Thinking About The Rede
February 17, 2010 4 Comments
Hey there. Have ya missed me? I’ve missed you…
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.