The rest is commentary


There is a great story in the Jewish tradition about Rabbi Hillel, who, when told by a potential convert that he would embrace Judaism if Hillel could teach the entire Torah while the inquirer stood on foot, replied, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to others. The rest is commentary. "

Hillel's response, of course, began with an inverted version of the Golden Rule that Jesus taught, but what is perhaps more interesting to me is that second half of what he said: "The rest is commentary."

The commentary is the hard part, isn't it? One essential tenet, so simple in principle, so difficult in the execution. For thousands of years, spiritual humans of many faiths, including Jews and Christians, have tried to make sense of this solitary principle (or something like it) of how we should treat others, and often they have done so badly. The "commentary", found in the Bible and elsewhere, has been an ongoing struggle, a dialogue between the past and the present. Figuring our way out of our prejudices has not been an easy thing for humans to do. The Bible, if one takes the time to really study it in its historical context, provides a remarkable record of an evolving spirituality. Where early scriptures and early prophets frequently expressed a kind of tribalism, both with respect to their conception of Yahweh and of moral behavior, later prophets and scriptures saw an increasingly universal application of the principles that they had been working with, and an increasingly universal God to go with it. Whereas the book of Joshua celebrates a bloody tribalism that expresses itself through genocide, and whereas Elijah, supposedly one of the greatest of the prophets, committed horrible acts of bloodshed, later prophets like Second Isaiah celebrated a universal God and a vision of world peace.

How do we get from point A to point B? In the case of the Jewish people, it wasn't easy. The Jewish states were bit players in the power politics of the region, squeezed between the major powers of Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and Rome; the idea of Yahweh as a tribal deity could not survive intact under those difficult conditions without major changes. The Jewish religion had to evolve and adapt, especially, of course, during the Babylonian exile, which in many ways was the coup de grace of the old theology. Instead of dying out, though, Judaism matured.

The fact that it took historical circumstances to propel the evolution of Judaism should serve as an object lesson. Theology is not constructed out of whole cloth; it is always a product of the culture from which it emerges. Thus it is easy for us to look back on ancient people and criticize them for not seriously and universally applying the Golden Rule that they paid lip service to. Their societies were oppressive, militaristic, hierarchical, class-based, violent, and sexist. The genius of Jesus was in his ability to shed so much light on how the world around him did not conform to the Golden Rule; his message of universally inclusive love was a shock to the system, and it got him killed as a result. We can smugly look back now on those societies and remark on how terribly the inhabitants applied the Golden Rule to their social constructs. But then, perhaps we need to consider the log in our own eye first; there is still a lot of oppression going on among us today. We still live in an age of war, of Empires, and of economic exploitation. Maybe some day people will look back on our own society and wonder how anyone professing to believe in the Golden Rule could have tolerated our own forms of capitalist economic exploitation. We are all a product of the societies in which we live.

It's not easy applying the Golden Rule. Understanding the implications has been an extremely slow historical march. I think the most complete way for a faith to fully express the Golden Rule, which is to say put love into practice, is through a theology of universal inclusion. The Golden Rule at its narrowest focus involves how one individual treats another one. But universal inclusion is an application of this same principle in the broadest possible sense. It took the human race a long time to begin to figure out, for example, that, as an ideal, maybe women should be treated as full human beings, equal to men; or that slavery was a bad thing; or that racism and bigotry were social evils. The struggles we are now witnessing inside and outside the churches over equal rights for gays and lesbians is another expression of this.

No, it definitely hasn't been easy. And, more importantly, the "commentary" is still being written. Until the Kingdom of God that Jesus spoke of is fully realized, we still have unfinished business to conduct, and that means that the commentary is a work in progress as well.