The Golden Rule and Loving Our Neighbor
In these troubling and confusing times, we need direction and guidance, especially in how we relate to others. There are countless voices trying to persuade us in different directions. Where can we find an authoritative voice that we can trust? We again turn to Jesus, the Son of God, whose teachings to love our neighbor and observe the Golden Rule stand out among all others. What do these mean and how do we apply them in our lives?
Loving our neighbor
Where should we start? At the two greatest commands God gave to Moses: loving God and loving our neighbor.
Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. (Deuteronomy 6:5)
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:18)
Love for God is the highest priority of all, but love for others is directly related. As Jesus taught in the parable of the Good Samaritan, when God commands us to love our neighbor, he is commanding us to love all people, not just those who live next door to us. God commanded us to love everyone, because he loves everyone. Each person has great value, as God made humans in his image.
But it’s not human nature to love all people. This is because we have a problem called sin. If we are unforgiving people, we can tend to judge someone by some negative experience we had with them in the past. We exaggerate these negative events as if they fully characterize that person. If we repeat the memory over and over in our minds, we come to bear a grudge for that one thing they did to us. We may eventually come to hate them.
Seeds of distrust and hatred
Humans are social creatures and tend to form in groups of similar people. But because of sin, we tend to distrust those that are different than us. When we view individuals as members of a larger group, we generalize about them and can then begin to stereotype and devalue them. It’s an easy step to take in our minds.
The next step downward is to prejudge someone on the basis of the worst behavior found in that person’s group. It could be someone of another race, social strata, gender, family, age group, nationality, or profession such as law enforcement. These thoughts come from the evil one, not God.
Our peers may even encourage hatred and mistreatment of another group. The worst expression of hatred is when someone mistreats or punishes someone out of revenge for what another person of his group did to them.
A universal problem
Prejudging others is a universal problem. Personally, there were times in my own life when I did not practice loving my neighbor but stereotyped someone based on their association with others. I’m sure most readers can relate to this (if you can’t, maybe you’re in denial!).
My experience with racial prejudice is very minor compared to what many others have experienced. While my wife and I were living in Mexico and ministering to people through relief, medical, and development work, we made many friends. Most people treated us with respect. But occasionally we would hear someone call out “gringo” (the derogatory term for a white person in Spanish), or “brinki,” (the indigenous equivalent). Working on the Tohono O’odham Nation for years as a hydrologist, I also made many good Native American friends. But I would occasionally encounter someone who, although they didn’t know me personally, had a hatred toward me because I was not Native American.
These examples showed me that racial hatred can occur in any culture, and all of us have at least some potential for it in ourselves.
Accusing and punishing the innocent
We humans can easily see the faults of others but find it more difficult to see our own sins. We can unconsciously accuse others of something that we ourselves are guilty of. In fact, it is known that accusing others can be a mechanism to deflect away inner guilt that one is feeling. Sometimes the person who is shouting the loudest is more guilty of what they are accusing others of.
We should all be careful how we accuse others, because as Jesus warned:
For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (Matthew 7:2)
False accusations, when unchecked, can lead to the punishment of innocent people, which God strictly forbids.
Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty. (Exodus 23:7)
Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent—the LORD detests them both. (Proverbs 17:15)
Anger and Violence
Anger and hatred are the seeds of violence. Allowing hatred to take root and nursing it consistently over time, a person’s conscience becomes seared. Eventually neither human suffering nor even death will move their compassion.
To hate someone is to murder them in your heart. Jesus said,
You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. (Matt 5:21-22)
Violence is one of the devil’s most commonly used weapons. When people commit violence against others, they are ignoring their humanity, suppressing their God-given feelings of empathy, and allowing hatred to direct their actions.
People may justify violence against others or their property because of harm that was done to them or to one of their group. In their mind they are serving out justice. This is the devil’s version of the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as they do unto you.” But violence against people or their property is a sign, not of a keen sense of justice, but the lack of it.
Some also use violence to “send a message” to those they disagree with. But the real message they are sending is that to them, humans have no intrinsic value and can be used and expended in the process of achieving a goal.
How did Jesus treat people?
So, how do we love our neighbor? Let’s look at how Jesus treated others. First, when he interacted with people, he viewed each not as a member of a group, but as an individual, speaking with them directly and affirming their worth. Second, he loved people as they were, treating them with honor and respect, even though as God, he could see the sin in their heart.
In Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (John 4:1-26), she was surprised that he would even talk to a woman, and a Samaritan woman at that. Even after he knew her to be immoral, he still treated her compassionately and as a person of value.
This was typical of Jesus’ interaction with people. He didn’t treat people preferentially but respected and loved all people: poor and wealthy, men and women, adults and children, commoners and military.
The Golden Rule
What principle or teaching would best characterize Jesus’ treatment of people? It is the Golden Rule, arguably his most widely known teaching. This simple rule puts feet to God’s command to love others:
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:12)
This means that we are to treat others as we ourselves expect to be treated. It’s very easy to understand, because all of us know how we like to be treated. It’s a simple equation: God made all people of the same exact essential components, and thus all are of equal value and should be treated equally. But for this to happen, each person must treat others how they wish to be treated themselves.
