One of my favorite books as a kid—and still today—is the novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Toward the beginning, we encounter a character named Ford Prefect who works for said Hitchhiker’s Guide and who has come to Earth to update Earth’s entry in the Guide. The entry had been exactly one word long; it read simply: “Harmless.” After years of extensive research, Ford edited the entry so that it now reads: “Mostly harmless.”
Talk about damning with faint praise.
When I was a campus minister, every once in a while, I’d get asked about the United Methodist community at American University by someone who was clearly suspicious of religion. They’d say something like, “So, what are the Methodists like?” Clergy develop an ear for this kind of thing; we can read the subtext of a question like that. What they’re often asking is: “Are you guys one of those whack-job sects that doesn’t believe in evolution and hates gay people?”
And so, when I got a question like that, I’d often respond with something like, “We’re a very open-minded and inclusive community committed to hospitality and justice.” And in my head, and perhaps in the questioner’s mind, what I’m really saying is something like, “We’re harmless.”
And I think of that entry in the Hitchhiker’s Guide and wonder whether in the grand record of human history, the entry for The United Methodist Church will be something like, “Mostly harmless.”
That’d be disappointing. Because to tell you the truth, Old School Methodists were anything but harmless. In case you are in need of a reminder, we were instrumental in getting the 18th Amendment ratified. You know, the one that banned alcohol for the entire country. Boy, those were the days, eh?
We haven’t been troublemakers like that in a long time. Today, we’re… harmless.
II. THE TEXT
Now, you might be saying, what’s the problem with being harmless?
We can see the concept of doing no harm identified in the scripture. This happens explicitly, as it does in the passage from Genesis, when Abimelech and Isaac enact a covenant and treaty not to do each other harm. This is presented in the text as an important—and agreeable—development.
And we see this lesson made implicitly, as in today’s Gospel reading in which Jesus is asked which of the commandments is the first of all. Jesus responds:
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.”
When the scribe replies that “this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices,” Jesus responds by telling him, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”
It is no stretch to argue that in order to love our neighbor as ourselves we ought not harm them. That seems like kindergarten-level logic, right there.
So, what exactly is the problem with being harmless, you might think? Isn’t it one of the focal points of our faith, especially our United Methodist tradition?
III. TO ‘DO NO HARM’
And you would be right; it’s one of John Wesley’s General Rules, upon which this very sermon and the next two are based. Wesley’s general rules are Do No Harm, Do Good, and Attend upon the ordinances of God (that one is usually updated a little to be stay in love with God). So clearly, “do no harm” is a part of our mandate as United Methodists.
But what does it mean to “do no harm”?
It is helpful, perhaps, to look at what Wesley meant by doing no harm. The Book of Discipline lists some examples of this:
By doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced, such as:
The taking of the name of God in vain.
The profaning the day of the Lord, either by doing ordinary work therein or by buying or selling.
Drunkenness: buying or selling spirituous liquors, or drinking them, unless in cases of extreme necessity.
Slaveholding; buying or selling slaves.
Fighting, quarreling, brawling, brother going to law with brother; returning evil for evil, or railing for railing; the using many words in buying or selling. The buying or selling goods that have not paid the duty. The giving or taking things on usury—i.e., unlawful interest.
Uncharitable or unprofitable conversation; particularly speaking evil of magistrates or of ministers.
Doing to others as we would not they should do unto us.
Doing what we know is not for the glory of God, as:
The putting on of gold and costly apparel.
The taking such diversions as cannot be used in the name of the Lord Jesus.
The singing those songs, or reading those books, which do not tend to the knowledge or love of God.
Softness and needless self-indulgence.
Laying up treasure upon earth.
Borrowing without a probability of paying; or taking up goods without a probability of paying for them.
This has the feeling of a list of “usual suspects.” No swearing. No working on Sundays. No drinking “spirituous liquors” (beer and wine are okay). No owning, buying, or selling slaves. No fighting. No suing one another. No predatory lending. No tax evasion. No speaking evil. And so and so on.
I would be hard-pressed to argue that this was not a reasonably list of thou-shalt-nots. I mean, I’m not going to climb into a Methodist pulpit and urge you toward drunkenness, fighting, human trafficking, and laying up treasure. This is pretty straightforward stuff.
