For thousands of years we’ve had neighbours and neighbourhoods. Whether it was the cavemen next door who made loud noises until all hours of the night, or the guy down the street who rode his horses a little too fast through the village, dealing with the people living around us is as old as humanity.
For almost as long as we’ve had conflict between neighbours, we’ve had laws to keep conflict in check. Ancient Babylon’s Hammurabi created a code of 282 laws to try and govern relationships between people, with strict punishments if the laws were broken. For example, if your neighbour’s house was on fire, and in the process of putting the fire out, you took something from the house, then you were to be thrown in the fire yourself. It was a harsh world. Yet for thousands of years of conflict and thousands of years of rules, codes, regulations, and punishments to try and bring peace, there is one rule that seems to cover them all, it’s called the Golden Rule.
The Golden Rule is this: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” The phrase first appeared about four thousand years ago in the Jewish scriptures, or what we call the Old Testament. This simple idea spread and, in some shape or form, is found in almost every major religion and philosophy.
There’s something interesting about the Golden Rule that sets it apart from many other ways of shaping the way we live together as neighbours. Most rules or regulations are negative; don’t do this or else. Don’t treat your neighbour badly, or there will be consequences. Yet the Golden Rule stands out in a positive way. It encourages us to proactively engage our neighbours, to find ways to care for the people around us with the same enthusiasm as we seek our own wellbeing. The Golden Rule puts the ball in your court, it is up to you to make the next move. It’s an action that requires a new level of engagement.
Jesus made this idea very practical for his followers. After he said “love your enemies” then he added this, he said, “if someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also.” It was radical. Jesus went on to explain that from this posture of loving our neighbours as ourselves, we can begin to live generously, we don’t need to get even, we can be compassionate, we don’t have to judge others, and we can forgive. He ends by saying that people who love their neighbours as themselves are like those who build a house on a firm foundation. No matter what storms may come, this person will be able to weather it all.
The Golden Rule is more than a happy maxim or tidbit of wisdom, it is the door to the good life. Loving our neighbours as ourselves sets us up to see our neighbours differently and actively choose to make their lives better. In doing so we are transformed.
Perhaps that is why the Golden Rule has held its lustre for four thousand years. In a world of war, anger, and bitter fighting, there stands a vision of neighbourliness that crosses time, culture, and geography. It’s the time tested practice of actively loving our neighbours as ourselves that still has the potency to change not only the lives of those on our street, but ourselves.