A Tale of Two Britains

Others have written more eloquently than I about the political, social, and economic implications of all this. Laurie Penny, George Monbiot, Gary Younge, and others have all written about the social and economic tensions that led up to this, and the ways in which white privilege and colonialist nostalgia fed into the rhetoric around the vote (if you didn’t notice that the Leave campaign was racist, check your white privilege; if you did notice, but voted Leave anyway, check your white privilege). I am so angry and distraught about the way that rampant racism is spreading its vile poison. How did Great Britain become Little England?

It ought to be obvious to anyone that Tory-imposed austerity is responsible for the economic misery that has cut services and reduced jobs and rendered many areas  full of despair. Certainly, the brutal realities of capitalists accumulating wealth at everybody else’s expense also plays into this, causing division between the people they prey upon. Instead, people blame immigration and the EU.

So we have been led to the  brink by a group of irresponsible and out-of-touch upper class twits, as The New Yorker immediately grasped, with their “Silly Walk Off A Cliff” cover art.. And although the 17 million who voted to leave the EU didn’t all vote that way on the basis of anti-immigration, the racists who are currently committing vile acts of hate up and down the land have felt empowered to do so because they are assuming that the rest of the Leave voters agreed with them.

There are at least two Britains, maybe more.

My Britain is diverse and inclusive; my heritage is William Blake, William Cobbett, E M Forster, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, Edward Carpenter, the mass trespass of Kinder Scout, the Cable Street fight against the fascists, the Suffragettes, the Dissenters, the poets, the trades unions, the solidarity of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, and the miners who showed up to support LGBT people in the struggle for our rights; the Britain that welcomed Rammohun Roy and Mohandas Gandhi, the Britain that boycotted the products of slavery, a diverse Britain that has always been there, as Deasy Bamford says, from Libyans and Ethiopians on Hadrian’s Wall under the Romans, to Black people in 16th century London, the Jews returning to England in 1650, and always being welcome in Scotland, to the working men’s clubs that welcomed Black jazz and blues musicians during the 1930s: a history of radicalism, solidarity, inclusion, and working together. This is a Britain which recognises the distinctness of the Scots, the Welsh, the English, and the Irish.  And it has wonderful food, enriched by many different cuisines from around the world. This Britain is part of Europe and part of the wider world.

Then there’s another Britain: it’s a grim place, where diversity of all kinds is shunned, where the music is all nationalist, where the kinds of people who are held up as heroes are Horatio Nelson (a slaughterer of revolutionaries) and the Duke of Wellington (a rampant xenophobe). This is the Britain of stiff upper lip, compulsory heterosexuality, football hooliganism, dreams of wall-to-wall whiteness, and eating stodgy and dull food. This is the Britain that put its wellington boot on the face of half the world, and then complained when the people who had been subjugated by the Empire wanted to come to Britain. The Britain that came to the fore in the film V for Vendetta.

Both Britains exist, and have existed side-by-side for centuries – now and again, one or the other has the upper hand. For a few decades, inclusive, vibrant, multicultural Britain has had the upper hand. We emerged from the ghastly uniformity of the 1950s, into the explosion of colour that was the 1960s. The 1970s were pretty grim (especially the overt homophobia, the vile racism, the dreadful food and the tasteless wallpaper), and the 1980s were not much better. Then the effects of the prosperity brought by the EU started to have an effect, and for a short while, it looked as if inclusive Britain would triumph, despite setbacks.

Rhyd Wildermuth writes, in A Storm at the Crossroads:

“Would it not be better if we were to stretch into ourselves like felines?” Peter Grey asks, and is that not also how anything grows? The muscle always tensed becomes useless, the heart defended by castle walls will never dare to love, the soul constantly defending borders will never take flight in travel, and the mind that entrenches will never learn to dance.

You know that story about the two wolves that live in the psyche – the friendly one and the vicious one – and it’s the one that you feed that gets the upper hand? Well, the combination of austerity and cutbacks and racist demagoguery has fed the wolf of nationalism in the British psyche – especially the English and Welsh bits of it (though Scotland is by no means immune). There has been a massive vote in favour of insularity, nationalism, and isolationism (and even if you didn’t mean your vote for Leave in that way, that is how it is being interpreted both by the racist thugs, and by the rest of the world).

I am also reminded of the bit in the stories of Arthur and Merlin, where Vortigern is trying to build a castle on a hill, but it keeps falling down. Merlin sees with his inner eye that this is because two dragons are fighting each other in a lake underneath the hill, and advises Vortigern to drain the lake. We are trying to build a beautiful city of inclusion and welcoming diversity, but the dragon of hate and intolerance is having a fight with the dragon of inclusion and diversity. But King Arthur won’t be coming back to fix things. It is up to us now to build the circle of Camelot, in the realm of Logres, the dream vision of Albion, the land of diversity and inclusion and hospitality.

By William Blake - William Blake Archive, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8310345

Two forms of Los with Enitharmon, Plate 100 of Jerusalem. By William BlakeWilliam Blake Archive, Public Domain.

So what can we do?

  • Build and strengthen your links with your local community – other faith groups, people from other cultural backgrounds. Talk to your neighbours. Hold a local event to bring your community together.
  • If you can facilitate workshops, create a workshop on civil courage and standing up to racism.
  • If you are a Pagan organisation or group or an individual with any sort of platform, make a statement rejecting hate and racism.
  • Sign and share the inclusive Wicca statement rejecting racism, and the Pagan Federation statement against racism.
  • Wear a safety pin to show solidarity with diverse communities – but don’t stop there. Be prepared to intervene if you witness a racist incident or attack.
  • Report it – if you are the witness or the victim of a hate crime, please report it to the police.
  • Join Pagans Against Racism (UK) and work to make Paganisms more inclusive.
  • Do rituals and magic to support a positive outcome. We need all the allies we can get. If my vision of an inclusive and welcoming Albion, with the round table of Camelot at its heart, speaks to you, then you might want to focus on that in your rituals. Imagine the round table being filled with people of different colours, ages, genders., and sexual orientations.
  • Here’s some suggestions from The Guardian on six positive things to do. I especially like number 3: solidarity with immigrants.

Litany for Orlando

Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34 years old

Stanley Almodovar III, 23 years old

Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, 20 years old

Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22 years old

Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, 36 years old

Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, 22 years old

Luis S. Vielma, 22 years old

Kimberly Morris, 37 years old

Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, 30 years old

Darryl Roman Burt II, 29 years old

Deonka Deidra Drayton, 32 years old

Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21 years old

Anthony Luis Laureanodisla, 25 years old

Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, 35 years old

Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez, 50 years old

Amanda Alvear, 25 years old

Martin Benitez Torres, 33 years old

Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, 37 years old

Mercedez Marisol Flores, 26 years old

Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado, 35 years old

Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez, 25 years old

Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernandez, 31 years old

Oscar A Aracena-Montero, 26 years old

Enrique L. Rios, Jr., 25 years old

Miguel Angel Honorato, 30 years old

Javier Jorge-Reyes, 40 years old

Joel Rayon Paniagua, 32 years old

Jason Benjamin Josaphat, 19 years old

Cory James Connell, 21 years old

Juan P. Rivera Velazquez, 37 years old

Luis Daniel Conde, 39 years old

Shane Evan Tomlinson, 33 years old

Juan Chevez-Martinez, 25 years old

Jerald Arthur Wright, 31 years old

Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25 years old

Tevin Eugene Crosby, 25 years old

Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega, 24 years old

Jean C. Nives Rodriguez, 27 years old

Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, 33 years old

Brenda Lee Marquez McCool, 49 years old

Yilmary Rodriguez Sulivan, 24 years old

Christopher Andrew Leinonen, 32 years old

Angel L. Candelario-Padro, 28 years old

Frank Hernandez, 27 years old

Paul Terrell Henry, 41 years old

Antonio Davon Brown, 29 years old

Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz, 24 years old

These are the names that have been released so far of the victims of the homophobic shooting in Orlando.

