"...an it harm none, do what thou wilt."
The Rede itself is disarmingly simple. Harm none. Any action by which you manipulate another without consent can be considered harm- even actions you would normally consider beneficial. Neither is it acceptable to harm yourself. Within this framework, it is up to the individual practitioner to define acceptable practice, and the proper relationship to the Deities.
The Threefold Law states that whatever you do, good or evil, will come back to you threefold. This is a way of reinforcing the notion that we must all be responsible for our own actions, and willing to accept whatever consequences they may bring about. There is another way to say this: "Do unto others as you would have them do." Sound familiar? It would be pointless to get into a Chicken-and-Egg argument here about the origins of Christian morality. What I'm trying to emphasize is that these are both powerful ideas, and not as distinct as it might be comfortable to suppose. This is big news, since I also believe that humanity will take a giant step forward in its spiritual evolution when people of different faiths can come together and (at the very least) allow each other to live in peace. In this context, anything that can be seen as common ground is definitely worth talking about.
The Rede and the Threefold Law combine to give us a pretty basic framework. So far, so good. Trouble is, we don't live basic lives, and every day we are faced with decisions that require us to fill in a few of the blanks as we go. As my best friend recently pointed out to me, "it is impossible to live without doing harm. We would all starve to death." I spent ten seconds or so trying to think of a clever response, but I knew he had me. The question we are most often confronted with is not, "How can I do no harm?" but rather, "How can I do the least harm?" Let me take an example from another friend....
"I have a tree outside my window. It has a limb on it that has bagworms, I think they're called. The limb is all covered in a web-like material, and the branch is now dead. So, the tree guy says, 'you have got to cut off the limb and burn it to destroy the bagworms, otherwise they will consume the whole tree.' So, what is a nature-loving pagan to do? Do I let nature take its course and let the worms destroy the tree, or do I destroy the bagworms and save the tree? Should I be interfering with this very natural process? Of course, I really love that tree, and I could take or leave anything with the word 'worm' in its name. But should I presume to make the decision on which one gets to stay and which one has to go?"
I know this may raise a few giggles. She was giggling when she asked me. But this is an excellent example of the kind of relativity I'm talking about, and a situation that I'm sure most of us could apply to some other set of circumstances in our lives. We can not realistically discuss the possibility of doing no harm. What we can do is educate ourselves, weigh the consequences of our actions, respect others' right to do the same, and try our best to live in keeping with the Rede. The Rede is a guide, and a powerful one, but it asks a lot of us. This, I think, is as it should be.
What the Threefold Law provides that the Rede lacks is the idea of accountability. If the Rede tells us, "Harm none," the Threefold Law addresses the question, "Why not?" The most common answer is that the harm we do will come back to us three times over. This is true as far as it goes, but to my way of thinking, the fear of retribution is not a successful motivational tool in the long run, since it does nothing to address the state of our hearts. Is it okay to hate someone passionately, as long as we do them no physical harm? While this may be in keeping with the letter of the Law, it seems to me empty, and a little sad.
To see what a truly elegant idea the Threefold Law is, it helps to look at it from the other end. Forget evil for a minute. Think about love, and beauty, and acts of kindness. Imagine all of these things returning to you threefold. The Threefold Law gives us the opporunity to help create and to experience infinite love. This thought does more than guide my actions; it inspires me, and gives me faith in the wisdom of my path.
The question I'd like to raise in relation to the Threefold Law is one of scope. It is hopelessly naive to imagine that we can understand all of the possible consequences of our actions. The world is too large, and too complex. Anything we do, however innocently, may resonate far beyond the realm of our knowledge or experience. So where does our accountability end? How indirect or unintentional must a consequence of our action be before it ceases to be our responsibility? Here are two thoughts that have been useful to me:
First, I believe the Goddess, in all things, will know our hearts. If we have done all we can to weigh possible outcomes, and are as mindful as we can be of all we do, I don't think we will be punished for making an honest mistake. Of course, we have brains for a reason, and we have an obligation to use them. If you didn't think that nuclear device would be a big deal, you are not off the hook. If a particular decision mystifies you, get another opinion. Ask the wisest folks you know. There is always insight to be gained, sometimes from the most surprising sources.
Second, we are responsible for our own actions, no one else's. Suppose you heal a stranger that you find unconcious on the side of the road. If the stranger goes on to be a notorious serial killer, that has nothing to do with your action. That is the stranger's action, and he or she will be held accountable accordingly. Part of becoming more responsible is realizing what is not yours to take on. This can be a very handy thing to remember.
Ours is a beautiful, adaptable faith. It requires us to make some very personal, very difficult decisions, but these are decisions that will strengthen our belief, and turn recited rules into the foundation for a living, breathing spirituality. These are my thoughts, and they are a work in progress, believe me. Let me know what you think, and what other questions these give rise to. It is my hope that we can help each other, and strengthen our community in the progress.
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