“Golden Rule 2020” Is Spiritual Gaslighting

“Golden Rule 2020” Is Spiritual Gaslighting November 4, 2019

A pastor sits down in a counseling session. One spouse verbally abuses the other, gaslights and shouts at them. The abused spouse attempts to protect themselves, stand up for themselves and maintain appropriate boundaries. At which point the abusive spouse calls foul and accuses the abused of being the abuser.

The pastor, from the sideline, says, “Hey you two, you’re so polarized. Can’t you both just follow the golden rule?”

That’s a mini-parable that summarizes my reaction to the recent press releases on Golden Rule 2020: A Call for Respect and Dignity in Politics.

It’s like that infamous quote from Donald Trump after violence in Charlottesville, “You have very fine people on both sides.”

These kinds of calls for moderation aren’t surprising from religious leaders. Faith communities are fairly notorious for their attempts to remain in a kind of milquetoast middle. But such appeals become deeply problematic when they protect those abusing power and increase the vulnerability of others harmed by such abuse.

I can remember a moment a few years back. I was sitting in the district office of a certain congressman. When we sought better support and protection for vulnerable refugee populations, his response was, “You all live in REALITY. I live in POLITICAL reality.”

Nevermind what was the best thing to do to care for refugees. He had to be politically expedient.

What the congressman meant by the statement was straightforward. He couldn’t just do the right thing, because he has to do what will get him re-elected next term. That’s political reality.

Unfortunately, Golden Rule 2020 is an example of church leaders living in ecclesial political reality. Their call for “civility” is not about doing the right thing. It’s about not losing voters and maintaining the status quo (which in the church context is members all kind of getting along because of their general lack of truth-speaking).

Faith leaders are under the illusion that the most faithful thing to do is to keep as large (if nevertheless dwindling) a community together at the moderate middle as they can.

Golden Rule 2020 is a theology of glory, not a theology of the cross. It calls the bad good, and the good bad.

It fails at the command to let your yes be yes and your no be no (Matthew 5:37). Instead, it tells the community of faith, and apparently everybody else, that they should soften their “no” by building a codependent Golden Bridge.

Golden Rule 2020 redefines the gospel as “equivocation.”

Also… it just gets Jesus wrong, on many levels.

I mean, the Jesus who said “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” also called the Pharisees and Saduccees a “brood of vipers.” This Jesus said he came to cause divisions, at every level, right down to individual households.

“For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household (Matthew 10:35).

Jesus didn’t speak in such divisive ways out of sheer antagonistic demagoguery. No, he spoke this way because he knew the truth he was bringing, the kin-dom he was announcing, would naturally be resisted by those in authority, those with wealth, those with power.

Jesus might say in the context of Golden Rule 2020: “Whoever loves civility more than me cannot be my disciple.”

In a world where the president of the United States rage tweets 20-30 times per day, to such an extent that the New York Times issues a special report on his tweets, the majority of which are attacks, how in the world did the leaders of churches decide the most important statement for them to make was to get everyone to follow the Golden Rule?

Now, admittedly, we do have to find ways to speak the truth in love. I’m reminded of Michelle Obama’s statement, “When they go low, we go high.”

The thing about her statement… she still acknowledges that “they” go “low.” That’s truth. The Golden Rule 2020 initiative isn’t even willing to acknowledge that some in our political discourse are going low. Instead, it’s a broad-brush hand-slap of all parties.

So what do I wish these bishops and religious leaders would be calling for from all of us in 2020?

How about an actual theology of the cross?

Let’s try a re-write. In their appeal, they asked for these two items:

1) pray for the healing of the divisions in our country, and 2) promote the use of the Golden Rule in our own political discussions and election activities in 2020.

I suggest these instead:

1) pray that God’s kin-dom come on earth as it is in heaven, 2) promote always speaking the truth, whatever the cost, in our political discussions and election activities in 2020.

Point the finger in the right direction. Tell us specifically who is the one abusing. Name the abuses of power. Don’t issues statements that are quivering codependent scolds posing as faithfulness. Stand with those being harmed.

Finally, I thought I’d look and see if any of the ELCA’s social statements call for us to be “civil.” Looking at the social statement most likely to address this issue, Church in Society, I did a quick search. The word “civility” doesn’t even appear in the document. Neither does the term “Golden Rule.”

However, I did find statements like this: “As a prophetic presence, this church has the obligation to name and denounce the idols before which people bow, to identify the power of sin present in social struc- tures, and to advocate in hope with poor and powerless people.”

