Many of the great religions of the world have some form of the “golden rule” — about doing unto others as one would want done to oneself, or alternatively, not doing unto others as one would not want done to oneself.
Christians have traditionally been proud to be counted among the number who have such a rule and claim to live by it. In theory, it is simple enough. In practice, it is sometimes extremely difficult to live it out — in and among life’s trials, large and small.
Let me just say that I have looked at life from both sides now — from being the neighbour who has not been loved to being the neighbour who has not been loving.
As perhaps a trivial example, but one with local flavour, let me tell you about my experience with neighbourhood parking in recent years.
With the advent of pay parking at the hospital and new parking regulations on the streets surrounding the hospital, I have been on both the receiving end and the giving end of complaints. Our neighbours, those literally living in close proximity to Comox United Church, suddenly had a legal basis for making calls to the Town hall when people attending events held at the church parked in front of their yards, and, on occasion, encroached on their driveways.
And my initial reaction was one of shock that people would cut the church so little slack — given that we meet regularly only once a week, and other occasions when parking is at a premium are most likely to be weddings or funerals.
I thought to myself: it would only take a modicum of compassion to just put up with the car illegally parked in front of one’s yard for a mere hour or so…
And then the tables were turned.
Many of the hospital employees and visitors, wishing to avoid paying the parking fees, began to park in front of my house — and on occasion, encroached on my driveway, and certainly made seeing oncoming traffic a difficult task indeed. And I confess that there came a day when I made a call to the bylaw enforcement officer at Town hall.
No matter how compassionate we claim to be with others, most of us feel that compassion towards ourselves also dictates that we are allowed to speak up for our own rights when we feel they are being infringed.
And mostly that is a good thing, and in line with Christian teaching, because one is to love one’s neighbour as oneself (which, of course, assumes a love of self as opposed to any “doormat mentality”).
Years ago, when I made the switch from a career in the legal world to a career in the religious world, I wrote a paper on how little “rights talk” truly solved any kinds of disputes between people. Asserting “rights” often gets us nowhere as a society because for every right asserted by the party of the first part there is an equal and opposite right to be asserted by the party of the second part.
You see, external laws can never truly make us good and compassionate people.
In Christian scriptures, Jesus often pointed out to people how a preoccupation with the external laws kept people from making love a priority.
Christ often taught that specific scriptural commands must never take, precedence over what is compassionate and caring.
We have learned this slowly — from slavery to the position of women. We are learning it slowly in areas such as gender, sexual orientation and power.
Jesus says there is a kind of tradition that fails the test of compassion. Jesus wanted to have religious commitment flow from people’s hearts and not begin and end with their blindly following traditions and laws.
So tricky balance though it may be, it is incumbent upon us all, in every situation, to think not just of “our rights” or even of “the rights of others” or even of “the right thing to do” but to ask ourselves: “What is the compassionate thing to do?”
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This column is one of a series being published each month by the Compassionate Communities Project — a group of 15 faith and community organizations seeking to enhance the practice of compassion throughout the Comox Valley. We appreciate the support of our partner, the Comox Valley Record, for the space to publish this column.
Maggie Enright is the minister at Comox United Church.