Byron C. Bangert

First Presbyterian Church, Bloomington, Indiana

November 8, 1998

Leviticus 24:13-23; Matthew 7:12

"In everything," says Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, "do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets." "In everything." In other words, not just in church. Not just with family or friends. Not just in business. In other words, in the whole of life.

"For this is the law and the prophets." The law and the prophets are two of the three main divisions of Jewish scripture, the other being the writings. The writings consist mainly of the wisdom literature and the psalms of our Old Testament. Everything else belongs to either the law or the prophets. That is most of scripture, including all the commandments and all that God has spoken through the prophets concerning our life together. In a word, this is the New Testament's condensed version of the most important parts of scripture. The only thing that compares to it is Jesus' teaching, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," which means very much the same thing [cf. Matthew 22:46]. So if you are not doing to others as you would have them do to you, then it is a pretty safe bet that you are not doing the right thing.

This morning I begin by asking you to consider with me some of the ways in which we do not follow the "Golden Rule." These are ways in which we try to justify our actions by some other rule instead. The first of these is "do unto others as you would." At first blush I thought of this as the a-moral, or the non-moral, approach to life. All those actions that we make no attempt to justify or explain. All those actions where we just do what we want. As I thought further about it, however, I concluded that there are hardly ever such actions. We usually try to give some explanation, make some justification, for whatever we do. Those two guys who ended up beating Matthew Shepherd to death did not just do it for the hell of it, they did not just do it for fun. They probably told themselves, "This guy made a pass at us." Or, "This guy is a pervert." Or something like that. So far as they were concerned, there was something wrong with Matthew Shepherd, and so he had it coming. They did unto him what they wanted to do unto him, but not without some ugly reason, some perverted sense of justification. People who do unto others as they would usually know enough about what they are doing to think they have a right to do it. Crimes of hate, acts of hate, acts of prejudice and malice and contempt, do not meet the standards of any accepted system of morality, but those who do them still try to justify themselves.

Do unto others as you would . . . Because you do not like the other. Because you are mad at the other. Because you disagree with the other. Because you think the other is scum. Because you have been hurt by the other. Because you find the other contemptible. Because you think you have a right to inflict pain on the other. Because you think the other has it coming.

What is to keep us from becoming a law unto ourselves? We need a law to govern our hatred and vengeance, a law that limits our retaliation. This brings us to the most basic, the most elementary, and perhaps still the most widespread and popular form of morality: "Do unto others as they have done unto you." "Don't get mad, get even!" No, you do not have a right to hurt somebody more than they have hurt you. So only hurt them the same. No, it is not right to take from someone more than they have taken from you, so just take enough to settle the score. In a letter to Ann Landers this past week, "Ticked Off in Texas" writes about the way her mother-in-law used her daughter's name and social security number to get phone service and run up a $500 phone bill. This gave her daughter a bad credit history, which the phone company said could be cleared by filing a fraud report against her mother-in-law. "Ticked Off" and her daughter proceeded to file the fraud report, and this made the mother-in-law very angry. "I need your advice on how to deal with this," concluded "Ticked Off's" letter.

What struck me about this situation was the apparent reasonableness of the action taken by its writer. She had a legitimate grievance. She took action to remove the harm that was done to her daughter. There is no evidence that she tried to do anything excessive to hurt her mother-in-law, only that which would remove the legal responsibility from her daughter. Most of us would probably say that the mother-in-law got what she deserved. Ann Landers responded this way: "Your mother-in-law should not have used [your daughter's] name and Social Security number surreptitiously, and you should not have filed charges against her. Relatives don't do that to one another" [BLOOMINGTON HERALD-TIMES, November 5, 1998]. But of course relatives do do that to one another sometimes. And there are times when we all do it to one another. We look for some way to get even, instead of finding some other way to resolve our differences. When people try to get even, they usually lose sight of the forest for the trees. They usually focus so intently on their own injury or self-interest that they fail to recognize the larger matters that are at stake. Ann Landers went on to say, "You should have paid the $500 to clear [your daughter's] record and then insisted [your mother-in-law] pay you back over a period of time." Maybe that would have worked, maybe not, but surely it would have been worth the try. Better than the deep and lasting estrangement that now afflicts their family life. To seek some form of resolution that allows for the possibility of reconciliation is the better part of wisdom, as well as justice. As one of the Proverbs declares, "Do not say, 'I will do to others as they have done to me; I will pay them back for what they have done'" [Prov. 24:29].

As a general rule, people should not be left to settle scores on their own. So it may be some improvement in morality if we say, "Do unto others as they have done unto others." Let us try to take ourselves, with our own grudges and hurts, out of the picture. Let us try to look at matters objectively. We need a law of general retribution, not one of personal retaliation. We need a rule that requires people to pay back for what they have done, no less but also no more. The Bible calls this law the lex talionis, and it is nowhere set forth more clearly than in our Old Testament text from Leviticus: "Anyone who kills a human being shall be put to death. Anyone who kills an animal shall make restitution for it, life for life. Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered." This is a moral position. It sets forth an objective standard for retribution. It takes people and their prejudices and hates out of the formula for punishment. You pay for what you have done by having it done to you, no more, no less.

This rule of law sounds pretty grim, when we think about killing and maiming other human beings, but people defend the basic principle of this law all the time. We do not practice maiming people who have maimed others. We do not chop off the right hands of pickpockets, as is still done in some places in our world today. But we try to find other ways to punish people so that they will have to pay according to what they have done, so that they will get the amount of punishment that they rightly deserve. "Do unto others as they have done unto others" seems reasonable, if at times severe. Moreover, it seems biblical. People should reap what they sow. But Jesus repudiates this rule of retribution. He seems to reject it out of hand.

