So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
-Jesus making it clear(ish), Matthew 7:12
(Warning... some sarcasm is present throughout this piece)
The world would be a better place if everyone was a bit more in tune with the Golden Rule, wouldn't it? If everyone would simply treat others the way that they want to be treated, then we would all be safe and happy and cared for! Well, mostly. There's just one challenge with how we often think about this important statement of Jesus.
What happens when what you would have them do to you..... isn't at all what your neighbor actually wants done to them?
If that confused you, consider this real life example.
We're in the wacky, in-between, sometimes-awkward-and-also-really-beautiful season of emerging from a year defined only by the pandemic. Mouths are visible again and we can smile at each other (or at least tell if someone was actually smiling at us or just doing the nice eye thing this whole time while keeping the scowl beneath the cloth). And hugs! In many spaces, we can give hugs again, which everyone wants! Right???
Since we've finally begun regathering as a church a few weeks ago, one of the things we decided to do was have a pile of yellow silicone wristbands at the table near the entrance. If someone chooses to wear a yellow wristband, it means that they are more comfortable maintaining some distance, and not having physical touch. That way we can honor each other without creating uncomfortable situations. In fact, believe it or not, some folks were uncomfortable with social physical contact even before Covid! In light of this, assumptions like "everyone wants a hug" can actually feel very unloving to a lot of people... and very much not in the spirit of Jesus' golden rule.
Now some of us may have trouble understanding this reality. It may strike us as silly or unnecessary or hypersensitive. I mean, if I treated everyone how I wanted to be treated, I'd give out hugs to everyone and everyone would feel loved and the world would be awesome. Plus, I'd be directly obeying Jesus' command!
Ironically, an attitude like that still places ourselves at the center, rather than the one we are actually seeking to love. When we make unconscious assumptions that everyone thinks and feels like us, we can actually be very unloving in our behavior toward others... and this goes well beyond hugs and wristbands.
But rather than simply disregarding the words of Jesus, the solution is for us to broaden our interpretation of these words from a list of actions to the spirit in which we act. That makes Jesus' command even more central in our lives, not less.
Let's consider the spirit of what we all want. We want to be treated with deep respect. Most everyone wants their desires to be acknowledged and honored. We want to be listened to, to have our complex experiences validated by others, and to not have assumptions made about us. We want to feel empowered and we want to feel comfortable in our own unique personalities.
How that looks specifically is going to play out differently for people. So loving our neighbor as ourselves means less about treating them specifically how we want to be treated, and more about treating them as they desire to be treated (within the Christlike ethics of love, of course). This fulfills the true spirit of the law that Jesus is speaking of, which is loving our neighbor. Asking my friend, "are you cool with a hug?" and totally respecting him when he says, "not really, thanks " is one way to show Christlike love.
And the layers continue. When we consider friends who have different cultural/racial/religious backgrounds, we break down barriers and build trust when we practice the slow process of learning what loving and caring actions look like for them-- because they may be very different than what you assume. This is the epitome of other-oriented, Christlike love. It takes humility, because sometimes you will learn that one of your statements or actions felt very unloving to someone, even though that wasn't your intent. And in humility, you can change it the next time around and love them better.
The bonus? Learning this way of life will transform your own character into a more humble and considerate person as well.
What assumptions might you be making about other people? What questions do you need to ask to create a loving environment for them? Where might their experience of love look different than what yours is?
Jesus, help me become perceptive and sensitive to the individuals around me, so that my ways of showing love truly feel like love to those receiving it.