The Fading, Dirty, Off-Yellow Rule
Earlier this week, I dropped my kids off at school after a long weekend at home and sent them forth with these inspiring words of parental wisdom: “Remember, be kind and gracious to each other.” As is the tendency of twins and siblings more generally, they have been known to (exceedingly rarely, of course) be less than kind or gracious to one another. It was one last desperate salvo before I began the long drive home. Please be nice, for heaven’s sake. Or at least for your worrying dad’s sake.
My son responded with a wink, “Well, you know how it goes, dad. I’ll treat her like she treats me. The Golden Rule, you know?” I sighed, clamped down on my tongue, and drove off into the frigid Saskatchewan night. Later, I couldn’t resist a riposte via text message. “FYI, the golden rule isn’t ‘Do to others what they do to you.’ it’s ‘Do to others what you would have them do to you.’ In other words, ‘Do to others what you would want them to do to you.’ Just to be precise :).” He knew this, of course. But I couldn’t resist pointing it out. He loves it when I’m “precise.” Old habits die hard.
On the way home, it occurred to me that perhaps we actually do think that the Golden Rule is something like, “Do to others what they do to you.” This is what one might assume, at any rate, based on a cursory glance at how many of us move through our days. We do, in fact, treat others as they treat us (or, more precisely, as we interpret their actions toward us). For the most part, we respond to niceness with niceness, to nastiness with nastiness, to apathy with apathy, to anger with anger, etc. We measure out our responses, behaviours, and attitudes as rewards and punishments based on what we get from others. There are exceptions, of course. Thank God. But this is often how things go with us.
As far as rules go, “Do to others what they do to you” is not exactly a “golden” one. Perhaps we might call it the “Fading, Dirty, Off-Yellow Rule.” Do to others what they do to you. It goes by other descriptions, too. The lex talionis. Eye for eye. Respond in kind. What goes around comes around. The law of karma. It all comes back to roughly the same equation. You give what you receive—whether from interpersonal relationships or the universe. There is a certain symmetry and logic to it that is readily understandable. It seems fair, at least on the surface. It’s also miles away from anything worthy of the descriptor “Christian.”
For a rule to be “golden” instead of a pathetic yellow-ish metric of our own selfishness, it would have to transcend what we imagine we are owed or what responses we believe our meticulous scorekeeping requires. It would invite us to ask questions like, “If I was being a jerk, how would I want to be responded to?” or “How would I appreciate being talked to if I was going through a rough patch?” or “If I lost my temper, what would be a response that would help me recover some sanity or equilibrium?” or “What sorts of words and actions might move me from insensitivity to thoughtful care?” And then, after having asked ourselves these questions, we would go and enact our hypothetical answers. We would be golden.
Anyone can act in off-yellow-ish ways. It comes pretty naturally, in my experience. It’s easy to love those who love me, to be nice to those who are nice to me, to respond with biting sarcasm to those who insult me, etc. Jesus knew this human tendency well, and had little admiration for it:
If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:43-48).
Perfection, apparently, involves moving beyond what comes naturally. Jesus calls us to what is perhaps among the most unnatural and desperately necessary of human behaviours and dispositions: grace.
I once heard it described like this:
- Justice is getting what you deserve.
- Mercy is not getting what you deserve.
- Grace is getting what you don’t deserve.
Grace, in other words, is a gift. And it is a gift that we need to extend and receive in all of the various arenas in which we live and move. Because human beings will never stop doing stupid, careless, thoughtless, and wicked things. If we just continue doing unto others what they do to us, we will do little more than keep all of these things in tedious, destructive circulation. Something is needed to get out of the loop. That something is grace.
On the way home from dropping the kids off in Saskatchewan yesterday, I was in a nostalgic mood. I thought back to summer of 2001 when they came home from the hospital as little babies. An album that was getting heavy circulation in my headphones back then was U2’s “All That You Can’t Leave Behind.” In particular, I was drawn to a song called “Grace,” which contains the following lines:
It’s a name for a girl
It’s also a thought that
Changed the world…
She travels outside
What once was hurt
What once was friction
What left a mark
No longer stings
Because grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things
As it turns out, “Grace” became the name of a very specific girl. Mine. Our kids’ biological parents chose their middle names and the name they chose for my daughter was “Grace.” So now, I regularly tell my daughter (and my son… and myself) to live into her name. To travel outside of a karmic world where you give what you get, to transcend the friction, the many things that sting and leave their mark. To make beauty (gold) out of ugly (fading, off-yellow) things. To change the world.