Also this: “Christians need to be concerned for the methods and the content of public delib- eration. They should be critical when groups of people are inadequately repre- sented in political processes and decisions that affect their lives.”

It’s a long document, but those are pretty indicative of the general trend.

In other words, Golden Rule 2020 encourages essentially the opposite of our own social statement. It will have the net result of silencing voices currently speaking prophetically in our church, while those idols they are denouncing will simply ignore what they see as another diatribe from the politically correct liberals.

There are many in our church and world who are saying, “The emperor has no clothes.”

Our bishops just said, “Shush, it’s not nice to say that.”


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  • TLars

    Looks like a rather meager effort anyway. I do respect the Red Letter Christians. They are doing more than simply keeping the volume down in serious political discussions. https://www.redletterchristians.org/author/don-golden/

  • Kris Bjerke-Ulliman

    True. Evil exists. When we sidestep the systemic issues, we aren’t just being civil but not speaking the truth.

  • Joseph Douglas

    Isaiah1:17 tells us to encourage the oppressed, and correct the oppressor. In Jesus’ ministry, the former were the poor, the latter were the rich.

  • Pan Unicorn

    Neutrality in the face of oppression is siding with the oppressor

  • Newton Finn

    Back in America’s first Gilded Age, a national and world sensation was caused by a couple of novels from one author, one who took seriously–and I mean SERIOUSLY–the Golden Rule as a political and economic principle as well as a spiritual one. Nothing since, not even in the midst of this second Gilded Age, has come even remotely close to the depth, breadth, clarity, and boldness of that late 19th Century novelist’s vision. For those interested, both books are free to read on the net.

    https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/11/19/on-earth-as-in-heaven-the-utopianism-of-edward-bellamy/

  • FireDragon76

    Good point, Clint. You really nailed why I have problems with the ELCA and the Protestant mainline. The pleas for moderation and toleration really are gaslighting when certain politicians use your friends and family as scapegoats in their ongoing culture war and encourage discrimination and indignity against vulnerable minorities of all kinds.

    Jesus interposed himself between bullies and the vulnerable. He did not plea for tolerance of the intolerable.

  • pawleys

    This tirade completely misses the point of the Golden Rule. While I agree with all the statements of Jesus that you cite later in the blog, you neglect to put the passage in which Jesus offered the “Golden Rule” in context or to interpret it properly. The actual quote is:

    “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

    Like the misquoted, “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” when the real quote is A FOOLISH consistence is the hobgoblin of little mind” you focused on only the “do unto others” and forget the “for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” which is central because it aligns the “do unto others” with the two great commandments, which almost all Biblical scholars say is the core message of Jesus:

    “Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

    In doing some research, I found the following particularly valuable because it links the “do unto others” with Jewish teachings in Deuteronomy and Leviticus.

    “With regard to the Old Testament, two main points prevail. Matthew’s citation presents the Golden Rule as encapsulating the teachings of the law and the prophets. Matthew 7:12 reads, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” Second, even though the Golden Rule addresses human interpersonal relationships, its message is essentially theo-logical. That is, the very character of God prescribes how we should relate to one another ( Matt 5:45 ; Luke 6:35-36 ).

    Matthew 22:37-40 may serve as the “hermeneutical bridge” that joins the Golden Rule with the message of the Old Testament. For these two points, the sum of the law and the theocentric nature of the Golden Rule, are both found here. When asked what was the greatest commandment, Jesus claimed that to love God totally and to love one’s neighbor as oneself was the sum of the Law and the Prophets (cf. also Mark 12:30-33 ; Luke 10:25-28 ). So adherence to the Shema ( Deut 6:4-5 ) and obeying the mandate to love one’s neighbor ( Lev 19:18 ) essentially conveys the Golden Rule.”

    Your initial statements are wrong. You compare the Golden Rule to Trump’s horrible comments in Charlottesville which is absurd. And that’s after your offensive joke about the pastor. Talk about Gaslighting! And you use that intro to attack central elements of the Christian and Jewish faith. Too many statements are both theologically unfounded and gaslighting, including the part about “Political reality” which is likewise unrelated to the Golden Rule. And the statement that the Golden Rule 2020 is equivocation does great disservice to this core tenet of Christianity.

    There are some Christians who want to sing Kumbya and hope the atrocities go away, but that is not and never has been the teachings of Jesus nor the intent of the Golden Rule. I agree that we (all of us) must seek the truth (it does set us free), but your attack on the Lutheran Church’s effort to pray for civility and healing the divisions is a cheap shot supported by spurious and unrelated examples.