The Golden Rule of Compassion (Audio Available)

Reflection by Rev. Diane Rollert, 16 April 2017

Easter 2017.jpg

The other day I ran into a neighbour as we were both walking our dogs. “You know,” she said, “I’ve been thinking about you and Jesus. I’ve been wondering what you were going to say this Easter Sunday.” She looked at me almost beseechingly and said, “I can’t read the news anymore!”

I tell her that I’ve been feeling the same way. Lately I’ve been wishing I could be Rip Van Winkle. I’d like to lie down in some soft grassy place up on the mountain, fall asleep and wake up twenty years from now. Just let the time pass and hope that the world is in a better state when I awake.

My neighbour says to me, “Who cares if Jesus ever lived. It’s the message that matters.” Then she puts into words what I’ve been struggling with lately. She says, “I don’t have hope. You can’t have hope now. All we have is our goodness, and goodness is strength.”

All we have is our goodness, and goodness is strength.

I love neighbours and other oracles who unexpectedly step into your life just at the right moment to speak the truth you need to hear. 

Goodness is strength. Goodness is compassion. 

I’m so struck by how Karen Armstrong, the great religious historian, chooses to define compassion. Compassion, she says, “asks us to look into our own hearts, discover what gives us pain, and then refuse, under any circumstances whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else.”  

This is the Golden Rule: To refuse, under any circumstances whatsoever, to inflict what hurts us on anyone else. To be that good. Can we truly live our lives by that standard?

In ancient times, when Rabbi Hillel was challenged to explain the whole Torah while standing on one foot, he easily responded, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn it.” 

Decades later, Jesus, a young Jewish rebel living in unjust and chaotic times, blesses the poor, the sick and the marginalized. He stands on a mountaintop to deliver his Sermon on the Mount and says, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” 

He also says, “Love your enemies,” and “Love your neighbour as yourself.” 

Hundreds of years before Hillel was standing on one foot, and before Jesus was preaching on the mount, the Buddha told a story from his childhood, when his father took him to watch the ritual planting of the fields. As he waits beneath a rose-apple tree, he notices the tender shoots of grass that have been torn up by the plow. He finds himself overwhelmed with grief for the dead insects that are still clinging to the shoots, as if they were his own relatives. This, he comes to realize, is compassion, the ability to suffer with another being, and in that compassionate suffering with another, we are momentarily released from feeling our own suffering, from feeling the hatred, the envy and the greed. 

The Chinese sage, Confucius, taught his disciples, “Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you.” Living around the same time as the Buddha, but separated by great distance, Confucius was the first to be recorded as articulating the Golden Rule, as far back as the 5th century BCE.

We know these teachings. We know that compassion is at the heart of every religious tradition; and at the heart of humanism. Yet somehow, we either find ourselves arguing about doctrines and dogma, or we’re simply too busy to find time to live a truly compassionate life.

Last week some of us gathered after the service to have a conversation with our Muslim guest, and someone asked why we bother to focus on the old traditions and ancient scripture. Why not focus on moving forward, away from the old stories? Why not create our own stories? But we live in a world that is permeated by the old traditions. Even when we reject the old, it continues to shape our lives. When we don’t know our own history, we are condemned to repeat it, as they say. At the same time, we can sadly lose connection to the goodness and inspiration from our past that can give us strength as we move into the future.

In that same gathering, someone else asked if it was ever possible to be compassionate with someone who has hurt you. Can you open your heart to the bully from your childhood who wants to ask forgiveness? I feel as though I gave an inadequate answer, and I’ve been thinking about it all week. I’ve been thinking about the places in my own life where I haven’t been able to forgive or let go of anger or disappointment.

We have these things inside us, don’t we? We have these dark places in our hearts that we try to forget or ignore. We’re often afraid to share own suffering or own failings for fear that we will be unloveable. We live in a world that often tells us that we are not allowed to have compassion for ourselves. Today, if I were asked that question again, I’d say that you’ve got to try to open your heart, especially when someone is asking to reconnect. You’ve got to allow room to recognize that person’s suffering — and honestly, I’d really be talking to myself.

Shouldn’t our faith, or our love for humanity, call us to aim for the impossible? Shouldn’t we look deeply into ourselves to discover what gives us pain, and then call each other “to refuse, under any circumstances whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else”? I really believe that’s why we’re here. This is hard work. We need to compassionately call each other back to compassion. 

