A recent TV documentary asked why it was the Japanese treated prisoners of war so much more harshly in the Second World War than in the First. The reason, it transpired, was that between the two wars Japan had decided to build an empire, imitating the example of other world powers. In order to achieve this end, Japan decided to toughen its armed forces with a brutal programme of training, during which Japanese soldiers were forced to beat one another until they collapsed. So Japanese soldiers were the first victims in this lesson in brutality.
One Japanese veteran said that, if a day passed without him getting a beating, it felt as though there was something missing. The lesson in brutality proved a success. When the Japanese invaded Manchuria, its people were subjected to terrible cruelty. Men, women and children were used for bayonet practice. In their cruel treatment of prisoners of war too, the Japanese forces were dispensing the same, newly acquired brutality.
A maxim of popular wisdom, known as the 'Golden Rule', says, 'Do as you would be done by', or in the words of Jesus, 'Treat others as you would like them to treat you.'(Matt 7:12) But try applying that maxim to the Japanese soldiers in Manchuria. In a sense they were also doing to others what had been done to them, but with altogether different consequences from the ones we usually associate with the Golden Rule.
It is no good just saying to people who are used to violence, 'Do as you would be done by.' If we want to the Golden Rule to produce the right effects, such as kindness and mutual consideration, we cannot ignore the sort of things the Golden Rule assumes. For example, it assumes that people have a healthy self-respect, and that they desire good things for themselves. The Golden Rule made sense to the Jews because they already believed in their own value, in God's concern for his people and their well-being.
If we wish people to do good to one another, they will sometimes need to be reminded of their value in God's eyes. Jesus gives us an example, more eloquent than words, of how this might be done. In washing his disciples' feet at the Last Supper, he was not merely performing a helpful task. He was also showing an extraordinary respect for the dignity of the human person, a loving concern for that fragile vessel of the human body, which has been subject to so many indignities in the course of history.
On this Maundy Thursday, Jesus asks us to do likewise. The word 'maundy' comes from the Latin word mandatum, which means a command. Jesus is commanding us today to imitate his example of service to others, a service which will remind people of their true worth.
God has made us, and only God can remind us of who we are. Christians believe that Jesus is truly human as well as truly divine, and that in his humanity we glimpse what we are meant to be ourselves. So perhaps before we talk about treating others as we would like them to treat us, we should stop and ask ourselves who we really are. Do Jesus' words and deeds strike a chord within us? The self-sacrifice we see in him, especially in his voluntary death, speaks of his complete trust in God's loving care. We might have doubts about our own worth, but God has no such doubts. Jesus comes to us from God to remind us who we are and what we might become. If the lesson begins in the washing of feet, it will end in meeting Roman brutality with forgiveness. The love of friends must proceed to the love of enemies too.
The brutality of all empires, Roman or more recent, must sometime end. But that love we have for each other is God's love within us. It cannot be destroyed. It takes us through suffering and death to a new life in Christ, and to eternal friendship with all those who share his vision, a vision beyond human evil, a vision of that divine goodness which desires to make its home in every human heart.