Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Golden Rule

How we treat others in this life speaks to our character more than any one thing. There is not a stronger or more meaningful area of ethics than that of how we treat those around us. The greatest events that humankind cite as atrocities are those events where a certain group of people objectify another group by degrading them with maltreatment. For the Christian community, the ethical treatment of others is of grave importance, as it is one of the key standards by which eternal life is given or withheld (Matthew 25:31-46). For non-Christians, personal decisions concerning how others are treated serve as indirect standards for how they wish the world, including themselves, are to be treated. A philosopher and ethicist, Immanuel Kant laid out two laws of ethics that I would like to examine.

The first law of ethics Kant lays out is this: Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature. This law simply states that we as humans should only act in ways that we would want the world to follow our example. By this standard, a liar takes advantage of a universal system where it is assumed that one is telling the truth. In doing this, the liar makes himself out to be unethical as well as unacceptable in a system that relies on spoken word being truth for virtually every aspect of daily life to properly progress. A thief does not condone such behavior to be done to him or her, but the action unconsciously speaks to the approval of the behavior. Humanity's entire interpersonal dealings require the positive actions, like truth and respect of personal property, in order to work properly. Any person who acts outside of these ideals displays selfishness and communicates with their actions that this is the way they would have humanity treat him or her, although their actual thoughts are far from such a desire (for it is only under the current system of assumed truth and property rights that the liar and thief are able to gain personally from poor behavior). This sounds familiar to Christians, for Kant essentially plagiarized Jesus's words we often dub as "The Golden Rule" in Matthew 7:12 - "...whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets". The thief and liar treat other humans as the means by which to attain their desires, but this is clearly not acceptable, since they would not want to fall under the effect of such universal laws.  

The second law is this: act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as a means only. This is rather wordy, but this law is really just a furtherance of the first and demands that every individual be seen as a most precious end, and never as a means by which to accomplish something. This law addresses the fact that there are times when human life is held up in contention with a goal of sorts. Most wars that have been fought have done this - put up a goal of prosperity, security, or some other ideal and then put human life as the means by which to reach that goal. Lee Camp illustrates in his book Mere Discipleship that the church has not been immune to this type of thinking; Emperor Charlemagne "furthered the Kingdom of God" by essentially telling those he conquered "be baptized, or we will kill you" (32). Charlemagne showed that to him, the end justified the means. There are times when the sacrifice is assessed as worth the product: we give time for money, money for food, and food for the satisfaction of a full stomach. However, if we truly desire to live by the principle of the Golden Rule, we cannot treat humanity as the means. 

It is in my desire to hold life as precious that I digress from Kant's thinking. Kant would say to someone living in World War II that if the Nazis knocked on your door and asked if you were harboring Jews, and you were, you could not lie about it (thus breaking the first law). I would more strongly employ Kant's second law to say that Human life is the ultimate end by which we measure means. In the book of Exodus, God honors two midwives who lie to Pharaoh in order to save and respect the lives of the male babies he commanded them to kill (Exodus 2:15-21). Although deceit is employed, it is done to preserve human life against someone who is trying to destroy it. This is the only biblical account where deceit is rewarded, and only because it is done in the preservation of life when the Pharaoh wished the opposite. So human life is seen as the only end that justifies the means which contradict the first law. 

I think Jesus talked about "turning the other cheek" (Matthew 5:38) and "The Golden Rule" in the same sermon for a reason, and one which Gandhi understood when he said, "an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind." Our natural reaction is to retaliate, "eye for an eye", but Jesus calls us to "not resist the one who is evil". Many will argue that although it would be ideal if the whole world would lay down weapon, prejudice and hate, this simply will not happen and thus it is nonsensical to live as though we are working towards that goal. However, it must be remembered that how one lives is supposed to reflect what that individual wishes were universal law. If one reasons that if the whole world were of a mindset up peace, that would naturally be the ideal way to live, the same person must face the reality that he or she knows the right thing to do, but is waiting to be the last person to do it (Camp 43). Instead, we are called to set the example of what we wish to see in other's actions and truly treat others as we desire to be treated. 

We are called to be "peacemakers" (Matthew 5:9), not simply "peace-hop-on-the-bandwagon-ers". This mindset calls us to love and pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:44) and ultimately to live out kingdom life here and now. Kingdom life encompasses everything that we are. Ben Langford (a professor at Oklahoma Christian) has said several times, the reason we dig wells in Africa is because we believe that someday, there will be clean water for all. This makes sense. The reason we put in cement floors in Mexico is because we believe the streets of heaven will be laid with gold. We put in mosquito nets because we believe that one day, sickness will have no place in the Kingdom of God. Andrew Root writes that the miracle stories of Jesus "are not stories of magic but [are] rather stories which preview God's future. Jesus proclaims in word and act the future of creation in the future of God" (141). 

So, our call is to be people who live Kingdom life here and now, realizing that Kingdom life doesn't always work out here on earth. We may likely get slapped many times before our enemy sees the wrong in his or her action, if they ever see it at all. However, violence, maltreatment, and backbiting cannot be the ingredients if peace, life, and ethical treatment of others are the desired product. We must be ready to lay down all for the Kingdom, including our own lives, acting not selfishly, but selflessly. 

This call goes out to Christian and non-Christian alike: Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, and in the words often attributed to Gandhi, "Be the change you wish to see in the world."

Works Cited:

Camp, Lee C. Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003. Print. 

Root, Andrew, and Kenda C. Dean. The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2011. Print. 

Sullivan, Roger J. Immanuel Kant's Moral Theory. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Print.