What exactly is a New Year’s resolution? It’s a “to do” list for the first week of January.
Study after study shows that, for the most part, New Year’s resolutions aren’t kept well. So, instead of a list of possible New Year’s resolutions, I’m going to offer for your consideration just one rule for living in 2020. This rule is one line from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12, NRSV).
This rule is, of course, popularly known as what the Golden Rule. It’s one of Jesus’ most well-known teachings. In many ways this rule is simple and straightforward. Yet applying it isn't always so simple. I wonder if a few guiding principles may help us to live daily according to this foundational ethical principle. Let me begin to get into a few such guiding principles with a case study.
Recently I was on my way home from the office during rush hour and traffic was really heavy. I was making the left turn from Holly Springs Road onto Sunset Lake Road and, as usual, of the two turning lanes, I chose the left one because I knew that the right turning lane ended not far after the turn.
On this particular day, something happened that has never happened to me before in almost nine years of regularly making that same turn. Traffic suddenly backed up as I was turning onto Sunset Lake Road such that I was left blocking the intersection as the light was changing. So I moved over into the other turning lane so that I wouldn’t be blocking traffic.
Then I turned on my left turn signal, needing for someone in the bumper-to-bumper traffic in other lane to let me in before my lane soon ended. The closest driver refused to let me in, no doubt thinking that I was one of those aggravating drivers trying to get a few car lengths ahead in the race to get home. Fortunately, the driver behind him let me in.
This brings us to one of the difficulties in applying the Golden Rule. We often don’t have all relevant information when we find ourselves in a circumstance in which we have the opportunity to exercise the Golden Rule. The driver that wouldn’t let me in may have thought he was applying the Golden Rule well. He likely concluded that I was just trying to break in line and save a few seconds on the trip home and he may have thought he was doing me a favor by showing me that bad behavior shouldn’t be rewarded.
The problem is, in that case, he was wrong about my motivation. I was simply trying to avoid blocking an intersection. Had he known this, my guess is that he would have gladly let me in front of him. As it is, he probably went home with the self-satisfied comfort that he did what he could to teach me a lesson when, in fact, he was just mean.
But let’s say I had been one of those drivers trying to save a few seconds on the way home. Does the driver who wouldn’t let me in have any clue as to why I may have been in a hurry? What if I was running late for a planned family gathering and I just trying to be less late? What if I needed a suit at the cleaners for a meeting the next day and I was trying to get there before they close?
Does the opportunity to teach a lesson to a potentially rude driver rise above the risk that I might instead be hindering a driver with a good reason for being in that other lane? Not in my view. Not letting me in wasn’t going to cost that driver more than a second or two on his trip home, so he would have been better off to err on the side of grace. Plus, the driver trying to get out of the lane that was ending might not have been rude at all. Maybe the route was new to him and he didn’t know the lane he was in ended after the turn until he made the turn.
So I think this is an ancillary rule to the Golden Rule: We rarely have complete information in a situation in which we can exercise the Golden Rule, so we must err on the side of grace. After all, God’s grace in Christ is so deep and so wide that Christ died for the ungodly as we read in Romans 5:6. Christ died for those who, by definition, don’t deserve it. We rarely go wrong in erring on the side of grace when we follow the One who has shown us the way of amazing grace.
This guiding principle that can help us to embrace our sacred purpose of living according to the Golden Rule is one principle of several that I consider particularly important in our culture right now. We all know how polarized, how divisive, how coarse, how corrosive our national discourse has become. So, as we stand at the threshold of what unfortunately is shaping up to be an ugly election year, we perhaps need a reminder of the bedrock principle of the Golden Rule and some of its implications.
In this vein, we must bear in mind that living according to the Golden Rule means always showing respect for others. Don’t you want to be treated with respect? Of course! Do to others as you would have them do to you—respect them. We’d all like to think this doesn’t need to be said. But these days some prominent leaders of our nation in politics, business, and even religion speak publicly as if those with whom they disagree are worthy of no respect whatsoever.
We’re not going to agree on everything. It’s just not going to happen. Yet the Golden rule compels us to respect one another even when we disagree because we must do to others as we would have them to us.
Hand-in-hand with this guiding principle is the importance of refraining from using inflammatory language and derogatory names in our discourse. Do you want incendiary language hurled your way or disparaging labels hung on you? No. Do to others as you would want for them to do to you.
