THE GOLDEN RULE: In A World Of Complex Problems…It’s The Simplest Solution

February 15, 2012

We live in a world beset by complex problems.  Naturally, our inclination would be to assume that in order to solve those problems we need to divine equally complex solutions.  It is my pleasure to assure you that seeking those complex solutions won’t actually be necessary.  The answer to all that plagues our planet can be found in one of humanity’s oldest and most universal principles…you may know it simply as, “The Golden Rule”.

The maxim to “Do Unto Others As You’d Have Them Do Unto You,” sounds more like a reprimand from a kindergarten teacher than the answer for all the world’s ills.  But we’ve marginalized the power of this idea by allowing it to be constrained to Sunday School classes and dusty philosophy textbooks.  The Golden Rule is not merely a neglected childhood lesson, it is a naturally occurring shared value that speaks to the interconnectedness of all living things.  It is a preeminent universal guideline that reminds us that the well-being of each individual is reliant upon the well-being of us all.  When we ignore it…when we downplay its importance, we do so at our own peril.

The Golden Rule is the solution to our problems precisely because its absence and neglect has been the trigger that has brought all of our problems about in the first place.  Millions go hungry, our environment is destroyed, violence is perpetrated, and the weak are exploited all because too many of us have not embraced the fundamental law we were taught to follow as children.  The application of the Golden Rule would not so much be a fix as it would simply bring about a cessation of all the pressures that plague us as people.  Our problems would be solved because the roots of those problems would cease to exist.

You may wish to dismiss my idea as childish or naive, but I would urge you to take a moment to look at the world around you, examine our collective predicament, and explain to me how a little adherence to the Golden Rule wouldn’t make all the difference.  Would thousands be foreclosed on and forced from their homes if banks treated each customer as they would their own family?  Would schools, deprived of finances, be crumbling if our elected officials saw each student as their own?  Would we be slaughtering innocent men, women and children in foreign lands with our machines of death if we took the time to recognize our shared humanity?  Would there be enough jobs if executives finally came to see that their bonus wasn’t quite as important as the salaries of a few more employees?  Would children, all over the world, be going hungry if each one of us had a better understanding of the difference between a luxury and a need?

All of the obstacles we face are the product of a world ruled by greed, excess, expediency and the never ending thirst for power.  All of us are capable of falling victim to those selfish motivations, but it only happens when we depress our normal human urge for empathy and dehumanize those who reap the consequences of our egocentric acts.  Minorities are mistreated because bigots fail to see them as equals.  The environment is destroyed because those responsible live far away from the destruction.  Programs that promote the social welfare are cut because the victims remain faceless to those in power.  Bombs are dropped because Presidents and Generals put uneven values on various human lives.  The Golden Rule is a standard that forces us to confer equal worth to every other person on the planet.  The major problems that human beings face are all created by those who are unwilling to acknowledge that equality.

The downfall of the Golden Rule is that we have a tendency to think about it and embrace it only on a micro or personal level.  Mention the Golden Rule to someone and they’re likely to get images in their head of holding open doors and allowing fellow drivers to merge on the highway.  Although those simple, everyday applications of the Golden Rule are incredibly important, why can’t we insist that we employ it on a grander scale?  The Golden Rule can’t just be the standard that guides our interactions with strangers out in public.  It needs to be the broad foundation of our whole society in general.  It should guide our foreign policy and inform our economic priorities.  It should be top of mind for every lawmaker, councilman, CEO, police officer, teacher, clergyman and leader throughout the world.  The Golden Rule should be engraved in giant letters on the entrance of every public institution in the country.  It should be the foundation of every corporate charter and printed on a plaque in every boardroom.  Every sermon, every oath, every bill, every merger, every deal and every judgment should have as its backbone a firm comprehension of the Golden Rule and all that it entails.

