Thinking About The Rede

Hey there. Have ya missed me? I’ve missed you…

What I’ve got to say here has been inspired by this post. Or, rather, by the reactions to my own comment that followed that post. You can check all that nonsense out if you feel like it.

It’s gotten me to start thinking about the Wiccan Rede, you see. Now (as you probably know), I am not a Wiccan, though, like most of us, there was a time at which I self-identified as such. Wicca is, of course, the “gateway religion” that has led most Neopagans today into various forms of alternative spirituality; this is why, I’ve determined, ecumenical Pagandom (as visible at festivals, say) so often takes Wiccanate forms.

Because of Neopaganism’s relationship to Wicca, the Rede is everywhere. Like our impulse to go stand in a circle any time that someone starts talking loudly, we can all quote it, even if we don’t agree with it: “An it harm none, do what ye will.”

And so, we’ve all had conversations about the Rede, and it’s a particular turn that these conversations often take that has got me thinking today. Inevitably, while discussing the Rede, someone asks a question akin to, “Well, if you’re supposed to ‘harm none,’ how far does that extend?” The follow-up questions are usually (in my experience) of two types: “I mean, what do you do if someone has a knife at your throat/gun at your head? Can you harm them then?” or “Well, even in breathing you’re killing thousands of micro-organisms, so you can’t not harm something!”

These two questions point in two different directions. The first (“he’s got a gun!”) concerns personal safety and really looks at the Rede as a call for pacifism. I’ll come back to this…

The second question above (“what about micro-organisms?!”) is what I’d really like to look at here. In my experience, when people suggest that it is impossible not to harm anyone, they mean to say that it is best not even to try. In my opinion, this is akin to saying (with arms thrown up into the air), “Well, it can’t be done. So, let’s just keep doing what we were doing.”

But let me suggest an alternate reading. Instead of the impossibility of absolute harming-none becoming a license to harm whomever, why doesn’t the Rede become a challenge? Sure, it may be impossible, but why don’t we do everything in our power to harm as few as possible? I can’t help but think of the Jain tradition of holding brooms in front of one’s feet so as to sweep away small insects lest they be stepped on. I haven’t seen any Wiccans even getting close to this sort of commitment to harmlessness. Why?

Why aren’t more Wiccans vegetarian or vegan? Why don’t Wiccans participate in anti-military organizations? Why don’t Wiccans make commitments to stop wearing leather, or fur? Why don’t Wiccans carry those oft-forgotten besoms and sweep away the bugs?!

I’m not here trying to mandate that every Wiccan MUST do these things. Really, I’m just trying to tease out why practices like these haven’t already been extrapolated from the Rede. All I see is so much walking around the point with so much individualism: If Wiccans are all about harming none, why isn’t it obvious?

Now, as I said I’m not a Wiccan and I don’t want to try and extrapolate an utterly pacifistic philosophy from the Rede. The Rede itself is too puerile for that. But I think that, at the very least, one should extrapolate from the Rede an ethic in which, say, large-scale, industrialized warfare is unacceptable. I don’t know how I would act upon the Rede if someone was holding a knife to my throat; In fact, I’m pretty sure that I’d engage in a whole lot of harming.  I think that this is an interesting conversation for Wiccan ethicists to engage in. However, I believe that this conversation can only take place in the midst of actual (not simply metaphoric) application of the Rede in daily life.

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About John Harness
John Harness is an artist and educator in Chicago. He is a member of Socialist Alternative and the Klingon Language Institute. He writes about political activism and roleplaying games.

4 Responses to Thinking About The Rede

  1. Woolysw says:

    I would suggest reading “Wiccan Ethics and the Wiccan Rede” (at http://wyldraven.clanxanadu.org/realrede.html) for an excellent discussion of what the Rede really says.

    It has very little to do with just “harm none”.

  2. Hystery says:

    Thank you for this. It is an important concern that should be addressed more frequently. I interpret the Rede as a call to pacifism. As a pacifist, I am also a vegan. Violence maintains inequality and suffering. People are always challenging me with hypothetical “knife at your throat scenarios” as if we should create a system of ethics that is merely defensive rather than creative. This is how I see it; as far as possible, I will stand for Peace, Equality, and Justice. I will not always succeed but my inadequacies do not excuse apathy.

    • Ali says:

      “a system of ethics that is merely defensive rather than creative”

      Yes! This is so well said and right on the mark! When I try to speak about pacifism to others, it seems this is where the disconnect lies: I am trying to describe a system of creative engagement, “peace-making“, and they’re thinking in terms of reactionary and defensive measures, and we end up talking past each other. I feel as though I get sucked into defending (or rather, dismissing and dismantling) the same strawmen over and over. What I want to understand is why defensive/reactionary thinking seems so much more prevalent, and why it’s so difficult to break out of, and how to most effectively overcome that disconnect and be able to speak effectively about peace. I’m doing my best to stare down frustration over these issues tonight… any advice?

  3. Ali says:

    Between the comment thread on that post on “centrist politics” and another forum discussion on nonviolence.. I was really starting to get kind of depressed. THANK YOU for this post. It makes me feel a little bit better about the world, like maybe there are people out there asking these sorts of questions after all. As usual, you rock. So please, rock on. 🙂 (I did miss you!)

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