Easter weekend seems an appropriate time to remind believers and non-believers alike that Jesus was never a Christian. Indeed, if the earliest of Christian writings are to be believed, Jesus wasn't much interested in establishing a new religion. He was just a good Jewish boy who took his faith seriously enough to think others might, too.
At the heart of his religious practice was an old proverb that has come to be known as The Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." This maxim is not unique to Judaism, although it is certainly central to it. The Talmud says: "What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man. This is the law: all the rest is commentary."
Not so surprisingly, you can find similar admonitions in other religious traditions. Thanks to several great sites on the Internet, I found some 21 different religious ways of saying the same thing. My favorites include Confucius' clever counsel: "Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence." And here is one from the sacred writings of Islam: "None of you (truly) believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself." Although I couldn't really tell you what shapes the beliefs of Zoroastrianism, I can tell you that in the 29th verse of the 13th chapter of their Shayast-na-Shayast you can find this: "Whatever is disagreeable to yourself do not do unto others."
Plato, Socrates, Seneca and others found their own way of saying much the same thing. Even L. Ron Hubbard marks the 20th moral precept of his recent religion, Scientology, with these words: "20: Try to treat others as you would want them to treat you."
So it does seem more than a little strange that most of the adherents of these and the other 16 religions with their own versions of The Golden Rule have spent most of their religious histories doing precisely the opposite. I suppose you could try and justify some of the outrageous acts of Christendom, for instance, by suggesting that burnings at the stake and the quartering of heretics by four horses headed in four different directions isn't as bad as it sounds, but I can't imagine anyone wanting either practice practiced on themselves.
Anyone who has traveled to Palestine in recent years can report first-hand on the apparent absence of Golden Rule practitioners in that too-often-unholy land. And hardly a day goes by when the Taliban isn't reported for treating innocent women in a manner that belies the teachings of Islam. The Hindu practice known as sati " which involves tossing a living widow on the crematory fires of her dead husband " is patently contradictory to these words from the sacred Mahabharata: "This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you."
And on and on and on. One can understand why the current crop of proponents of atheism like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens are so popular. The history of religion makes for sobering and decidedly depressing reading. Nevertheless, the failures of the disciples don't negate the value of the principle.
One of my all-time favorite writers is the Christian, Anne Lamott, who, while trying to explain her own religious failings, wrote: "My friends like to tell each other that I am not really a born-again Christian. They think of me more along the lines of that old Jonathan Miller routine, where he said, "I'm not really a Jew " I'm Jew-ish." They think I am Christian-ish. But I'm not. I'm just a bad Christian. A bad born-again Christian. And certainly, like the apostle Peter, I am capable of denying it, of presenting myself as a sort of leftist liberation-theology enthusiast and maybe sort of a vaguely Jesusy bon vivant ... I am a believer, a convert. I'm probably about three months away from slapping an aluminum Jesus-fish on the back of my car, although I first want to see if the application or stickum in any way interferes with my lease agreement."
Maybe that's the best way of coming to grips with the failure of most of us, religious or not, to follow The Golden Rule. We really, really, really, want to abide by this universal code of justice, but first we want to make sure it doesn't interfere with the rest of our life.
Rich Mayfield is the author of "Reconstructing Christianity: Notes from the New Reformation." E-mail comments about this column to firstname.lastname@example.org.