May they rest in peace and be reborn among their loved ones. May their partners, lovers, friends, and families find peace. May they rest in the loving arms of the Universe, in the place between the worlds, and return to us in love and joy.

By Ramon de Souza (Rain) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons By Ramon de Souza (Rain) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons By Ramon de Souza (Rain) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This shooting is the end result of a society that tolerates homophobia, transphobia, and hate speech calling for violence towards LGBT people.

It is also a result of how easy it is for people to get access to guns in America. Countries that have gun control do not have 1052 gun massacres in the space of 1066 days. Every statistic backs this up. CNN agrees:

“(Access to) firearms (is) a significant predictor of these incidents,” Lankford said.
The United States has more guns than any other country in the world. There are an estimated 270 million to 310 million firearms in circulation in the United States. With the American population at 319 million, that breaks down to nearly one firearm for every American.
Slightly more than one-third of Americans say someone in their home owns a gun, according to the Pew Research Center. …
The numbers do show that more restrictive gun laws make a difference. Lankford points to Australia as an example. The country had four mass shootings between 1987 and 1996. After those incidents, public opinion turned against gun ownership and Parliament passed stricter gun laws. Australia hasn’t had a mass shooting since.

If you cannot see the connection between homophobic and transphobic hate speech and the murder of LGBT people: the people with homophobic views are not necessarily going to take a gun into a night club themselves, but when a climate of intolerance is created towards LGBTQIA people, it gives extremists the excuse and a shift of general opinion which helps them to feel justified in killing. Take for example the 2011 shooter who, encouraged by the anti-LGBT and anti-liberal rhetoric of Rush Limbaugh, went into Tennessee Valley UU church with a gun and murdered two of the congregation, and would have murdered more of them if he could – because that congregation hosted a LGBT youth group.

The man who did this mass shooting was a virulent homophobe and was violent towards his ex-wife. He said he was doing the shooting in the name of DAESH – but neither this nor DAESH have anything to do with the true spirit of Islam. Undoubtedly, right-wingers will try to use this shooting to promote hatred against Muslims – another vulnerable group. But there are many Muslims who support LGBT rights; there are many queer Muslims, and they are in mourning too.

50 people are dead. 53 more people are injured, and five of those are in a critical condition. Let us pray for the dead, for the survivors, for their loved ones, and for the whole LGBTQIA community. We are all grieving, and many straight allies are grieving with us. One thing that was beautiful and heart-warming to see was the queue of 600 people waiting to give blood to help those injured in the shooting.

And still, we are rising. We will not be silenced, we will not be disheartened. We grieve for our dead, we mourn for the loss of their beauty in the world. We remind you that it is still not safe for two people of the same sex to kiss or hold hands.

As Maddison Wood writes:

I’m tired.

A year ago I put a rainbow flag around my shoulders and celebrated the legalization of gay marriage in the United States. A year ago there was no law banning transgender people from using the bathroom of their choosing. A year ago a man hadn’t shot 50 gay people dead because he saw two men kissing and got angry. “Now that gay marriage is legal, what more do you people want?” Well, I want to stay alive, for one thing.

I’m tired.

There aren’t gay coffee shops or gay restaurants – there are gay nightclubs. Gay nightclubs where LGBT people can meet other LGBT people and feel safe. I want to meet other LGBT people and make friends with LGBT people, but I also don’t want to die.

Yes, tired. And angry. And heartbroken. I am angry that this shit is still happening, that people are brutally murdered for who they love. I am angry that loving someone of the same sex is still considered a cause to murder them. Heartbroken that one of the few spaces that is supposed to be safe for LGBT people has become the scene of a brutal slaughter. Angry that more people have been brutally murdered and still nothing will be done about guns. And angry that hateful homophobic and transphobic rhetoric is still being spouted in the name of religion – even in the name of Pagan religions. We of all people can and should do better.

Once again, I call for stronger and deeper love in the face of hate. Love must win.

 


Candle animation by Ramon de Souza (Rain) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s Talk About Gender

Gender is a difficult concept. I literally have no idea why some activities, clothing styles, thoughts, and behaviours are labelled “masculine” and others are labelled “feminine”. It all seems very arbitrary to me. In some languages, objects are assigned a grammatical gender. The designation of assertiveness as a “masculine” trait, or receptiveness as a “feminine” trait,  seems just as arbitrary to me as saying that a car is “masculine” and a table is “feminine”.

Initially I found the concept of a spectrum of gender and sexuality quite helpful as a tool to think with, but even that reinforces the idea of a binary, and treats the concepts of biology, identity, and expression as distinct and essential traits which can be classified as “masculine” or “feminine”. I just read a critique of the genderbread person which explains very effectively what’s wrong with thinking about gender as a spectrum: it assumes that “male” and “female” are at opposite ends of the spectrum, and that genderqueer is somewhere in the middle. You could also have a spectrum from zero gender to 100% gender – but all of these are meaningless unless you accept that personality traits are somehow gendered (which I don’t). Certainly personality traits are often regarded as being associated with a particular gender, but they are not essentially or inherently gendered. Here’s an identity-bread person and a GSM diagram which doesn’t present identity or anything else as a spectrum (my only criticism would be that the line for sexual attraction points to genitalia, and I am attracted to the whole person, not just what they’ve got in their pants). Gender is more of a random scatter plot than a spectrum. So I apologise if my previous efforts to describe gender as a spectrum were actually reinforcing a cisnormative model.

Social Constructs

The thing is that both biological sex and gender identity are social constructs. However, a social construct can have real effects and correlates in the way the world is constructed. Consider the effects of dividing toilets up into toilets for people designated male and toilets for people designated female, for example.

Our society arbitrarily assigns gender at birth based on physical characteristics (usually, having a penis or a vagina). If a child’s genitalia are different, the medical establishment reconstructs them to be more like either a penis or a vagina, and the child is then assigned a gender based on the modified genitalia. A person who accepts the gender they were assigned at birth, and who lives according to the social expectations attached to their assigned gender, is cisgender. A person who does not accept the gender they were assigned at birth, and does not live according to the social expectations attached to their assigned gender, is transgender. Some transgender people want to be the other side of the gender binary. Many transgender people are genderqueer, non-binary, genderfluid, metagender, etc. (The “etc” at the end of that list is not meant to be dismissive of other identities, but inclusive of them.)

How gender is socially constructed

As a child grows up, they are treated differently based on their assigned and perceived gender, both by their families and society in general. Parents who have tried to break out of this binary by giving their child a gender-neutral name and not revealing the gender on the child’s birth certificate have had varying degrees of success, due to lack of co-operation from people around them.

I was fortunate in that, although I was assigned female at birth and raised as a girl, my parents encouraged me to choose hobbies and interests and clothing based on my preferences, rather than because of my assigned gender. I have also spent most of my life hanging out with people who don’t conform to gender stereotypes.

I was a bit surprised when I joined the lesbian society at my first university in the late 1980s and found it included many lesbian separatists. I suspect they frowned on my bisexuality. I asked why we didn’t hang out with the gay society. “They’re still men” was the reply. Nowadays every university has a LGBT society, thank goodness.

Gender essentialism in the Pagan movement

When I first got involved in Pagan groups (in the late eighties and early nineties), I remember discussions about whether there were gender stereotypes in the kinds of magical or Pagan groups people chose. Perhaps Wicca was a “girls’ subject” and chaos magic was a “boys’ subject”? (The people who were asking these questions wanted to do away with these gender stereotypes.)

