Masks, and the G-G

Some reflections on the Golden Rule

I live in a city (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada) which has recently instituted a by-law requiring everyone to wear a non-medical face covering in buildings which are accessible to the public, unless they have medical or psychological reasons. Not surprisingly, there has been vocal resistance from some people. I’m not going to rehearse all the arguments I’ve heard, but they do seem to fall into two main categories. One tries to make it a matter of personal rights. The other asserts that they don’t need to wear a mask to protect themselves, and they don’t care if others become sick as a result.

It seems to me that both of these arguments fly in the face of one of the pillars of ethics. Almost every religion has a version of what Christians call the “Golden Rule.”

In the New Testament, we hear Jesus saying:

 ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.’

(Matthew 7:12 NRSV)

A poster available through various on-line sources sets this quote with with similar quotes from seventeen other faith traditions. They sound remarkably similar. (Search for “Golden Rule Poster” to find it.) The seeming ubiquity of this rule suggests that it is in some way integral to much of human ethics. What the Golden Rule does is show that ethical behaviour is reflexive. My actions affect your life, just as your actions affect my life. As John Donne wrote, “No (hu)man is an island.”

Understanding that my needs and desires are interwoven with the desires and need of all other people, acknowledging that other people’s needs and desires are as valid and important as our own, are the key to building true community. We call this ability “empathy.” Many people confuse empathy with sympathy, which expresses a feeling about another person’s situation without real involvement in that situation.

The Golden Rule elevates our striving for empathy to an ethical principle.

Wearing a mask may protect me from the COVID-19 virus, but that’s not the point. If we all want to be protected, we must ask each to protect each other — to do to others what we would want done for ourselves. It’s a reflexive benefit, working best when we undertake it for the good of other people before ourselves.

I have also had occasion to reflect on the Golden Rule in a very different context. Canada’s Governor-General has been accused of running a toxic workplace, in which staff often feel belittled and abused. The matter is under public scrutiny, and I have no knowledge of it other than what I have read in the news media. Thus I will refrain from any judgement of Mme. Payette here.

What this reminded me of was my own history as both employee and boss. I had one really bad boss in my early work life, who knew just how to make me feel inadequate and incompetent. His replacement was a revelation to me — the first supervisor I had ever had who made me feel a valued part of the team, building me up where I needed help, and letting me do my job where I was fully capable. When I started supervising others, I resolved to emulate him, by trying to be the kind of boss I would like to have myself.

That’s the “Golden Rule of Management” for me. It sounds simple, but it can be very hard to put into practice, especially if you have a tendency to perfectionism like me! What it means in practice is to listen to the people you are working with, treat them as humans, accept and help to correct their failures when they happen, and rejoice with them when they succeed.

What it means is to have empathy.

We could on at length about places the Golden Rule can be applied. I’m not sure we would ever exhaust the list. For me today it remains one of the central guiding principles of my life. Jesus taught it, and that’s where I first heard it, but it cuts across human life in a wonderfully powerful way.

So, my friends, let us strive to do for each other as we would wish done for ourselves — and the world will be a better place

Living in the gap

We’re in the middle of a pandemic. That’s not really news, but the various things happening around this event are getting more troubling for me every day. Our city government has decreed that face coverings will be mandatory as of August 1, at the same time that our Provincial government has decided to move ahead with schools re-opening in September without any real extra protection (or funds) for students and staff.

If people are confused and trouble, there’s good reason. Our leaders at various levels are starting to work against each other, in contrast to the early days (March and April) when everyone seemed to be on the same page. People are getting tired of the restrictions, even as most are starting accept them as the “new normal.”

Not an easy time to live in, to be sure. And it’s made even harder by the number of people at every level of society who are pushing back against the science. I’ve heard of people denying that there is a pandemic at all. At the other extreme, I’ve heard people who say that the doctors and scientists are covering up the real seriousness of the situation.

We are living in a peculiar kind of gap. The virus has changed many of our normal behaviors, perhaps permanently. Whatever happens, I think it’s fair to say that nothing will ever be quite the same after this is over. Will it ever be over? Will we be living with this virus for the foreseeable future? If an effective vaccine and/or a cure can’t be found, can we ever feel safe again?

So here we are, more than four months into the declaration of the pandemic, and we have few workable answers. It seems to me that we need to try to trust the people who are working in this area day by day, allowing them the space to exercise their expertise.

