The Wesleyan “General Rules” have been rediscovered in recent years. The late Bishop Rueben Job deserves the credit for this with his book and study “Three Simple Rules.” It is a good study. Personally, I recommend it. What I offer today is my own understanding of these rules and how they may be applied. If one is not familiar with them the rules are “Do no harm. Do good. And attend upon the ordinances of God.”
Do No Harm.
The first rule appears simple enough. Do no harm. It is often considered the basis of what the West calls “the golden rule.” Jesus never used that term. It is still attributed to him from his guidance “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12 NRSV) Other teachers in other traditions have said similar things. A legend has it that Rabbi Hillel was once challenged to teach the whole Law of Moses while the gentile questioner stood on one leg. The Sage replied, “Whatever is harmful to you do not do to another person.” The approximate wording of the same teaching is used by Plato, the Buddha, Confucius, Mohammed, and others. The Hippocratic oath begins this way. “First, do no harm.”
Essentially intending to do no harm to another person is a common sense rule. Most people would assume it should be easy to follow. Yet, it is not a law. It is a practice. Decisions to do no harm are made every day. And so are decisions to do harm to other people. Most often though, decisions are made that appear to be easily to one’s immediate benefit without taking into account whether that decision will cause harm to others. While Jesus never uses the three words “Do no harm,” he knew the harm caused by such carelessness.
Jesus makes the point often that harm was being caused in many ways in the world. He tells Pilate that he recognizes the governor’s ability to release him or to condemn him. He may represent Caesar but his true ability comes from the free will given to him from Heaven. Pilate’s way was always to do harm to benefit Pilate and the Empire (see Luke 13:1-5). Jesus informs the people willing to listen that the Temple’s treasury received all the wealth a poor widow had on which to live. The same Temple establishment received gifts from the abundance of those who ignored the widow’s plight. The Temple in fact participated in the harm being done to the poor.
These are a few examples of how harm can be done unless one intentionally looks for the consequences of human actions. I have been both impressed and perplexed by other cultures, especially tribal ones, that recognize harm being done when we of “the first world” would cease to care. If an animal must be killed, sorrow and thanksgiving are expressed in such cultures. The harm to be done is apparently unavoidable. Guilt is discharged as the animal is understood to be offering its life. We in “the developed world” may claim that belief is superstition and ingenious avoidance activity. However, we miss the wisdom in regarding that life as important in a cycle of sustenance.
Consider how the desire to dominate expresses the intent to do harm as well. To dominate others requires the threat of violence and often lethal violence. When I was a child in Sunday School, the students would ask the teachers what “the mark” that God put on the mythical patriarch Cain was. Our teachers, who had grown up in the “Jim Crow South,” had been told the mark was dark skin. It was once a belief so common that the Book of Mormon written in the nineteenth century says so. That teaching had fallen out of fashion by the 1970’s leaving our teachers with no answer to give us. The problem was twofold. The translation of the text of Genesis 4:15 from Hebrew Masoretic text is difficult. Often the word “and” is inserted to give the impression that God declares vengeance will be seven times as great on whomever harms Cain and then a mark was put on him to identify him. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible – called the Septuagint – is actually older than the Masoretic text Protestants rely upon for translation. The Orthodox Study Bible gives us this translation from the Septuagint of verse 15. “So the Lord God said to him. ‘Not so! Whoever kills Cain vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. Thus the Lord set a sign on Cain, lest anyone finding him should kill him.” The mark or sign on Cain becomes the reputation that Cain is dangerous and crossing him and his family won’t end well. “For every one of us you kill we will kill seven of you.” It also ends the idea that God is the one taking vengeance for Cain.
Do no harm sounds simple. Still many people being honest with themselves and who they are will understand that to keep this rule requires a major adjustment in who they perceive themselves to be. Many people like to assume the swagger of being “a badass” who will not only get even but get one extra hit in just to be sure their enemies remember it.
The next two weeks Glorious Life will have installments on the next two rules – Do Good. And attend upon the ordinances of God.