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The Golden Rule

May 2, 2013

My stomach hurt as I stared at the screen. It felt like someone had just pierced the lining of my intestine with a rusty butter knife. As I read about the acts of horrible brutality, the callous indifference to humanity, I felt sick. I stared at the pictures of destruction and blood and I felt numb. Who would do this? Who would blow up a family with a faceless bomb? Who can brutally kill children and live with themselves? What kind of twisted monster could commit such brutal acts? How is this allowed to happen? Who would do something like this?

Me.

I did.

As a voting citizen of the United States, I am responsible for the acts my government commits. The atrocities carried out in my name continue unabated. I’m not sure the blood can be washed away.

There is one thing that unifies human belief: morality. At the core of the world’s religions there is morality, right and wrong. On the whole, this moral spine that religion hangs from is identical. While the flesh that grows around it may vary from religion to religion, the moral spine remains the same. It is best summed up by the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It is a simple concept with enormous import. It is a reminder that our fellow members of humanity have the same rights and needs as we do. It is a warning against hypocrisy. It is a warning against lies, theft, murder, rape, and avaricious aggression. The Golden Rule also prescribes its own punishment. If you do these things to someone else, you can expect that they will return the gesture. Therefore, the safest course of action is to treat others as you would treat yourself.

As an atheist, I have been accused of having no morality. I am told that without belief in a higher power that there is no reason I should adhere to any moral code. But morality is not good because it is supported by some all-powerful unseen deity, like Yahweh or the American Legal System. Morality is good because it is proven to be beneficial. I don’t kill or steal just because I am told to. I don’t do those things because they are destructive, not only to any victims but ultimately to myself as well. And not just because I might be arrested. A murdered father has sons; a murdered daughter has a father. Destructive behavior proliferates. Perhaps the consequences will not be felt immediately but immorality has a destabilizing effect. (I hesitate to label it immorality because that brings with it the clinging flesh of religion. Religion likes to sometimes to condemn acts that are not harmful to anyone but their god. This mortal flesh hangs onto the immortal spine of Morality, the Golden Rule.) My morality is easily arrived at through logical thought. “I don’t want anyone to kill me so I won’t kill anyone. If I do it, they will be thinking that I think killing is okay and that it is okay to kill me. Therefore I won’t kill anyone.” Or, “I don’t want to be lied to, so I will be honest with people. Also, if I lie, there is a chance I will be found out and the damage will be greater than if I had just told the truth in the first place. Perhaps it is best to tell the truth.” Or, “I like coming home to a safe and secure home where I know my things won’t suddenly go missing. I think that to make sure that my home is safe, I should not violate anyone else’s. They might then think it was okay to come and take my stuff. I’d better not take anyone else’s things.”

Religion is an elaboration on this very simple concept. A lot of times religious texts can end up sounding like Morality For Dummies. But, on the whole, except in some extreme circumstances, humanity and religion agree on the ethic of reciprocity. It transcends culture, language, geographical location and religion. It is universal and we are hardwired with it as means to ensure our collective survival. Except for a few petulant dissenters, I’m looking at you, George Bernard Shaw, we can all agree that it is the best way to live and the best way to ensure maximum good for all.

Last month, two explosions rumbled the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Hundreds were injured. Mercifully, the fatalities were few. To truly understand the American people, one need only look to the aftermath of a tragedy like the Boston Bombing. There is anguish and compassion. Tales of heroism and humanity emerge from the rubble. And then there are the calls for blood, for revenge, for retaliation. The humanity and heroism fade from the public consciousness when newer news comes along. All that remains is the lust for revenge, for “justice”.

In the last decade, we have seen the merits of this response. In the days following September 11th, 2001, we became a nation united under the banner of revenge. We would root out the terrorists and kill them. There would be no mercy. If you are not with us, you are against us. There were no voices on the national stage asking why something like this would happen. We were told that the terrorists were motivated by a hatred of our freedoms. There were a few who called bullshit. Jeremiah Wright was widely condemned for suggesting that the tragedy may have been in response to our nation’s horrendous humanitarian record throughout the world and that perhaps we had received what was coming to us.

It is a firmly held American belief that we are blameless. Yes, maybe our government has done a few questionable things, but that does not make the American people an acceptable target. They are innocent.

America is a representative democracy. The American people have chosen the government and the government acts at the people’s behest. So if the government carries out obscene acts then it would follow that they are doing so with the approval of the American people. Theoretically, there are not two separate Americas. There is not a government and its people. The two are one and the same. The government is made up of Americans chosen by the electorate.

Our government has committed horrible acts across the globe for the last hundred years. Toppling democratically elected governments, propping up brutal dictators, capturing, imprisoning and torturing innocent people without a trial. In the last decade we have completely destroyed not one, but two nations. We have embarked on a program of what can only be described as state-funded terror with the increased use of unmanned drones. We have the largest prison population in the world, a higher percent of our own citizens are incarcerated than Iran. Our economic policies have decimated the world economy. We have taken a leading role in destroying the global ecosystem.

None of this is secret. None of this is in debate. These things have happened and continue to happen and the American response continues to be indifference. Any debate about the morality or legality of drone strikes has been limited to debate about drones being used within our borders. Any concerns about torture are kept off the front page.

Of course, you say, of course I have more sympathy and compassion for my own countrymen. It is only natural. Sure, it’s sad those people on the other side of the world died, but I didn’t know them; I can’t relate to them.

Another common theme in America is that all life is precious. What is not stated, but what every American keeps in their heart, is that the statement “All life is precious” really means all American life is precious. We are the greatest country on earth. We are the fastest. We are the strongest. We are guided by better principles than anyone else. Our country has the moral high ground. And the proof? The proof is that we have accumulated more wealth than any other country in history. Good triumphs over evil and victory has its rewards.

We may be the strongest and the richest, but that does not give us any extra insight into morality. In fact, if anything, such qualities inhibit morality. Jesus Christ himself said it: “It is harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” The strong and the rich have no need for morality. They live in a bubble that protects them from reality. They cannot understand the struggles of the weak and the poor. To the powerful, others are pawns or obstacles. You do not worry how the pawn feels when you are shoving it into heat of battle. You do not worry how the obstacle feels as you roll over it, grinding it into the dust. The system of entrenched power that exists in America essentially guarantees that our leaders will be corrupt. Even the most eloquent noble-mindedness is swept away in the raging sea of greed, corruption and graft. The weak are forgotten as the powerful tighten their grip on the reins of power. The weak are kept weak and the powerful grow stupid on the toxic fumes of their own ego.

The root of morality is doing unto others what you would have done to you. What have we done? What have we allowed to be done in our name? What has been done to us? Is a Pakistani life less precious than an American? Is a Middle Eastern child less innocent than an American child? Do we have the moral high ground? Can power and morality coexist? Have we, as a nation, replaced our moral spine with the notion that might is right? If so, is it possible to survive without a spine? Can a nation endure without morality?

We are complicit. We have allowed the powerful, the Men in the Bubble, to carry out atrocities in our name. Every soul we sacrifice saps our strength. While life may be a renewable resource, our humanity is not. Either all life is precious, even the lives of our enemies, or no life is precious, including our own.

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