An it harm none, do as thou wilt. –Wiccan Rede
“Rede” translates to “advice.” It’s an ethical law, the punishment decided by the Threefold Law of Return rather than the law of the land, unless, of course, in violating the Rede you also violated the laws of your country.
As an ethical law, it is vague. This is both its strength and weakness. It is a strength because one of the common complaints of Biblical law or other outdated laws is that it isn’t relevant to today’s society, values, or needs. There are some things that transcend time, such as murder, but there are other things that don’t make sense, such as edicts against shaving or cutting the hair found in Leviticus (I can’t imagine someone with a mountain man beard trying to perform a c-section without contaminating the field). Because it is vague, “harm” is defined by the individual and society at the time it occurs. It can also be adapted to particular situations. For instance, saying that abortion is wrong means that it is always wrong, no matter the situation. If the pregnancy is dangerous to the mother, however, because she can’t receive treatment for a deadly illness or develops HELLP syndrome before a fetus is viable, a therapeutic abortion may be the only option to save her life. Is abortion is still wrong? The Rede allows us to weigh the risks and benefits, pros and cons, and the values of our society and culture to decide which option constitutes the true harm. Some people are comfortable with this flexibility, and they are able to critically analyze ethical situations to make good choices. However, the weakness is that there are ethical situations that may not have an easy answer, and some people are not very good at critical analysis–or they fear they will make the “wrong” choice, resulting in negative consequences they didn’t anticipate. These people do better with lists of laws, rights and wrongs, because they can point to an edict and find comfort they are acting ethically because they followed the letter of the law. Personally, I’d rather teach these people how to think critically than come up with long lists of rules that are difficult to change in the future, but not everyone has the same cognitive capacity, and there is a benefit to a commonality of law to help keep order–we don’t want people committing murder and getting away with it just because they can personally justify it.
One of the more controversial topics of harm is “self harm.” Tattooing hurts, and it leaves a permanent mark on the body–is it harm? Considering how many Pagans have a tattoo, I’m going to say that there is a general consensus that, no, it isn’t harm. However, a lot of Wiccans smoke, is that harm? It smells bad, causes cancer, emphysema, hypertension, and there’s no benefit that can’t be achieved by healthier means. Does that mean you are going to reap unending negative repercussions for every cigarette you smoke? Well no, that’s not silly, and smoking doesn’t make someone a bad person. The negative consequence is what happens to their health, not their soul.
Nonetheless, wherever it is possible, we should endeavour to minimize the harm the harm we do to ourselves. If you are a smoker, you know what is happening to your body—please take the steps now to quit smoking and prolong your life and health. Make choices to eat nutrient dense foods, and exercise your body–not to be skinny, but to be healthy. When you are well and healthy, you can do more to have a positive impact on your loved ones and community. If you are ill, you are not a bad person; if you are overweight, you are not a bad person.
But it is important to make choices to improve your health or to live as healthfully as you can because it has the side effect of making you feel better, creating a positive environment for yourself and others. When you don’t feel well, it is difficult to keep a positive attitude or to do good for others.
Wicca is not just about the choices we make on the outside, but on the inside as well. It is holisitic—body, mind, and spirit. While we tend to emphasize the spirit, we cannot only take care of the spirit, we must take care of our bodies as well.
What do you know, we’ve come around to balance once again.