Three Simple Rules — No. 1: Do no harm

Early this summer, Linda and I had our deck replaced. The original was 20 years old and so poorly built that three support posts were rotting away at the base. One way or another, that deck was coming down. We chose to take it down rather than let it take us down with it.

Our contractor was a chatty fellow who made sure we knew he was a strong Christian. I think he was the best witness for Christ I’ve ever encountered in such a way. He was especially interested in talking with us when he learned that we were both United Methodist pastors.

At one point in our talks, the topic turned to safety measures for the pandemic, and either Linda or I mentioned that “Do no harm” was one of the three basic rules of Methodism. He’d never heard of these rules and was intrigued, so we explained them a little.

Turns out, a lot of people have never heard of these rules – including a lot of United Methodists. That’s why Linda and I are both preaching about them for the next three Sundays – me here, she at Ives Chapel. It’s a coincidence, I guess, that we both chose to start this week. But this is basic stuff to Methodists in a time of pandemic and social unrest. I got a head start, though, because I preached them a dozen years ago when the book Three Simple Rules by Bishop Rueben Job was first published.

These three rules are deceptively simple. I say “deceptively” simple because as straightforward and uncomplicated as they are, these rules run deep. They are radical – in the true meaning of the word “radical,” which is to say that they go to the root of things. They go to the essence of our lives with God and with one another.

These three rules are derived from a remarkable passage in the book of the prophet Micah. We don’t know much about Micah’s life, but he must have been a pretty sharp guy. When God spoke, Micah listened carefully – and thank God he did.

Micah begins by asking, “What do you want from me, God?” It’s a universal question, one that gnaws at all of us at one time or another. “I don’t understand what’s going on in my life, Lord. If there’s a message from you hidden in events, I sure can’t figure it out. Just tell me. What do you want from me?”

It’s a universal question, only when Micah asks it, he is acting as a spokesman for Israel, and Israel feels abandoned by God, so Israel’s question to God is almost sarcastic. It’s almost like a twisted version of a certain Roy Orbison song.

“You want burnt offerings? You got it.

Yearling calves? You got it.

Anything at all, Lord, you got it.

“A thousand rams? You got it.

The life of my firstborn?

Anything at all, baby, you got it!”

Micah’s reply comes slowly, deliberately. “God has told you what is good and what God requires from you. Just these things: Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God.”

Just these three simple things. Three words from God. Three broad concepts that express God’s ideal for human life, the way things ought to be, the way God created us to be, the way God is working to make us be.

These three words are the Be-attitudes of the Hebrew Bible. Three Hebrew words occur here that are key to the message of both Testaments. These words are mishpat,meaning justice; hesed, meaning kindness, and halakah, right steps, or right walk.

To walk rightly with God, you have to be just and kind. To walk rightly with God, you have to deal rightly with others. Life is about relationship. Life is about living rightly with others. And here’s Micah’s point: You can’t fake it. You can’t ignore what God wants and bribe God to accept your behavior.

Your life is your worship. You can’t disregard the rules of relationship out there, IRL – in real life – and then come in here and make up for it all just by singing sweet Jesus songs. If you don’t walk the talk, God won’t be putting up with your jabber.

Two hundred eighty years ago, when they were forming the first Methodist societies, John and Charles Wesley changed the wording a little. Today we express their three general rules this way: Do no harm. Do good. Love God.

These rules are not just part of our denominational heritage. They are part of United Methodist doctrinal standards. They are how we are expected to live today as United Methodist Christians.

“First, do no harm.”

This saying is not, as commonly thought, part of the Hippocratic oath that many physicians take when they begin medical practice. It was not widely used in medical circles until 100 years after the Wesley brothers started using it. Who got there first doesn’t matter. What matters is the intention.

How do you avoid harming people? One way, the Wesley brothers say, is by avoiding evil of every kind, especially the kinds of evil that are most common in society.

They list 16 specific evils as examples of things to avoid. Some of these appear rather quaint today, though all are as counter-cultural today as they were in 18th century England. Taking the name of the Lord in vain, profaning the Lord’s day, drunkenness, quarrelsomeness – nothing unexpected there.

Wearing gold or costly apparel, uncharitable or unprofitable conversation, self-indulgence, frivolous diversions, bawdy songs – about what you might expect from two preachers who are serious about walking the straight and narrow.

