What the Golden Rule Does NOT Say: or, “Jesus wouldn’t recognize that rationalization.”

RayBible, Bloggernacle, Charity, christ, gay, homosexuality, inter-faith, Jesus, LDS, love, meekness, mercy, Peace, religion, resolutions, Sermon on the Mount 24 Comments

One of my monthly New Year’s Resolutions last year was taken from Matthew 7:9-12, a slight change in my original plan. (See here.) These verses state:

Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him? Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.

The wording of my resolution was:

“Treat others how I want to be treated.”

I want to make one point here about something I have heard over the years. It is something that has bothered me over time, and I want to state up front what I believe this verse does NOT say – what I believe is a classic case of “wresting” scriptures and creating meaning that never was intended.

I have heard it said of old (*grin*) that we should treat others in whatever way will help them best. After all, this reasoning goes, deep down they really want whatever is best – so if we know what is best for someone, we should do all we can to help them see, recognize, understand and accept that which is best for them. This argument asserts that it’s better to treat someone how they “really” want to be treated (often subconsciously) than to treat them how they “think” they want to be treated – that I, as an enlightened individual, know what is best for them and, therefore, I, as an enlightened individual, should treat them as if they were in my shoes.

To try to say it differently, this approach to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is based on you placing yourself in their situation and transferring your own hopes and dreams and expectations on them. While this might sound reasonable and even praiseworthy at first glance, there are at least three problems with this approach that I can see immediately:

1) It is used often as a justification for aggressive action, pressure and even compulsion. At the most extreme, it allowed those in charge of the Inquisition to torture people into confessing non-existent sins – since those doing the torturing were convinced they only were doing what was best for the person being tortured by “cleansing” them of sin and freeing them for a more benevolent judgment in the afterlife. At a more common level, it is used to justify constant and inconsiderate preaching and attempts to convert others – unfortunately, even among our own membership. Again, the reasoning is, “If I didn’t have the Gospel in my life, I would want someone to preach it to me even if I didn’t want to hear it.”

2) It totally ignores and discounts the actual desires of the other person – and illustrates an arrogance that is couched in terms of love but, literally, is judgmental and condescending. In essence, it says, “I know better than you what you need, and I’m never going to quit trying to make you see that, no matter what you want.”

3) It simply isn’t what is commanded in these verses – to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

I want to finish with that last point, and I want to do so by placing each reader in the shoes of an active member of the LDS Church – and focusing on the reaction of nearly every LDS member who has a friend, family member, acquaintance or stranger who disagrees with Mormonism, has left the LDS Church, believes Mormons are not Christian and/or is saddened at the thought of Mormons ending up in Hell. If that person really is sincere in his concern, and if she really thought that constant badgering might convince you of the error of your ways, would you appreciate her preaching at you every time you were together? Would you appreciate her non-attendance at your wedding reception, since she believes your sealing in the temple is a sham and not recognized by God? Would you appreciate her constant, subtle (or blatant) warnings about your eternal condemnation? Deep down, on a very practical level, what would you really, truly want from her – how would you want her to “do unto you”?

I submit that all of us, at the most basic level, want little more than acceptance and respect and love for who we actually are – recognition that we are capable of making our own decisions – friendship that is genuine and not tied to certain conditions – etc. In other words, we want to be treated as equals – as important – as valuable – as legitimate deciders of our own fate, and we want that for who we ARE, not for who others want us to be.

So, the next time you start to say something to someone else, ask yourself, “How would I respond if someone said that, in that way, to me?” The next time you start to write a blog comment, ask yourself, “How would I respond if someone wrote that, in that way, to me?”. The next time you start to react to someone in any way, ask yourself, “How would I respond if someone reacted that way to me?” In summary, ask yourself:

How would I feel if someone “did that unto me”?

If you would thank God for that person’s words or actions, in the actual circumstances of your real life, “do so unto others”. If you would not thank God (or if you would need to pray for forgiveness) for your reaction to that person’s words or actions, don’t “do so unto others”. Finally, if you really would understand this principle, take one entire day and analyze everything according to this standard:

How would I feel if someone “did that unto me”?

If we really focused on that question, I have no doubt we would stop doing and saying much of what we do and say – and start doing and saying many things we currently do not say and do.

That was my resulotion that month – to treat others more as I actually want them to treat me.

Thoughts?  What am I missing that would support or weaken this interpretation of the Golden Rule?