Then I started reading second-wave feminist books, many of which were gender-essentialist. Women were nurturing and peaceful, according to these books, whereas men were warlike and aggressive. I didn’t really buy into these stereotypes, but they were insidious because there were a lot of them about.

In the 1990s, people started organising women’s circles and men’s circles within Pagan groups. (Maybe they existed before this in some groups, but in Wicca, I think it started around the mid-nineties.) To my eternal shame, for a short time (maybe six months) I was one of the people who wanted to deny trans women access to women-only circles. I am totally embarrassed about this now, but I mention it as evidence that people can change.

Around this time I also encountered people who made claims like “you’re not a real woman unless you have given birth”. This is easily dismissed by the fact that many trans men have given birth, and many cisgender women haven’t. Many people who have spent a lot of time in gender-essentialist women’s circles report that women who have given birth get extra kudos in these circles, and even more kudos if they gave birth to a girl. This sort of attitude has always seemed to me to be the mirror image of the kind of extreme patriarchy which only values women as potential carriers for sons.

At the same time, because I don’t see gender as being an “essence”, I was worried that the existence of transgender people made the distinction between male and female a hard boundary that could be crossed by a change in physical characteristics, rather than a fuzzy boundary that could eventually be abolished. Thinking of both gender and biology as a spectrum (from masculine to feminine, and from male-bodied to female-bodied) helped me to get over that worry. I reasoned that a person who is physically at one end of the spectrum but mentally at the other would naturally want their physical characteristics to match their gender identity. I accept now that this is still overly binary, but it helped me to get my head around it. If people have still got their ideas firmly attached to the notion of a gender binary, shifting them to the concept of a spectrum is still an improvement on a dualistic binary. We are also up against a huge backlash from people who actually think that the gender binary is real, so things like thinking of gender and sex as a spectrum are what we might call “baby steps” in moving away from binary thinking on this. But we still have to remember that it is only a model.

Energy doesn’t have a gender

Another deeply entrenched concept in many Pagan groups is the concept of “male energy” and “female energy”. Personally, whilst I have been able to experience energy, I have never experienced it as gendered. I have found that energy can be created in a variety of ways with different people. We could label these ways polarity (making energy with someone based on the tension of opposites), resonance (making energy with someone based on the alignment of similarity), and synergy (bringing the energies of a group of people together) – but I think this is probably too simplistic as well. Sometimes the creation of energy relies on erotic tension (which could occur between any two people); sometimes it is created by friendship, or trust, or just the coming together of two or more people and a moment of openness between or among them. The problem is that we as a species like to label and categorise – it is how our brains work. Problems occur when we forget that the map is not the territory.

I don’t think sexual and social attraction has as much to do with gender as people think, either. For me, attraction is based on a person’s competence and confidence and integrity, as well as physical attraction (and a person doesn’t have to be conventionally good-looking for me to find them attractive).

Polarity can definitely be made in other ways than the coming together of a male-assigned person and a female-assigned person. At Witchfest 2015, I ran a workshop/ritual on gender and sexuality, and I mentioned various pairings that could make polarity: morning people and evening people, tea-drinkers and coffee-drinkers, people who love Marmite and people who don’t. The one that got the biggest reaction was the mention of Marmite, so that was the one we chose for the ritual. The room divided up into people who liked Marmite, and a group of people who didn’t. We decided they needed something nice to focus on, rather than hating Marmite, so they chose chocolate. A few people defected from the Marmite group to the chocolate group at this point (splitters!). The Marmite group focussed on the yumminess of Marmite on toast with butter, and the chocolate group focussed on the yumminess of chocolate. During the whole focussing session, a car alarm was going off in the car park. As soon as we brought the polarised energies together, the car alarm stopped. We sent the energy raised in the ritual to empower trans people, as it was around the time of the Transgender Rite of Elevation and Transgender Day of Remembrance.

There are many polarities (spirit and matter, inner and outer, life and death being among those we might consider “ultimate” in some way) but it is not particularly helpful to think of “male” and “female” as being opposites, nor as ultimate or cosmic. It certainly isn’t helpful to think of them as being mutually exclusive, or essentially constituted in a particular way. It may be useful to think about yin and yang instead, as long as you don’t think of them being essentially masculine or feminine, but rather more like hot and cold, or expansive and contracting. The thing is that one person may be more yang than another person, but less yang than a third person; so they are yang in relation to the first person, but yin in relation to the second person. Further, this can vary on any given day and in any given situation. It is not a fixed characteristic. Some days, you might be in the mood for Marmite and butter on toast; other days, you might really want chocolate. But there are people who always prefer chocolate, and others who always prefer Marmite.

“Women-only” groups

It is understandable that sometimes, people would want to come together on the basis of shared experience, such as having given birth, menstruating, or the menopause. But to then claim that these experiences somehow represent the essence of “femaleness” or of what it means to be a woman, is to reduce identity to biology. Trans men and genderqueer people can also menstruate and give birth.

I don’t quite understand the need to only talk about menstruation in front of other people who menstruate, or have menstruated. For various misogynistic reasons, menstruation is regarded as taboo in our society – so wouldn’t it be better to break down that taboo by talking about menstruation with everyone, rather than only among people who menstruate? I guess we might need to talk about it in menstruating-people-only spaces to start with, to help break down our internalised taboos about it, but after that, why not talk about it openly? (I suppose the not-menstruating people might feel excluded, but only if it is talked about in an excluding way.)

The same applies to talking about giving birth. I have experienced this kind of talk as excluding when it veers towards “you’re only a real woman if you’ve given birth” but I don’t mind if people want to talk about it. I do mind if they get all superior about it. Not having done it myself, I can’t contribute much to the conversation, but it’s OK.

Another excuse for cisgender-women-only groups is often that they are safe spaces for rape survivors, and that a rape survivor may be re-traumatised if she sees a woman with a penis. The people making these claims tend to forget that LGBTI people, including trans women, may also be survivors of sexual violence. And most women with a penis are aware that other people may be confused by their penis. Here are some helpful suggestions from Zinnia Jones for what to do with your penis if you are in that category. She writes:

People like to assume that our bodies are still essentially men’s bodies, and therefore work the same way. However, as any trans woman can tell you, this just isn’t the case. From social situations to sex to surgery, the standard dudely dick dilemmas simply aren’t all that relevant to our lives. So, for the sake of my fellow trans ladies (but mostly for any confused cis onlookers), I’ve assembled my own 10 semi-serious tips for wrangling a girl penis.

Take particular note of points 7 and 8: if a trans woman is taking oestrogen, then it is very difficult to get an erection.

The truth is that running estrogen on unlicensed hardware can scramble almost every aspect of sexual response. Things just don’t work the way they used to: orgasms change or disappear, your whole body reacts to touch in different ways, and the entire structure of arousal-erection-climax may break down. Traditional techniques might not cut it any more, and new approaches can be non-obvious.

So a trans woman with a penis is quite literally not a threat. I can understand rape survivors not wanting to see any penises at all during the immediate aftermath of the rape, and that the trauma could last for a long time, but I doubt that it would last for the rest of one’s life.

Another key point in all of this is that if you want to create a group or a ritual that is only for a particular category of people, try to do it in a non-essentialist way. Many marginalised and oppressed groups want to create a space for empowerment (people of colour, LGBTQIA people, and women, among others) but if you create these spaces in a public setting in a way that marginalises another oppressed group, then that is oppressive. If you want to create a ritual for people who menstruate, that seems reasonable, but don’t insist that only people who menstruate are women, or that all people who menstruate are women, because that is essentialist. I menstruate; I am genderqueer.

And if you do a rebirthing ritual (where people crawl between the legs of other people in a symbolic rebirth), have everyone in the group crawl between everyone else’s legs, regardless of gender.