Recently I came across a book in the criminal justice section of what used to be Aristotle's Bookstore with the title WHY ARE YOU NOT A CRIMINAL? The book is by Joseph Rogers. I have not read it, and can only guess at its contents, but I have been intrigued by the title. There is no simple answer to its question, but I can think of some real partial answers. I am not a thief, in part, because I have never lacked for money for food. I am not a vehicular manslaughterer because, fortunately, my errors in driving have never caused a fatal accident. I am not a perjurer or an obstructor of justice because I have never been brought into court to answer questions about which I would not be willing to tell the truth. I am not a vagrant because I have the means and the resources to provide for myself a decent living. I am not a disturber of the peace or a possessor of controlled substances because I am not addicted to alcohol or any other drug.

As I say, these are only partial explanations of why I am not a criminal. But they do suggest one reason why the lex talionis, the law of retribution, must always be less than just. People do not stand before the law as such, or any particular rule or law, as equals in every respect. I used to have a Catholic friend who thought she deserved no credit for being good, because it was easy for her to be good. She was simply not tempted to do certain things that her religion would have frowned up. Precisely so, every rule is harder for some people to follow than for others. And there are some rules that only certain people are ever asked to follow. Both our natural endowments and our circumstances help to determine the legal and moral obligations we will face in life, and these endowments and circumstances lie beyond our personal responsibility.

There is one perversion of the law of retribution for which we need to hold ourselves particularly accountable, however. This is the rule, "Do unto others as has been done to you." Consider how we are sometimes inclined to mistreat others because of how we have been mistreated--not by them but by still others in our past. All of us, for example, have been subjected in one way or another to hurtful and unfair actions by people who have had some control over us. Why is it that, when given the chance to exercise control over others, we often choose to subject them to the very same hurt and unfairness that we have suffered? Most adults who abuse their children were previously abused by their parents. The members of an ethnic minority or social class that has been discriminated against frequently prove to be most hostile and prejudicial toward those who fall beneath them in the social pecking order. The members of a social group who had to endure hazing in order to be accepted in turn practice that same hazing toward the next class or generation of prospective members. The people of Israel, survivors and descendants of some of the most horrific abuse in human history, participate in a government that continues to inflict systematic abuse and oppression against the Palestinians. For many people, the experience of being a victim gets twisted into an excuse for becoming an oppressor. The man who gets jilted by one woman turns into a hater of other women. The manager who is exploited by his boss in turn treats his subordinates with contempt. And usually, when people act this way, they come up with some reason to justify their behavior: "This is how it was done to me, so this is how I will do it to you." "Do unto others as has been done to you."

But Jesus is not interested in our efforts at self-justification. What has happened to us, and what has been done to us, help to explain why we are who we are and where we are. Our particular histories help to account for the difficulties we may have in measuring up to any moral rule or law. But Jesus' concern is with where we are headed, not where we have been. The Golden Rule holds us accountable, not for the past, but for the future: "Do to others as you would have them do to you." In one sense, these words appear to be sound advice, a word of wisdom: Treat others the way you would like to be treated, because you are most likely to be treated the way that you have treated them. That requires little more than thinking ahead, and realizing that people tend to behave toward us the way we behave toward them.

But there is another sense, clearly moral, in which these words are surely intended. The reason to do to others as we would have them do to us is because that is how it is to regard them fully as persons, as equals before God. The reason to do to others as we would have them do to us is because that is what it takes to do right by them. That is what it takes to love them.

Now, there are still at least three different ways we might think about this. Think in terms of loving your neighbor as yourself. Does that mean loving your neighbor as if you were your neighbor? Does it mean loving your neighbor the way you would like your neighbor to love you? Or does it mean loving your neighbor the way you think your neighbor would like to be loved? "Doing unto others as you would have them do unto you" sounds like the middle of these three options, doesn't it?--loving your neighbor the way you would like your neighbor to love you. I am not sure that is right, but I am not sure we can do any better.

If we love our neighbors just the way we love ourselves, we may fail to regard whatever is unique and different and distinctive about our neighbors. If your neighbor is diabetic, you do not give him a box of candy, even if that is exactly what you would like for yourself. So you need to love your neighbor as your neighbor, as someone you should regard and love no less than yourself, but as someone whom you recognize as also different from yourself.

But it hardly seems possible to love our neighbors just as we think our neighbors would like to be loved. First, it is not always possible to know how our neighbors would like to be loved. I am not always sure how I would like to be loved, how can I know this about all my neighbors! Second, even if I did know, I would often be unable to love in this way. Suppose my neighbor wants to be loved for her gourmet cooking and good looks, but I have an indifferent palate and see my neighbor as an average looking person with a beautiful personality. Then it would hardly seem possible for me to love my neighbor as my neighbor would want to be loved.

So perhaps the best that any of us can do is to love our neighbors the way that we would like to be loved by them. And perhaps the best that we can do is to act toward others the way we would like them to act toward us. Even so, we must acknowledge that our neighbors may not be able to love us in all the ways we would like to be loved, any more than we can love them in all the ways that they might like to be loved. What we can do is try to imagine what life is like for our neighbors, and try to imagine what it would be like for us to be in their shoes. We cannot get out of our skins, and we cannot get into our neighbor's heads, but we do have the gift of imagination. So our actions and our love must recognize the differences between us, even as we try to imagine ourselves as others. Then we can try to tap those resources and capacities for love residing within us that seem most fitting as authentic to us and responsive to our neighbors. We can give them our best in the hope, but without any assurance, that they will give us their best in return. We can love as we would like to be loved, though we cannot be sure that we will be so loved in return. AMEN.