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Rethinking the Golden Rule

by Stephen Hebert on Monday - 9 August 2010

in Ministry

So whatever you wish that others would do to you,
do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets
.
— Matthew 7.12 (ummm…words of Christ in red)

This verse is so familiar. Long before I was a Christian, I remember learning the Golden Rule in elementary school. Not surprising since the Wikipedia article on “The Golden Rule” shows various formulations of the rule across continents and time — it is not really unique to Christ or Christianity.

Most of us hear this, and consider what Christ is commanding us to do. However, in considering Thomas Merton’s meditations on the nature of hatred in chapter 10 of New Seeds of Contemplation (“A Body of Broken Bones”), a new way of interpreting the Golden Rule strikes me.

Merton argues that hatred for others is really just a manifestation of our own hatred for ourselves. Some realize their shortcomings, and project those shortcomings on to others and then, in an attempt to compete in the human rat race (aka “the bogus world system”), they denigrate those shortcomings in order to raise their own status, in order to make themselves feel better or justified about who/what they are. Others are so disconnected from themselves that they don’t realize that they have shortcomings — but their subconscious knows that something is amiss.

I’m sure Merton may be charged with invoking pop psychology here, but I think he’s on to something.

What if the Golden Rule isn’t so much a rule but, rather, a law of human nature? We could formulate it in this way:

You do unto others,
as you would have them do unto you.

The way that we treat others is a manifestation, a projection of the way that we really feel about ourselves, of the way that we feel we deserve to be treated. If we feel unworthy of love, then we will treat others as though they are unworthy of love; if we feel hatred toward some other person or group, it’s because we feel hatred for ourselves; etc.

You hate and scorn others,
because (you believe) you deserve to be hated and scorned.

You hurt others,
because (you believe) you deserve to be hurt.

You love others,
because (you believe) you deserve to be loved.

Notice that it’s a two-way street — we can do beneficence to others because of our healthy self-image.

If this is the case, if the Golden Rule is really a universal law of human nature, then we have to ask ourselves this: How do we attain a healthy self-image that will allow us to live out the Golden Rule/Law in a positive way (i.e., “love others”)?

Great question. Merton’s response would be to connect with God through contemplation, to deny the false self that you’ve spent your whole life creating in order to discover your true identity in Christ.

Easier said than done…?

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