When I was in seminary, there was a professor who had a poster on his office door. It shows two people embracing with text overlay that says this: “A modest proposal for peace: Let the Christians of the world agree that they will not kill each other.”
He caught some flak for this because it seemed like a low bar. Students asked, shouldn’t we agree not to kill anyone, not just fellow Christians?
The response was this: until we can stop killing our brothers and sisters in Christ, attempts to stop violence against people who are different from us would be futile. Yes, it was a modest proposal, a low bar, a baby step—but if we couldn’t even do that, what hope did we have for anything more?
The first of John Wesley’s Three Simple Rules is a similarly basic but important first step: Do No Harm. Of course, the Christian life is about more than not doing bad things or hurting other people—but we’ll get to that.
Because it turns out that “Do No Harm” is not as easy as it sounds. We only have to turn on the news or take an honest look at our own lives to see that this is a rule that is seldom followed and desperately needed.
But before we can “do no harm,” we need to know what harm we are causing. We have all experienced and inflicted harm both intentionally and unintentionally. Intentional harm can in some ways be easier to name but harder to understand. Trent Reznor’s powerful song “Hurt” gets at two kinds of intentional harm—self-harm and harm of others. This song was written when Reznor was in the depths of heroin addiction, when he was repeatedly hurting himself and those closest to him in myriad ways.
You may not have noticed, but North Carolina recently passed a bill that included a clause legalizing syringe exchanges in the state. A syringe exchange is just one form of harm reduction used in many places to help addicts stay safe and healthy. Harm reduction might include providing clean needles to IV drug users, naloxone to reverse overdoses, and education on diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C that are rampant in drug user communities.
Some might shy away from such work, thinking it would encourage bad behavior, but that’s not actually true. Harm reduction programs can sometimes keep an addict alive long enough to get treatment. Many syringe exchanges offer information about treatment centers and sometimes have quick access to beds at facilities to get help for those who are ready.
Harm reduction looks at addiction not as a moral failing but as a public health issue. Hidden behind the outwardly obvious harm an active addict can cause is a deep internal hurt and hopelessness. Anyone who has watched a person wrestle with addiction knows it is profoundly difficult and painful to come out of, that the shame of addiction is tangled up as both cause and effect.
This sick cycle of shame is not limited to drug addicts. Although there are sociopaths and people with such profound brokenness that they cannot ever be trusted to do no harm in society, I believe that most people who do harm, even those who commit acts of violence or moral depravity, are themselves hurting and broken.
I wonder what pain the woman caught in adultery brought along with her as she was dragged to the temple that day, what old wounds had driven her to infidelity. I wonder how ashamed she felt to have been caught “in the act”—you know what that means, right? That sounds mortifying. I wonder how she felt being offered up as a sacrifice to the law while the man she was caught with went free. I wonder if some part of her felt like she deserved this, like it would be better if they did stone her and end her misery forever.
When someone hurts us or does something we think is profoundly wrong, we are right to set boundaries and to condemn evil acts. It is important to remember that compassion and justice are not mutually exclusive. But how different would our world look if we could meet intentional harm of oneself or of others, not with stones, but with forgiveness? (That’s a sermon for another day.)
And then there is the question of harm committed unintentionally, even with good intentions. When we look at the story of the woman caught in adultery, we see a group of legal experts bringing a test case before Jesus. Jesus is teaching in the temple, explaining the law to the people, so it isn’t that out of left field for the Pharisees to offer an example and say, how does the law apply in this situation?
Perhaps the legal experts and Pharisees were evil people, trying to trick Jesus and hurt this woman in the process, but I want to give them the benefit of the doubt for a moment. What if they aren’t trying to do harm? What if they really are just trying to follow the law, to honor God’s commandments as they understand them?
This is an important perspective for me in the current state of things in the United Methodist denomination. Today, the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference and its 13 delegations from region across the southeast elected 5 new bishops to serve conferences in this part of the country. I got to be there yesterday to introduce my dad, who was a candidate but was not elected. We went to each delegation, and my dad answered questions on how he would lead the church.
One thing that stood out, though it wasn’t unexpected, was that every single delegation asked him about homosexuality. This points to the difficult time our church is in right now, when some say the United Methodist Church could split over this issue.
What what I strive to remember is that even when hurtful words are said in conversations like this, most of the time everyone is doing their best to be faithful, to obey God. On all sides of this, there are holy, thoughtful, prayerful people who have read the same Bible and come to different conclusions. No one is trying to do harm; they are just trying to follow God.
And yet, statements about homosexuality being an abomination, and even our denomination’s teaching that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching”—these things are deeply hurtful to people within the LGBTQ community and beyond. Anti-gay rhetoric from the church has led to much of my generation feeling alienated from religious spaces; it is indirectly responsible for the fact that a high proportion of homeless teens are LGBTQ; and it leads people in some parts of the world to commit violence toward and even execution of gays and lesbians.