Comments 24

  1. 1. The Golden Rule is an awful, horrible idea for the self-loathing.
    2. The Golden Rule is an awful, horrible idea if your spouse doesn’t like sex.
    3. The Golden Rule is an awful, horrible idea if kindness drives you nuts (as opposed to say, genuine concern.)
    4. The Golden Rule is an awful, horrible idea if you are righteous and the object of your action is not — and vice versa, i.e. I could really use a good, hard drink.

    Bottom line, the rule should be to treat people the way they would like to be treated (within the confines of decorum and the law) and forget what you want or how you would want to be treated.

  2. I don’t think you have the correct understanding of this scripture. It assumes we should accept people no matter what, and that is not correct.

  3. Stephen, I like that summary.

    Ulysses, thanks for agreeing with me in your last paragraph. I agree that it can be terrible if not interpreted as I did in the post – and as you did in your conclusion.

    Ken, I’m not saying we have to approve of whatever others do (since I don’t believe that at all) – but how would you explain the Golden Rule (as written) to not reach the conclusion I reached? That is a serious question – not to assert I’m right and you’re wrong, but simply to ask for an explanation of why you think I’m wrong. Please explain why you reach your conclusion.

  4. Uh, I agreed with you in the first four paragraphs too if that was your original intent.

    My point is that you need to go a step further and rather than asking what you want, use a little empathy, communication and compassion and ask — what would this person like me to do for them in this circumstance?

    It is easy (Ok, maybe not to the right wing bomb Iraq crowd) to realize that the vast majority of people don’t want bombs dropped on their houses and families. However, daily life is much more complex and personal preferences and desires don’t coincide and there isn’t even a right or wrong answer to those preferences.

    Ray wrote ” to treat others more as I actually want them to treat me.”

    I said this was a bad idea for the self-loathing, because the self-loathing may want to be chastised and spit upon and it would feel good to them to have their feelings of self-loathing confirmed. The self-loathing are advanced enough to treat others as they want to be treated and that is why most of us don’t like the self-loathing.

    I said that it was a bad idea if you have varying sexual desire with your spouse, because maybe you want to be treated to some fun and that is nowhere near where your spouse wants to be. Marital fight ensues because you pursued treating her/him like you want to be treated.

    Or your heathen neighbor enjoys a beer and sun-tanning on Sunday and you bring him Sprite and home teachers, because that is how you would like to be treated.

    You get the idea.

    I’ll tell you where I struggle with the Golden Rule — on-line and in writing. Throwing words on a screen completely eliminates the ability to ascertain another person’s reaction or need. Words get digitized and thrown out and the impact is unknown and occasionally uncontrollable.

    For example, I usually disagree with Ray, thus his surprise at my agreement. We have had our run-ins on this site a few times to the point that he was going to simply ignore me at one point. Me, I like a good written confrontation and conflict (it is the one area I don’t mind conflict), but that may not be what Ray wants, so if I treat Ray the way I want to be treated it might not be the best.

    So conceptually I like the idea of compassion, I would just campaign for a more liberal, informed compassion.

  5. Ulysses-
    I’m being brutally honest here so forgive me. When I read what you are advocating, and read what Ray is advocating, I see the same thing. Ray’s point is exactly the one you are making:

    Bottom line, the rule should be to treat people the way they would like to be treated (within the confines of decorum and the law) and forget what you want or how you would want to be treated.

    I really get the impression, Ulysses, that you are just angry with the church, and anything having to do with religion at all. So much so, in fact, that even when it’s clear (to everyone but you) that you and Ray are making the same point, you seek to tear down, belittle, and cause controversy. I think I can understand that as I have been there.

    Further, I think if you really believed this very point you are making, your comments on this site would be different. You would not seek to abrasively confront, but to compassionately challenge in the interest of furthering discussion, rather than belittling. The point is subtle and the nuance can only be grasped by those who really care.

  6. In Buddhist teachings, since we have lived through countless lives prior to this one, in all likelihood the person with whom you are interacting was literally your mother in a previous life. Whether you believe in reincarnation or not, the result is still the same. You are going to treat the person with a great deal of respect, which goes above and beyond the Golden Rule, actually. You are going to look out for their interests, even at the expense of your own. It is a profound way of looking at the world and has impacted my relations with others far more than the Golden Rule.

  7. Ray, thanks for the OP.

    I’ve been on the receiving end of folks who really do get this the way you describe it, and it’s terrific. (And they’re not all Christian.) When I lived in Asia and my coworkers learned that I drink neither alcohol nor tea, they were exceptionally gracious and consistently provided me with alternatives.

