Two Kings and the Golden Rule
reflections on laboring for a just society
by Troy Cady
“I believe that standing up for the truth of God is the greatest thing in the world. This is the end of life. The end of life is not to be happy. The end of life is not to achieve pleasure and avoid pain. The end of life is to do the will of God, come what may.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.[i]
These are the words of a man captivated by the vision of a just society. It is a society that, according to the quote, does “the will of God, come what may.” It is a noble vision. It is why we strive as we do. It is why we sacrifice. That is why today in the United States we remember and honor the work of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. King worked for justice and we continue that good work. He was an imperfect man, to be sure, but the United States (and, indeed, many other places in the world) owe him a great debt of gratitude for the tireless, sacrificial way he put his life on the line for the cause of the oppressed. Though we remember him most for his efforts concerning the civil rights of black people in America, his work serves as a model for any endeavor to right the wrongs of injustice, in whatever form it appears.
My theme in this essay concerns the source from which Dr. King’s work is derived and the scope of such work. At the close of the essay, I invite you to consider how we can honor Dr. King by following his example and I invite you to consider how his legacy is needed now more than ever.
It is well known that Dr. King was an ordained minister. As a minister myself, I’m especially drawn to that aspect of King’s work. In other words, I believe King did what he did because of his King. He made that abundantly clear in his writings, of which the quote at the beginning serves as a small sample.
The Basis of Dr. King’s Nonviolent Protest
All great reformers look to those who have gone before for their inspiration. When the going gets tough, they persevere because they have firmly fixed in their mind and heart a vision of the future that is derived from great moments and leaders of the past. King’s inspiration was Jesus and there is much in the account of Jesus’ sayings and actions that informed King’s nonviolent way of protesting injustice.
Many people are familiar with sayings from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, for example:
“Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:9-10)
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” (Matthew 5:38-39)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:43-45a)
“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)
That last saying is an interesting one. Most of us know the middle phrase very well: “…do to others what you would have them do to you…”
We refer to this as the Golden Rule. It’s astounding, to be sure. It’s astounding because throughout history there has yet to come anyone to surpass this saying. If everyone kept this one rule, King believed, there would be no more injustice. It’s what Jesus taught.
That’s why it’s important to keep in mind that the middle phrase is encased by two other phrases.
First, Jesus says, “So, in everything do to others…”
That is our problem. We don’t keep the Golden Rule “in everything.” That is really what Dr. King worked towards. He wanted to see us keep the Golden Rule in everything and he saw that we did not keep it with respect to the lives of black people, so he directed his efforts towards putting that right.
But we should keep in mind that, though King’s work had a particular focus, he once said that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”[ii]
In that respect, King’s work was about much more than racism. It’s also about sexism, ageism and ableism, to name a few. Anyone, by virtue of being human, should be afforded basic rights, regardless of their race, sex, age or ability.
While King is remembered for his focus on the issue of race, Jesus addressed every one of the injustices listed above. Indeed, that is why Jesus was King’s King.
For example, in Matthew 15 (and the parallel account in Mark 7) there is a story that touches on the question of ageism. I will look at that text later in this essay, because it presents a fine case that demonstrates in action what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount (and what King endeavored to do).
Before turning to that case, however, we need to look at the final phrase of the Golden Rule. It, too, is included in Jesus’ vision of a just society.
What is the Basis of a Just Society?
I have italicized the last phrase of the Golden Rule: “…do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”
The word “for” indicates the rationale for “doing to others what you would have them do to you.” Though it is unpopular to say so, the end to which Jesus instructed us to practice the Golden Rule was so that we might honor the Law and the Prophets (that is, to live according to the vision of a just society as it is presented to us by them). Jesus believed, along with other Jews of the first century, that living according to the Law and the Prophets would form a world where humanity and creation would flourish.