Gender identity

What about the people who do identify as male or female? Good for them. No-one is stopping them from doing so, but it would be better if they acknowledge that other genders are available, and that your genitalia and socialisation process do not determine your gender. However, even cisgender identity is fluid and changeable, and not fixed to a specific mode of being or social interaction, so don’t assume that a masculine-looking person automatically likes stereotypically “masculine” pastimes and topics of conversation, or that a feminine-looking person wouldn’t be interested in them.

Since gender is all a bit of a mystery to me, I am happy to use whatever pronoun anyone prefers for their gender identity. (But as a grammar nerd, I do want to know how to use it in all grammatical contexts. And yes, you can use ‘they’ as a singular word; people have been doing so to refer to an unknown person of unknown gender for decades; and pronouns have often changed from singular to plural and back again, as in the use of Sie in German to mean they plural and the polite form of you singular; and the use of vous in French to mean you in both the singular and plural forms; and you in English to mean both singular and plural. Anyone claiming to be a grammar nerd should know this; so anyone claiming to be unable to use singular ‘they’ for reasons of grammar nerdiness is just a bigot.)

Some sort of conclusion

I guess some sort of conclusion is expected at this point. I guess what I am trying to say is, can we all listen to and respect each other’s unique experiences and identities, and not put them in some grand overarching category? Categories are only useful insofar as they help us to find other people with similar experiences, and help us to communicate our experiences and intersecting identities to other people using a word or phrase; beyond that, they are confining and constricting. The more we regard categories as monolithic and unchanging, and somehow representing an essence, the harder it is to see the individual person and their lived experience. In short, can’t we all be nice to each other for a change?

Authority in Religious Traditions

There are different kinds of power, as famously identified by Starhawk (and probably others before her): power-over, power-from-within, and power-with-others. Authority comes in at least two flavours: being an authority on a topic (that’s why writers of books are called authors) and having authority over others. All of these are conferred by others to a greater or lesser extent (even power-from-within occurs when the pressure from inside is greater than or equal to the pressure from outside).

John Beckett writes that some people have a problem with authority. This is true, but sometimes it’s for very good reasons. We all mistake authority-on-a-topic for authority-over-others. Many bloggers have the experience of getting the comment “You can’t tell me what to do” when the authorial tone of their post was intended to be authority-on-a-topic and not telling others what to do. This is frustrating (but sometimes people get the authorial tone of their posts wrong, including me). But there are those who quite blatantly want to have power and authority over others, and use their powers of manipulation and persuasion and their apparent deep knowledge of a topic to gain power over others. They use the confusion over what is legitimate power and authority to create a mini-kingdom for themselves. These are the people and power-structures we should be resisting.

As Rhyd Wildermuth writes in a recent post, Gods & Authority:

Enclosure can happen for meaning, too.  In fact, that’s always been the trick of Authority; convince people they have no other access to meaning except through their prescribed doctrines, just as Capital convinces us we have no access to exchange except through property and the market or the State convinces us we’ll die without it.

This is a situation that we want to avoid at all costs in the Pagan, polytheist, Heathen, Druid, and Wiccan communities. As soon as one person or group claims sole access to meaning, then they have enclosed meaning, and are in pursuit of power and authority over others.

The Buddha made a very sensible disclaimer about his teachings – that if they make sense to you, follow them, and if they don’t make sense to you, don’t follow them. Maybe we should all add that as a disclaimer at the end of our posts.

If someone says a thing that makes sense to you, then you would be well-advised to follow it. If it  doesn’t make sense to you, don’t follow it – but do think about why it doesn’t make sense to you. Is it because you have an issue that is  getting in the way, or is it because you have genuine solid objections to it?

Power and authority in groups

I have observed a number of different religious groups with different ways of dealing with power.

The Quakers make their structure as flat as possible, with elders and various committees. Sometimes the elders have too much power, but this is presumably balanced by the committees, and by the strong Quaker discernment processes. They also strongly recommend that people attend their classes on being a Quaker – so presumably those would also teach you about how to complain if somebody “forcefully eldered” you. I think we can learn a lot from how the Quakers do things. They also have regional Yearly Meetings in which all the Quaker meetings come together to discuss things, again using Quaker process. The disadvantage of this system is that the power is not out in the open where people can see it.

In Wicca, there is no formal power structure beyond the immediate coven. Covens have autonomy, and this is an important principle to most Wiccans. (Some groups have high priestesses who are referred to as Lord and Lady – but this is a North American innovation and is not done in Wicca in Britain, where we have quite enough aristocracy already, thank you. As far as I can tell, in most groups it is an honorary title only.) The system of coven autonomy has its pros and cons – it means that there can be very dodgy behaviour in a coven, and they can get away with it – but it does prevent hierarchy forming above and beyond that.

OBOD Druid groves generally have leaders, but different people are encouraged to lead rituals. They also have sub-groups for the different grades (bard, ovate, druid) and these could develop some odd power dynamics, but I haven’t observed any groups beyond the bardic grade, so I couldn’t say for sure. There is also the rather odd idea of the chosen chief of the order (who chose him? I didn’t vote for him…) but this seems largely ceremonial, as far as I can tell. (Please correct me if I am wrong.)

In Unitarianism, they have ministers and committees. In fact they have a lot of committees for such a small group. They also have an annual General Assembly (similar to the Quaker Yearly Meetings). The power of the minister and the committee generally balance each other. (Sometimes one has too much power, sometimes the other.) Congregations have autonomy, and there are also the important principles of the freedom of the pulpit (the freedom to state your truth in the pulpit) and the freedom of the pew (the freedom to believe your truth and disagree with what is said from the pulpit).

Authority (use of power legitimated by the structure) in the Quakers, Unitarians, and OBOD is fairly well-distributed in a system of checks and balances between the national body and the local regions and congregations. Wicca doesn’t have a national body, but we do get together to  discuss things and we have a shared body of practices, as well as freedom to be creative. None of these systems are perfect, but they’re pretty good. There’s always someone with a big ego trying to gain power, but most of the time they are balanced by the structures that exist to regulate power and authority.

Freedom of belief, freedom of conscience

All of the above groups have freedom of belief: you can be an atheist, a pantheist, a duotheist, a monotheist, a polytheist, and so on. In practice there are not that many polytheists in the Unitarians and Quakers in Britain, but there are some, and both groups include atheists. What is important in all these groups is your values, including a willingness to play nicely with others. They do share a worldview, an ethos. As Caelesti writes in this excellent blogpost, Belief vs. Worldview:

Lived Values Follow Worldview – hopefully after developing a worldview, or during the process of developing one, values and ethics come to be a lived part of one’s life. This has been primarily what I have been focusing on this past year with my Self-Care Virtues project – the virtues are based on Celtic and Norse polytheistic worldviews, and there are also influences from my UU values.

It is also worth noting that these groups are mostly stable. Of course there are arguments about what  it means to be a Unitarian or a Quaker or a Wiccan (and probably a Druid too, but I don’t know) but as every group has a variety of different preferences within it, I expect these arguments will never be definitely settled by a schism. Instead, there are affinity groups of Unitarian Pagans, Unitarian Christians, Quaker Pagans, Christian Quakers, and so on and so forth. And in terms of values, these groups generally have more agreement with each other than disagreement.

The Triumph of Civilisation by Jacques Réattau. [CC BY SA 3.0]

The Triumph of Civilisation by Jacques Réattau. Photo by Grizzli, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2398513

The emergent polytheist movement

I am largely observing the emergent polytheist movement from the outside and over the internet, so what follows is a somewhat partial perspective – but I have observed (and others have too) that there are some rather disturbing tendencies developing, which could in a couple of generations adversely affect the setup of polytheist communities.