The most brilliant aspect of the Golden Rule is its universality.  The Golden Rule could be put into practice in all walks of life and almost no one should feel offended.  This wouldn’t be like placing the Ten Commandments in a courthouse at the expense of non-Christians.  The Golden Rule is a precept that can be found in one form or another in ALL of the world’s major religions and a whole handful of the minor ones as well.  Listed below is an example from each of the five most prominent sets of beliefs:

CHRISTIANITY:

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”–Matthew 7:12 (NIV)

JUDAISM:

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellowman.  This is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary.”–Talmud, Shabbat 3id

ISLAM:

“None of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.”–An Nawawi’s Forty Hadith 13

BUDDHISM:

“Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.”–Udana-Varga 5:18

HINDUISM:

“This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.”–Mahabharata 5:1517

One cannot be accused of imposing their beliefs when it is a belief that is supposedly shared by all.  On what grounds would one be able to object?  And it goes beyond just the five listed above.  Mohism, Taoism, Platonism, Sikhism, Quakerism, Jainism, Humanism, Confucianism, Baha’i Faith, Brahmanism, Ancient Egyptian beliefs, Native American Spirituality, Shinto, Sufism, Unitarian, Wicca and even Scientology all advance and embrace The Golden Rule in some iteration.

Doesn’t it speak to the truth and the power of an idea if it can be found in such a myriad of forms?  If the solution that I’m pushing is to be dismissed, wouldn’t it require a dismissal of thousands of years of common human development and thought?  The fact that the Golden Rule has a home in so many cultures says something meaningful about its place as an objective truth.  Systems of society and belief have come and gone but the Golden Rule remains.  The major questions of religion…Why are we here?  Who shall we worship?  How shall we behave?…produce multitudes of answers across the globe and throughout time.  But yet humans, from all corners and all walks of life have somehow all agreed that “Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You” always sounds like a pretty good idea.

We supposedly live during incredibly fractious times.  Our population and our leaders are split on how to solve all of the largest issues of our day.  No common ground can be found on taxation, education, civil liberties, health care, energy production, environmental conservation, public spending, government debt and every single other issue that lies somewhere in between.  But I believe these divisions are entirely unnecessary and wholly a fabrication.  We can’t find common solutions because we fail to embrace the common moral code that binds us all together in the first place.  The universal nature and well-founded history of The Golden Rule proves that there is indeed a common moral thread woven throughout all of humanity that has the power to bring us together.  Solving the problems of our day does not have to be fraught with political divisions.  If as a people we could find the ability to let The Golden Rule be the beacon that guides our decisions, we would soon discover that we aren’t nearly as divided as we may have once believed.

Many don’t need to find that ability.  Many in this world are already well aware of the power of putting others’ needs on an even field with those of their own.  Unfortunately, the voices of those compassionate souls are often ignored by those in power.  Active practice of The Golden Rule is much easier to find on our own streets than in the halls of Congress or in the boardrooms of corporate America.  It should be the mission of all who realize the unifying power of The Golden Rule to see to it that this message of kindness be pushed onto those in power.  Instead, we allow the forces of division and greed to constrain and diffuse our message.  People and organizations and movements of all stripes have The Golden Rule as a pillar of their agenda, but those who live in the world of selfishness conspire to keep any thought of shared prosperity or sacrifice out of the halls of power.  Those who know better must never allow themselves to grow weary of advancing their message of hope, and they must not allow the common bonds of compassion to be torn apart by the petty cultural divisions of the day.

The Golden Rule has its advocates and it’s message rings true for millions across the globe, but despite this fact, problems still remain.  Our world is still awash in despair.  Too many fail to live up to this most elementary of standards.  Humans are a deeply flawed species and even though the concept of the rule is simple, it’s implementation can be incredibly complex.  Regardless of how attractive my solution may appear, even the most hopeful of believers must concede the enormity of the task.  So where does that leave us?  How can we convince a global population of 7 billion people to leave aside their own selfish desires and come to realize that the only way to bring about a sustained peace and harmony is by ensuring that it is equally achieved by all?

