Why is it that the maxim at the heart of almost every religion or moral code is the one we find hardest to follow?
The world would be a much nicer place if we could all remember the ethic of reciprocity, or as most of us know it, the Golden Rule. We learned it in kindergarten, and yet we must relearn it on an almost daily basis: “Treat others as you would like to be treated.”
Religion, at its best, helps people make sense of the world and reminds them how to live in a community peacefully with one another. The Golden Rule is a deceptively simple concept that we humans have been trying to embody for millennia. In almost every religious tradition, you will find a version of this ethical code written into a sacred text or passed down orally to its adherents.
In the three religions that claim Abraham as their forefather, treating others as you want to be treated is paramount. In the Christian tradition, the highest law is to love God, and the next is to “Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12) When Jesus of Nazareth spoke those words, he was quoting from the book of Leviti- cus, part of an ancient collection of books that Chris- tians know as the Old Testament and Jews know as the Torah. The Jewish sage Hillel said, “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.”
Leviticus can be a troublesome book because it has many commandments that are problematic for modern people, “Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed. Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material. If a man sleeps with a female slave who is promised to another man but who has not been ransomed or given her freedom, there must be due punishment.” (Leviticus 19:19–20 NIV) Clearly, even my most theologically conservative brothers and sisters have left many of these commandments in the dust bin of time, but Jesus plucks the Golden Rule out of this book and lifts it up as one of the most important rules for living.
In Islam, the Prophet Muhammad picks up this thought when he says, “None of you has faith until you love for your brother what you love for yourself.” And “None of you has faith until you love for your neighbor what you love for yourself.” In all three religions, the person of faith must be in right relationship with others in order to be in right relationship with God.
In the Buddhist and Taoist traditions, God does not issue commandments. Instead, there are personal qualities to develop that will inevitably lead you to treat others as you would treat yourself. Buddhists encourage a state of mindfulness through meditation that ultimately leads one to love the entire world. Compassion, gift giving, and the quality of loving-kindness are all marks of the ideal Buddhist nature.
In the eastern traditions we have the Bhagavad-Gita, an ancient text held sacred by Hindus that again upholds the ethic of reciprocity. The Bhagavad-Gita tells us that only those who rejoice in doing good for all creatures will attain true happiness; only those who rejoice in the welfare of all will become one with God.
If you look in Wikipedia under “The Golden Rule,” you will find quotes from such ancient civilizations as Babylon, Greece, China, and Egypt, each affirming that this rule is one that has crossed cultures and time. This begs the question: If every religious tradition has some form of the Golden Rule as a high- er law, then why are we not a more peaceful and loving people?
Perhaps the answer lies in how we treat ourselves. Perhaps if we learned to love ourselves unconditionally, it would be easier to love others. This is hard to remem- ber when others are tearing us down. But if we look at the modern figures who embodied this ethic most beautifully–Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., the Dalai Lama– we find across the landscape people who have changed the world.
As we move through this holiday season, let us mindfully consider ways that we can be kind to ourselves. Then we might be able to treat others with the patience, strength and love we long for from them. I’ll try if you will.