But I wonder about the injunction to “do no harm” and whether it doesn’t create some problems for us.
IV. THE PROBLEM WITH HARMLESSNESS
One of the great challenges to contemporary Christianity is the runaway individualism that has infected it, especially in this country. Christian faith becomes all too much about me getting mine: I’ve got my ticket punched to heaven, so I’m done! And with a list of thou-shalt-nots, it’s easy to be convinced that our Christian duty lies in our individual ability to check off the things on a list: haven’t gotten drunk this week, haven’t engaged in commerce on Sunday, haven’t worn ostentatious jewelry—I’m all good!
There is a temptation to make our Christian duty about being compliant to a list of requirements, or to being inoffensive. Harmless.
See, I just keep coming back to that word “harmless.” It’s rarely a compliment except in the most backhanded sort of way. You see this all the times in movies and television. There’s a character who is a little off—perhaps a little socially awkward or who makes snide remarks to newly encountered people—and another character will say something like, “You must forgive my brother Reginald; he’s very opinionated, but he’s harmless.”
Just as in the Hitchhiker’s Guide, describing someone or something as “harmless” is hardly a ringing endorsement. It’s just a statement that something isn’t a threat. Or worth bothering about. And it’s quite different from other examples in literatures, such as the first time the children in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe encounter Aslan the lion. Lucy asks if Aslan is safe and is told no. “But you said he was good,” she replies. “Oh, he’s good—but he isn’t safe.”
It’s a powerful characterization of a pivotal character in C.S. Lewis’ epic. Good, but there is risk involved. Those who are harmless are barely worth worrying about.
A few years ago, I was having lunch with the director of Methodist campus ministry in the United Kingdom. Seizing on the chance to learn from someone from the British—i.e., original—Methodist church was too good of an opportunity. So, at one point I asked him what the reputation of Methodists was in the UK. That is, what did people think of Methodism in the very country in which it arose?
“Oh,” he said, “Mostly we’re known for being against things.”
I didn’t press him on it, but I could imagine. Against gambling. Against excessive drink. Against this, against that. You know. Basically the list. It wouldn’t be the first time that Christians were thought of as a bunch of downer killjoys—the ancient Christians’ opposition to pagan rite and rejection of some of the more hedonistic aspects of Roman life led Tacitus to say that Christians had a “hatred of humankind.” I’m pretty sure that’s a Latin idiom for wet blanket, stick in the mud, or buzzkill.
It strikes me that our Christian duty has got to be more than just being against things. It’s got to be more than abstaining from harm.
Now, here’s where you, perhaps leafing through the bulletin out of boredom during this sermon, might object, “Now, c’mon, Schaefer! We’re getting to the ‘Do Good’ part of the rules next week!” Indeed, you are. But I’m not talking about active Christianity versus passive—I’m talking about a need to expand what we mean by do no harm.
A lot of people don’t know this about me, but I’m a huge supporter of global warming and climate change. Oh, I say I’m not. But frequently I’ll take the car to run an errand perfectly reachable and doable by bike. Well, I live in the suburbs now, I’ll say, noting that I was much greener living in the District. But it’s not like I walked, biked, or metro’ed everywhere there that I could.
I’m also a supporter of child labor. Oh, I say I’m not, but I don’t check to see where my clothing was made and by whom. If it’s on sale at Penney’s that’s usually good enough for me.
In the same way, I support inhuman labor conditions in Asia and a fair amount of violent conflict in Africa because I buy technology with impunity, and don’t really care where the tungsten and tantalum and other precious metals came from to make my smartphone work.
See, it’s easy for me to convince myself that I’m doing no harm: I’m not harming anyone; I’m just driving to the hardware store. I’m not hurting anyone, I’m just buying a shirt—and not on Sunday, I swear! I’m not hurting anyone; I’m just playing Words with Friends with my dad.
Peter Rollins, a writer and theologian in the Emergent Church movement notes that it is this very mindset that puts us in danger of becoming an ironic church. Like hipsters wearing graphic t-shirts for things they don’t really care about, we as the church clothe ourselves in ideas of peace and justice while continuing to participate in the structures of injustice and oppression.