I argued earlier that The Golden Rule needs to be embraced on a large, macro-scale, but it can’t materialize on that scale overnight.  Those of us who wish to see a world where all are treated well have only their own individual acts at their disposal.  If we want a world where The Golden Rule becomes the law of the land,  if we want corporations to freely decide to put people over profits,  if we want the entire globe to universally embrace the idea that others’ needs supersede personal greed, then the only thing we can control is how we each choose to lead our own lives.  The only way for The Golden Rule to succeed on a grand scale is for individuals to take it upon themselves personally to give it a simple spark.  It’s power can be exponential.  How each of us choose to live our lives can affect all those with whom we interact.  If we desire to see the human species reach its universal utopian potential, we must first dedicate ourselves to making the change within our own sphere of influence.  Every time we choose to treat another human being with kindness and compassion we can inspire others to do the same.  The bonds and interconnectedness we create with this kind of behavior will expand and strengthen if our adherence remains true.   Anger, division, resentment and greed can all be marginalized if individuals decide to have faith not only in their own ability, but also in the ability of all of their neighbors to embrace The Golden Rule and let it act as the true agent of harmony that nature intended it to be.

If we allow The Golden Rule to be the solution to the problems we face in our own personal lives, it has the potential to become the solution to the problems we face collectively.  Our questions may be complex, but the answer is quite simple…Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You.


Inspiration Consternation: Why Can’t Churches Play Better Music?

June 30, 2010

"Raise your hands if you think this music is awful."

Music and inspiration make a wonderful pair.  Almost all of the music that I own serves some sort of emotional and inspirational purpose.  Music can either shape my disposition, or a musical selection can be made in order to fit the current disposition of the moment.  Regardless of what sort of mental state I’m in, I have some piece of music that will enhance it.

It’s this emotional relationship with music that has caused me to become so completely frustrated with what passes for music at church.  If there’s one place music should arise to it’s fullest potential, it’s at church.  Church is an environment where people are ripe for some expressive stimulation.  Attending a church service is an opportunity to indulge in the simple beauties and truths of our existence.  It is a place where forgiveness is requested, kindness and charity are honored and the splendor of our human gifts are celebrated.  Music is one of those gifts.  Much like unconditional love, music is a means by which people can experience the presence of God.  It is a language that can’t be explained, but yet everyone seems to understand.  So why do churches get it so wrong?

Worship, the portion of a church service devoted to singing and giving praise, is usually something that leaves me feeling rather empty.  My mind wanders, my eyes roam through the crowd and I can’t wait for permission to sit back down.  Lest I be dismissed as simply a critic, let me point out that I’m someone who counts ‘Amazing Grace’ as one of their favorite songs and has yet to hear a presentation of the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ that didn’t leave me rubbing small pools of water out of the corner of my eye.  When I say that worship services leave me empty, believe me when I tell you I’m someone who would much rather be fulfilled.

But it’s hard to be fulfilled when what you are presented is so mediocre.  Today’s religious music is an empty, mechanical regurgitation of the worst kind of pop music characteristics.  It’s thoughtless, repetitive and completely lacking in any kind of artistic integrity.  Contemporary christian music is loaded with cliched religious language and the type of imagery that would leave middle-school composition teachers shaking their heads in disbelief if their students were ever found guilty of the same linguistic trespasses.  Lyrics like “open the eyes of my heart”;  “you are God, that’s just the way it is” and “you lift us up on wings like eagles” are just three examples of the kind of lazy, uninspired writing you’ll find.  But it’s more than just poorly conceived metaphors.  It’s the generic stylings that persist throughout almost every incarnation of contemporary christian music that make it so disappointing.  Every song seems to be a mirror image of the one before.  I imagine the creative process for christian artists and record producers consists of throwing words like ‘holy’, ‘worthy’, ‘lamb’, ‘awesome’ and ‘Jesus’ into a hat and blindly picking out some kind of combination.  The lyrics are like a Bible-themed mad-lib that just gets filled out over and over again with new superlatives to describe God.  Did you refer to God as ‘awesome’ last time?  Well, just exchange it with ‘mighty’ and PRESTO!  You’ve got a new record!

