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.