Our denomination’s stance on homosexuality does harm. While that doesn’t mean that everyone needs to think a certain way about the question of human sexuality, it does mean that we need to seriously examine the way our commitment to the letter of the law is causing profound hurt to many of our brothers and sisters.
We must remember that even saying things we believe to be true can be harmful. The Pharisees said a true thing—that the law of Moses called for “women like this” to be put to death. We could compare this to the use of the death penalty today—it is legal in many states for men and women to be executed for certain crimes. But does it being legal make it right if it means taking a life and removing any possibility of future redemption?
One timely example of doing harm by saying something apparently true is a common reaction to “Black Lives Matter” among whites. It is not uncommon to hear a white person respond to “Black Lives Matter” with the correction, “All Lives Matter.”
Now, “All Lives Matter” is a true statement. All lives do matter, if not to us then to God—but using “All Lives Matter” as a correction or opposition to “Black Lives Matter” aims a stone at the hearts of black people whether it intends to or not.
You see, throughout our nation’s history from the genocide of native peoples to slavery to Jim Crow to the war on drugs and mass incarceration today, we have built and inhabited systems that place more value on some lives than on others.
One illustration I read that explains why “All Lives Matter” is harmful is one of a family sitting at a dinner table. One child who has not always gotten enough food speaks up, saying, “I should get my fair share.” And the father shoots back—“No, everyone should get their fair share.” This is true, but it’s not in conflict with what the child said in the first place, and it doesn’t help him `get any food.
Jesus didn’t turn to the crowd and ask, “Does anyone condemn anybody?” No; he turned to the woman in danger, the woman about to be stoned, and said, “Does anyone condemn you?” Again and again, Jesus went to the vulnerable and oppressed, to those experiencing harm. He proclaimed release to the captives—yes, release is available to everyone, but those not in bondage don’t need release.
Author and speaker Glennon Doyle Melton recently posted on social media this proposal:
“Today: let’s be curious instead of defensive.
When someone says: I’m hurting.
Let’s say: ‘Tell me more’ instead of: ‘No you’re not.’
I think the difference between curiosity and defensiveness might be the difference between war and peace.”
What if, when someone in addiction shares about their shame and inability to recover, instead of saying, “I’ve never experienced that, so you must be making it up,” we asked, “What is that like for you?” What if, when someone questions the Methodist Church’s stance on homosexuality, instead of accusing them of disobeying God’s Word, we asked, “How does your faith inform your thoughts on this?” What if, when an African-American parent told you they were afraid to let their teenage son leave the house after dark, instead of saying, “That’s ridiculous,” we asked, “Tell me more, how does that feel?”
When we do harm, to ourselves or to others, intentionally or unintentionally, we build an empire of dirt. But Jesus calls us to live not as subjects in an empire but as citizens of a kingdom. And that kingdom is a kingdom of healing, of resurrection, of restoration, and of reconciliation.
We aren’t ready for all of that right now. Some of my black friends have said they are not ready for talk of healing and reconciliation. First, we need to acknowledge and face the harm that has been done and continues to be done, and we need to stop it.
But we also need to remember that continuing to blame ourselves doesn’t help anyone. When I was in graduate school, I went through an intensely painful experience that I blamed myself for even though it wasn’t my fault. My counselor at the time knew that I was preparing for ministry, so he incorporated elements of my faith into our work together at times.
One day, he invited me to do an exercise where I imagined that I was a part of the scene from the story of the woman caught in adultery. He told me to imagine that I was that woman, that the shame I carried had been laid bare and that a crowd stood ready to condemn me. He asked me to envision the crowd, stones in their hands, anger on their faces, and then to hear Jesus speak and to watch them, one by one, drop their stones and walk away.
When the crowd had left, one person remained besides Jesus, still standing and holding a stone. That person was me. I was the only person still ready to condemn myself for my perceived wrong. My counselor asked me to hear Jesus tell me to drop my stone, to intentionally let go of the rock and walk away.
Jesus calls all of us to drop our stones, those aimed at others and those aimed at ourselves. For if we are one body in Christ Jesus, if we are united in our humanity, then a stone aimed at anyone is a stone aimed at everyone.
Immediately following the story of the woman caught in adultery is a well-known passage. In it, Jesus says this: “I am the world’s light. No one who follows me has to stumble around in darkness.”
We are indeed stumbling around in darkness. We are stumbling through the darkness of racism and oppression, violence and condemnation, anger and mistrust and misunderstanding. But Jesus is the world’s light. None of us deserve it, but God chooses to give us light over darkness, resurrection over death, mercy over judgment.
It is a modest proposal, a low bar, a baby step—but let us agree to stop killing each other with our words, with our actions, with our theology, with our guns, with the power of the state. Let us agree to do no harm. Let us all drop our stones and walk bravely and gratefully into the light of God’s healing love.
Sarah S. Howell