Contrary to what many claim, Jesus did not simply come to jettison the Law. Rather, he sought to help us embrace the Law rightly, interpret it wisely, and observe it without hypocrisy. Jesus’ condemnation was not the Law itself. It was the way in which the Pharisees had twisted it and used it as a tool to enslave the populace. Put another way, Jesus sought to liberate the Law from its Pharisaical trappings, but he did not seek to abolish it.
He made this clear at the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:17 Jesus says: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Indeed, in verse twenty, he directs this statement specifically with respect to the Pharisees when he says: “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
I do believe this is the one aspect of Jesus’ ministry that most modern-day people do not appreciate, including Christians. But, I also believe Dr. King understood the importance of this part of Jesus’ teaching because the work to which he dedicated himself indicated such understanding.
What I mean to say is: the last part of the Golden Rule indicates the value of working for justice on a systemic level, not just an interpersonal level. The Law, to the first century Jewish person, was a Constitution. It was systemically concerned, even if it needed to be practiced personally. It presented to them a way of life by which they would all be governed; more precisely, it was a vision of “the good life.” When the Law and the Prophets were fully kept, they believed, all would be well.
What Sets Jesus Apart in the Cause of Justice
What set Jesus apart as a leader in his day was the authority he exercised with respect to the Law. The priestly, rabbinic and scholarly community helped the people embrace, understand and observe the Law as it had been handed down to them. They were stewards, but over the years their interpretation of the Law and practice of it became corrupted.
And this is what Jesus addressed, specifically. In some instances, he upheld what had been handed down to them, seeking to illuminate the original meaning of the Law. In other instances, he modified the Law. In still other instances, he overturned the Law, teaching them those aspects that were no longer needed, no longer in keeping with the spirit in which the Law was originally given.
In any case, what informed Jesus’ ministry was a vision of a society where the good Law, as God gives it afresh, is cherished and observed so that people and creation might flourish.
But, Jesus was also set apart from everyone else because he wisely pointed out that this System of Law could only be fully embraced as the human heart underwent a transformation.
Thus, in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus quotes the Law “do not murder” while observing that the source of murder is in the human heart in the form of hatred. In a similar way, Jesus quotes the Law when it says “do not commit adultery” but he goes on to teach that the source of adultery is in the human heart in the form of lust.
Jesus taught that if we learn not to hate, we will not murder; if we learn not to lust, we will not betray trust. To transform society, we need to transform the human heart.
But, notice, that is not all Jesus taught. He taught that personal transformation was necessary to achieve the end to which the Law was directed; namely, the realization of a just and flourishing society—a world where God’s will is done “on earth as it is in heaven.”[iii] That world is a world of joy and freedom, hope and provision, love and honesty. It’s a world where no one kills, no one lies, no one cheats, no one steals and everyone is at peace with one another. It’s a good world.
That’s what the Law championed and that’s what Jesus championed; namely, personal and systemic goodness.
An Example: What’s Most Important?
Of course, another aspect that set Jesus apart from the religious leaders of his day is that he actually practiced what he preached. He truly upheld the Law and he was truly good from the inside-out. In him, there was no hypocrisy. Not so, the Pharisees.
In Matthew 15[iv], we read how Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount applied in a real, live context. We see Jesus’ concern for both personal transformation and systemic justice. The story shows us the nature of the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees and I want to look at it because we will be better able to grasp the nature and significance of Dr. King’s work through it (since Dr. King based his engagement of injustice on the values embodied by Jesus).
At first, you may wonder what the story in Matthew 15 has to do with the work of Dr. King but it has everything to do with it. It’s an excellent example of what it means to work for justice holistically (that is, both personally and systemically).
The story begins when the Pharisees and teachers criticize Jesus and his disciples because they don’t observe the custom of washing hands before eating. The custom was tied to their life of worship and rooted in the Levitical code. Jesus answered them with these words:
“Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.’"
One can see at the outset that Jesus seeks to honor the Law and the Prophets. He does this by quoting the prophet Isaiah. Jesus bases his ministry on that of the prophets.
