Testing the Golden Rule

golden rule

by Peter May

The new atheists have persistently down-played the uniqueness of Christ’s teaching, focusing their attention on Christ’s ‘Golden Rule’. Between them they claim it is not impressive, not possible and not original.

Expressing it as a summary of his ethical teaching, Jesus taught the rule in the Sermon on the Mount: “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).

Certainly, he found the central idea in a key chapter on holiness in the Old Testament Scriptures, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). This command, given in the context of caring for your own kinsfolk, was then applied also to the foreigner who lived among them: “The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt” (Leviticus 19:33).

“You shall love your neighbour as yourself” Leviticus 19:18

Jesus put this commandment after the command to love God with all your heart and soul and mind (Deuteronomy 6:5), saying, “This is the first and greatest commandment and the second is like it; Love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40. See also Matthew 19:19, Mark 12:28-33, Luke 10:25-28, Romans 13:8-10, Galatians 5:14, James 2:8, 1 John 4:11,12).

Not impressive

Richard Dawkins, in a section entitled ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ writes, “Jesus limited his in-group of the saved strictly to Jews.… All those commandments that make reference to ‘thy neighbour’ are equally exclusive. ‘Neighbour’ means fellow Jew.” This school boy error exposes not just his ignorance of the Old Testament (see above) but, more acutely, his ignorance of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which was the high point of Christ’s ethical teaching and was told specifically to answer the question, “Who is my neighbour?” (Luke 10:25-37).

Christopher Hitchens says that the order to love your neighbour is “mild yet stern: a reminder of one’s duty to others”. He goes on, “The so-called Golden Rule simply enjoins us to treat others as one would wish to be treated by them. This sober and rational precept, which one can teach to any child with its innate sense of fairness is well within the compass of any atheist… It is gradually learned as part of the painfully slow evolution of the species, and once grasped is never forgotten. Ordinary conscience will do, without any heavenly wrath behind it.”

Not possible

Yet, he goes on to say that “to love your neighbour as yourself is too extreme and too strenuous to be obeyed…

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