I may do no harm to children, but if I continue in blissful ignorance about where my clothes are made and by whom, I am perpetuating the very system I claim to oppose. And in so doing, doing harm.
I may do no harm to the poor of this or any country, but when I purchase a smartphone without regard to where its precious metals came from, or who is profiting from their trade, am I not perpetuating the very system I condemn?
I may do no harm to any Syrians I’ve ever encountered, and may be vocal in my support of admitting Syrian refugees to the country, but if I don’t examine the role my own country has played in creating a line of dictators who have oppressed that country, then I’m still part of the problem of doing harm.
We can lament genocides like the Holocaust and commit to ensuring they never happen again, but if we don’t look at the role Christians played in creating a climate of anti-Semitism, then we’re still part of the problem. And doing harm.
I can lament racism and I can say that I have never done any harm to a person of color, but if I am unwilling to examine my own privilege, and explore my participation in and benefits from structures that perpetuate racial inequity, then I’m still part of the racist problem. And I am doing harm.
What we do as individuals the church does as a body. We talk all the time about the things we deplore but never really stop to consider the extent to which we are helping to perpetuate those very evils.
If we’re going to commit as a church to doing no harm—then let’s do no harm. But to do so is going to require us to be a lot more aware of our unwitting complicity in the very things we claim to abhor.
The trouble with the do no harm part of the General Rules is that it sounds like the easiest part of the whole thing: just abstain from doing bad stuff.
In the brilliant TV show The Good Place, it is revealed that the afterlife is built on a points system. Do more good than bad, get into the Good Place. Do more bad than good, get into the Bad Place. But at one point, they discover that no one has gotten into the Good Place in a very long time. Every action has become so interconnected that the consequences of that action can have far reaching negative effects. Simply abstaining from bad stuff is harder than it looks.
Two and half centuries ago, John Wesley set down some simple rules for Methodist living, and enumerated a number of ways in which they might be lived out.
For us today who claim the name Methodist, our task is not simply to use those rules as a checklist for good behavior, but to think critically about all the ways we might be doing harm, not only in our intentional actions, but in our embedded actions and attitudes.
The Unitarian Universalists speak of an “interdependent web of all existence” that is a useful reminder that we are not atomistic actors. Our behaviors and our choices do not affect us alone; they affect individuals whom we may never meet or know. They have repercussions in the social fabric that we might never consciously be aware of. But we are nevertheless responsible to take them all into consideration when we seek to do no harm.
Christianity isn’t easy. And Methodism isn’t an easy version of it—it’s not all rummage sales and potlucks. There’s a lot of hard work involved. There’s a lot of accountability in it—from the class meetings of Wesley’s time to the small groups and covenant discipleship groups of today, holding ourselves accountable is at the heart of our expression of Christianity. In an ever more interconnected world considering how our actions have consequences beyond our personal experience is an important aspect of that accountability. Introspection, reflection, and self-examination, I will note, are also long-established Wesleyan practices.
So, sure—this is hard. But most things worth doing are. And we go into this in the confidence that a merciful and loving God—who forgives us all our failings and faults—goes with us.
And if we can truly commit to doing to harm, then we will find ourselves with a new way to do good. And we will find that we will make the world a little more like the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to bring and sent us out into the world to proclaim.
 No Author. The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2008 (p. 73). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.
Genesis 26:26–33 NRSV • Then Abimelech went to him from Gerar, with Ahuzzath his adviser and Phicol the commander of his army. Isaac said to them, “Why have you come to me, seeing that you hate me and have sent me away from you?” They said, “We see plainly that the LORD has been with you; so we say, let there be an oath between you and us, and let us make a covenant with you so that you will do us no harm, just as we have not touched you and have done to you nothing but good and have sent you away in peace. You are now the blessed of the LORD.” So he made them a feast, and they ate and drank. In the morning they rose early and exchanged oaths; and Isaac set them on their way, and they departed from him in peace. That same day Isaac’s servants came and told him about the well that they had dug, and said to him, “We have found water!” He called it Shibah; therefore the name of the city is Beer-sheba to this day.
Mark 12:28–34 • “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.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.”