He doesn’t just quote the prophet, however; he asserts that the words of the prophet are being fulfilled even as they speak to one another. Jesus, therefore, serves the role of a prophet himself. He claims an authority that critiques the status quo. One could say he is not only the King of Kings, he is also a Prophet of Prophets.
In interpreting the prophet Isaiah, he goes on to say to the Pharisees: “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” (Mark 7:8)
Notice Jesus’ view that the commands are good. He does not throw them out. What he wants to critique are the “human traditions” that were entangled with the commands of God.
What is striking about this is that the Pharisees observed this practice of washing hands because of their adherence to the Levitical code, which they believed contained a detailed description of how to keep the Ten Commandments. To the Pharisees, the practice of washing one’s hands was a command, in that sense. Thus, they were unable to differentiate what was a command and what wasn’t.
This is where Jesus modified the Law as they knew it and this is what got Jesus into trouble. He was calling into question their very way of life (which, to them, was a vision of the good life, keep in mind).
Matthew continues the narrative by including a parable Jesus told them: “Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” (Matthew 15:11)
Peter doesn’t understand what Jesus is saying, so in verse 15 he asks Jesus to explain the parable. Jesus replies:
“Are you still so dull? Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.” (Matthew 15:16-20)
Significantly, Mark adds this comment to the story: “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.” (Mark 7:19)
In a single short bit of teaching, Jesus ingeniously underscores the need for personal transformation and he overturns a key aspect of the Law so powerful it governs the lives of Jewish people still today: observing kosher dietary restrictions.
So far, in this interaction we have observed Jesus modifying the Law and overturning it. What of upholding it? That aspect, in fact, was the first thing out of Jesus’ mouth when responding to the initial criticism by the Pharisees. I skipped over it because I wanted to keep the best for last. Let’s look now at how Jesus initially responded to the Pharisees, for we will see in it how he upheld the Law and it will become more apparent how the work of Jesus links with that of Dr. King.
How Jesus Upheld the Law and Challenged the System
Certainly, it could be argued that Jesus can be seen upholding the Law in the exposition we’ve offered already. Even in the instance where Jesus overturns the Law, he does so because he wants us to embrace the spirit of the Law, not the letter of it. In other words, even when Jesus overturns the Law, his intent is to uphold it, to champion the Law’s vision of a just society.
In this respect, it’s telling what Jesus initially said to the Pharisees when they criticized him:
“And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus, you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.” (Matthew 15:3-6)
Here we see again Jesus’ concern for keeping the Commandments. To be sure, there is another story of Jesus where he overturns the death penalty as punishment for sin.[v] Thus, Jesus is not saying here in the text by Matthew that the Pharisees should put to death anyone who “curses their father or mother.” The emphasis in his reply is on their hypocrisy, that they do not keep the main part of the Law, which is the Fifth Word to honor one’s father and mother.
That is where Jesus upholds the Law, specifically. He reiterates the necessity of the Fifth Word of the Decalogue[vi] and asserts that the Pharisees, in their religiosity, broke the very commandment God wants everyone to keep.
Basically, the Pharisees were neglecting to bless, honor and care for their own elderly parents because they were withholding material support from them. In this way, they were increasing the suffering of the aged. The irony is that they were doing this because they wanted to give God more. They thought they were doing a good thing but, far from adhering to the Law, the Pharisees were breaking it—and thereby creating an unjust society.
In calling out their sin, Jesus addressed the issue of ageism, common in his time (and in our time, too). It is the practice of withholding basic human rights especially to the very old (but also to the very young). It is a matter that concerns society’s “margins” and it was a concern rooted in the original giving of the Law.[vii]
What Happened Next and How Jesus Responded
Jesus called out their sin and challenged their system. Predictably, the Pharisees take offense.
Jesus’ disciples draw his attention to this. They say: “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?”