But then one that’s still relevant today: borrowing money without likelihood of repayment. And one bombshell: owning or trafficking in slaves.

The Methodist movement was abolitionist from the start. Slavery was always forbidden. Methodists in the American South ignored that rule, of course, and when northerners pressed them on the issue, the Methodist church in America split apart. That was in 1844, 17 years before the country was split by Civil War over the same issue.

See, these rules aren’t so simple, after all, in their application. For example, in his 1760 sermon on “The Use of Money,” John Wesley says we should not earn or use money in ways that cause harm to ourselves or to other people.

Think that through for a minute. If you believe that pornography harms people, you shouldn’t buy or sell pornography, right? What about working in a convenience store that sells it? What about buying other things from that store?

What about buying and selling stock in companies that you know make part of their profit by exploiting their workers? What about buying or selling products made in China, the largest human rights violator in the world? Or buying or selling shirts or jeans made in sweat factories in other countries around the world?

I once knew a fellow, a union man, who was proud to say that he didn’t own a thing that was not American made and union made. But, boy, he said, shopping was hard!

So is living by this rule. Micah doesn’t actually say, “Do no harm.” Micah says, “Do justice.” If you do no harm, you will be doing justice.

Can we be honest here? Our human understanding of justice is pretty pathetic. We throw some crackhead in jail for 20 years, and we call it justice. That’s not justice. That’s human warehousing. Put the problem in a box and when you open the box 20 years later – surprise! – the problem hasn’t changed a bit, at least for the good. Where’s the justice in that?

God has a better idea. Mishpat, the Hebrew word for “justice,” comes from the same root as the Hebrew word for “righteousness.” This common root word refers to the demands of relationship. It means “as it should be.”

Righteousness and justice are about the ways things should be. You are righteous when your relationship with God is as it should be. You are just when your relationship with other people is as it should be.

Sin is the way things are. Righteousness and justice are the way things should be. God wants you to live in righteousness and justice. Do justice, Micah says. Make things the way they ought to be between you and other human beings.

This has both individual and social meanings. Yes, you ought to make things right between you and everyone you encounter face to face. But it goes beyond that, as Wesley is trying to show with his questions about how you earn and spend money. You also have to worry about making things right between you and people whom you will never meet – because your behavior always has wider ramifications and wider effects.

You live in a human society. Therefore, every action we take has social consequences. That’s one reason the mask debate is not about individual rights alone. There are no lone individuals. You cannot think about justice without thinking of social justice. That means righting wrongs and setting things right.

This is usually not a popular position to take, because most societies are organized around perpetuating wrongs, not eradicating them, because powerful people always profit from socially enforced wrongs. Stand up for social justice, in any form, and you are likely to be shouted down, or gunned down, by representatives of the powers that be.

Social justice is about leveling the playing field, creating a truly equal opportunity society. Power likes to keep the playing field tilted its way. Power does not like to be challenged. When power is challenged, people die or simply disappear without a trace.

Yet social justice is possible only when truth speaks to power. The prophet Micah is a champion of the poor who speaks truth about injustice. We don’t know how his message is received, but we do know that other prophets of his time who spoke the same message were hounded to an early grave, as they are still today, in every society, including our own.

Speaking truth to power is hard. So is trying to do no harm.

When you encounter someone who refuses to wear a facemask in your presence, what do you do? It might seem that to do justice, you ought to confront that person – but can you do it in a way that causes no harm, either to the other person or to yourself?

What about politics? Can you have a decent conversation with someone with whom you disagree? Can you disagree without doing any harm? Must you inflict damage with your words? If you can’t do it in the small things, how can you expect to do it with the large things?

What about sending your kids or your grandkids back to school? Is it safe? Can you or anyone else protect them? What’s the right thing to do? What action will do no harm, or will do the least harm?

This is not a political question. If you think it is a political question, you need to have your mind washed out and disinfected. This is an ethical question, a life or death question, a question of right and wrong. This is a question of how to act in the most loving way possible, given the many uncertainties of the situation.

This is what God wants from us. Do justice. Do the right thing. Do no harm. It’s the first of the simple rules we ought to live by. No one ever said it was easy. Pray for the will to do it anyway.

This message was delivered August 23, 2020, at Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas, from Micah 6:6-8. 

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