced Gahn-dee.

When we learn to shift the pieces around in such a way as to construct, in
our imagination, a parallel scenario from which we can make fairer
comparisons between how we feel and how those with whom we disagree feel, we will arrive at fairer conclusions about how to deal with those differences.
If we don't do that, we will degenerate into individuals and societies where
everything is determined by whoever has the most strength, even if that
strength is nothing more than stubborn pride or laziness.

Sadly, I have seen in our communities (and in myself) a tendency to be
harder on others than we are on ourselves.  To be good leaders, we do not need to be gullible pushovers.  We need to develop keen discernment with regard to the spiritual weaknesses in others, and we often have to confront those weaknesses.  But it pays to never lose sight of our own weaknesses and to use them to make Golden Rule comparisons.  Mind you, I'm not talking about a silent conspiracy where we tacitly agree to cover for one another. But I AM talking about an understanding of The Golden Rule will cause us to express disagreement in a way that is consistent with how we are prepared to accept it.

"Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors," is another illustration of
The Golden Rule.  If we think about those words when we say them, most of us would choke on them and, at best, change them to something like, "Help me to forgive others the way you have forgiven me."  Because if we really were treated by God with the same harsh indifference that we have for others, most of us would be heavily singed by now.

Finally, The Golden Rule is an invaluable tool in constructing sound
arguments.  The average person blatantly changes their reasoning depending on whether they are on the attack or whether they are on the defensive. Just recently I heard someone arguing that the Bible supported a point they were making.  But the moment someone used the same verse to point out a flaw in that person's argument, he started to attack the Bible as unreliable and not to be taken literally.  In both cases, he needed a position with regard to the Bible that did not have to change so dramatically depending on whether or not it supported his biases.

Observe politicians and how they react to a scandal in their own party as
opposed to a scandal in the other party.  Observe how they react to a poll
which says their party is winning as opposed to how they react when the poll says the other party is winning.  If they would use The Golden Rule, they would be forced to come up with a response that would be consistent in both circumstances.  

This has turned into a pretty long article, and still I feel that I have not
even scratched the surface.  In every decision we make, in every word we
speak, there is room for careful consideration of how it will affect others,
and of how we would like it to affect us if we were in their place.  We just
have to develop skill in being able to draw up illustrations from our own
personal experience which can be used as parallels to help us imagine how others might feel, and then to make decisions based on those observations. It always takes a willingness to empty ourselves of bluster and righteous indignation, of indifference and impatience.  The more we do it, the more we will see that we NEED to do it, and the more we will see that we'll never get it down perfectly.

In conclusion, I would like to see more people making more use of The Golden Rule, simply because it has been such a big help to me over the years.  But, then, there are probably other rules that have helped YOU just as much, which I may have missed.  So, remembering that, may help me to be more patient with those who don't seem to regard The Golden Rules with the same awe that I have for it.  And that's more or less how the rules works... when I remember to use it!
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