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The Birth of an Ingenious Tool

RESPECTING OUR INTERDEPENDENCE

The Birth of an Ingenious Tool

by Leslie Mezei

  Fire smoke from the World Trade Center – Photo:    Wikimedia

Fire smoke from the World Trade Center – Photo: Wikimedia

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was driving north from Toronto to Tottenham, Ontario to interview Paul McKenna about the colorful Golden Rule Poster he created. The poster included sacred writings from 13 faith traditions, representing the overwhelming majority of the world’s peoples and cultures. As the horrible news came blaring from the radio,  I thought at first it must be a hoax, like the 1938 Orson Wells Martian invasion broadcast.

Then I asked myself, “How can human beings become so desperate and full of hate to sacrifice thousands of innocent civilians?” This is supposed to be an age of increasing acceptance of diversity, of interfaith dialogue. Obviously, we haven’t universally applied the millennia-old golden rule, which urges us to treat everyone in our human family generously, even our enemy.

Then my roots as a survivor of the Holocaust of World War II came back to me, and the Cuban missile crisis of 40 years ago, when we last thought that our world might come to an end. Now, here was a forceful reminder that we in North America are not isolated from the ongoing conflicts of the rest of the world, that we must redouble our efforts to bring the message of unity and love to the whole world. We postponed the interview, and each of us said a prayer.

Launch of the poster

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Four months earlier, as an interfaith minister of the Universal Worship Service, I participated in the official launch of the golden rule poster. It was held at the Scarboro  Missions Society in Toronto, a Canadian Catholic missionary community whose Interfaith Desk produced this visually striking and profound multifaith statement.

Paul McKenna explained that the golden rule had become an ongoing passion for him some 20 years ago, when he first saw it expressed from the point of view of a number of faith traditions. The idea of a poster came to him six years ago. It took five years of research, including consultations with experts in each of the 13 faith groups represented and with a host of graphic designers.

Many of the more than 100 people involved in the project were at the launch, including some of the artists, members of the Interfaith Desk of the Scarboro Missions, and members of Paul’s family. Representatives from many faith groups recited the sacred writings from the poster. In an additional demonstration of unity, they recited one another’s sacred texts.

Paul McKenna, a life-long committed Catholic, has an MA in Theology from the University of Toronto, a Master of Divinity from the University of Ottawa, and some clinical pastoral education and journalism training. He worked in social service and social justice organizations until he got the call to a vocation in interfaith work. For the last 15 years he has functioned as a full-time freelance writer, educator, organizer, and workshop leader on topics such as interfaith dialogue, Gandhian nonviolence, humor, and the golden rule. He is a tireless networker, bringing people together from varied backgrounds.

I went back to interview Paul ten days after September 11. In an atmosphere of what we felt were spurious claims of religious motivations for the barbarism of that attack, we were keenly aware of the urgency for greater understanding among peoples and religions.

The Golden Rule in Various Faith Traditions

  These 13 individuals represent the 13 traditions whose golden rule texts are used on the poster. Leslie Mezei is seated on the far right – Photo:    Scarboro Missions

These 13 individuals represent the 13 traditions whose golden rule texts are used on the poster. Leslie Mezei is seated on the far right – Photo: Scarboro Missions

Paul pointed out that many mistakenly think of the golden rule (a name first applied to it only at the end of the 17th Century) as uniquely Christian: “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12).

In this statement by Jesus, we see the contribution of the Old Testament. The golden rule is thus a short-hand summary of the teachings of the Bible. The most quoted Jewish source expresses the rule in its opposite form, also as a pithy condensation. The story goes that Rabbi Hillel in the first century was challenged to summarize the teachings of the Law while standing on one foot. He then stated: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah, all the rest is commentary”’

Many have argued that the golden rule can be used in a negative way by selfish, antisocial, and perverse people, and there is much debate about the real meaning of reciprocity and mutuality. But the context has to be considered, Jeffrey Wattles points out in his groundbreaking book The Golden Rule (1996). He traces the emergence of the rule in the literature of many religions, of numerous philosophers, and of humanist groups throughout the ages.

Jeffrey Wattles asserts that the golden rule has to be read on a high moral plane, and be connected with the teachings of love, such as Jesus’ exhortation, “Love your enemies” (Luke 6:27). Very early in the Old Testament, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) moderated the “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth” formula, which, interestingly, was originally intended as a moderating rule to limit vengeance: Only an eye for an eye, and nothing more – although this didn’t prevent the poor from being hanged for stealing a loaf of bread until not long ago.

For Paul McKenna, “This poster screams self-transcendence. All the sacred writings are pushing us in that direction. This self-transcendence, I believe, is the guts of the whole experience of religion and spirituality: The surrender to something, or someone, beyond ourselves. It’s only in self-transcendence that we become fully ourselves, fully human. What the great teachers across all the traditions say to us is that we are looking for happiness in all the wrong places.

