While I have not fought cancer in my own body, a lot of folks I’ve shepherded over the years have been on that side of the doctor’s desk hearing one of the most dreadful things you can be told as a human: “You have cancer.” I haven’t been through this particular ringer, so I write this knowing that other voices might speak better to this than I can. But we’re all familiar with the fact that depending on the type and stage of the cancer diagnosis, one of the primary ways to seek to cure or to control it is with chemotherapy.
And then comes the battle – the nasty side effects of assaulting the body with chemicals that are not meant to be there. Walking through that dark valley is brutal; indeed, sometimes it is so much so that it takes the life of the one going through the fight. Even for those who make it through, it seems so inhumane, so harsh, so ruthless; so much pain, so much grief accompanies this. Yet as I hear the stories and witness the testimonies of survivors, the reality of the greater good of this harsh treatment is exposed.
This has led me to wrestle through the following notion – the times when the first two rules of Methodism – “do no harm” and “do good” seem to be at odds. More directly, it seems that there are times when harm must be done in order to do good. But perhaps we need to dig a little deeper, to go underneath the surface, like Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader needed to go deeper than the outer layer of dragon scales to get down to the core.
In that story, when the dragon (who had been Eustace) comes to the awareness that he will have to allow Aslan to peel off the dragon layers, he is hesitant as he ponders the pain that will accompany this process. Yet there is a word that he used to describe it that has caused me to see this apparent contradiction somewhat differently:
I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat on my back to let him do it. The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know – if you’ve ever picked the scab off a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is fun to see it coming away… he peeled the beastly stuff right off … and there it was, lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been.
I don’t know if C.S. Lewis intended as much by his selection of the word “hurt” as I am inferring, but there’s quite a significant distinction to be made here. Perhaps this is because at the heart of it, there ought to be a difference between our concepts of “harm” and “hurt.” Perhaps on the surface and even in experience they might “feel” the same, but when it comes to the general rules of Methodism – indeed, when it comes to the life of following Jesus – there are times when a particular “hurt” may have to be inflicted in order to truly “do no harm” or to “do good.”
Yet anytime an action is taken that causes pain, a party cries, “Foul! Quit doing harm!” And because the church is a complex emotional system and there is a desire to “do no harm” in our hearts when they are at their best, the action is called into question and a retraction and apology are demanded. The allure is to either go along with this demand, on the one hand, or to simply dismiss those who cry, “Foul!” and tell them their ideals or concerns are not welcomed. Yet when we take either of those approaches, we put the body at risk to truly be harmed and not just hurt. We are often so averse to experience anything associated with pain that we would rather die a potentially unavoidable death than to address an illness that needs to be resolved.
Several years ago, I was at a conference about Christian revitalization movements across the world and a statement was uttered by John Witvliet, Director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, that has stuck in my mind. He spoke about the relationship between the theological sustenance of the church and the role of the prophetic voice. He said, “The ‘both/and’ approach to theology is the vitamin to sustain the life of the church. The role of the prophetic is chemo to take on a specific illness/injustice.”
The better approach, then, is to do the hard work of discerning “hurt” from “harm.” That is not a license to inflict pain or hurt on a whim. A doctor or medical team, after all, doesn’t just prescribe a treatment of chemo on a patient until several tests reveal as specifically as possible what exactly is going on in the body. At best, doctors consult with one another, even those from different specialties, perhaps even those who would be inclined to see it from a different angle, before going forward. One of my parishioners is a seven-year pancreatic cancer survivor. Every time a complication or medical need arises in his body, the doctors overseeing his care take a “committee approach” (it’s a Methodist hospital network,what else would you expect?). They come together to consider his case and work through the right avenue of treatment for the particular issue that has arisen.
Only then, when a clear diagnosis is given and a plan of treatment is agreed upon, comes the undesired yet necessary “hurt”—medicine or surgery—to deal with the illness. And this system of treatment is not the same thing as “harm.” Our Wesleyan Methodist heritage has a great history of promoting healthcare. I live in Memphis, a city that has a truly wonderful and comprehensive Methodist hospital and healthcare system. Given this heritage of valuing healthcare, which deals quite extensively in the area of discerning “hurt” from “harm,” one would think we would be well-poised to grapple with how this plays out in the life of discipleship and even of actions taken in the life of the church, which in the best biblical analogy is likened to the “body.” Yet we struggle. Conflicts happen. Feelings get hurt.
So why don’t we start engaging our problems and our sensed feelings of being harmed by working through the diagnostic phase of discernment and using Wesley’s own spelling out of the first rule of Methodism (see http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/the-general-rules-of-the-methodist-church) as a way of “getting to the issue”? Perhaps then we will discover not as much harm is being done as we previously assumed. And then whenever true “harm” is identified, we can talk treatment.