I feel a little silly saying this—it seems like such an obvious application of the Golden Rule. But, unfortunately, hardly a day goes by that there isn’t some headline of a leader of our society using an insulting name against another leader which only deepens divisions and pushes us further away from real solutions to serious problems. Demonization seems to be a glorified pursuit these days.
Golden Rule people just don’t live that way. In this same discourse Jesus commanded us to love our enemies. Demonizing our enemies is incompatible with loving them.
Another related guiding principle is that we must not make broad generalizations about individuals or groups. I’ve got an old van that’s ugly. It’s 20 years old and the paint is faded and peeling. It’s missing a hubcap and the engine makes a loud, weird noise. But it’s handy for hauling pine straw and garbage and that’s the sort of thing for which I typically use it. However, my main car got rear-ended recently and I had to drive that old van for a week while my car was being repaired. I was embarrassed to be seen in that ugly rattletrap so much. Why? Because I figured other drivers were drawing conclusions about me that didn’t fit me.
I know, that’s vain on my part. I’m sorry. But it shows that I’m not comfortable when I even think others may be making broad generalizations about me. So I shouldn’t be making broad generalizations about others because I don’t like it when I even suspect that’s being done to me.
But a lot of the broad generalizations made widely in our culture are much more destructive than the ones that may have been made about me when I was driving that ugly van every day for a week. Many broad generalizations lead us to withhold compassion from people in desperate need of it. Many broad generalizations lead us to put up barriers where we should be building bridges. Many broad generalizations breed increasing discontent where we should be nurturing greater peace through deeper understanding.
Living by the Golden Rule means listening patiently especially when there’s disagreement. Do you like it if your point of view is dismissed out of hand? Do you like it if someone doesn’t really listen to your thinking? No. Do to others as you want for them to do to you. Listen patiently even when you have profound disagreement with someone because that’s what you like for others to do for you.
As obvious as this is, we have a serious patient listening deficiency in our culture right now. There’s an echo chamber filled with ratings-driven, click-dependent pundits more concerned with hearing cheers from those who agree than hearing the thoughts of those who disagree. Those pundits on radio, TV, and the Internet are, through their example, adversely influencing interactions all over the place. Real listening in which we seek points of mutual agreement or at least mutual interest is cast aside in favor scoring points in a debate. As the Apostle Paul said in the so-called love chapter of 1 Corinthians, we all see through a glass darkly. None of us has a corner on the truth and we must humbly relate to others accordingly, affording them the respect of our attentive listening.
Living according to the Golden Rule means defending those who are victims of Golden Rule abuse. Golden Rule people must stand up for the Golden Rule. When we see the Golden Rule violated, we have a duty to speak the truth in love—to say, “No, that’s not right; that’s not the way Jesus taught us to treat others.” This we must do whether the Golden Rule is violated by Republicans, Democrats, or Independents; by conservatives, moderates, or liberals; by Tar Heels, Blue Devils, or the Wolfpack.
William Barclay called the Golden Rule the Everest of ethics.[i] Based on Jesus’ statement of the rule in Matthew, that’s not a bad label. In this instance, Jesus said that the Golden Rule “is the law and the prophets” (Matt. 7:12, NRSV). In other words, this rule sums up what God has taught us about the way we’re to treat others. He also added the phrase “In everything …” In every realm of our living—in politics, business, school, family, church, etc.—we must do to others as we would have others do to us.
Jesus’ formulation of the Golden Rule in Matthew tells us something important about Jesus. He effectively said this rule sums up what God teaches us about how we’re to relate to others. It’s bold for a carpenter out of Nazareth to speak as though God had given him insight into what the main thing is. It’s bold for him to say he knows the heart of God’s will for humankind. If we believe Jesus had the right to speak with such boldness about the will of God for us then we have a duty to make the Golden Rule part of core of our very being.
We live in a terribly fractured society. The fissures are deep and appear to be widening rapidly. Yet we read in Colossians 1:20 that God, in Christ, intends to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. We are called by Christ to be part of that reconciliation process--to be ministers of reconciliation as we read in 2 Corinthians 5. Living according to the Golden Rule with all of its implications is key to that process.
As basic as this rule is, as widely as it’s claimed to be treasured, it seems to me that it’s routinely disregarded in our culture these days. I’ve entitled this post “The Rule for Living in 2020”. But, of course, the Golden Rule is the rule that must govern our interactions with others every day in every year. Yet in our divided culture, on the eve of a potentially rancorous election year, it seems to me that the Everest of ethics needs special attention. May we embrace our sacred purpose of living by the Golden Rule, because our community, our world, desperately needs to see us doing so.