One of the things that really troubles me is the self-centred attitude many people are taking to simple precautions like wearing face-covering. It may be your right to risk getting a disease, but is it your right to put other people at risk?

Every right we might claim brings with it an attendant responsibility. Free speech? By all means, speak your mind, but please be aware that your speech may needlessly hurt someone else. Free assembly? Get together as you wish, but not at the expense of other people’s freedom and safety. Freedom of religion? I’m all for that — I don’t want anyone dictating my faith life. But that means that you have to respect other people’s religious freedom.

I will wear a mask in public places in my city. I will worship according to the church and health authority’s dictates. I will keep my distance from other people as much as possible. I will sanitize as possible.

And I will continue to hope and pray that the end of this “gap” in our corporate life will not be disaster, but rather a new and kinder way of living.

Now what?

Text for a sermon preached on Good Friday, 2020, at Holy Trinity, Edmonton

Once again, we have heard the story of Jesus’ Passion and death. Once again, we have used texts from Scripture to try to comprehend this perplexing event that plays so profound a role in our faith. Once again, we have ended the story by laying Jesus in the tomb. And once again, we will go from this time in anticipation of the day that we believe will come.

The philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard wrote “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Just so, we experience the Passion story backwards. From our post-Easter perspective, we can only know it through the lens of the Resurrection, striving to see it as the Evangelist does, not as a defeat but a victory—a mysterious one to be sure, but nonetheless a victory. As we remember the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday 2020, we have the benefit of 20 centuries of hindsight and insight. Those who witnessed his death, received his body, and buried him did not. For them, the master was dead, his body wrapped in linen cloths, lying in a cold stone tomb. For them, everything that Jesus had represented and stood for went to the grave with him.

They might well have asked “Now what?”

We might be tempted from our privileged post-Resurrection perspective to reproach Jesus’ disciples for their lack of understanding, but even the first witnesses did not understand. Comprehension and belief took time. On that day before the Sabbath, as they went to their homes, all they knew was that Jesus was dead. All they could do was grieve—each in his or her own way, as is natural and normal.

Then came the Sabbath, that day when the earth stands still, and the people of God take their rest. For Jesus’ disciples and friends, that first Holy Saturday must surely have been a day of shock, disbelief, sadness, anger, even denial, things that we can understand as aspects of grief. As we hear of Jesus’ death and burial, we are invited into this same grief, to make it our own, and to live with it for a while. Grief is part of life. It is the normal human response to loss—any loss—and it cannot be pushed aside but must rather be lived through and dealt with.

The hours between now and our Easter “Alleluias” are hours of sharing the experience of the disciples, knowing their grief, living with the loss of all that is life-giving and life-restoring, not knowing what is to come next. We may call times such as these “Holy Saturday” experiences, times when one door has closed, and the next is yet to open. They are significant times in human life, and yet we often do not acknowledge them appropriately, if at all. Nonetheless, I believe if we are truly to experience the Real Presence of Christ in the Church and its sacraments, we must walk through this shadowed time of Real Absence.

Some years ago, I was called upon to mediate a conflict within a group of close friends. They had been almost inseparable in the years when their children were growing up, and all were deeply involved in the life of the church. Times change, people find new interests and vocations, and long-standing relationships become strained. As we sat together that night, one of them turned to another and said, “I know that our old friendship is dead, but I do hope for a resurrection.” As things turned out, new life was eventually possible among them, but it took time, and the new relationship was unlike anything any of them might have expected. They had to let the old one die, and to live with its loss for a time.

People are all experiencing a jumble of feelings during the COVID-19 emergency. It seems to me that as church, city, country, and world, we are living through a Holy Saturday moment. We have lost much: jobs and income, mobility, social interaction, public performances, sporting events. We have no way of knowing when this will end, nor what the world will look like after it does. Many are left to sit at home and ponder in grief. We don’t know what’s coming.

Kierkegaard was right. We can only live forwards, just like the disciples, who had no idea what was coming. The stone had not yet been rolled away, and all they could do was live through the loss of their Teacher.

Good Friday is about experiencing death. Holy Saturday is about living with that loss—the empty day of the church year, the day of “real absence.” We walk with Jesus’ disciples in this time, sharing their grief, and looking to the unknown future that God has prepared.

Easter will come…but not yet. That message is for another day.

Christ has died. Jesus’ body lies in the tomb.

Now what? God knows—and so shall we, in God’s own time.

May God who gave us his only Son give us comfort in all our griefs.

Amen.