One week on from A Different Drum, Haddon Willmer shares some thoughts on The Golden Rule

Elsewhere on the MBC website you can read a vivid report of a great evening’s entertainment with the Riding Lights Theatre Company. But surely the play was more than a recommendation of the Golden Rule, ‘do unto others as you would have them do to you’?

For more than two hours we sat inches away from people under the threat of imminent and likely physical death or challenged to make a life choice that involved letting one’s self die irrevocably.

The Golden Rule is sensible ‘give and take’ practice. We give in order to get. We give because it will help or oblige the other to give back in return.  It is easily understood. It makes sense even to small children and is a key stage in their socialisation. It cuts down grabbing. It leads us all to model good social practice, because it says to each of us, make your action a good example, so that if others do likewise, everyone will benefit.

The Golden Rule is wise guidance. Most of the time many people live well together because this Rule is respected even if it is not explicitly quoted. But some of the time, some of the people walk in the valley of the shadow of death. No one has guaranteed security that the ordinary ways of living well will not fall apart. When they do, it will be for us like living in Eyam, in 1665, with the plague killing the villagers one by one, remorselessly from day to day. They did not understand it. They could not stop it. They didn’t even know when it would burn itself out, as plagues often do, or what their individual chances of survival might be. Death defined their life situation. They could not run from Eyam, because the plague might already be in them.

No one could give them the help they really needed: stop the plague. Others might shun them or pray for them, but they still had to go through the valley without guarantee of escape.

Mompesson’s well, Eyam

The drama shocked us out of our comfortable normality, because we live from day to day without being really in the valley of the shadow of death. Where we are, the Golden Rule works well enough. But the people in the play found a different rule to live by. They had to if they were not to fall into a black hole of despair and nothingness. They transcended ‘give and take’ and got nearer to simply giving. The villagers decided to seal themselves up with death in Eyam in order to do what they could to stop the plague spreading others. And they did it in faith and obedience to God in Christ, who is more than the teacher of the Golden Rule. He is leader in sacrificial giving, in loving even when he is not loved in return. Beyond the Golden Rule, is the prayer of St Ignatius Loyola  (1491-1556):

St Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556)

Teach us, good Lord, to serve you as you deserve;

to give and not to count the cost;

to fight and not to heed the wounds;

to toil and not to seek for rest;

to labour and not to ask for any reward,

save that of knowing that we do your will.

This is not an unproblematic prayer; it is in danger of being too tough, demanding and heroic.  But the last two lines are authentic following of Jesus and they point to a way and a wisdom which differs from the Golden Rule. They pray for freedom from the expectation of reciprocity and reward and so they empower people for situations where there is no earthly everyday reward for doing good.

As the plague fell upon them, so that every house was filled with anxiety or sorrow, all that was left to  the villagers was the perhaps wavering knowledge that they were doing God’s will – it was no good asking for any reward because they were staring death in the face.

So it was, in different ways, for the other stories told in the play.

The monks of the Notre Dame de L’Atlas Monastery

Some could see death coming to them, and they accepted it with their eyes open, in fellowship with God and in solidarity with others. The monks of the Notre Dame de L’Atlas Monastery in Algeria  refused to give up living with their Muslim neighbours who had become their friends and with whom they learnt to pray,  although the civil war between the Algerian army and the Armed Islamic Group got ever closer and more dangerous to foreigners and Christians. They were slaughtered.

For Katie Davis, there was no threat of  physical death, but a call to choose a way of life and a commitment to people which involved dying to self.

Katie Davis in Uganda

Katie’s parents thought she was throwing her life away when she stayed in Uganda, rather than come home and get on with her education, having done ten months there. Her boyfriend thought she had done her bit, enough to get it out of her system, but she was caught for life. What held her? Orphaned children who wanted a Mom, not just institutional care. They latched on to her. And God held her: “I think that’s definitely something that I was made for,” said Davis, 22, a devout Christian who idolizes Mother Teresa. “God just designed me that way because he already knew that this is what the plan was for my life — even though I didn’t.”

All these people did indeed practice the Golden Rule. They do not speak against it.  But I think they say there is and must be something more, something more difficult to explain and more difficult to practice and yet essential for human beings who are called to accompany and image God in the world. Their stories do not show that the Golden Rule is ‘the single most important thing in life’. I think that Jesus inspired them with something more than the Golden Rule.

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