There is a story in my family that has been the subject of debate since my brothers and I were children and the debate centers around the question of whether my brother Richard intended bodily harm to my brother Will. Of course, I, being the best child was not involved in this tragic and willful harming, but I was nearby and although I did not witness the incident, I have my own version of the story that I tell, whether it is true or not!
It all started with brothers’ constant competition with each other. We lived in a brand-new parsonage with a basement and steps leading outside. At the entrance of the steps was a screen door that could be propped open with a brick. One of my brothers’ competitive games was to run across the yard to the top of the stairs and jump to the door, grabbing hold of it and swing.
This only worked if the door was propped open and the weight of the person was enough to propel the door pushing the brick out of the way. My brother Richard knew this, but apparently, my brother Will did not.
One day the game was on. Richard made a successful leap. My brother Will ran after him and just before the leap, he realized that the door had swung shut with Richard’s leap. Will demanded to know what happened to the door. My brother Richard informed him that it didn’t work without the brick. Will demanded to know what brick. Richard held up a brick and promptly dropped the brick on Will’s foot.
Did I mention that it was summer and that my brothers were barefoot?
Will let out a scream that I will never forget. My mother and I went running to the basement. There was blood everywhere. Both brothers were weeping and wailing.
When the event is debated the question is: Did Richard mean to harm Will, because whether he did or not, there was much harm done and as I recall, no one got ice cream that night.
This reflection is the second in a series of reflections on John Wesley’s Three Simple Rules for living. I have been pondering these three rules a great deal in these days leading up to the Special Session of General Conference, for United Methodists, which begins this weekend. John Wesley is important to us because he was the founder of the Methodist movement that led to the establishment of our church. John Wesley was concerned about holy living—about faithful living– and these three rules are guides for living a holy and faithful life.
Do no harm
Stay in love with God
The late Bishop Reuben P. Job declared that these three rules have the power to change the world. As I have pondered these rules over the past days, I find myself agreeing with him. I have known Wesley’s rules for decades and yet, I have never thought about just how significant they are for United Methodists until I have pondered them within the prayers of my heart leading up to General Conference. The power to change the world comes from the transformation of our lives when we take seriously these rules, for trying to add them to the pattern of our daily lives is difficult. Keeping these rules takes a commitment that must also include an understanding that our lives, our patterns of living, our hearts and compassions will transform.
The first rule is “Do no harm.”
If I asked you what it meant to harm someone you might tell me that it is to do with some sort of damage to another. Often our doctors might tell us that we are harming ourselves when we are not taking care of ourselves. Not paying attention to our health can do us great harm. For me, my daily health centers around having Celiac Disease. If I consume wheat, I know about it soon and my symptoms cause much damage to the way I feel. If I eat wheat repeatedly, despite the discomfort, I am doing great harm that will lead to stomach or colon cancer. It is much better to be vigilant in my diet than to suffer the harm I might do.
We might also harm ourselves if we are not being good stewards of our resources. If we foolishly spend money that we don’t have, then our whole wellbeing and the wellbeing of our family might feel harm and suffer.
We also understand that we are capable of doing harm to others such as harming our co-workers or neighbors or family members by gossip or character defamation. We can harm others if we steal from them or are violent to them or cause them extra work or worry.
And then there is the irreparable harm that our behavior or our attitudes can inflict upon others.
In his understanding of Do no harm, Wesley believed that there are numerous ways that we can bring harm to others and in doing so, intentionally or not, we may be causing damage to ourselves or to the body of Christ, or to God’s children.
Wesley’s first rule—do no harm—reflects the brief passage from the twelfth chapter of the Gospel of Mark:
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)
Do no harm.
These two commandments are at the heart of Wesley’s first simple rule.
The Gospel of Mark is thought to be the earliest of the Gospels to be written, during a time of great turmoil as Jerusalem was under siege and the Temple was destroyed. Emperor Nero was persecuting the Christians. Times were uncertain, and the Gospel of Mark was written with a sense of urgency. Harm was occurring everywhere. In this particular passage, a scribe came forward to test Jesus. The scribes, or lawyers, seemed to be Jesus’ chief opponents and this particular scribe asked Jesus to speak about which law or commandment was the greatest. There are over 600 Hebrew laws. Jesus takes all the laws and brings them to just two that encompass all the laws, two that are most important. No other laws are more important than these two.
Love God with your whole being, with abandon.
And love your neighbor as you love yourself. Neither our neighbor or us is more important than the other. Both neighbors and us are unconditionally and astonishingly loved by God.
The essence of these two commandments are do no harmbecause at the very heart of God is love and the desire that all people might thrive without fear, feeling the love that is the very heart of God. If we choose to follow God, to be redeemed by Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, then we strive to place this love and desire in our hearts. We strive to do no harm.
Like the first Wesley rule, these commandments of Jesus seem uncomplicated—easy to accomplish. But they aren’t. Indeed, in so many places in the Gospels, Jesus cautions us that following him has a cost and we should consider that cost before making the decision to follow him. His grace and mercy are freely given to us, without price, and they save us through the death and resurrection of Jesus, but receiving that gift means that we offer our whole lives to God to be transformed by God’s love, causing us to love God with all our heart, mind, and spirit, and our neighbor as ourselves.