That doesn’t mean that compassion is without boundaries. Sometimes the challenge is discerning the difference between self-interest and compassion-for-the-self that leads to compassion for others. There are times in our lives when our own suffering overwhelms us, when we can’t recognize the suffering of others. Sometimes illness and depression make it impossible to move beyond our own pain. That’s when we need to let others hold us in their compassion. But other times, we know we’re letting our own pain get the best of us. We blame the other, when we know we have to take responsibility for our own stuff. As Jesus said, “Take the log out of your own eye and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye.”  

Please know that I am not talking about abusive relationships here. There are relationships where your own self-preservation must come first. If you need help, please talk to someone. Come to see me, or go to this link for local hotlines and support:

I think that we deny ourselves compassion when we tell ourselves we don’t have the right to speak out or to set boundaries when someone is hurting us. These are the deepest challenges of our being, the pain we wish we could ignore, the suffering we feel that can keep us from caring for ourselves.

To stand up to our enemies while still loving our enemies, that’s where I really, really struggle. I hear arguments for why violence sometimes has to be a response, but my faith still calls me to live by the Golden Rule, no matter what — and maybe that’s a privilege I have, to be able to make that choice. That’s the other challenge with the Golden Rule when we say, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” What I think is good for you may really reflect my own personal or cultural bias. I may think I’m saving you, when you feel you don’t need to be saved. So maybe we need to turn the Golden Rule toward the Platinum Rule: “Do unto others as they would do or have done unto themselves.” Do to others what they would do or have done to themselves. 

To live by the Golden or Platinum Rule requires a lifetime of work. I fear I will waiver, and I will get carried away by the anger of others. But I hold close to my heart the examples of those who are courageous enough to live by non-violent resistance and diplomacy. 

Here’s a story of struggling with compassion that is very close to home. If you’ve been here more than a few times, you know that we have a picketer who marches in front of our building most Sunday mornings. He’s there in sleet, snow and rain. He’s been there for more than 20 years. His anger has festered all these years, and sadly, there is no talking with him. We have explored every possible recourse, legal and otherwise and there is nothing we can do. The law says that he can be there, even with his signs that accuse us of things that have never happened here. I know how frustrating and frightening it can be to see him there. 

Recently, someone fairly new to our community said something that really surprised me. She said she was impressed by this community’s ability to coexist with this very unhappy man outside. She thought it was an amazing example of this congregation’s capacity for compassion. I’d never seen it that way before and I am so grateful for her observation. We cannot change this man’s feelings, and we know that the things he says about us are not true, but we can feel compassion for his suffering, even if he cannot feel compassion for us.

I stand outside to greet people before the service as often as possible. Often this man films us — again, believe it or not, this is his legal right, though he does not have the right to publicly post any of his pictures. What does he film each week? A community of people greeting each other, smiling, hugging, kissing. I pray for that goodness to someday break through his wall of anger.

Today science tells us that both the capacity for cruelty and for compassion coexist within each us. Our Unitarian ancestors wisely affirmed this duality of human nature long ago. It was part of what distinguished them from other Christian movements during the Protestant Reformation. They believed that we had a duty to cultivate our compassionate nature, that to be a Unitarian required us to live by the Golden Rule. For them, Easter was not about the death and resurrection of Christ. Easter was about reaffirming the teachings of Jesus, it was about reaffirming what it means to love your neighbour as yourself.

Compassion was at the heart of Unitarianism, and as Karen Armstrong writes, it lives at the heart of most religions, even when it is forgotten. She tells us that in the darkest hours of humanity, compassion arose as an ideal in reaction to times of chaos, violence and corruption. In fact, it is pretty amazing how compassion surfaced independently in each of these traditions. It suggests that compassion must be pretty essential to who we are as human beings. So don’t give up. Compassion may save us yet.

Let me end with a story that is often attributed to the Indigenous tradition. I’m sure you know this one.

 An elder is teaching his grandchildren about life. He tells them that a terrible fight between two wolves is going on inside of him: One wolf represents hate, fear, anger, lies, and greed; the other represents love, friendship, generosity, truth and compassion. 

“The same fight is going on inside all of us,” he says. 

“Which wolf will win?” ask the children.

“The one you feed,” the grandfather answers. 

May our goodness bring us strength and renewal. 

Amen. Blessed be. Namasté.

For your information, approximate dates:

Guatama Buddha:     563 - 480 BCE
Confucius:         551 - 479 BCE
Rabbi Hillel:         110 BCE- 10 CE
Jesus:             0 BCE - 33 CE

Two books from Karen Armstrong that helped to inspire this reflection: Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life and The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions.

Download The Golden Rule of Compassion