Shoddy writing alone is not enough to ruin a song.  There are plenty of pop songs over the years that feature horrible lyrics that have still managed to find a soft spot in my heart.  A great hook and an infectious melody can go a long way to make a listener forget just how ridiculous the words may be.  Unfortunately, great hooks and infectious melodies are two terms that will never be used to describe most modern christian music.  Take the corniness of Air Supply, the rock sensibilities of Matchbox 20, the artistic depth of someone like Miley Cyrus, strip away any remnants of originality, throw it all in a blender and you’ll have every contemporary christian song ever written.  They all seem to include the same poignant, guitar-strumming openings, a crescendo to a proud and bubbly refrain and an over-indulgent breakdown rising back up to a triumphant, timpani-and-cymbal-filled conclusion.  The music consistently seeks to hit the exact same emotional levers without ever breaking new ground or challenging the listener to try something new.  Each song is canned and pre-packaged and contains all the excitement and intrigue as a bag of rice cakes.

So if today’s christian music is such a travesty, then what are the alternatives?  What can provide the type of inspiration and spiritual fulfillment that people are looking for from a church service?  Conveniently enough, the easiest solution is a musty book with a tattered spine found right on the back of almost all church pews.  Hymnals are filled with some of the most wonderfully poetic and brilliant pieces of music American culture has ever produced.  But these treasures are mostly ignored by modern churches.  In an effort to appear young, hip and relevant to modern society, churches have tossed aside their heritage and sacrificed quality in an attempt to construct an image.  This is troubling not only because their new music is so bad, but also because attempting to tailor your image to the prevailing winds of popular culture is the providence of corporations and marketers, not religious institutions.  Churches should be a place where traditions are embraced, not discarded for commercial purposes.

Arguments like this are usually just dismissed as the nostalgic ravings of the elderly and those who refuse to adapt to an ever-changing society.  I would insert here that I am only 33, hardly the standard age of someone who longs for the ‘olden days’.  But I believe that it is not just me and a handful of little old ladies that experience this dissatisfaction.  I see evidence to the contrary at nearly every church service I attend.  Church music directors will often times include an old standard in the list of songs to be sung.  Nestled in between a couple of contemporary, christian-pop ballads there might be an appearance of an old classic like “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” or “It Is Well With My Soul”.  When this occurs you’ll notice a distinct difference not only in the attitudes and responsiveness of the church members, but also in the volume of the congregation’s singing.  One could easily claim that this is merely a result of familiarity with the material, but it is my contention that it is quite simply because they’re just better songs.  When modern christian music is played the congregation becomes listless and despondent.  When the chords of a beautiful classic begins, people immediately become more engaged.  Certainly, there are exceptions, every church has members who embrace modern music with unmatched zeal.  Their arms are raised, their heads are tilted back and the predictable, repetitive words are sung out with vigor.  But as a whole, the anecdotal evidence I’ve witness over the years seems to support my side.

One need to look no further than in the words from these hymns and gospel classics to realize what makes them so timeless…

“Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine…oh, what a foretaste of glory divine;
Heir of salvation, purchase of God.  Born of his spirit, washed in his blood.”–Blessed Assurance

“Jesus, the name that calms our fears, that bids our sorrows cease;
Tis music in the sinner’s ears, tis life and health and peace.”–O, For A Thousand Tongues

“Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above;
Praise the mount I’m fixed upon it, Mount of they redeeming blood.”–Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing

“I’ve got a mansion, just over the hilltop.  In that bright land where, we’ll never grow old;
And someday yonder, we’ll never more wander, but walk the streets that are purest gold.”–Mansion On the Hilltop

“Just a closer walk with thee, grant it Jesus, is my plea;
Daily walking close to thee, let it be, dear Lord, let it be.”–Just a Closer Walk With Thee