This is not a description of a picture-perfect neighborhood. This is a description of a radical trust in God. It is giving up our own way for God’s way. It is not easy. Indeed, for many, even though there is a desire to follow Christ, no matter what, it is often accomplished by following Christ at a safe distance.
John Wesley knew that keeping these commandments of Jesus, doing no harm, was more than just a physical restraint from harming others. He knew that there are layers upon layers of human behavior that we need to examine in our lives—behavior that we may not realize is causing harm. John Wesley’s life was full of examples of peeling back the layers in order to discover where harm was being done.
In 1736, John Wesley went to Georgia which at that time was a British Colony. He was a priest to the colonists, which did not go very well, but one thing that he did observe were the conditions of the lives of the slaves. He observed the harshness of the living conditions and the brutality of the working conditions. He saw the harm to the humanity of the slaves and the harm to the souls of the slave owners. It was startling for him and he began to be involved in the abolition movement in England.
In “Thoughts on Slavery,” John Wesley wrote:
“Are you a man? Then you should have an human heart. But have you indeed? What is your heart made of? Is there no such principle as Compassion there? Do you never feel another’s pain? Have you no Sympathy? No sense of human woe? No pity for the miserable? When you saw the flowing eyes, the heaving breasts, or the bleeding sides and tortured limbs of your fellow-creatures, was you a stone, or a brute? Did you look upon them with the eyes of a tiger? When you squeezed the agonizing creatures down in the ship, or when you threw their poor mangled remains into the sea, had you no relenting? Did not one tear drop from your eye, one sigh escape from your breast? Do you feel no relenting now? If you do not, you must go on, till the measure of your iniquities is full. Then will the Great GOD deal with You, as you have dealt with them, and require all their blood at your hands.”
Do no harm
John Wesley thought about the layers of slavery. He knew that slaves were used in the Caribbean to work in the sugar refineries. It was dangerous work and many, many slaves lost their lives or were severely burned in this work. Wesley encouraged all Methodists in England to begin to think about how the consumption of sugar in tea had an effect on the lives of the slaves. Thousands of Methodists quit drinking sugar in their tea and while that alone did not stop slavery, the absence of sugar kept before them the understanding of “Do no harm,” which spilled over into all aspects of their lives.
Do no harm
Of this practice, Reuben Job said:
I have also found that this first step, when practiced, can provide a safe place to stand while the hard and faithful work of discernment is done. When we agree that we will not harm those with who we disagree, conversation, dialogue, and discovery of new insight become possible.
In Ignatian spirituality there is something called the Daily Examen. It is an exercise, meant to be practiced at the end of the day to examine the day in order to discover where failure to follow God’s will might have occurred, to confess, and to be forgiven.
For this simple rule of Wesley’s, we too can participate in a daily Examen. The questions that might be helpful are:
Did I bring healing instead of hurt?
Did I offer wholeness instead of division?
Did I live today in harmony with the ways of Jesus rather than with the ways of the world.
Did I see each person as a child of God, a recipient of love unearned, unlimited, and undeserved, just like myself?
Wesley knew, as Jesus knew that those who practice this rule—Do no harm—begin to think, act, and look like Jesus. Wesley knew that we would fail. It is difficult to do no harm. But Wesley knew that we are not alone, that there is grace and mercy when we stumble, and that God stands with us.
In my last reflection I wrote about how deep in my soul, I feel God’s words: “Call my people to prayer,” and I have been encouraging people to pray for the power of the Holy Spirit to fall upon the delegates, bishops, conference planners, and visitors of General Conference, that the will of the Spirit will prevail.
In this reflection I add another layer to that prayer and that is that the Holy Spirit will work in the hearts of the delegates, bishops, conference planners, and visitors, so that no harm is done during General Conference and that they may feel the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit. I pray that the Holy Spirit will work in the lives of all United Methodists, worldwide, so that we do not harm.
Despite the understanding that we love Jesus and follow him, we have been so guilty of doing so much harm to so many. So many brothers and sisters have felt that harm because we are so determined to make our way God’s way. As a child of the South, I have seen this harm most in the issues of racism. I am a descendant of slave owners, who were also church going Christians. I grieve for the enslaved people whose lives were controlled by my ancestors. One painful story from my own history is that my fourth great grandfather was hanged for killing his slave. Her name was Mira. As long as I live, I will grieve for her, a precious and beloved child of God.
The issue before us, the ordination of ALL people called by God, comes bearing the reality that we have done so much harm to our brothers and sisters, who are precious and beloved children of God. Each son and daughter of God can teach me so much from their own experiences of how they feel God’s unconditional love and each one can offer profound love and grace to our world. My life is better and richer for what I have learned from so many that our church, our world has harmed.
I don’t have the answers. I wish I did. What I have is a heart of prayer and a heart of love for all of God’s people. I also have a commitment to follow Wesley’s rule: Do no harm. Will I fail in this commitment? I have already and I will again, to be sure, but I also have the promise of mercy and forgiveness and that inspires me to continue seeking daily obedience to this simple Wesley rule. Do no harm.
May we all be so in God and God in us that do no harm becomes our way of life.
To God alone be glory!