The Golden Rule reconsidered

Being never-too-old-to-learn, I’ve recently been led to refine my understanding of The Golden Rule. I’ve always interpreted “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” as “Treat everyone exactly as I want to be treated.”

When I began to hear what I took as challenges to The Golden Rule, my first reaction was, “How could they? This is basic to all major religions. This simple rule is how we could all get along, if we followed it.” When I got out from behind my unnecessary defensiveness, I realized the challenge wasn’t to the rule but to how we often interpret it.

What if someone doesn’t want to be treated the same as I want to be treated?

Some examples that come to mind are almost frivolous, others more serious. If I am offering someone coffee the way I want it, I will not provide them sugar or cream. It’s the way I want it given to me, but I’m not being hospitable. Many people enjoy engaging in trash talk. They give it out, because they like to give and receive such banter. But for some of us, maybe a small few, this interaction is not fun at all. In these incidences, people are treating others as they themselves like to be treated, but it’s not working for the others.

On a deeper level, there are psychological, cultural and physical differences to consider. One example: Say someone is at a stage in the grief process at which he needs some alone time, whereas I, at that same point, would want someone with me. If I insist on hanging close right then, my treatment, though well-intended, isn’t golden.

I still think my old way of looking at it was pretty good, but it falls short. Maybe a better way of looking at it is: I want to be treated a certain way. Doing unto others the same suggests trying, in so far as possible, to understand how others wish to be treated and then treating them that way. We aren’t all wired exactly the same.

Characters as humans

Early in 2018, I was a supporting character in a Playmakers Repertory Company production of “The Christians” by Lucas Hnath. The drama is set in a mega church, complete with choir, which is on stage for about 2/3 of the play. I sang in the choir for 10 performances.

There are five main characters. As created by the playwright and presented by the actors, they are all full-dimension human beings. I found in each things with which to agree and to disagree. All were sincere individuals struggling with their beliefs.

Some people who saw the play missed a lot of what it offered because they chose to see the characters as flat.

The action centers around some changing beliefs about heaven and hell that the church’s pastor shares from the pulpit and the fallout therefrom.
For one friend, generally open-minded about most things, mega church means religious right. He wrote the pastor off as “a Billy Graham,” showing little (or no) interest in what happens to him and those around him. There’s some irony here in that the new theology the pastor espouses is not something Rev. Graham would believe in. Also, Billy Graham was never pastor of a mega church. But such distinctions don’t matter when one deals in stereotypes.

Another friend, who is Jewish, dismissed the whole play with “I’m of another persuasion.” It angered my wife, who also is Jewish, to hear this. This same man, I am sure, would never, ever dismiss a drama about African Americans because he’s not of that race.

The theological themes raised were not issues that only Christians ponder. Further, one doesn’t have to focus on the theological questions. They play works as a study of relationships and personal issues. Some who have little or no use for religion may have tuned out a compelling human drama.

During some performances more than others, there would be those in the audience who would laugh at lines that were not funny. Did they just not get the seriousness of what was going on? Or did they not care to? This was during a time when the pastor is being taken to task. Perhaps some in the audience figured, “I’m glad to see this Billy Graham mocked.” Maybe others, conversely, held on to the conservative view from which this man departed and thus were glad to see him put in his place.

In either case, they were flattening his character and that of the person questioning him.

Playmakers Repertory Company photo.