Applying the Golden Rule
How do we apply this? It’s not hard.
None of us like to be mistreated—that’s obvious—so we don’t mistreat others. And none of us like to be lumped into a group and judged on the basis of the worst behavior found in that group. That’s unfair, so we don’t do it ourselves. No one likes to be ignored or have our concerns minimized, so we don’t ignore others. And certainly, none of us like to live in fear of violence, so we don’t minimize it, promote it, or encourage it so that others are in danger.
We could go on, but is it necessary? The principle is so basic. Anyone can apply this in any situation they encounter, if they just stop before they act and think about who would be affected by their action.
Does following the Golden Rule mean that we have to agree with someone who doesn’t like our social or political beliefs? Of course not. No one likes being forced to agree with something that they don’t believe. And no one appreciates having their own ideas disregarded and other ideas forced upon them. Because we appreciate when others respect our beliefs, that’s how we should treat others who have different beliefs. Without mutual respect, civil discussion is impossible.
The Golden Rule in correcting injustice
Are there corrupt systems and institutions? Of course, because of corrupt people within them. We can cite many examples. But systems are not impersonal entities; they consist of individual humans, who are sinful. It’s clear the main cause of injustice lies in the human heart. It is the heart that is faulty, not an impersonal “system.” If humans were righteous, our systems and institutions would be also.
We should make every effort to root out injustice where it is found, whether it’s individual or systemic. This may involve confronting injustice and evil. But in doing so we need to remember that every person within an institution is made in God’s image and an individual before God. Not everyone within a corrupt institution shares the same guilt, or any guilt, for sins that have been committed. When assessing guilt, God judges each person individually, and we should also.
Uncontrolled anger spread randomly or against groups of people does not accomplish God’s justice. And we should not seek revenge for things that have occurred in the past. This tears down rather than builds up, and usually harms innocent people.
It’s quick and easy to harm and destroy, but it’s much more difficult to apply the Golden Rule and build up. To correct injustice, people need to do the hard work of developing just laws and institutions and building a safe society. This requires serving others and making positive contributions to one’s community that people will actually benefit from. We should also acknowledge the contributions leaders make, even though we may disagree with their views.
Lessons from history
Making wide, sweeping accusations against large groups of people inflames the hatred of ungodly people and inspires acts of violence. We can find many examples in history, but one stands out to me. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, the Chinese people experienced a social and political upheaval, the magnitude of which their country had never seen before.
In 1966 the Chinese Communist party began implementing the Cultural Revolution. The communists blamed capitalism and traditional beliefs for the injustice in their society, and their goal was to purge China of these practices and ideas. Intellectuals, business owners, professors, religious people, and even the elderly were scapegoated. Communist leaders encouraged shaming, confrontations, and physical violence against these groups. Destruction of personal property and forcing people from their homes and livelihoods were widespread.
Millions who were seen as enemies of the revolution were persecuted and killed. This was carried out in part by the Red Guards— strident and angry youth who were dedicated to advancing Communist political ideology. Arrogance characterized those in power, and when reasonable people tried to persuade them to take a different direction, they were imprisoned or killed. Estimates of up to 20 million people died needlessly as a result of Communist Party policies and actions.
The price of ignoring God’s commands
Underlying the Cultural Revolution was a philosophy that saw people not as individuals having value, but as competing groups and warring classes. The leaders encouraged class warfare, not serving people, but using them to achieve their political goals. China as a nation paid a heavy price for this: social disarray, gross injustice, economic instability, and mass killing of innocent people. Wiser Chinese leaders who came later realized the mistakes that were made and spent many years repairing the damage.
This shows what can happen when enough people who reject God’s commands gain access to power. A very similar scenario occurred in Germany in the 1930’s when the Nazi regime scapegoated the Jews. The result was the death of millions of innocent people. Sinful human nature is universal and doesn’t observe social or political boundaries. Injustice has occurred in many other countries at different times in history. The United States is not exempt, as we are all too familiar with its history of slavery.
The ancient wisdom of God
If people would follow the Golden Rule—assuming they could—our problems would be solved. It is possible that some reading this will say, “You’re saying nothing new; you’re just offering pat answers and no real solutions.” I grant that I am saying nothing new and am certainly not offering political solutions. I am just repeating the ancient wisdom of the Bible, that of the Lord himself. The Golden Rule and loving our neighbor are God’s eternal commands to all individuals. And it is up to each whether they attempt to keep them or not.
When we apply these Scriptures, we need to look in all directions, not just our preferred direction. We all have our ideas on who is to blame for the problems of the world. But whenever God’s commands are given, we are to apply them first to ourselves—the hearers of his Word—not just use them to point the finger at others. A time of soul searching and repentance may be in order.
In times of uncertainty and conflict, we’re not obligated to pay heed to the loudest voices. In the midst of all the noise, we would do well to make sure we listen to God’s voice, even if it comes to us softly. After all, it is God that we will answer to on that great day of judgment.
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