I spend a lot of time, in the virtual world anyway, around pagans who walk a wide variety of paths. In this particular group, very few are Wiccan (of either the Neo- or Traditional varieties.) Something guaranteed to raise their hackles is when some well-intentioned neophyte who doesn’t understand that paganism consists of more than what they’ve read in their Wicca101 books, or some equally-well-intentioned-but-really-should-know-better elder promoting pagan unity, comes along and, in an attempt to find some common ground, declares something like “well, at least we can all agree on the Rede, right?”
Er, no. Not really. Cue hornets nest.
Paganism* is made up of such a wide variety of religions, that this statement seems to me the equivalent of entering a convention of monotheists and stating “well, at least we can all agree on the Nicene Creed, right”? (You’d have trouble with that even among a group of Christians.)
So, not every pagan follows the Wiccan Rede. But some do. I’m not Wiccan, haven’t been for decades, so I don’t. Right?
My gut response to this kind of statement is to firmly place myself among the chorus of those declaring “Not Me!”
But I found myself thinking about the Rede recently – the actual Rede, what it really means – and it dawned on me that, well yeah. I kinda do.
The problem is that so many 101 books and sloppy thinkers like to shorten the Rede to bumper sticker wisdom: “Harm None.”
I think most people can agree that a command to “Harm None” would be impossible to live up to. We cause any amount of harm just going through our daily lives. We kill animals and plants to eat. We kill bugs by walking on the grass. We kill microbes when we breath. We kill bacteria and viruses when we attempt to stay healthy. Even assuming the “None” in question only refers to other humans, it is still impossible to follow. Consider someone being violently attacked by another. If s/he fights back, s/he harms the attacker. If s/he doesn’t resist, s/he causes harm to hirself through inaction.
It just doesn’t work. Good thing that’s not what the Rede actually instructs, isn’t it? What it says is: “Eight words the Wicca Rede fulfill: An’ it harm none, do what ye will.” John J. Coughlin offers a history here, including some early statements of Gardner’s that actually do seem to fall more along the lines of the “Harm None” motto.
The most common interpretation of the full Rede is “If it doesn’t hurt anybody, do what you want.” That’s a little different that “Harm none.” This Rede isn’t proscribing any behavior – it’s an incomplete bit of moral advice that doesn’t say what to do if an action will cause harm, it just gives one full permission to do anything at all that doesn’t.
This is what the Rede means to me: If you’re not hurting anything, go for it. But there is also the implication that if you do need to cause harm, it’s your responsibility to be aware of the consequences of your actions and be willing to accept them.
It is a call to freedom, but one that implies an equally strong call to personal responsibility.
And yeah, I follow that Rede. Not because it’s an element of my faith, but for the same reason I follow the Golden Rule: it’s just plain good advice.
* The definition of paganism that I’ll be using throughout this blog is the one coined by The Cauldron: “A Pagan religion is a religion that is not Jewish, Christian, or Islamic and self-identifies as Pagan.”