    It may seem like a small thing, but the social value of alcohol and tea where I worked was substantial. Their willingness to deviate from their societal norm for me was quite a gift.

    Also when living overseas, I was always grateful for an “English” alternative when calling a taxi or a government office. I’m so surprised here in the US when people are so upset that they’re given a choice to press a number for a non-English language.

  8. Nice post, Ray. Though I don’t really agree. The reason I would never go for such things as “aggressive action, pressure, and compulsion” are simply that they don’t work, generally. If they did work, I’m not sure I’d agree entirely with your post. I mean, those things to a small degree are appropriate with children, and I will occasionally use them for my children’s good even though they don’t like it. I think they’ll thank me when they’re older, just as I’ve thanked my father. And I think that’s entirely consistent with the Savior’s injunction. I’d say the same if “aggressive action, pressure, and compulsion” actually did contribute to the overall good with adults as well, but they don’t. That’s why God so rarely uses them.

  9. Treatment of Native Americans is a classic “golden rule gone wrong” scenario. In the mid- and late-1800’s the ideal American was a farmer, so we settled the Indians down on (barren) ground and taught them to farm. In the mid-20th Century, the ideal American was a businessman, so the native Alaska tribes were turned into “corporations.” In both cases, it wasn’t what the natives wanted.

    I don’t think you can possibly go wrong with genuine friendship and kindness.

  10. I get the difference between treating people the way I would like to be treated and treating people the way THEY would like to be treated. I am a person who likes to be treated frankly rather than kindly and I think that many others prefer the kinder approach. When I treat others the way that I would like to be treated they are often not pleased. I now try to take the extra step and think about how others would like to be treated.

  11. Ulysseus, We agree with each other. Honestly, I’m not sure why you think we don’t. Maybe one setence was a bit in-articulate – but we agree.

    Mike, thanks! That’s a great way to look at it – and it fits perfectly into the God’s family concept within Mormonism.

    Paul, I also was touched while I was in Asia by so many people’s willingness to set aside common culture for a gaijin.

    Martin, I exempt children from this general discussion to a degree – and I even will qualify it with reference to the etremely immature. Maybe that addresses Ulysseus’ examples a bit – BUT I still stand by general observation about how the Golden Rule too often is twisted to allow us to do unto others whatever we think is best for them (like beating a child senseless to teach obedience and respect – which is really hypocritical, stupid and worthy of an entirely different post). That point is true, I believe, in relation even to children and the etremely immature.

    Clark, that is an excellent example.

    nightwalden, you bring up a great point. As someone who values respect and civility greatly, I need to remember that I can speak that way in more than one manner – that I can be “kind and gentle” AND/OR “frank and direct” and still be respectful and civil – that one doesn’t have to negate the other.

  12. Ray:

    The LDS Church was a perfect example of this on the prop 8 issue in the Socialist Republic of California. They stood firm on the sanctity of the family, but did not dehumanize others in the process. They treated the opposition with respect and did not resort to personal attacks. In short, they followed the Saviors command by being tolerant and respectful of others beliefs, but were firm on their position.

    This cannot be said for the opposition, they were cruel, intolerant and resorted to personal attacks against the LDS Church and its members. In short, the Church and its faithful members followed this version of the Golden Rule; while the opposition demanded tolerance and were extremely intolerant.

  13. I think it’s interesting to dig into both examples that Christ uses-that of bread/stone and fish/serpent. First-in both examples-someone is ASKING or seeking for something specific and the action of asking comes first.

    Second-I find what He uses in His examples to be curious as well. In both examples it is a “son” making the requests to a “father”, which indicates a sense of stewardship or authority and responsibility. In both, the “son” asks for a form of physical sustenance (bread and fish)and neither inappropriate response provides it (stone and serpent). BUT stones, brazen serpents,bread and fish are all used metaphorically as representations of Christ.

    Considering the fact that just a few verses previous to these the Lord warns against tossing pearls before swine, or offering what is holy to dogs, added to Ray’s sentiment about not preaching or pressuring those whom we might feel a false sense of stewardship over…it is then possible to view this as alluding to the idea of refraining from offering spiritual/eternal things to people who only request, desire, or need worldly/physical things from us. Just something to ponder…

  14. Conversely- what about those who are seeking the “bread” or “fish” of the Savior and His spiritual sustenance? Isn’t it ridiculous to offer them a stone, or the counterfeits of THE serpent (Lucifer) in return?

  15. Ken, as a broad generalization, I can’t argue much with you – although others certainly could. However, at the individual level, there werre LOTS of people on both sides of that issue who acted opposite of what you’ve described – and who reacted badly to the other side.

