In our Pagan Primer today, we’ll also answer a question that was asked by Brian.
Brian asked “What if a Wiccan killed someone in self-defense. Wouldn’t this contradict the ‘Harm None” Law?”
So, let’s look at the Wiccan Rede once again. There are a number of different formats, but the most common reads “An it harm None, Do what thou Wilt.”
Many people shorten this to simply “Harm None”. The trouble with shortening anything is that when you do, beyond a certain point, you tend to lose information. In this case, we’ve lost 75% of the words. Now if those words weren’t important, that would be fine, but in this case, they are very important.
One way to examine what the rede really means is to put it into more modern language. So, let’s do that.
If it harms none, do what you want.
That’s clear enough on the surface. So let’s look a bit deeper at what it means. Quite easily, we can see that it means that if what we are planning to do will result no harm, we can do what we want. Well, who or what are we to consider harm toward, when deciding if there is harm? If it’s not specific, then we need to consider all harm, including others, ourselves, other creatures, and even the environment. Some might take it to include plants as well as animals, meaning even the food we eat is included.
Really, it means that we have to look for the best good in whatever action we are considering. While some detractors of Wicca like to point to what is seemingly so permissive a law, it’s really not permissive at all. It requires us to think through each of our actions.
But let’s look a bit deeper. Let’s look at Brian’s question specifically. What about the case of killing in self-defense?
An it harm none, do what thou wilt. What does this have to say about inaction? What if a murderer is threatening our life, or the life of another? What is the harm for action? What is the harm of inaction? Remember that “do what thou wilt” is not only speaking about an action, but can just as well mean inaction. If we permit another to do something that we have the ability to prevent, aren’t we also in some way responsible? If a police officer witnessed a crime, and stood by doing nothing, would he not be held accountable?
The same should be true for all of us. Acts of omission are as potent as acts of commission.
So, in the case of self-defense, or defense of another, the rede isn’t telling us to be pacifists. Some of us might choose that position on some philosophical grounds, but that’s not something that’s inherently evident in the Rede.
Really, the Rede tells us to carefully examine our motives for doing, and for not doing, everything that we choose to do or not to do.
It’s actually a blanket statement that calls us to examine every aspect of our lives, and to live always for the highest purpose that we can.
It doesn’t tell us to refrain from joining the military, because we think killing is wrong. There are many Wiccans in the military, and they serve in positions of combat and danger, just as admirably as those from any other religion.
It doesn’t tell us not to defend ourselves, our families or our neighbors when the need arises.
It doesn’t tell us to avoid hunting, fishing, to be vegetarians. It puts no direct restrictions on our lives.
What it does do is to ask us to be informed as we can be, and to be responsible for the choices we make. It calls us to be accountable to ourselves and those we interact with. It means that we must know what we are doing and why.
Do you eat meat? Do you understand where that meat comes from, and how those animals are treated? Are you in a position to choose a vegetarian diet right now?
So, what does the Rede mean? If your actions will harm none, act with liberty. You can choose. But in most cases, someone or something will be harmed. In these cases, you must inform yourself, and act in the best way that you can. It doesn’t mean “never harm”, it means that we must act with knowledge and accountability.
© 2008, Deirdre Hebert