Personally, I feel excluded by the polytheist movement. I have had too many polytheists tell me that I can’t be a proper polytheist because I’m a Wiccan (and it seems Jason Mankey has had the same experience). I feel excluded by all the people saying that there is only one way to be a proper polytheist, and that is to be a devotional polytheist. I feel excluded by the editorial policy of Polytheist.com, which is that they choose who they want on the site, and do not accept applications from prospective bloggers (contrast this with Gods & Radicals, whose editorial policy is basically “send in an article”, or Patheos Pagan, whose policy is also that people can apply to join, though that probably needs to be formally stated somewhere). I feel excluded by the increasingly narrow definition of what a polytheist is. Polytheism means ‘many gods’. That’s it. It doesn’t matter if you also believe that they are emanations of the divine source, or the underlying energy or whatever. That’s still polytheism.

This one of several reasons why I wrote my post on relational polytheism – the idea that we are in relationship with the gods, that we are co-creators with them of unfolding reality. It is possible to be a polytheist and a Wiccan – because I am one, and so are many others. My polytheism is different to Jason’s – but that is just fine.

If membership of polytheist groups and communities becomes based on a test of belief, then there will be persecutions of “bad polytheists” a few generations down the line. What matters is your values. Do you treat others with respect for their autonomy and freedom? Are you inclusive and welcoming of people with disabilities, LGBTQIA people, and people of colour? Do you care about the environment? Are you prepared to play nicely with other people who believe differently than you? Then you’re in my community. If not, take a hike.

As Rhyd Wildermuth says, how we world the gods says much more about us than it does about them. If we are authoritarian, the way we world the gods is as authoritarian figures. If we are egalitarian and peace-loving, we world them as egalitarian and peace-loving. He writes:

The gods exist as independent beings from us regardless of our belief in them. But it’s we who actually world them into the earth, and how we world them is dependent upon what we do, who we are, and the sort of world we create around us.

This is what’s going on with Heathens and Gaelic Reconstructionists who insist there must be a racial component to worship of gods. They are the sorts of people who believe in race, and therefore world their gods into the earth racially. The same can be said of people in those same traditions who insist there is no racial component; they don’t believe in race, and therefore don’t world the racism into the gods.

The true offering we give to the gods, which is precisely the same offering we give to any other living being, is this act of worlding. When I make offerings to Arianrhod, she’s not drinking that mead. Instead, by offering her mead or flowers, I am worlding her into the earth through the act of offering those things, but this is only a personal act.

So if someone claims that you don’t choose a god, a god chooses you, and that once the god has chosen you, you must do their bidding – then they are probably an authoritarian trying to world the gods as authoritarian. If they claim to be the chosen mouthpiece of the god, and try to tell you that they know better than you do who your personal deity is (or deities are), then they are trying to gain power over you. If someone claims that they are practising the One True Way for everyone, and you’re Doing It Wrong, then they are trying to gain power over you. The fact that there are many deities and many religious and spiritual paths suggests that there is no One True Way, in any case. If they tell you not to talk to certain people or types of people, that’s a power-grab. I wrote some warning signs of unethical groups for the Gardnerian Wicca website that are probably applicable more generally.

It is perhaps inevitable that some people will seek power and control. That means we have to create the structures, the checks and balances, that will prevent them from gaining too much power. As Syren Nagakyrie writes in this excellent post, A Conversation on Power and Authority in Polytheism:

At the top, that power turns it’s gaze to control. To determining religious experience, to deciding canon, and who is worthy of their religion and who is not. Again, look at the world religions. Look at the history. This is not conjecture or conspiracy. This what we see happen again and again and again.

We have an opportunity to do differently, to try. Yes it means hard conversations. It means it will take time. But if this is not the work, then what is? If this is not an act of devotion, of dedication, then what is? I am led to believe that this is why some particular powerful deities, and the Dead, are making Themselves so known right now.

Draw the circle wide

As Caelesti pointed out in her post, people’s beliefs shift and change over time. We live in a culture and a time where it’s hard to be a polytheist. Some days people are atheists with polytheist leanings, some days they are full-blown polytheists, some days they are agnostic. It’s okay to have doubts; they are a healthy part of spirituality and religion. If you didn’t have doubts, how would you test ideas to see if they really came from the gods, or were just the product of your ego? If you exclude everyone who is a bit agnostic, and don’t allow them room to practice, then you might be missing out on good people, and you won’t be giving them an opportunity to experience the presence of the gods (and how they interpret that experience should be up to them). As Elizabeth I said, “I would not make windows into men’s souls”.

Belief and faith originally meant trust, not assent to a creedal proposition – and I really hope that they will come to mean that again.  I hope that polytheist communities will not have a creedal test of membership, but develop a common set of practices and values that will attract people who want to live those values and practice those values and world the gods in a way that will make the world a better place for everyone, not just a privileged few.

Embodied Spirituality: Compassion

When I posted my recent post about making a meditation hut, a friend posted a link to an article in The New Yorker, entitled “Pond Scum: Henry David Thoreau’s moral myopia.” It shows that Thoreau was the worst kind of misanthrope, and had not an iota of compassion for his fellow human beings. He remained unmoved by the sight of drowned bodies from a shipwreck. He only advocated the end of slavery because it violated his belief in self-governance. He clearly advocated disappearing into the woods, not so one could emerge refreshed and renewed for the struggle against oppression, but because he really didn’t like or care about other people at all.

I wasn’t advocating building a meditation hut as a sturdy structure for keeping the world at bay – more a place where you could meditate when it’s raining, perhaps spend a few hours or days living the simple life, not a permanent retreat from the world. If you go into the woods, the aim is to be more connected with the whole of Nature, including humans, not to become detached from all other beings. The point is for those of us who are a bit introverted to recharge our batteries by spending some time alone, so we can be companionable and compassionate when we emerge.

Only connect

Spirituality – embodied or otherwise – is merely narcissism and self-indulgence when it doesn’t involve compassion – literally, feeling with others. I regard embodied spirituality as a sense of mystical connection with the universe and all beings within it. In feeling this sense of connection, we experience compassion for the sufferings of other beings, and empathy with their joys. We can enhance this sense of connection by finding a community with whom we can practice compassion and mindfulness; if we don’t engage in spirituality in a group setting, it can become self-centred and shallow, disconnected from everyday reality. We need the experience of actually living and sharing with others to enable us to grow and become our authentic selves. This can be done by the creation of a community of shared values, which models in microcosm the desired qualities of human community. Of course there will be conflicts and tensions, but it is in how these are resolved that the real values of the community will be tested and refined. It is only by this kind of radical openness and humility that the community can become strong and genuinely inclusive.

I believe that the religious life is a shared spiritual journey towards greater communion with the cosmos, where Spirit descends into matter rather than escaping from it – but this communion does not involve the effacement of individuality; rather it is the celebration of diversity and the quest for authenticity, because the “divine” (the vision of ultimate worth) is the potentiality of all life to share in mystical communion. But we must expand our compassion to all beings, not just to those whose values we share, and we do this by engaging in social action – caring for the poor and the oppressed, protecting the environment, standing up for human rights, and promoting freedom, peace and justice.

We cannot really expect others to be convinced that we are “mystical” or “spiritual” unless we put compassion into practice by helping others. The two aspects of religion go hand-in-hand: without a sense of connection there is no basis for compassion, and without the expression of compassion in the form of caring, the life of a mystic can be barren and unproductive.

Pagan views of compassion

In a Pagan context, we might view the theological underpinnings of compassion as our view that divinity is immanent in the world, and everything carries a spark of divinity within it. Alternatively, we could take a naturalistic approach and recognise that everything on Earth shares at least 60% of our DNA – we really are all related. And we could combine these two ideas.