“I think it’s the Buddhists that are clearest on this. To paraphrase them: ‘My search for freedom and meaning and happiness has everything to do with my commitment to your freedom and your happiness and your meaning.’ Buddhists also say simply: ‘Consider others thyself.’ We’ve got to move beyond ourselves as individuals and act generously out of our oneness, our interconnectedness.”

Native spirituality teaches that brotherhood and sisterhood extends beyond the human family. After consultation with native leaders, Paul chose for the poster: “We are as much alive as we keep the Earth alive” (Chief Dan George). He says, “In this ancient poetic wisdom, ‘Earth’ means you and me and the birds and the moon – everything! Profound interconnection with moral implications.”

Paul adds, “And if you look at the Unitarian principle on the poster, it says the very same thing in modern sophisticated language: ‘We affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.’ And the Jain selection emphasizes the teaching of nonviolence toward all creatures. ‘One should treat all creatures in the world as one would like to be treated’ (Mahavira). I think this poster really moves the interfaith dialogue ahead, because it both symbolizes and inspires unity.”

The Poster Is a Big Hit

The Golden Rule Poster has been purchased individually and in bulk by schools, school boards, religious institutions, Sunday schools, penitentiaries, hospitals, corporate offices, and homes, mainly in Canada and the U.S. so far. It has been used, for example, in an alcohol-recovery program in Calgary, Alberta, and in a psychiatric institution in North Bay, Ontario. Jeff Archambeault, the chaplain of the latter, commented, “This poster just keeps on giving.” The Catholic Register quoted Grade 11 world religions teacher Joe Wey of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel School, Toronto: “Most of the students had only studied Christianity, so some of them were surprised to see the similarities…We teach not just tolerance, but respect for other religions.”

A French-language version is being produced, and translation into other languages may follow. A TV documentary set in a world religions classroom was aired Canada-wide by Vision TV last year. Lesson plans are now being piloted for elementary and high school classes. A study-guide for adult audiences is available free of charge. The resources include searching questions, varied exercises, and additional study materials.

  Peace-building trainees in Central Java, Indonesia, which has the largest Muslim population of any country in the world – Photo:    Scarboro Missions

Peace-building trainees in Central Java, Indonesia, which has the largest Muslim population of any country in the world – Photo: Scarboro Missions

People from different parts of the world have been overwhelmed on first viewing the poster. The circle of symbols is a visual meditation on our unity. The rays emanating from the globe tie the symbols together in what amounts to a ‘coat of arms’ for the interfaith movement. The 22 x 29 inch color poster is visually appealing, pedagogically useful, and is the result of sound scholarship. The 13 writings are acceptable to everybody in both religious and secular settings. The poster, Paul McKenna discovered, “is an ingenious tool for doing comparative religion, interfaith dialogue, and world religions education; for exploring ethics, scripture study, and multi-faith prayer; for promoting reflection on social justice, solidarity, compassion, world peace, and global unity.”

Monsignor Pedro López Quintana of the Secretariat of State in the Vatican wrote, “The Holy Father wishes me to express his gratitude for the … Scarboro Missions’ Golden Rule poster which you sent him.” On January 4, 2002, eight ambassadors from the North American Interfaith Network and Scarboro Missions presented the Golden Rule Poster to Mrs. Gillian Sorensen, Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations, where it is now on permanent display.

Transcending cultures, nations, and religions, the Golden Rule Poster is a fitting declaration of the yearning of many to eliminate the rhetoric of racial, cultural, and religious bigotry and the practice of violent attack and retribution. What we need is an ethic of generosity, peace, and love in all interactions among nations, communities, and individual members within our whole human family.

This story was originally published by the Spiritan Missionary News in May 2002 and subsequently republished on the Scarboro Mission website.

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Digital Update - October 2018

Leslie Mezei’s fine story about the creation of the Golden Rule Poster when it was launched in 2001 stands the test of time. Seventeen years later the rising arc of the poster’s development has not changed except for growing significantly and creating a Golden Rule Library of digital media, resources immediately accessible to anyone with a computer or smartphone.

Scarboro’s electronic library includes the posters in ten different languages, curricula, commentaries, and all manner of resources. Besides creating their own materials, they have curated hundreds of curricula and and resources, selected 40 of the best, and made them freely available on the web. Over a million posters have been circulated to homes, schools, and sanctuaries, many of them created locally, based on or at least inspired by the original, in a number of different languages. The poster hangs at the United Nations and in the Vatican.

This issue of TIO features Paul McKenna’s article on the African version of the poster, which has circulated two and a half million posters. No surprise, the notion of a Golden Rule day was proposed by African interfaith activists from United Religion Initiative. April 5 each year is recognized and celebrated now by 700 organizations in 165 countries. A third story by Felipe Zurita reports new golden rule global developments, completing TIO’s case-study of a major interfaith resource.

Scarboro Missions of Toronto, where McKenna created the poster and developed the digital library, came to its own institutional end a year ago. Scarboro transferred the stewardship of the Scarboro digital library to Regis College, University of Toronto, a Jesuit theological college. Regis continues to make all the Scarboro interfaith resources free to download. The Golden Rule Library part of these resources can be found here.

Header Photo: Pxhere