First, some background. The Wiccan Rede came about between 1964 when British author Doreen Valiente spoke the words in a speech, and 1974 when American author Lady Gwen Thompson published a poem titled "The Rede of the Wiccae," using the eight-word phrase as her last line. It means you can do whatever you want so long as you harm no one. The first part of this concept, that you decide what to do, stands in contrast to the hierarchical nature of the Abrahamic religions upon which Western civilization is founded. In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam there are extensive rules to follow within the Tanakh, the Bible, and the Quran. There are also authority figures such as rabbis, priests, pastors, and imams to guide your conduct. In Wicca, the individual decides his or her own actions. But they must harm no one through their actions.
Why should you harm no one? Good question. If you immediately thought of the Rule of Three, also known as the Threefold Law, I would urge you to come up with a better reason not to harm anyone with your actions. For example, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you? The Golden Rule, which is central to almost every religion in the world, should be good enough for us Wiccans. By contrast, the Rule of Three comes across as an embarrassingly dumbed-down version of the concept of karma in Hinduism. It is mentioned in Lady Gwen Thompson's poem, but was first conceptualized in Wicca founder Gerald Gardner's 1949 novel High Magic's Aid as follows:
"Thou hast obeyed the Law. But mark well, when thou receivest good, so equally art bound to return good threefold." (For this is the joke in witchcraft, the witch knows, though the initiate does not, that she will get three times what she gave, so she does not strike hard.)"
What does this even mean? That if you commit an action, it will return to you at its original strength three times? Or that it will boomerang back on you once but at triple strength? No one seems to know, but it makes a difference if you're calculating what you think you can get away with. And that is the impression I get of Wiccans who hold the Rule of Three in high esteem. I wonder if they do good deeds only because they want the reward and refrain from evil only because they fear the punishment. It seems so self-serving.
I can think of a better reason not to do harm: we are people of honor. To harm others is to act with dishonor. That is not who we are. Great kindness, courtesy, and mercy all come from great strength. By contrast, it takes no discipline and forbearance to run around lashing out at others and acting like a total jerk. To do good deeds brings us closer to Deity, and to commit evil drags us farther away. We do not want to lose our connection to our gods.
So how do we live our lives in accordance with the Wiccan Rede? Once we have accepted the "harm none" part of the Rede, we realize that there is huge condition laid atop doing "what ye will." The best way to proceed is with empathy. Every time we make a decision, we should think about who it impacts and whether we would want someone affecting us in that way. Because of this, we can commit no action on the physical or magical plane that manipulates anyone even if our motives are good. We can't force our solutions upon others for their own good. Instead, we must take responsibility for ourselves and those under our care, but allow all others to find their own way provided it does not cause us harm and force us to defend ourselves.
But what about reciprocity of one's action? I don't believe in the Rule of Three, but I think there might be something to karma. However, karma is too huge a concept to enable a consistent linear exchange of consequences such as you do something bad and an equally bad thing will always happen to you. It is entirely possible that a person could be born into this world to destroy another person's entire family because the second person's actions in a past life incurred the need for this spiritual lesson. Maybe the second person has to lose everything to transform to a more spiritual level. Will the first person, the killer, suffer because he was used as the instrument of karmic retribution? Maybe, but maybe not, depending upon his past lives. Karma is the reason why bad things happen to good people. It is too broad a vista for us to perceive from the standpoint of one lifetime. Instead of worrying about reciprocity, live your life with honor and empathy and it will be good enough.
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