The Golden Rule across cultures

Ummm. Not THAT Golden Rule.

The following are some lecture notes for a discussion on "The Golden Rule" as Jesus presents it in the "Sermon on the Mount" (Matthew 5-7). In this lecture, I am trying to connect the ethics of Jesus with the central concerns of other world cultures:

Most cultures and religions have ethical systems that, at their core, are based on an idea of equality and reciprocity. This idea was first delivered to me in earnest by CS Lewis in his little book "The Abolition of Man". In the appendix, Lewis put a cross cultural sampling of moral teachings he labelled "The Tao" (a Chinese word meaning "The Way" or more appropriately "The Way to be Good or Moral"). The central section of "The Tao" for me was what Lewis calls "The Law of Reciprocity", which is often better known as "The Golden Rule".

Various cultures and religions phrase this "Law of Reciprocity" differently. Some put it positively: Do to others as you want them to do to you. Others put it negatively: Don't do to others as you would not want them to do to you. Some label it in terms of social duty: To do that which is equitable, just and right. Others label it in terms of personal connectedness: To love others and show compassion. Regardless of how it is phrased, the Law of Love and the Golden Rule of reciprocity are perennially "radical" ideas that shock civilizations that are built on violence, oppression, and the retributive logic of "pay back".

So, Jesus and the Apostles were radical for putting forth these ideas as the core of morality (cf. Mat 7:12; 22:39-40; Mark 12:29-34; Luke 6:3; Rom 13.8-10; 1Co 13). Yet, they were not alone or unique in this continually radical idea. These ancient religious values have always been rooted in a sense that there is an Infinite Source of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty drawing us into Itself (what most religions view as "God" or "The Divine"). Thus, Christians can joyfully affirm that the concept of moral reciprocity and compassion is at the core of many worldviews, and this is evidence that a common Creator (who is most fully revealed in Jesus) has been inspiring cultures with similar moral vision across the ages.

And yet these ancient values are also the implicit basis of modern "secular ethics" of human dignity, inclusion, tolerance, duty to conscience, and freedom of choice. Modern culture has often replanted the virtues and ethics of the ancient religions into the new soil of secularism, de-tethering these values from their rootedness in the nature of Ultimate Reality. The question is, of course, whether secular culture can provide the nourishment that these values need, or whether they will wither on the vine, and dry up into a husk of totalitarianism or consumerism.

Yet, however we may explain these values, and regardless of what worldview we root them in, there is a rather amazing swath of agreement across time, across cultures, and across religious viewpoints about the fact that reciprocity, fairness, equality, compassion, and even altruism are core values for a healthy and functioning human society. And thus, to understand this "Golden Rule", it is helpful to understand how it has been taught across cultures, across the ages, from the most ancient of literary cultures, on up to postmodern attempts to forge a "global human ethic":

Egyptian Book of the Dead (ca. 1500 BCE) | "He sought for others the good he desired for himself. Let him pass."

Hinduism | "One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self. This, in brief, is the rule of dharma. Other behavior is due to selfish desires."Mahabharata, Anusasana Parva, 113, v8

Judaism | Lev. 19.18 You shall love your neighbor as yourself. | Lev. 19.34 The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. | "Do to no one what you yourself dislike." (Tobit 4:15) | "Recognize that your neighbor feels as you do, and keep in mind your own dislikes." (Sirach 31:15) | "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn." (Talmud, Shabbat 31a)

Zoroastrianism | That nature alone is good which refrains from doing another whatsoever is not good for itself. Dadisten-I-dinik, 94,5

Taoism | "The sage has no interest of his own, but takes the interests of the people as his own. To those who are good, I do good. To those who are not good, I also do good. This is goodness." Chapter 49, Tao Te Ching | "Regard your neighbor's gain as your own gain, and your neighbor's loss as your own loss." T'ai Shang Kan Ying P'ien

Confucianism | "Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself." Analects XV.24, V.12, VI.30 | Do not do to others what you would not like yourself. Then there will be no resentment against you, either in the family or in the state. Analects 12:2

Buddhism | "Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill." | "One who, while himself seeking happiness, oppresses with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will not attain happiness hereafter." Dhammapada 10. | Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful. Udana-Varga 5,1

Jainism | "Just as sorrow or pain is not desirable to you, so it is to all which breathe, exist, live or have any essence of life. To you and all, it is undesirable, and painful, and repugnant."

Ancient Greek philosophy | Thales "Avoid doing what you would blame others for doing." | Epictetus "What you avoid suffering for your self, seek not to impose on others."

Christianity | In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. Jesus, Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31 | You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus, Matthew 22.37-40; Mark 12:28-31; Luke 10:27-37

Islam | "Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you." Muhammad, The Farewell Sermon | No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself. Muhammad, Nawawi Hadith 13

Sikhism | "The truly enlightened ones are those who neither incite fear in others nor fear anyone themselves."

Baha'i Faith | "Ascribe not to any soul that which thou wouldst not have ascribed to thee, and say not that which thou doest not." | "Blessed is he who prefers his brother before himself."

Secular Humanism | Atheists stand for the Golden Rule in its fullest meaning and significance... If we embody what we already hate, we will hate ourselves, and be hated by others, but if we embody what we love and respect, we will love and respect ourselves, and be loved and respected by others in turn. [What an Atheist Ought to Stand For, by Richard Carrier]

The "Declaration Toward a Global Ethic" | From the Parliament of the World’s Religions (1993) proclaimed the Golden Rule (both in negative and positive form) as the common principle for many religions. The Initial Declaration was signed by 143 leaders from different faith traditions and spiritual communities.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by the United Nations | All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. [From Article 1 and 2]

The Charter for Compassion
The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.

It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others—even our enemies—is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.

We therefore call upon all men and women to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings—even those regarded as enemies.

We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensable to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.  [http://charterforcompassion.org/]

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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.