In 2013, reflecting on the Charter for Compassion, John Beckett wrote:

My theological basis for compassion is a religious basis, but it is also a naturalistic basis. Intuitively, we feel an obligation to help those who help us, first of all the families who give us life and who support us when we are young and vulnerable. We feel an obligation to help our close relatives, our neighbors, and our families of choice. We are social animals and we know we cannot survive alone – we need the help of others, and they need our help.

But beyond the practical aspects of compassion lies the recognition of kinship, of looking into the face of another and seeing ourselves. That person is like me, therefore she feels pain and joy just as I do, therefore I should help her feel joy and prevent her from feeling pain.

I would argue that compassion for beings beyond our immediate kinship group is what makes us human and humane. If you cannot feel kinship for the suffering of other beings, that isn’t very “spiritual”. I find it horrific that Thoreau could walk along a beach full of drowned corpses and not see fellow human beings, only a “spectacle”. I find it horrific that people can look on the sufferings of Syrian refugees and see only ‘flotsam and jetsam’, or the threat of the Other.

The ancient virtues of hospitality and reciprocity are core values for many Pagans, and these are, in many ways, related to compassion.

For me, one of the great things about being manifest in the physical world is the giving and receiving of love in physical form: hugs and caresses, and making love. And whilst it is true that love means that you will suffer when the loved one dies, I feel it’s true that “it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”. Love and reciprocity are the basis of all of existence, because it’s all about creating connections between beings. In the Feri creation myth, the universe came into being because the Great Goddess looked into the mirror of the void and fell in love, and the love created the Other. So love is the origin of the universe, and love is part of the fabric of existence.

How is compassion embodied?

We experience feelings (grief, love, dread, joy, fear) in our bodies. We talk about “a gut feeling”. Compassion is embodied like other feelings. It turns out that this has a neurological basis in mirror neurons – we quite literally empathise with other people’s pain because our mirror neurons respond to them.

Physical existence entails a certain amount of suffering (bodily pains, the loss of loved ones) and also a certain amount of joy. The Pagan response to this is to celebrate the joy and accept the suffering as part of embodied existence, whilst trying to relieve suffering.

It’s not much use being compassionate unless you put it into practice, of course. Unless we actually help people, merely empathising with them is not enough.

How far does compassion extend?

Compassion is not only fellow-feeling for other humans, but also for animals and birds: all our relations.

The Charter for Compassion would benefit from a “green clause” to emphasise caring for the Earth and our fellow creatures. Although there is a section on their website about treating the Earth with compassion, it hits a discordant note for me, as we need to recognise that we are part of the Earth, not regard it as a separate system from ourselves.

Another charter, the Earth Charter, drafted back in 1968, placed caring for the planet at the heart of its ideas.

And A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment also placed the Earth at the heart of its concerns.

In my view, social and environmental justice are inextricably bound up with each other: you can’t have one without the other.

Five Memorable Blogposts of 2015

I read loads of really awesome blogposts and articles in 2015. Bloggers on Patheos Pagan, Gods and Radicals, and elsewhere. The conversation is deepening. We are starting to wrestle with how we as Pagans respond to suffering, oppression, doubt, death, pain, and fear. We are starting to frame Pagan understandings of consent and community.

So it was hard to select five blogposts that were a “must-read”. The five blogposts listed here are some of the ones that really stood out for me. When I thought back over the year, these were the ones that I remembered reading and going, “wow, yes, this”. There were many other blogposts and bloggers that also made me go “wow” and “yes”. Thank you to all of them for some amazing and thought provoking reads. If you aren’t reading Niki Whiting, Crystal Blanton, T Thorn Coyle, Cat Chapin-Bishop, Annika Mongan, Laine Glaistig, Molly Khan, Alley Valkyrie, Nimue Brown, Jason Mankey, Thorn Mooney, John Beckett, Rhyd Wildermuth, Naomi Jacobs, and the articles at Gods and Radicals, you are missing a feast of great writing.

Here are five excellent and important posts that I remembered when I sat down to make a list.


Why racism is Paganism’s business – Cat Chapin-Bishop

Many Pagan bloggers have written urgently and well in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and many Pagans, polytheists, and other people of faith have turned out to protests and shown up in solidarity. Cat has been doing this consistently, in her community, on Facebook, and on her blog. Here she gives a Pagan social and theological explanation of why we should support people of colour and challenge systemic racism and white supremacist ideology.

[Racism] it isn’t something that happens “out there”–and when Pagans of color draw it to our attention, if we white Pagans respond by minimizing what they’re saying, by calling it hand wringing or accusing Pagans of color of making too much of a fuss, we’re actually supporting the overculture’s lie that talking about racism is “divisive” or somehow the problem–that being “race blind” (which usually means white people being willfully blind to racism) is the way to support justice.


Editorial : Against Authority, Against Terror – Rhyd Wildermuth

There are so many quotable bits in this editorial, which shows the many ways in which terror and authority reinforce each other. The opening paragraph sums it up:

I don’t need to tell you what happened. You’ve seen it already, the images of carnage, the collective mourning, the shaking anger, vows for reprisals, calls for restraint. And then the near-simultaneous retaliations in multiple countries by anti-terror police, new crackdowns, increased arrests, tightened security.

Rhyd has written so much good stuff this year but this piece really stood out for me because I wanted to print it out and stick all the quotable bits on my wall and make everyone read it. I used a quote from it as a chapter heading quote in the book that I am writing.


Do We Act Justly? Disability, Mental Illness and Vulnerability – Naomi Jacobs

This piece offers a new model of disability and how society relates to disabled people. Instead of treating them as vulnerable and victims, which removes their agency and autonomy, we should be treating them equally. I think this is important because it challenges even those people who think they are being disability-friendly to challenge the assumptions on which their attempts at inclusion are based.

If you have to make special arrangements after the fact, you didn’t start by thinking about access for all. You thought of us as vulnerable people who need help, not as equal people whom you forgot about when designing your festival, or ritual, or meeting. And that’s a problem for all of us who want to live in a society where there is equity and justice for all. The social model of disability says that we are made more disabled, made vulnerable, by societies that are created for non-disabled people and that don’t want to change to include us.


Deep Polytheism: On the Agency and Sovereignty of the Gods – Morpheus Ravenna

Not exactly a blogpost, as it was actually Morpheus’ keynote address at the Many Gods West conference, but I suspect it will come to be seen as one of those defining moments in polytheist history. What gods are and how we relate to them have been key themes in the Pagan blogosphere over the last year.

Morpheus offers a metaphor for understanding the relationship between the gods, the world, and us, and how we see the gods. Among many interesting points and insights, she explains how to understand archetypes in relation to gods.

Here’s a model I’ve used to illuminate this: Imagine being inside a church, and here is a stained glass window. The window contains an image in colored glass, and that image is lit and brought to life by sunlight pouring through the window.
Here, the image in glass is the archetype – it is an image, a symbol, and as we experience it, it can be alive with light and power. But, in truth, it is not in itself alive or exerting force in the world; it is a kind of passive vessel which is being enlivened by the agency of a greater force. That force, the sun that is generating the light enlivening the image, is the Gods. The church, in this model, is the human mind.


Spiritual Buffets and the Value of Traditions – John Beckett

In this, and many other recent posts, John argues for deep engagement with the tradition you are in, instead of pick and mix spirituality that hasn’t been carefully thought through.

Doing fusion well – with food or with spirituality – requires a deep understanding of elements and themes, not just picking things at random because they look appetizing.
Without a tradition it’s hard to get started.  Without a tradition it’s even harder to movev beyond the basics.  If there’s nothing to tell you that crab legs are delicious, you’re not likely to ever try to eat them.  They look creepy and eating them is a lot of work!

