Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Rules Were Made To Be Broken

Years ago, long about the time I started my studies at Emory in Sacred Music, I set about deconstructing and reconstructing my faith.  I broke it all the way down to the basics: do I believe in God?  If I was headed for a life of service in the church, I felt like I needed to get a grip on my own beliefs.  I had never had occasion to question them deeply.

I established a few core principles.  I wouldn't allow my theology to limit God in any way.  Oh well for substitutionary atonement.  Since I was approaching from a Christian tradition, I rebuilt my faith from Christ out, so I began with the gospels.  Interestingly when I started that way, I arrived at a faith system that is much more broadly compatible in the world...and yet deeply informed and enriched by the other scriptures in the Bible.

I gave myself permission not to believe, and that was important.  It allowed me to question.  Sometimes it demanded I question.  I left no stone unturned (at least none of the ones I could see; I'm sure there are some beliefs buried so deeply and ingrained so firmly that I am unaware of them!).  To borrow words from a former pastor, my faith would have to be intellectually honest, spiritually authentic, and psychologically healthy.  I didn't question the Bible alone.  I questioned creeds.  I questioned prayer.  I questioned those things people have always said in and about church.  I found a lot of them frustratingly vague or not overly helpful.

One of those things I've always heard is that you should treat people the way you want to be treated.  The Golden Rule, so named for good reason.  On the surface it makes perfect sense, but as is often the case it doesn't hold up especially well to scrutiny, at least not without clarification.

The golden rule assumes everyone is just like me.  Other people don't like the things I like.  I used to love to drink Coca Cola.  If I treated everyone the way I wanted to be treated, I'd buy them a Coke!  But not everyone drinks Coke.  Oops.  Besides, what if I don't want to be treated well in the first place?

What if we changed it slightly?  What if we said, "Treat others the way they want to be treated?"  Well that doesn't hold up either.  As I mentioned before, some people don't want to be treated well (and should be anyway).  Moreover, some people really are greedy and mean.  They want people to worship them...I'm pretty sure I shouldn't do that, what with the first commandment and everything.

It was a long couple of years of graduate school.

I wound up deciding the real problem with the golden rule is in a single word: want.  How do I want to be treated?  How do others want to be treated?  How can I even know that for certain without making judgments based on assumptions (which experience teaches me are more often than not at best partially inaccurate)?  We have to be better than that.

So I head back to the gospels, the fundamental of my faith, and I looked at how Jesus treated people.  We don't know how Jesus wanted to be treated.  What we do know is that he treated everyone around him with God's grace.  He had compassion for them.  He healed them.  He cared for them.  He loved them.

Well honestly that's kindof sucky, because sometimes I don't want to treat people with grace and compassion.  I don't want to love or care.  I don't to heal them.  A lot of times it's just easier to hate.  But Jesus didn't hate.  He didn't even hate his enemies--even those who put him to death.

In that context I look back at the Golden Rule, and I see maybe it's not so flawed after all.  We all need grace and love.  We all need compassion and healing.  We all need to be cared for.  It's wired into who we are, and anyone who says they don't need those things is lying to you and to themselves.

This may be self-evident.  I may have just done the literary equivalent of a lengthy math problem that ends up saying "0 = 0" (which I once did on a math test in seventh grade, wrote an expletive, and had additional points deducted for the profanity).  Maybe you understood all along that the Golden Rule was referring to our metaphysical needs and not our daily desires.  But if I learned nothing else about my faith, I learned that those kinds of distinctions are seeds that blossom into significant difference and stumbling blocks to unity later on.

So for myself, I chose to leave the golden rule behind.  I'm sorry if you think less of me for that.  I don't seek to treat people as I want to be treated.  I seek to treat them as Jesus would.  It's a lot more challenging--and a lot more fulfilling.

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