    I don’t want this thread to spiral into an argument over one particular issue outside of the point of the post, however, so I am asking everyone to refrain from following up further than that on Ken’s comment. Please understand.

    apollo, those are great points. Honestly, I hadn’t considered them quite in the way you phrased it. I will have to ponder your points a little more – and probably work them into a future post on my own blog. Thank you!

  16. I think much of this has to do with just accepting people as they are. They come to life with different backgrounds, experiences, trials, etc. They are the place they are for a reason. And I absolutely think we can be overbearing in trying to make people just like we are.

    Example, told to me by a non-LDS coworker just today. A neighbor who lives several houses down the street but who they’ve never really met or interacted with for 6-7 years came by a few days ago. They said they just wanted to get to know them better. Great. They also said they were planning a BBQ on the street just to help everyone get to know each other better. Also great in this day of busy lives stuck in our houses, etc. They then said if they were interested in the LDS Church they’ve love to tell them more. Oops. My co-worker believes in God and Christ. She is Catholic. Her kids go to a Catholic school. What would have been a great opportunity to actually meet neighbors became extremely transparent to my friend – a thinly veiled effort merely to “convert” her because the neighbor thought that was what was best for her.

    Needless to say, she conveniently skipped the BBQ. It actually did much more damage than good. But I’m sure the neighbor thought they were doig the right thing and only looking out for my friend’s “eternal salvation”.

  17. jmb275 — I actually outlined the area I struggle the most with the whole Golden Rule thing and that is in the written word — and it is the environment of the written word that makes it so difficult. The problem is you write something and tone, inflection, context and control is completely gone. Another problem is that is completely impossible to try and account for the a)prejudices, b)misconceptions or misreadings, c) sense of humor, d) sense of propriety and the sacred (or not so sacred) — I could go on all day, but the point is you can’t be empathetic to the reader without pandering to a set view point. As soon as you start writing for an audience you stop writing for yourself and lose the flavor of the genuine.

    Disagree with me? Great. What to ignore me? Fine. Want to engage and do verbal and logical battle? Even better

    I enjoy sarcasm, irony, humor, conflict (in discussions when it is directed and on point), dissent and differing view points. Forums such as this seem to be an appropriate arena for such comments, partly because the nature of the forum and partly because that is the underlying intent. If you wanted the straight and narrow, you wouldn’t be here.

    I quote scripture often and have no hatred of the church and consider myself in a real sense Mormon — it is part of my cultural DNA and I love it.

  18. Re Ulysses-
    Yes, I understand the difficulty in the written word. I don’t think I responded with an emotional knee jerk reaction. I have been on both sides of the coin, as have you. I think there is value in the things you enjoy (sarcasm, irony, humor, conflict, etc.) and there is a place for them. Sometimes it is even on this site. But, quoting you

    Bottom line, the rule should be to treat people the way they would like to be treated (within the confines of decorum and the law) and forget what you want or how you would want to be treated.

    If you are aware that your comments will be taken a certain way, or are likely to offend, then why do you not heed your own counsel?

    Finally, what I’d really rather hear (and this is just me) is how you deal with the issues. How do you deal with you being Mormon, but perhaps being a “middle-way” Mormon, or something like unto it? What gives you strength? How do you use the Golden Rule in your own life? How do you inspire others, lift them up, show them you love them? Analysis, and debating are great! I love that too, but sometimes, just for a change up, perhaps you could show us a different side of Ulysses. One that isn’t challenging, isn’t sarcastic, or ironic, etc. All I hear from you is criticism, coupled with belittling, which you later claim is your attempt at humor, irony, etc. It would be nice to hear something else to give your words some substantiation.

  19. Actually, I feel like you are killing the mode of the message as opposed to the message. Pointing out perceived hypocrisy isn’t belittling, especially if the underlying intent is to show a greater truth.

    I actually gave concrete examples of why I avoid the Golden Rule (because not all people want to be treated the same — and focus on the other, rather than what I think). Writing while trying to defend or illuminate a point of view is difficult because it challenges others notions.

    I pick my mode of communication along the lines of let those who have ears, let them hear. My post on this thread is simple (and I believe true) and has been quoted several times, often ironically against me — “the rule should be to treat people the way they would like to be treated (within the confines of decorum and the law) and forget what you want or how you would want to be treated.”

    How do you get that message to people — in a written format? Your guess is as good as mine. Interpersonal interaction is much more straight forward.