There were loads of other good posts, and I am sure other bloggers will have lists of good ones.

Best wishes to all our readers for 2016, and may we continue to deepen our conversations and strengthen our community, both online and face to face.

When We Are Birthing, It Helps to Breathe Through the Pain

Photo credit: Reed Busse

This is an invitation. This is an opening in the day.

Pause. Deepen, listening into to your senses. Ground to the earth under the sidewalks, under the foundations of houses and workplaces. Breathe slowly and fully.

Here is a lived truth I invite you to share: when we are birthing, it helps to breathe through the pain.

 

Breathe and Ground.

Ground and Breathe.

 

Seven Reasons I Am Silent

 

  1. I do not think I am a blogger.
  2. I have been thinking about this for a long time.
  3. A blog is a form. A relatively new one.  It is a form that requires
    • Information easily broken down into bullet points and top ten lists
    • Visual content
    • An easy and accessible voice
    • Humor

 

  1. You don’t have to hit every one of those, but most of the time I hit one at the most. Sometimes zee-ro.
  2. And I’m okay with that. My work is elsewhere.
  3. The blog form also asks that the writer…know. Have answers. A blog is a container for answers.
  4. I don’t have answers. I have mostly questions.

 

 

I Am Too Slow a Writer to Blog Well

 

Breathe and Ground.

Ground and Breathe.

 

Choose your adventure, choose your battle. Because I am a slow writer, because I take a lot of time to process, I was writing three blogs posts at once last week. Social media moves faster than I do, even on my good days. Then I realized all my essays said the same thing: it is not a question of two sides. This (whichever this you are looking at currently) is not a binary dilemma.

 

 

This Is the Only Offering I Have

 

Breathe and Ground.

Ground and Breathe.

 

I do not have answers. All I can do is hold space, here.

 

Those who shout loudest feel most threatened.

Those who speak the most hate feel the most fear.

 

What do we fear?

Who do we fear?

What scars do we bear?

What wounds never healed?

 

Everyone is hurting. Breathe.

That person you have named your enemy is hurting. Breathe.

That person you fear is hurting. Breathe.

That person you do not know is hurting. Breathe.

That person who hurt you is hurting. Breathe.

That person who thinks she has the answer but is afraid to share it is hurting. Breathe.

That person who tells you he has the answer is hurting. Breathe.

It is not us and them. It is not me and you. It is we. Breathe.

It is never the end of the world. Breathe.

 

Peace, peace, peace, to all of us. Breathe.

 

When we are birthing, it helps to breathe through the pain.

 

Breathe.

 

Wisconsin landscape

photo credit: Reed Busse

 

 

Why is Hate More Newsworthy Than Love?

Recently, Icelandmag reported that Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson and the members of the Ásatrúarfélag (Icelandic Pagan Association) had received hate mail from a few vocal homophobic and racist bigots for their intention to conduct same-sex marriages in their new Heathen temple, and their view that a person of any ethnicity can be a Heathen.

“Þingblót 2009” by Photograph by Lenka Kovářová. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. -

Þingblót 2009” by Photograph by Lenka Kovářová. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. –

So I decided to launch a page where people could sign to show their support. A petition site seemed wrong, as we were thanking them for being inclusive, rather than asking them to do anything, so initially I launched a page on 38 degrees – but quickly discovered that only people in the UK could sign it. So I launched a change.org page as well: Thank you for supporting same-sex marriage and inclusiveness. At the same time, Haimo Grebenstein created a Facebook event in solidarity: “Ásatrúarfélagið – we are at your side!” The event is sponsored by Asatru-EU, an informal group of people of Germanic Heathen background, most of them members of associations from many European countries. They have been active since 2006 and are hosting the International Asatru Summer Camp (IASC), which starts on 25 July in Sweden.

The Facebook event has 2400 people supporting it, from many different Pagan and polytheist religions; the change.org petition has 640 signatories, and the 38 degrees petition has 124 signatories.

Meanwhile, if you can see the Facebook social plugin on the Icelandmag article (I can’t see it on a PC or an iPhone, and only intermittently on my iPad, but I am getting notifications of who has replied to my comment on there), then you will see that the haters appear to be in a tiny minority compared to the people who support inclusivity towards both LGBT people and people of other ethnic backgrounds.

Icelandmag ran a follow-up story about the messages of support, but again focused on the original hate-mail rather than on the messages of support:

Over the weekend we will be publishing an exclusive interview with Hilmar Örn, about the honourable and respectful nature of Ásatrú as it is practiced in Iceland, his interaction with foreign pagans and the disturbing messages he has received from foreign pagans.

The Wild Hunt also did an article, Ásatrúarfélagið Threatened with Vandalism over LGBTQ Support– also focusing somewhat more on the hate-mail than the outpouring of support, though kindly linking to Haimo’s Facebook event and my petitions. I am glad that the issue has been covered, but concerned that what I believe to be a small minority of haters is getting more coverage than the overwhelming number of people who support inclusivity. Maybe it is because hate and bigotry (despite what you might think from reading the newspapers) are actually the exception rather than the norm? Or is it because the mainstream media wants to make us feel small and isolated and powerless in the face of all this bad news?

The same thing happens with Christian bigotry against LGBT people. Granted that there are some loud voices of hate, but there are also many Christians who support same-sex marriage and regard same-sex love as natural, and are welcoming towards LGBT people. In the UK, Stonewall, the LGBT pressure group, did a survey of attitudes of religious people, and found that 58% were in support of same-sex marriage (as compared to 68% of the general population). So the difference in support between the religious population and the general population is 10%. There could be a variety of reasons why this is, but given the focus on religious bigotry by the media, most people would probably be surprised by how small the difference is. It is also noticeable that church leadership (who are often the ones making the bigoted pronouncements) are seriously out of step with the laity on this. Not only that, but the list of religious groups where leaders and laity alike support LGBT equality is quite long and impressive, and some groups (Quakers, Unitarians, Liberal Jews, and Pagans) have supported and campaigned for LGBT equality for decades.

It is also noticeable that Heathens, Polytheists, Wiccans, Druids, Kemetics, and Pagans from all over the world have signed the change.org petition. There are so many awesome comments, I urge you to go and read all of them – it is very heart-warming.

So here are a few of the signatories of the thank you petition, and why they signed:

Kurt Hoogstraat ELK GROVE VILLAGE, IL

I’m gay and a heathen. My husband and I have been together 25 years, raised a daughter and have two grandchildren. Family is very important to us, and I live the practices of my religion every day with my family. Besides, the Gods communicate with me and protect my family every day — they don’t seem to mind I’m gay!

 

Dale Overman WEST VALLEY CITY, UT

Our ancestors were far more open minded than many modern heathen in some parts of the world. The world and its religions and deeply divided as it is. We modern heathen and Asatruar need a bit of common unity and respect. Inclusiveness and hospitality is part of a decent human community.

 

Wendell Christenson CLOVIS, CA

I know in the news reports when they said that “foreign practitioners” of Asatru are sending hate mail, that “foreign practitioners” really means “American Heathens.” It is embarrassing! Not all American Heathens are simply Protestant Christians who grew up to drink mead and “play Viking” on the weekends! Thank you, Ásatrúarfélagið, for building a modern-day temple and providing services to all.

 

Dieter Tussing GERMANY

Celtoi and Gaulish Polytheists say thanks. We are in complete agreement with you.

 

Carl Guldbrand LINDESBERG, SWEDEN

Bröder och Systar, jag står med er.

 

Reverend Janet Farrar CLOGHRAN, IRELAND

They truly represent the old Gods of their land.

