The definition of harm


I was reviewing our Safeguarding policy yesterday and came across this sentence in the ‘definitions’ section:

Abuse is the maltreatment of a child or vulnerable adult by inflicting harm or failing to prevent harm where there is a duty to do so, including cases of neglect.

I hope no-one would have a problem with that definition; and protecting the weakest in our churches from harm must be a vital priority for us.

But it occurred to me that this definition leaves us with a significant problem. What is the definition of ‘harm’? One might have thought that was obvious, but the increasing madness of secular morality has rendered it anything but.

Secularism operates with a basically Gnostic view of the human person: that who I am is not really to do with my body but with a ‘spiritual’ me fundamentally disassociated from my body. This may sound odd, since secularism is proud of its basic atheism and disbelief in spiritual realities. But this is far from a true description of how secular thought does, in fact, operate. The absence of the Christian God from this worldview in no way stops people believing in transcendent realities; human beings, made in the image of God, are not capable of not believing in transcendent realities. Secular people identify the real ‘me’ as an entirely transcendent, non-bodily thing: a creation of my own, constructed Facebook-profile-style out of the building blocks of my feelings, desires, inclinations, preferences and choices. (My body may be an important part of this identity, but only if I so choose; my physical race and sex can be part of my identity, but they need not be. That is up to me). Behind the façade of secular atheism is an absolute belief in the deity of individual freedom; and it is this deity which creates the version of ‘me’ that really matters.

For secularism, therefore, this transcendent, self-constructed ‘spiritual’ me is the real me. And therefore, to criticise any part of this self-constructed identity is a harmful assault on my very person, just as much physical assault on our bodies is. Indeed, somewhat more so; which is why schools and universities are now expected to support the absurd idea that to say that a boy cannot be a girl is harmful and destructive, while physically to stunt bodily development with drugs, or surgically to mutilate the genitals, is not. This is also why so many young people today consider criticism of their opinions as an attack on their very selves. Our theology always defines our morality, and a corrupt theology (which is another name for idolatry) leads to a corrupt morality. ‘Harm’ in a secular worldview is defined by that worldview’s god; so to suggest that individuals are not free to construct their own identity and live according to it is, for those living by that worldview, the most harmful thing that there is.

Christianity has, of course, a diametrically opposed view of harm. The thing that truly harms us is already inside of us (Mark 7:14-23). For our problem is sin, and it is this which Jesus came to save us from, as his very name tells us (Matthew 1:21). Individual freedom is not our deity but the very heart and definition of sin. Self-construction is not the basis of true being but the root of idolatry and the destroyer of true humanity. For we are not souls (self-constructed or otherwise) who inhabit bodies, but we are bodies and souls, as much one as the other, and made as this integrated whole by the God whose image we are. And both body and soul have been deeply infected and corrupted by sin, such that our desires are disordered, our identity as God’s images has been falsified, and our bodies are in bondage to death.

And so at the heart of the Christian gospel is that Christ came to redeem us, to restore us, body and soul, to be his true images. And redemption comes by one route only: repentance from sin, and faith in Christ. Christ’s call to repent is a call to surrender our self-constructed identities, to abandon our man-made idols, deny to ourselves the fulfilment of our desires, and submit ourselves, body and soul, in faith and obedience to our God and his Christ.

Which means that what Jesus calls repentance is an almost perfect example of what secularism calls harm. The ‘me’ of our neo-gnostic secular world, in keeping with all of sinful mankind, is a false version of me; and Christ says that it must die. We have to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. Follow him to death, that is, for it is only when the false version of ‘me’ which I have lived by is laid in the grave with Christ that he is able to raise me to new life. This is what baptism is about; it is what the whole of the Christian gospel is about (Romans 6:1-14). Christ indeed wants to ‘harm’ what sinful human beings consider themselves to be; indeed, he wants to kill it. Nothing less. ‘Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and for the gospel’s will save it.’ (Mark 8:35). ‘If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.’ (2 Corinthians 5:17).

So if we would preach the gospel, we cannot and we must not avoid what our hearers will consider harmful to them. Just as what Christ calls harm is what Secularism calls salvation, so what Christ calls salvation is what Secularism calls harm. We must preach that the destruction of what we consider to be ourselves is the essential prerequisite to truly becoming yourself, which is to be remade by Christ through the Holy Spirit. This is what repentance and faith means, nothing less. If any of us is to enter life, then according to Jesus there is no other way.

Back to our Safeguarding policy. If we leave ‘harm’ undefined we expose ourselves to a catastrophic misunderstanding of what we are saying. Indeed, simply preaching the gospel to children may well be considered a form of abuse. How, then, shall we define harm? Here’s my suggestion for our Safeguarding policy:

Harm means the damaging of a person’s wellbeing according to the standards of human flourishing set out in the laws and wisdom of the Bible; and therefore inflicting harm means acting in ways opposed to the self-sacrificial love and gospel call of Christ to repent and believe in him. For the avoidance of doubt, to call a person to repentance from sin or sins, being integral to the loving call of Christ for the redemption of sinners, cannot be considered harmful; conversely, to affirm a person’s temptations, sins and false identities as if they were good and wholesome is harmful in the most profound ways.

We need to get this right in our policies, but let’s not leave it there. Let’s call out a fundamentally false view of what is harmful. Let’s warn our churches and our world of what is truly harmful. Let’s be prepared to be accused of doing harm by preaching the gospel. And most of all, let’s believe and proclaim Christ’s glorious rescue of our souls and bodies from the devastating and eternal harm of sin.