About Doing No Harm

Recently someone told me he was in a roomful of “do-gooders.” From the way he pronounced the word it was clear he found these folks infected with a strain of naivete that was outside the “real” world.

I was intrigued a few years ago to hear a politician attack “liberal do-gooders” and deride a piece of legislation as charity as if charity were a bad thing.

It’s a strange world, one that I frankly don’t want to inhabit, that sees doing good and being charitable as signs of weakness, or just plain wrong.

The alternatives are doing harm, doing nothing (sometimes equal to doing harm) and being uncharitable, which means being miserly, cheap, stingy and self-serving. The politician claimed to defend traditional values which led me to wonder if I had already been transported to a parallel universe where words had taken on their opposite meaning.

Some commentators opine that the political rhetoric of the religious right, which is often defined as Christian teaching, is in decline. We can only hope.

Terry Fox, a Southern Baptist pastor, told writer David D. Kirkpatrick in a New York Times magazine article that “Some might compare the religious right to a snake. We may be in our hole right now, but we can come out and bite you at any time.”

Describing Christians as snakes lying in wait to strike and inject poisonous toxins is a strange description of the followers of Jesus. But toxic stridency has come to define Christians for many in the U.S. and around the world of late.

The closest allegory I find in scripture turns this definition on its head. “Be wise as serpents and harmless as doves,” Jesus told his disciples.

Paul told the followers of Jesus in the city of Colosse, “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Bear with one another, and if anyone has a complaint against another forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Colossians 3:12-14)

These thoughts come to mind for several reasons. I continue to be perplexed by voices that do harm in the name of religion.

And I’m thinking of my own denomination as we move toward our global meeting in April next year. How we will see ourselves and the marks of faith that define our community?

One of our fundamental instructions from John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, is “do no harm.” The combined wisdom of Paul, Jesus and Wesley lays before us a hard challenge, to do no harm even when we differ on important things. When I think about that and what it calls me to do, it doesn’t seem like weak-kneed naivete, after all. It sounds like it takes great strength and courage because I will have to give up my own tendency to characterize others and listen in order to bear another rather than to seek power over the other (and make my point). And most difficult of all, to forgive.

It may be very accurate that this is not the way the world operates. And that adds to the challenge; to be in this world, but not of this world.

I’m writing these thoughts over the next few days and will note them here. I’m interested in your reactions.

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