All the golden rules

Be golden. That’s the call from the Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Dallas, Edward Burns, to all of Dallas in the coming year. Live the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The Golden Rule is Jesus’ rendition of established rabbinic teaching. The Babylonian Talmud records the story of a contest between two rabbis: the stricter, Shammai, and the more liberal, Hillel. Their two schools of interpretation preceded and overlapped the era of Jesus. “Once there was a gentile who came before Shammai and said to him: ‘Convert me on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.’ Shammai pushed him aside with the measuring stick he was holding.

“The same fellow came before Hillel, and Hillel converted him, saying: ‘That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.’”

As Jesus was himself a Jew, it is uncharitable to suggest that the Jewish obligation to one’s neighbor is only negative, while a more robust Christian view is positive. Sometimes, I painfully consider my own actions and those of my Christian siblings and wish we would at least adopt the “do no harm” aspect of that teaching if we can’t quite get to the “do something good” part.

Islam also features a version of the Golden Rule. The Hadith, which contains stories about and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, says: “None of you have faith until you love for your neighbor what you love for yourself.”

In her book “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life,” historian of religion Karen Armstrong digs into all the world’s religions to find this common concern. Confucius was asked to summarize his teaching, and he replied that it amounted to treating everybody with respect. Predating the rabbinic Jewish teaching by 500 years, he said: “Do not do to others what you would not like yourself.”

Compassion underlies the Golden Rule. It means literally to feel with or to suffer alongside. The Christian writer, Frederick Buechner, puts it this way: “Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it’s like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you, too.”

Bishop Burns is calling Dallas to a neighborliness that grows out of our varied faith traditions and grows toward them at the same time. When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment, he linked the love of neighbor with the love of God, as if to make them indivisibly one commandment.

Atheists and agnostics, secularists and seekers can also join this call to “be golden” without any pangs of conscientious religious dissent. We all may not pray alike, and some may not pray at all, but we all can want for and work for the well-being of our neighbor. 

Being golden brings about the common good.


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