Saturday, July 4, 2009

What the Golden Rule Does NOT Say

My resolution this month is taken from Matthew 7:9-12, a slight change in my original plan. (See here.) These verses state:

Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a
stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then,
being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall
your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask
him? Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do
ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.

The wording of my resolution is:

"Treat others how I want to be treated."

I want to make one point in this first post about something I have heard over the years. It is something that has bothered me over time, and I want to state up front what I believe this verse does NOT say - what I believe is a classic case of "wresting" scriptures and creating meaning that never was intended.

I have heard it said of old (*grin*) that we should treat others in whatever way will help them best. After all, this reasoning goes, deep down we really want whatever is best - so if we know what is best for someone, we should do all we can to help them see, recognize, understand and accept that which is best for them. This argument asserts that it's better to treat someone how they "really" want to be treated (often subconsciously) than to treat them how they "think" they want to be treated - that I, as an enlightened individual, know what is best for them and, therefore, I, as an enlightened individual, should treat them as if they were in my shoes.

To try to say it differently, this approach to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is based on you placing yourself in their situation and transferring your own hopes and dreams and expectations on them. While this might sound reasonable and even praiseworthy at first glance, there are at least three problems with this approach that I can see immediately:

1) It is used often as a justification for aggressive action, pressure and even compulsion. At the most extreme, it allowed those in charge of the Inquisition to torture people into confessing non-existent sins - since those doing the torturing were convinced they only were doing what was best for the person being tortured by "cleansing" them of sin and freeing them for a more benevolent judgment in the afterlife. At a more common level, it is used to justify constant and inconsiderate preaching and attempts to convert others - unfortunately, even among our own membership. Again, the reasoning is, "If I didn't have the Gospel in my life, I would want someone to preach it to me even if I didn't want to hear it."

2) It totally ignores and discounts the actual desires of the other person - and illustrates an arrogance that is couched in terms of love but, literally, is judgmental and condescending. In essence, it says, "I know better than you what you need, and I'm never going to quit trying to make you see that, no matter what you want."

3) It simply isn't what is commanded in these verses - to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

I want to finish with that last point, and I want to do so by focusing on the reaction of nearly every LDS member who has a friend, family member, acquaintance or stranger who disagrees with Mormonism, believes Mormons are not Christian and is saddened at the thought of Mormons ending up in Hell. If that person really is sincere in his concern, and if he really thought that constant badgering might convince you of the error of your ways, would you appreciate him preaching at you every time you were together? Would you appreciate her non-attendance at your wedding reception, since she believes your sealing in the temple is a sham and not recognized by God? Would you appreciate her constant, subtle (or blatant) warnings about your eternal condemnation? Deep down, on a very practical level, what would you really, truly want from her - how would you want her to "do unto you"?

I submit that all of us, at the most basic level, want little more than acceptance and respect and love for who we actually are - recognition that we are capable of making our own decisions - friendship that is genuine and not tied to certain conditions - etc. In other words, we want to be treated as equals - as important - as valuable - as legitimate deciders of our own fate, and we want that for who we ARE, not for who others want us to be.

So, the next time you start to say something to someone else, ask yourself, "How would I respond if someone said that, in that way, to me?" The next time you start to write a blog comment, ask yourself, "How would I respond if someone wrote that, in that way, to me?". The next time you start to react to someone in any way, ask yourself, "How would I respond if someone reacted that way to me?" In summary, ask yourself:

How would I feel if someone "did that unto me"?

If you would thank God for that person's words or actions, in the actual circumstances of your real life, "do so unto others". If you would not thank God (or if you would need to pray for forgiveness) for your reaction to that person's words or actions, don't "do so unto others". Finally, if you really would understand this principle, take one entire day and analyze everything according to this standard:

How would I feel if someone "did that unto me"?

If we really focused on that question, I have no doubt we would stop doing and saying much of what we do and say - and start doing and saying many things we currently do not say and do.

That is my resulotion this month - to change my actions in such a way that I answer that question positively more often and negatively less often when analyzing my own actions - to treat others more as I actually want them to treat me.


Ryan said...

Something about this post doesn't quite sit well with me, though I fully agree with the motivation behind it.

For example, what are the implications for missionary work? Tracting, in particular?

Many people feel that missionary efforts in general are a you'll-thank-me-for-this-some-day sort of activity, and are exactly the sort of condescension that this post argues to avoid.

On the other hand, if I decide *not* to do something I think would benefit another, because there's a possibility they wouldn't appreciate it, now I'm just being condescending (= judging) in the opposite way -- passive inaction, lack of support, and even witholding of opportunities.

You never know when you're going to encounter a Zeezrom or an Alma in that hostile crowd.

What about Nephi being constrained by the Spirit to preach (repeatedly) to his brothers when it only made them angry?

On the other hand, I've seen first-hand the damage people can do by harping at wayward loved ones who clearly are only driven further away by the constant nagging.

Then again, I really resonated with Elder Scott's talk from Conference about how you need to tell your friends when they're doing something wrong (not preachy, not condescending, but do). They may ignore it, and you'll feel with them the resulting pain, but they'll know you tried to help and will thank you for it some day.

Reminds me of the Sicilian in the Princess Bride... all that logical machination about what I know you know I know, useless in the end because both cups were poisoned.

In the end these sorts of decisions can only be made person-by-person, case-by-case, and by the spirit of discernment. No blanket decision anywhere along the active-passive scale is going to work well, especially since the other person's (potential) reaction isn't necessarily correlated with whether it's the right thing to do. Our incomplete knowledge just makes it that much more tangled.

Sorry for the long ramble. It's a thought-provoking subject, and I'm still not sure about the implications for tracting...

Papa D said...

Great questions.

Perhaps it's a bit of a cop-out, Ryan, but I think full-time missionaries are exempt somewhat from this post. After all, they are called to preach the Gospel to all in a very direct way.

However, even they are NOT told to harangue someone who doesn't want to hear. Even they don't knock on the same doors every day. Even they don't stand on an street cormer and scream hellfire and damnation at those who pass.

In the end, I agree totally that it boils down to discerment and following the promptings of the Spirit. This post really is directed at members who aren't following the Spirit but rather justifying their one-tactic, black-and-white, "programic" approach.

I want my neighbors to be open and honest with me, and I don't mind them warning me if they think I'm endangering myself, but if I tell them thanks but no thanks I want them to respect that. That's really the central point of the post, and I think it fits even tracting pretty well.

Ryan said...

I want my neighbors to be open and honest with me, and I don't mind them warning me if they think I'm endangering myself, but if I tell them thanks but no thanks I want them to respect that.

I think you've nailed it there -- another interpretation of the Golden Rule might be "treat others as if they were just as intelligent and mature as you [think you] are."

Constructive criticism, warnings, etc. are no problem; nagging, condescension, and coercion are big no-nos.

Of course this is asking a lot, because the Rule applies most to the folks who work hardest to convince you that they're neither intelligent nor mature...