During a trip to Colorado as a child, I found gold. I had previously devoured Jack London’s “Call of the Wild,” imagining myself out in the Canadian Yukon or the Alaskan Klondike finding gold. Unable to convince my parents to take me to Alaska — I unsuccessfully suggested this family vacation every year as a child — the Colorado Rockies at least fit the image in my gold-panning dreams better than Missouri. And then it all came true. I found gold.
Well, I thought I did. It turned out I merely found a piece of pyrite, a mineral with only a superficial resemblance to gold. Pyrite, more popularly known as “fool’s gold,” looks fairly similar to gold but holds much less value. An expert wouldn’t fall for it, but I didn’t know any better.
We can often find ourselves fooled by cheap knock-offs — from watches to designer handbags. Even the famed golden rule can be twisted.
During a recent U.S. Senate confirmation hearing for a potential cabinet member, a senator invoked the golden rule to justify his squashing of the other party’s dissent. Well, he called it “the golden rule,” but it seems he needs to recheck his Bible. The senator explained this so-called “golden rule” to mean he would treat the other party the same way the other party treated his party in the past. That’s a fool’s golden rule. The senator’s teaching instead resembled the “eye-for-an-eye” philosophy. Jesus literally rejected that tit-for-tat code in the “Sermon on the Mount” before offering what we call the “golden rule” later in that sermon.
The golden rule isn’t — as the senator in the hearing suggested — do unto others as they did unto you. It’s treat others as you would have them treat you. Politicians in both parties routinely fall for this fool’s golden rule. They complain about the other party’s actions until an election switches who is in power and then politicians in both parties do exactly what they used to complain about the others doing. This polarization and revenge-seeking spoils relationships and disrupts the tasks on which we should work. Giving into this fool’s golden rule is to allow party and power to trump principles.
Politicians are not alone. We follow this fool’s golden rule in many areas of our lives. We treat family members as they previously treated us. We hit back at coworkers to retaliate for their past actions. We respond in kind to people at church or down the street. We knock out an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth until we are all blind and toothless. Such a moral code uses past behavior as a ceiling for our own actions since we will not treat anyone any better than they previously treated us. That only allows for our behavior to spiral downward.
Jesus called us to something more difficult: to treat someone who wronged us better than how that person treated us. Pyrite remains more common than real gold. Living out the golden rule makes one unusual in a world of polarized politics, broken homes and split churches. Ultimately the teaching of Jesus leads us to follow his own example. Jesus did not treat us as we treated him. We mocked him, beat him, spat on him, killed him. And he responded with love.
When I travel to Colorado today, I try to remember the line from William Shakespeare that “all that glisters [or glitters] is not gold.” But as we consider how Jesus taught us to treat others, I prefer J. R. R. Tolkien’s inversion of the poetry: “all that is gold does not glitter.”
Brian Kaylor is editor of Word&Way.