With our political system in chaos over the past few weeks, I have found myself meditating on this passage from Matthew’s Gospel:
‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Matt. 7:12-14)
The first sentence has become known as the Golden Rule, and it is a standard of behavior which members of Congress, perhaps even the President himself, and growing numbers of Americans seem to have utterly forsaken. The majority of our political leadership, and the majority of the voters who determine who those leaders are, seem to be growing increasingly fond of a very different rule: “do unto others?” What others? It is only I who matter. Those who follow this rule are so wrapped up in their own egos that they are unwilling – perhaps even unable – to see or hear any other point of view. Their only thought is of the rightness of their own cause, so completely enthralled are they by what they perceive as the brilliant light of their own intellect. They wish to be glorified, they wish to be honored, they wish for power and wealth. They do not see the plight of the poor. They do not care for those who have no job or who are underemployed. They have no time for those who have no access to healthcare. They do not wish to be confronted by those whose very being or way of life might challenge their own carefully cultivated perspectives of reality. They are interested only in implementing their own, private vision of “America” which they have convinced themselves will lead to nothing but sunshine and blue skies for evermore, as long as only the right kind of people are admitted to it.
Yet the path of which Jesus speaks, the one that is wide, easily followed and leads to destruction is precisely the path that we find ourselves on when we fail to see and hear the needs and the suffering of others, including and even especially those others whom we find it most difficult to acknowledge. The wide path that leads to destruction is the path of the ego, which enthrones itself at the center of its own universe and delights in its own brilliance, glory and rightness. This path lacks compassion, it lacks understanding, it lacks the ability to see all the shades of gray that lie between the extremes. It is the easy road, the one that most of us follow. It is the path of the life that refuses to be examined and opened to transformation.
The narrow path, however, the one that leads to life is the path that is shaped by the Golden Rule. It is paved with compassion, rooted in the understanding that everything that we do affects those around us – and the more power we have, the greater the affect our actions have on others. This narrow path does not ask, “What do I want?” first but instead asks, “What do you need?” It is a path that acknowledges the other, whoever that may be, and seeks to listen to the other, understand the other and honor the other as a basis for genuine conversation that has the potential to lead to conversion and thus to life.
The deep dysfunction evident in our politics these days is an outward and visible sign of a much deeper and, to me, more alarming problem: a dysfunction that corrupts the very soul of America. It is easy to throw stones at our political leaders and to blame them for our problems – and they do, indeed, bear great responsibility. It is much harder, however, to stop our ranting long enough to examine ourselves, and ask how we fit into this chaotic equation. Washington has become dysfunctional because we, as a nation, have become dysfunctional. We are losing the capacity to listen to each other, to respect each other, to honor each other. We too often fail to acknowledge our common humanity and instead indulge in demonizing those who see things differently from ourselves. We insist on electing people as our leaders who have the most strident voices, who are least likely to be able to reach agreements with others. We receive our news only from outlets whose editorial policies reflect our point of view. The American people as a whole are choosing the wide path that leads to destruction and the actions and inactions of our political leadership reflect that collective choice.
Deep in the heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition is a powerful lineage of speaking truth to power. The prophets were unflinching in their insistence on pointing to the corruption in their society. They spoke this truth not only to the most powerful but to the whole of the people of Israel. Jesus was unafraid to follow in this same tradition, seeking to hold the people of his time accountable for their choices and reminding them of the way in which those choices affected the most vulnerable among them. Those who seek to follow Jesus today should also not hesitate to speak the truth to our society on behalf of the most vulnerable, those who are most impacted by the decisions made in today’s political climate. It is not the place of religion to determine policy, but it is the place of religion to prick the consciences of those whose policy choices would lead to destruction.