 

Elma O’Callaghan BELFAST, UNITED KINGDOM

Basically, some people are so full of hate when they see others being happy. They need to know that Paganism is all encompassing and inclusive of equality and human rights. Well done Iceland and Hilmar for showing the true face of humanity.

 

Heather Demarest WANCHESE, NC

I honor these same deities and know that deep wisdom is its truth, that our souls are equal and even Odin supposedly dressed as a woman. Once you get past all the chest-thumping, Heathenry has deep and profound and beautiful wisdom that can empower all of us, regardless of gender, sexual preference or race.

 

Mike Stygal LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM

There should indeed be no room for racism or homophobia or transphobia in Heathenry, Druidry, Wicca, witchcraft, Paganism, polytheism, and kindred traditions.

 

Alexander ter Haar ZOETERMEER, NETHERLANDS

The Asatruarfelagid give an example of how heathenism can be: tolerant and open-minded, hospitable and respectful. It is saddening to hear that they receive hate-mails because of that. And at the same time it is wonderful to see how many people stand with them. I am proud to count myself amongst them.

 

Rev. Selena Fox BARNEVELD, WI

Appreciation, Well-Wishes, Support to You for your support of same sex marriage.

 

Jay Friedlander ANDOVER, ENGLAND

As British Heathen I support equal rights for same-sex marriage. Homophobia and transphobia has no place in modern heathenry or modern society either! I support inclusivity of all regardless of race, faith, sexual orientation, social class or any other ‘difference’ and believe tolerance of all is the only way forwards in a modern multi-cultural world.

 

Freya Aswynn CóMPETA

I am Asatru.

 

Wayne Sievers

The Icelandic Asatru Association conducted my marriage last year.

The Need for Story, Witness, Truth

Today, the same day that Dane County’s District Attorney failed to indict Officer Matt Kenny in the shooting death of Tony Terrell Robinson, I came across a face from my past, posted on Facebook. He hasn’t changed.

“I’m sure he’s a nice guy, overall,” I said to myself. “He was just too young to know better.”

“And I didn’t say no very loudly,” I said to myself. “I probably wasn’t forceful enough. It would have been easy not to hear me.”

“He was too drunk to know what he was doing, or hear what I was saying,” I said to myself. “He was—wait, what?!”

I’m one of the most pro-woman, pro-femme and pro-feminist people I know. And I had just repeated how many all-too-familiar, all-too-common excuses. And I’ve been repeating those lines to myself for almost twenty five years.

I never realized until today that the scripts I’ve called out as bullshit so many times were scripts I had internalized myself in my own history.

I curled up on the bed and sobbed for an hour as I never did when I was eighteen, not one iota less humiliated, confused, guilty-feeling than I was then, but finally allowing myself to give expression to those feelings and admit what happened to me.

I was in a situation one night that felt pressured, threatening, unsafe, and unwinnable. The next day he smiled at me. So did his friend.

That guy was not a bad guy, you know? That’s why I didn’t realize what had just happened to me. 

I hear Officer Matt Kenny is a nice guy too. Our justice models fail us by focusing on individuals rather than systems. I’m no criminal justice expert. But today it was brought home to me, twice over, that something isn’t working here. How do we define justice, when (in the words of Walt Kelly’s Pogo) We have met the enemy, and he is us?

(This famous quote was originally used for Earth Day. Although it’s not within the scope of my small reflection here, I think a compelling case could be made that moving to a restorative justice model could revolutionize environmental movements as well.)

It’s hopelessly complicated. It’s hopelessly tangled and ambiguous. I rely on voices from the Young Gifted and Black Coaltion and Justified Anger to help me learn. Some other day I’ll figure how all this fits with environmentalism and spirituality and whatever this thing called Paganism is…but I feel pretty strongly this: the voices and stories in any situation need to be heard—and heard by all of us. Safe space needs to be created for speaking truth and deep listening on all sides. And stories, witnessing, need to be a bigger part of the justice equation. What if we focused on healing the harm on every side, rather than punishing (or failing to punish) the perpetrators of violence? By focusing on individuals, we too easily and often miss the larger, deeply entrenched and internalized systemic injustices which form and inform us, day in and out.

self portrait in five lines

 

Diverse communities are less racist

A recent sociological study has shown that white people become less racist when they live in ethnically diverse areas, which is a very encouraging finding.

A diverse group of friends

Image courtesy of shutterstock.com

I have always lived in ethnically diverse districts. When I was a student, I lived in a terraced house in Lancaster, in an area that was home to many people of different ethnic backgrounds. In 1988, I went to southern Germany, and was bewildered by the sea of white faces. I think I saw one Black person the whole time that I was there, and a few Turkish people. I missed the availability of food from different cultures, and I missed the diversity of clothing styles.

After I graduated, I moved to Cambridge, and lived in the Mill Road area, also very ethnically diverse. Here is a photo of a mural on the railway bridge, celebrating that diversity.

I lived in South Gloucestershire and North Somerset for ten years, and they were less ethnically diverse. Sadly, Black and minority ethnic friends and colleagues reported a high number of racist incidents, such as being more frequently stopped by the police, finding unpleasant items on the doormat of one’s house, and an assumption that BME people don’t live in the region (except in Bristol). This tends to bear out the findings of the sociological study.

I now live in Oxford, which is very ethnically diverse, has a thriving interfaith body which organises events (and includes Pagans), and has a Christmas tree and a Hanukiah in Broad Street, and has a liberal mosque where the sermons are in English. On the street where I live, in a small suburb, there are two shops run by Muslims, a Polish shop, a hardware store run by a Sikh, a post office run by a Hindu couple, a chip shop run by a family of Italian background, a Caribbean cafe, and a Polish shop. The residents of the houses are equally diverse. Other shopping streets also have many different shops and restaurants, and there are Moroccan, Turkish, Italian, Chinese, Libyan, Russian, Thai, Bangladeshi, Nepalese, and many other restaurants only a bus ride away.  On my bus ride into work, there are people of many different ethnicities on the bus, and the same when I arrive at work.

I love living in a diverse area, where I can see faces of many different colours around me, both in the city centre and in the suburbs, where I can chat to people from different backgrounds and cultures and get their perspectives on things, and where I can easily buy food from all around the world.

As Pagans, we should be aware that people of all ethnicities are manifestations of the divine (or however your theology would express that concept).

Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.

~ Black Elk, quoted in Black Elk Speaks: being the life story of a holy man of the Oglala Sioux (1961), as told to John Neihardt

Where there is acceptance and welcoming towards Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Buddhists, there will eventually also be acceptance and welcoming towards Pagans. If we participate in interfaith dialogue, we can build friendships and alliances with people of other religions.

The subjugation and oppression of Black, Asian, Latino, and First Nations people is part of the dominionist, capitalist, exploitative approach that says that the Earth is there to be exploited and subjugated, and so are other people. it is part of the worldview that claims that industrialisation and mechanisation will lead to increased human happiness, whereas in fact it has led to destruction of habitats, eradication of indigenous people and their life-ways, oppression, and alienation – and the view that any culture that does not buy into the myth of progress and the cult of consumerism is somehow more primitive and less civilised than the over-consuming West. I cannot see how any of this can ever be part of Paganism, and yet there are many Pagans posting racist comments on blog-posts about systemic racism, Ferguson, and the Black Lives Matter protests.

To those of you who do not understand the deep systemic connections between exploitation, capitalism, and systemic racism, I do not know what to say, except, may you gaze deep into the mirror of your own soul, and find a way out of the abyss.

We need to get angry, and we need to get active. We need to value the lives of our fellow human beings as much as we value our own. We need to see all the colours of humanity as sacred, just as Black Elk did. To do this, we need to build bridges between different communities, and learn about each others’ traditions – not force people to live in separate enclaves, ghettos, and barrios where they can never meet.