Neighborliness and the Golden Rule: An Exploration

Who is my neighbor? This seems to be one of the defining questions of the human experience. It only takes a glimpse into history to see mankind wrestling with questions related to our role on this planet and our relationship to the others we share it with. Who are we? Who are “they?” How wide is our circle of inclusion and how wide should it be? How do we distinguish between the “in” group and the “out” group? Should there even be an “us” and “them,” or should we focus on a larger “we?”

You can find varying answers to these questions offered from many different sources; from political figures and scholars and especially from our religious institutions. At their very best, the religions of the world call us to see mankind (and possibly even all living things) as a global family, either as children of or as being created by the same God or as equally interconnected and interdependent parts of the same web of existence. They obligate us to recognize that which is valuable or “divine” within one another and to see the calling to care for one another as a sacred duty. Narratives like the Good Samaritan challenge our man-made labels and divisions by reminding us that being a “neighbor” is less about our cultural or religious identities and is more about how we relate to one another. Do you see me? How will you respond? Would you feel moved to come to my aid, should I need it?

We are all familiar with The Golden Rule, which is echoed in many of the faith traditions. At its most basic level, it can be understood as an expression of mankind’s ability to empathize; our capacity to recognize the feelings of others and to not wish for anyone to endure the things we do not wish to experience ourselves. The concept of Metta encapsulates this understanding and makes global neighborliness a spiritual endeavor.

As well, we are a social species that has long relied on cooperation and group living to survive and thrive in this world. Behaviors that hurt the group became taboo and those that helped it were encouraged. It could be said that “neighborliness” is written in our very social and psychological fabric.

But if there is evidence that empathy, compassion, and cooperation are possibly innate characteristics, why do so many struggle to extend the boundaries of their circle of inclusion? The same religions that inspire us toward ideals like the Golden Rule can, at their worst, be used to justify marginalization, exclusion, and violence against those unfortunate enough to be considered “other.” But how can this be?

There are many possible answers to those questions. For instance, we could examine Spiral Dynamics, weigh geopolitical factors and the impact of cultural disorientation, compare zero-sum and non-zero-sum relationships, consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and on and on. Whatever the underlying motivations, it is imperative we remain vigilant against the temptation to fall into such thinking ourselves and become guilty of looking at the world in the type of oversimplified way such mentalities often entail. One of my favorite public figures speaks to the importance of “imagining others complexly,” which becomes very difficult to do once we start reducing people to one-dimensional shadows of their full selves.

At the Oracle Institute, we believe in being World Citizens, responsible for not just our immediate community, but all of humankind. We blend being a socio-spiritual think tank and an educational entity in our attempt to encourage the practice of the best that religion has to offer while challenging the moral and spiritual shortcomings of both religion and society through sacred activism. I personally feel the call to follow the example of those like Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King in advocating for justice, dignity, and peace for my fellow man, to “be the change” and cultivate “the Kingdom of God,” ensuring a type of social salvation for those who share this planet with me and who will come after I am gone. I have devoted myself to the cause of making society more equitable and sustainable for all, regardless of color, creed, sexual orientation, gender identity, or national citizenship.

But concepts like the Paradox of Tolerance demand we ask ourselves - where do we draw the line? Or do we draw a line? As VOL’s resident Peacemaker, I guess it is within the parameters of my job description to grapple with these questions, though they are questions I think everyone ought to reflect on. How do we respond to those who would seek to build walls, incite terror, invoke hate, and “other” our fellow man? What is the appropriate action to take when there are people who do not wish to be our neighbors? Do we follow the example of those who appealed to the conscience and moral authority of justice by engaging in nonviolent resistance? Do we attempt to relate to those who reduce “others” to a single trait; appeal to their humanity and conscience by trying to remind them of the full personhood of those they seek to marginalize? Is there ever a point when we declare all bets off and respond in kind, with equal force and ire, or do we maintain that everyone is reachable, our goals attainable, if only we are willing to sacrifice enough to get there? And if we decide to take a firmer stance, do we risk being equally guilty of perpetuating the cycle of “us” versus “them?” How can we respond while still remembering to imagine “them” complexly?

These questions seem more relevant and urgent as I write this today than they seemed two weeks ago when we met to discuss the theme “Who Is My Neighbor” at our most recent Spirituality and Singing Salon. I can only imagine they will become more so in the current political environment. How we respond may very well determine the kind of world in which we live. Let us endeavor, then, to make it a good one.