Thursday, 18 February 2016

Do unto others

Matt 7:12 and Luke 6:31 is one of the often quoted core aspect of Christianity: Do unto others as you would have them do to you. As I was thinking about this recently and realised that it is not as self-effacing as it appears to be, and I had to consider whether this is because it is less altruistic than we understand, or that we need to re-express it in a way that reflects the meaning of the original.

The problem with it is that it focusses on the giver. It says, or implies, that the way the giver wants to be treated is the right thing for everyone. This can be patronising, but - more commonly - it can also be unhelpful. If what I want others to do for me is to leave me alone when I am struggling, then a strict interpretation of this means that I should leave others alone when they are struggling. Of course, not everyone wants to be left alone - some people find it better to have others around them, to be visibly supported. In this case, doing to others would be seen as a negative. Of course, it also works the other way round.

Now I am not suggesting for one moment that we abandon this passage "The Golden Rule" just because it can be misused. I think it is far too important to be simply ignored, rather, we need to work a little harder to properly understand the depth of it. I tend to reject the idea that it is intended as a justification for patronising people, because Jesus explains it as "summing up the law and the prophets", which do not patronise. So I am forced to consider how it should be expressed.

I think it might better be expressed as "Treat others how they wish to be treated, considering how you would wish to be treated in the same circumstances". Not quite as catchy, but changing the emphasis to the receiver, and what they want, not the giver. I might want to simply say "Treat others how they want to be treated", and this is, to my mind, the heart of it, but not the whole. It should involve asking others how they would like to be treated, but, for example, a thief might decide that he wants to be treated as if he wasn't a thief, and be allowed to get away with it. That is not necessarily the best for anyone.

So there is a part which also asks how you would like to be treated in a similar situation. However, this is a secondary consideration, and should be a more general aspect - "with mercy" would be a good answer here. The thief may want to be allowed to go free, but, if I were in a similar situation, I would want to not have to steal any more. I would want to be helped out of the situation I was in that meant I was stealing and had been caught. So punishment is appropriate, but merciful and with a view to redemption, not simply suffering.

We - Christians, the Church, Westerners - are very good at using this sort of passage to inflict our solutions on other people. I do not believe that was the intention,and I don't think that is how it would have been heard originally. The intention is not to focus on you, but to put you in the other persons place, and then to consider how you would feel - if you were actually there, rather than just hypothetically.

It is very easy to say "If I was unemployed, I wouldn't want handouts, I would want people to find me things to do in my lovely spare time". That is hypothetical, and probably not true. It is harder to say "If I was where they are, unemployed and asking for money, I would want someone to give me some money". That is really what it is about, actually putting yourself into their shoes now, at the point of contact.

In the end, it reflects a saying that I hold very close, despite the antiquated and trite language: "There but for the grace of God go I". I have never been able to rephrase this as succinctly, so I stick with this phrasing, and understand it as meaning that I might be in their shoes, were it not for some twists of fate. If I was in their shoes, I would want people to be good and kind to me, in a way that I want, not in a way that they deem is good for my soul.

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