This is only a snapshot of the type of imagery and simple linguistic elegance that is the staple of this genre of music.  The words written here and in countless other hymns have more in common with classic American poetry than they do with the words written by christian artists today.  As a culture, we’re losing our mastery of language.  A dumbed-down pop culture and a society conditioned for the brevity of emails and text messages are the result of a people who have squandered their affinity for the potential beauty of the written word.  Have you ever read a speech by Abraham Lincoln?  If we had a president who could competently speak and write in that fashion today, he’d leave most of his audience scratching their heads in bewilderment.  The same is true for music, especially religious music.  The lyrics of today and the lyrics of yesterday aren’t even on the same playing field.  It’s like comparing the Jonas Brothers to the Beatles.  Old hymnals are a treasure trove of the kind of poetic and beautiful lyrics that are impossible to find today.

Christian and Gospel music used to be something that was very much intertwined with pop culture.  Today, christian music wants to have an important role in the popular zeitgeist, but it is usually on the outside looking in.  The christian music industry is always a step behind because instead of trying to forge their own unique and creative direction, they’re merely trying to grab on to the latest fad and then sanitize it for the religious community.  Spiritual songs were once a staple of average American life.  They were sung by the most popular artists and were universally known.  The same cannot be said of christian music today.  It is a widely marginalized and often disregarded portion of the culture in which we live.  Now you may want to lament this fact as proof of the secularization of our society and the abandonment of our once-highly-held religious traditions and I might be inclined to agree with you.  But there has to be a portion of this transformation that can be directly blamed on the quality of the product as well.  Good music can transcend cultural biases.  If modern christian music is stuck on the periphery, it’s simply because it has an inadequate level of artistic and inspirational quality that would allow it to resonate with the consuming public.

Elvis Presley was once the most influential and popular artist in the country.  He was a trend-setter who pushed boundaries and transformed our societal rules about music, entertainment and sexuality.  But at the same time, he also recorded, released and performed tons of religious material.  There is no way that an artist of his stature in today’s world would try to do the same.  A couple of recent christian artists, including Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant have managed to achieve some modest level of mainstream success by taking their pop stylings and removing the religious bent.  But their christian-themed material never crossed over with them, because there was simply no mainstream market for it.  It’s impossible to imagine an artist today being a popular draw in both the Top 40 world and in the contemporary christian world at the same time.  Even with Top 40 music being as bad as it is, general audiences are just not prepared to stomach something so bereft of quality as modern christian music.  Sure, you might witness a superstar such as Faith Hill or Beyonce sing a religious song at some kind of special event, but I promise you that song will be a beautiful gospel standard and not a contemporary christian pop selection.

I attend church to be inspired.  Very often, I listen to music for the exact same reason.  I get angry with myself when I find that I’m spending my time during worship doing nothing but bemoaning and critiquing the music that is pushed upon me.  But what choice do I have?  I can’t pretend to be inspired by something I find so comical and ridiculous.  Modern christian music actually pushes me away from the spiritual and mental state that I should be feeling while at church.  It achieves the exact opposite of its desired effect.  When done correctly, the beauty of a worship service can be even more inspirational and transformative than the sermon or Bible study that follow.  It is my desire to find a church service that truly understands this concept.  I seek a church that does not sacrifice quality for the sake modern packaging.  Music of all genres is constantly evolving and I don’t pretend to expect religious music to neglect that evolution.  What I do expect is a simple understanding of what makes music classic and transcendent.  People still listen to Beethoven for a reason.  People still listen to Led Zeppelin for a reason.  That music has proven over time to have the power to resonate within the soul of the listener.  Traditional gospel music has also proven to hold that same resonance.  It’s timelessness and simple elegance are intertwined in the very fabric christian spirituality.  The poetic eloquence of the Apostle Paul is borne from the same place as the poetic eloquence of famed hymn author Fanny J. Crosby.  Humans strive through language and song to explain the mystery of human existence and capture the essence of God.  Some words and some songs have shown themselves over time to be more effective at accomplishing this task.  I long for a church and worship service that puts those words and songs at the forefront of their spiritual celebration.  I long to be inspired.

“When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun;
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we first begun.”–Amazing Grace