    Sort of a thread hi-jack, but my comments over on shelving difficult issues are a good case in point. I glibly said that shelving difficult issues was bad and honesty and conviction would be a superior approach and gave examples why. I think this is the higher truth — honesty over calculated avoidance. I was shelved by the hive mind. How should I have applied my ideas on how to treat others in that situation? Laugh at how I’m usually ignored — which I did.

  20. Yes, you’re right, I’m interested the mode of your message, i.e. the specific words you use, rather than your overall message. As we’ve established, I agree with your message. But I don’t agree with the delivery. But the delivery is everything!

    I pick my mode of communication along the lines of let those who have ears, let them hear.

    Perhaps this mode doesn’t work here. So then, you ask yourself if you care. If you do care, then maybe there is room for choosing a different mode. To me, this is the point of your message – to treat others as THEY want to be treated. If you are aware some combination of words is likely to offend, or perhaps be ignored (due to perceptions of trollish comments) then why continue acting as if it’s everyone else’s problem?

    How do you get that message to people — in a written format? Your guess is as good as mine. Interpersonal interaction is much more straight forward.

    Indeed, a hard problem. Even the best are misunderstood. There’s no way around that. But we’re talking about degrees here, not absolutes. It is likely that no one, interpersonal interaction, or written word, will understand EXACTLY what you mean. So we’re really interested in degrees of understanding.

    If you state, categorically, that “The Golden Rule is an awful, horrible idea” in your first sentence you have IMMEDIATELY driven away the large portion of visitors to this website. They might not even finish reading your comment! Clearly the Golden Rule is something associated with Christ’s teachings, and you have insulted it (at least in their mind). This will NOT win over the audience at this site. That would win over an audience on Mormon Curtain, but not here.

    I hope you understand what I’m trying to say 😉 . This is bigger than just the comments on this thread, or your attitude toward the golden rule. We value the opinions of everyone, and have very high tolerance even for poor deliveries of that opinion. But if your delivery attacks the cherished (nuanced?) beliefs of the target audience of this site, you will undoubtedly be ignored, considered trollish, or otherwise be disliked.

  21. jmb and Ulysseus, while I agree with the general points both of you are making, this conversation between you is a great example of how hard it is to walk the line that I believe the Golden Rule articulates. (and notice that even in such a simple statement, I have had to use two modifying disclaimers in order to try to phrase that statement properly)

    As I read this exchange, I see two people who are trying to talk constructively to each other – with a little bit of “talking past each other” but, by and large, doing a very good job of remaining civil and respectful. Iow, I see two people who are trying to follow their own understandings of what the Golden Rule means to them. However, it’s still difficult, even in that situation, to reach full understanding – and perhaps impossible to reach full agreement.

    I guess one thing I might add to the post if I were to write it again is that we naturally place too much emphasis and importance on agreement and not enough emphasis and importance simply on understanding – **as a final result**. I believe that is manifest in MUCH of our discussion on this and other sites, and I believe such understanding is the heart of the Golden Rule. I think the primary desire of most people is little more than to be understood and accepted for who they are – and doing that requires a degree of understanding that isn’t easy to obtain. It takes listening carefully, interpreting charitably and reacting slowly and thoughtfully (and choosing words consciously, with careful editing, in a forum like this – which is difficult, since that can bring a sense of getting behind the flow of the conversation) – combined with a fundamental desire to love and accept and understand.

  22. I understand what you are saying jmb, but who is the target audience on this site? Aye, there is the rub. I reach people you do not — and vice versa.

    I’m not speaking to those who can’t handle cherished (or nuanced) beliefs being challenged. If they can’t handle being challenged, they will ignore me, call out the Billy Goats Gruff (how you deal with trolls) and otherwise won’t like me. On the other hand, the disaffected, the injured, the exiled, the lost sheep and those who don’t feel like they belong will listen to me. If that is my audience, maybe I am succeeding, maybe not, but I do get an occasional response to my posts that makes me feel like I resonated completely with my target audience on this site.

    BTW –“categorically” means “without qualification” and last I checked, “if” is a qualifier.

    Also, I don’t believe my delivery is “poor” — distasteful to some perhaps, but it is a delivery with my own style and voice, occasionally logically and mostly correct grammatically. I don’t believe I’ve ever personally attacked an individual or done anything that was intentionally injurious and if I did so, I would apologize. I don’t see disagreement as disrespect. Back to the “Golden Rule”, maybe I follow it on written forums more than I should — I respond in writing the way I would like others to respond to me.

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