And Jesus answers: “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”
I love the New Living Translation of this text. It renders the expression “leave them” as “ignore them.” It reads in a matter-of-fact fashion.
Because this piece is intended to highlight the work of Dr. King, let’s apply this exposition now to his work.
Concerning Dr. King
Above, I wanted to look closely at the work of Jesus so we can see how Dr. King followed his example. MLK followed suit in several respects, five of which I mention below.
As the work of justice is never done and wide in scope (and we still have a long way to go concerning race relations in America), I invite you to consider these principles as we honor the examples of Jesus and Dr. King by our words and actions.
First, to work for justice is to work for personal transformation. Both Jesus and Dr. King model this for us. In his lecture upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Dr. King said:
“There is a sort of poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers.
“Every man lives in two realms, the internal and the external. The internal is that realm of spiritual ends expressed in art, literature, morals, and religion. The external is that complex of devices, techniques, mechanisms, and instrumentalities by means of which we live. Our problem today is that we have allowed the internal to become lost in the external. We have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live…This is the serious predicament, the deep and haunting problem confronting modern man. If we are to survive today, our moral and spiritual ‘lag’ must be eliminated.”
Second, it is not enough to work for personal transformation. We must also endeavor to change the system itself that nurtures injustice.
In their book Divided by Faith (which concerns race relations in America) authors Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith document the propensity of white Christians to cite personal and interpersonal issues in fighting racism, but a reluctance (or inability) to see the problem of racial injustice in systemic terms. White people often content themselves with stating “I’m not a racist” while at the same time ignoring there are other factors that make a society racially unjust beyond personal attitudes or behaviors.
Yet, the black church in America sees the inequity clearly—because they experience the injustice first-hand. A black person may experience an individual white person who is not a racist, but that does not mean the black community enjoys equity in the system.
Even as Dr. King worked to raise our consciousness regarding the dignity of every person, he worked practically (systemically) to secure the right of black people in America to enjoy the same liberties as white people. He sought to change the system, as did Jesus.
Third, we should follow the example of Jesus and Dr. King by simply speaking truth to power. That is what prophets do and today we are in need of such prophets.
Consider the power of these ideas. Dr. King (like Jesus) trusted in the proclamation of the simple truth. Notice how, like a prophet, Dr. King draws from the biblical tradition in this excerpt from his Nobel prize lecture.
“We still have a long, long way to go before the dream of freedom is a reality for the Negro in the United States. To put it figuratively in biblical language, we have left the dusty soils of Egypt and crossed a Red Sea whose waters had for years been hardened by a long and piercing winter of massive resistance. But before we reach the majestic shores of the Promised Land, there is a frustrating and bewildering wilderness ahead. We must still face prodigious hilltops of opposition and gigantic mountains of resistance. But with patient and firm determination we will press on until every valley of despair is exalted to new peaks of hope, until every mountain of pride and irrationality is made low by the leveling process of humility and compassion; until the rough places of injustice are transformed into a smooth plane of equality of opportunity; and until the crooked places of prejudice are transformed by the straightening process of bright-eyed wisdom.”
These words are filled with inherent power because of their truth. Thus, in working for justice do not fight power with more power. Simply speak truth to power and simply trust in the power of truth.
Fourth, I believe that Dr. King’s approach followed the example of Jesus in exercising wisdom as to how to respond when faced with opposition.
“Ignore them,” Jesus said.
There were many who opposed Dr. King’s message and they were vocal and forceful in their opposition. But, what did Dr. King do? He ignored them and carried on proclaiming the truth, taking a stand for justice. Like Jesus, he paid for it with his life, but the truth prevailed and many were changed because of it.
This way of working for justice is especially under threat today, I do believe. But “ignoring one’s detractors” especially follows from the third principle of simply speaking truth to power. The two go hand-in-hand. If we really believe in the power of the truth, we don’t have to engage in a tit-for-tat regarding every bit of opposition we face.
