Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Malaria nets and John Wesley's three rules

On Saturday, the New York Times posted an article entitled "Meant to Keep Malaria Out, Mosquito Nets are Used to Haul Fish In."  This article described instances in which mosquito nets had been used by very poor fishing villages in Africa for the sake of fishing, not preventing malaria.  The article expressed concern that not only were the nets not serving their intended purpose of stopping mosquitos, their use as fishing supplies was having detrimental ecological effects on fish stocks.

The United Methodist Church has been very involved in the anti-malaria campaign and the distribution of mosquito nets through the Imagine No Malaria campaign, and yesterday General Secretary of United Methodist Communications Larry Hollon responded to the New York Times piece with a piece of his own entitled, "Campaign anticipates misuse of bed nets."  In it, Hollen explained that the UMC and its partners had done their due diligence and had put plans in place to avoid the use of mosquito nets for other pieces as described in the New York Times piece.  Donors to Imagine No Malaria can be reassured that their contributions are going to good ends.

This controversy got me thinking about John Wesley's three general rules for Christian living: "do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God."  The anti-malaria campaign was seeking to follow the second rule of doing good, but the New York Times piece essentially challenged that they were violating the first rule of doing no harm.  Yet the situation is more complicated, as the Times piece acknowledged.  For while the misuse of mosquito nets as fishing nets may have done harm to the environment, the alternative may have been the harm of starvation for the poor fishing communities.

The situation reminded me that while Wesley's rules may appear simple, they are often not simple to practice.  We are often caught in the paradox of choosing between doing good and avoiding harm or in the paradox of avoiding one type of harm only to cause another.  It seems at times that there is no escape from violating the first rule.  Perhaps we should not worry about trying to do good so as to avoid doing harm?

I don't think that's the appropriate response, nor the one that John Wesley would encourage us to take.  Instead, I think the answer lies in the third rule: stay in love with God.  If we stay in love with God, we will be filled with God's love and thus be unable to resist sharing that love by doing good to others.  We will thus overcome the temptation to inaction.

But if we stay in love with God, we will also know that God is a God of grace.  We may unintentionally (or even intentionally) violate the rule to do no harm in favor of the rule to do good.  Yet because God forgives us, that gives us the strength and humility to admit where we've gone wrong, do what we can to correct our mistakes, and then keep on going in our attempts to do good.  We may not ever be perfect in the consequences of our efforts, but we can seek the perfection of the love that motivates us in our efforts.


  1. Placing the Nothing But Nets campaign in the Wesleyan framework you mention reminds us that Wesley's view inevitably leads to complexity. Three simple rules give forth a myriad of considerations and a recognition that there is no simple good. Unfortunately the UMC sold this, like all its programs, as simple, irresistible goods that anyone could participate in without thinking of the broader and more complex problems of these societies. We forget that malaria was endemic in much of the southern US at one time, not to mention parts of SE Asia. Now it is gone. Why? Nets? No way - it is because of the development of strong civil society structures that drain swamps, systematically eradicate mosquitoes, and engage in public education. We're throwing nets at Africa when what they need is good governance. Our failure to see this dooms our efforts to failure.

  2. I confess I got lost in the rhetoric of the original post, but found Robert's response dead on. The original Nothing but Nets campaign marked the triumph of marketing over epidemiology. Not surprisingly, our denomination’s participation was conceived by people at UMCOM rather than global health professionals. That’s not to claim that experts get it right all the time (see William Easterly’s latest book), but the Nothing but Nets approach was troubling from the get go. It did, however, sell well in the pews. All those pictures of white bishops handing nets to black people, along with the misleading “give ten dollars and save a life” provoked a generous outpouring of money. To throw nets at a problem. But eventually some common sense (and some African push back) sneaked into the conversation, and we abandoned Nothing but Nets for the more comprehensive Imagine No Malaria. Unfortunately, there’s been no public discussion of why we matured. Larry Hollon’s commentary in response to the New York Times article would have been a good place to start, but instead we just got more rhetoric. I think people in the pews would like to hear a more nuanced discussion of why the change, but instead they’re still bombarded with the magic ten dollar formula. We love such simple math that makes us feel good. Unfortunately, mission is a complicated adventure, and we do a real disservice to folks in the church when we reduce it to a sort of modern equivalent of selling indulgences.