Yet, far from exercising discernment regarding wise responses to one’s detractors, we nitpick at every jot and tittle someone offers in disagreement. I find this is true especially on Facebook these days.
I cannot think of a time in the last three months when someone posted a political opinion that wasn’t met with counter-argument, counter-counter-argument and counter-counter-counter-argument…you get the idea. And in a most unwise and uncivil fashion.
I can’t help but feel those types of interactions dishonor the great heritage of civil discourse we have inherited from people like Dr. King.
The word of Jesus and the example of Dr. King to simply “ignore them” is in sore need of observance, I feel. In the time it takes to answer our detractors, we could write ten times as much buoyed by a positive vision of hope, vision, freedom and joy.
If “the best critique of the bad is the practice of the good”, to maintain focus on writing and speaking the good comes in a close second. There will always be naysayers. Don’t worry about them. Just do and speak what’s true, good and noble. Trust in the power of truth.
A fifth lesson we can learn from Jesus and Dr. King as we endeavor to work for justice is this: don’t give up; persevere, even if it costs your life.
If you are ever faced with the choice to die for the truth or to live while hiding the truth, choose the former. Most of us will not have to die for the truth, thankfully. Most of us will simply need to persevere speaking truth to power, working for systemic justice, softening (and, simultaneously, strengthening) our own hearts.
We need to persevere, because, as we are aware, there is still much to be done in the interest of justice.
It is sobering that more than half a century after Dr. King received the Nobel prize many feel these words which he spoke in his lecture are apt for today, too, but in a different way. In speaking of the progress that has been made, Dr. King said:
“Another indication that progress is being made was found in the recent presidential election in the United States. The American people revealed great maturity by overwhelmingly rejecting a presidential candidate who had become identified with extremism, racism, and retrogression. The voters of our nation rendered a telling blow to the radical right. They defeated those elements in our society which seek to pit white against Negro and lead the nation down a dangerous Fascist path.”
Those words, and the fact that I include those words in this essay, no doubt will raise the anger of some of my readers. All I have to say is: when I read those words earlier today they struck a chord of truth in me that I cannot deny. The “extremism” of which Dr. King speaks presents a danger not only to America but to Europe and many other places in the world.
That is why I am a minister. That is why I write. I believe that, with God’s help, we are able to become more gracious and loving. I believe that trust in God engenders trust in each other. I believe we can lay down our weapons and defenses, open our arms like the crucified Christ and experience the freedom and resurrection that attends such forgiveness, compassion and mercy. I believe in a gentler way; I believe in the power of gentleness. I believe humility is strong and courage can be kind. I believe the lamb can lay down with the lion. I believe that with humans this seems impossible, but with God (with the Truth of God), all things are possible.
We honor Dr. King best by working for justice the way Jesus worked for justice. May we truly fulfill the Golden Rule by working for justice in everything we do: personally, systemically, speaking truth to power, captivated not by the opposition, but by a vision of love, even if it means ultimate sacrifice.
[i] from A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. edited by James M. Washington.
[ii] from “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” (italics mine)
[iii] Matthew 6:10b
[iv] In my exposition, I also draw from Mark’s parallel account of this same incident, since Mark includes a few additional (yet complementary) details. It’s found in Mark 7.
[v] That story is in John 8:1-11.
[vi] …which we refer to as the Fifth Commandment.
[vii] Originally, the Law to “honor your parents” was especially directed at adult children of elderly parents. The concern was the honor one grants a parent when the adult child cares for their parents who are no longer able to care for themselves. It’s a question of human dignity as we age and it represents a significant issue of social justice. Today, we interpret the Fifth Word mainly with respect to young children. This is the subject of another essay, but it is the very thing Jesus wanted to restore that had become distorted to his first century listeners. I include it here to demonstrate the need to work for justice on a systemic level, beyond the personal ramifications.