Pagans and politics

What is the relationship between Paganism(s) and politics? Some have argued that Paganism is not political. Some have criticised the political style and presentation of the emerging polytheist movement. Some are uncomfortable with the politics around consent culture, racism, gender, and sexuality in Paganism and polytheism. Some are uncomfortable with the critique of capitalism offered by Gods and Radicals.

I do agree with those who say that being Pagan doesn’t automatically predispose people to a particular political stance. There are Pagans of many different political persuasions, for reasons which may or may not relate to their particular way of being a Pagan. Not being expected to sign up to a particular political stance or party is an important aspect of Pagan religious freedom.

Read the rest of the article on Gods & Radicals.

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A bubble of complacency

One of the things that enables me to function more-or-less effectively is the notion that bad things won’t happen to me. I call this “the bubble of complacency”. The bubble is a sense that all is well, life is generally benevolent, and other people do not actively wish one harm, and that the arc of history may be long, but it points towards justice. When bad things do happen to me, of course, the bubble gets popped, and I walk around all raw and unprotected. In 2010, I was in a car crash which was not my fault, and it was then that I first realised that the bubble existed, as the car crash popped it, very suddenly and abruptly. there was also a wonderful rush of relief at not having been killed in the car crash, during which I loved all my friends and family intensely, and even tiny mundane details of existence were intensely beautiful.

The following year, 2011, was really awful in a number of ways. I had an awful line manager, my relationship was on-again-off-again, I was planning to leave my job and start a course, but had no idea where I was going to live or how I would support myself during the course, and all the options I thought I had kept closing down. In November 2011, my beloved cat Harry died. I now realise that all those options closing down was actually the Universe trying to tell me that I was headed in the wrong direction, but it was painful at the time. My home, job, relationship, income, and spiritual journey were all in question. Normally it is pretty stressful if only one of those things is in doubt, but all of them at once was bad.

So, during 2012, my bubble of complacency started to reassert itself, living in Oxford, enjoying my job, and gradually getting everything together. I met my lovely partner in August of that year. But even in my bubble, I remained aware of social justice issues and tried to raise awareness of them.

In her excellent novel, The Fifth Sacred Thing, Starhawk talks about El Mundo Bueno (the good world) and El Mundo Malo (the bad world). Every situation has two possible outcomes, a good one  and a bad one. With our magic, prayer, and positive thinking, we constantly try to create the good world, the one where everything goes right. But every so often, we fall through the cracks into the bad world, the one where everything went wrong. My “bubble of complacency” is an attempt to keep walking in El Mundo Bueno.

“Doña Elena used to say that there was the Good Reality, El Mundo Bueno, literally the Good World, and the Bad Reality, El Mundo Malo, and they were always vying with each other. In the Good Reality you have a mild headache; in the Bad Reality you have a fatal brain disease. In the Good Reality, you catch hold of the rail as your foot slips; in the Bad Reality, you miss, slide down the stairs, and break your neck.

“We walk in the Good Reality as if we were treading the thin skin on warm milk. It’s always possible to break through and drown. …

“There is a hopeful side to Doña Elena’s teaching. … Even in El Mundo Malo, the Good Reality is always just on the other side of the surface of things. If you can learn to reach and pull yourself through, you can make miracles.” (Starhawk, The Fifth Sacred Thing, page 44)

But recently I have become aware that my “bubble of complacency” may actually be a bubble of white privilege. Part of white privilege is the ability to walk down the street without being suspected of a crime, to get a job based on one’s qualifications, to get a house without being discriminated against by the seller, the estate agent, or the person renting it to you. In short, these are actually rights that everybody should have access to. White privilege is also the inheritance of wealth and resources stolen from colonised countries and enslaved people – again, something that the descendants of those people should be entitled to, but are still denied, due to the lack of a will to offer or even discuss reparations.

The horrific shootings of far too many Black people in the US, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, has made me aware that for Black people in the US, there can be no “bubble of complacency”. If you can’t walk down the street without fear of arrest or shooting for “walking while Black” – if you fear for the safety of your children when they leave the house – if you know you will be treated more harshly by law enforcement, and cannot get justice or equal treatment in any sphere – then El Mundo Malo  is always lurking just beneath the surface, ready to swallow you and all that you hold dear.

Here in the UK, I have become involved recently with two organisations, both of which have made me aware that my bubble of complacency is very much a privilege.

The first is Movement for Justice by Any Means Necessary. They are a group that campaigns against institutional racism, in particular the indefinite detention of asylum seekers by the Home Office. They have campaigned (successfully, in several cases) against the deportation of LGBT asylum seekers back  to countries where being LGBT is illegal. They also campaign against the detention of other asylum seekers and people who have been imprisoned for very minor crimes who are under threat of deportation. One of the most egregious injustices that they have highlighted recently has been the death in custody of Pinakin Patel, a 33-year-old holiday-maker from India who was detained with his wife Bhavisha by the UKBA (UK Border Agency) on arrival in the UK for a holiday, on suspicion of coming here to look for work. Detaining innocent holiday-makers from India is deeply racist (assuming that they were lying about coming here on holiday, among other assumptions). Make no mistake: Yarl’s Wood and other detention centres are, in effect, concentration camps. Another very worthwhile campaign against them is Close Campsfield, which in addition to campaigning for the closure of the immigration detention centre just north of Oxford, has also organised conferences to try to raise awareness of these unjust and inhumane places. Britain is the only country in Europe which detains asylum seekers indefinitely.

Yarl's Wood immigration detention centre

Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre (photo by Yvonne Aburrow)

I have also been talking to other people about the issue of how badly asylum seekers and immigrants are treated in Britain, and have been met, for the most part, with indifference and in some cases, casual racism. The only people who get it are people who either come from elsewhere, or have partners or friends in the same situation.

If you read my recent post, Blue Beltane, you will see that El Mundo Malo was trying to break through into my world, as my partner was having visa issues. Thankfully, these have now been resolved, and he is back with me, in time for a belated Beltane celebration. But that situation heightened my awareness of other  people’s problems with visas and immigration.

The other organisation is the International Liberty Association, an organisation which has consistently campaigned for democracy and human rights in Iran and the Middle East, and which promotes a tolerant and egalitarian version of Islam, where women are recognised as equals and encouraged to take up leadership roles. 2700 of their members are currently trapped in a transit camp (called, somewhat ironically, Camp Liberty) near Baghdad airport. The forces of ISIL are closing in on one side, and the Iraqi forces on the other. Because they promote democracy and human rights, the Iranian regime wants to extradite them to Iran and execute them. The Iranian regime has already murdered thousands and thousands of people who campaigned for democracy and human rights. Last night I had the privilege of meeting some people who have recently been rescued from Camp Liberty. Brave, brave souls. These are people whose relatives have been murdered, who have been in constant fear of their lives from rocket attacks, arrest, torture, and imprisonment. They have never had the luxury of a bubble of complacency.

How can we, as Pagans, respond to all these horrific situations? Certainly not by retreating ever further into a cosy world of magical illusion, bickering over the right way to cast a circle, or what colour your candles should be. Rather, by engaging in the struggle for social justice, and promoting a vision of a world where all life is sacred.

Laura Bruno expresses it well:

…we live in a Both/And Universe. El Mundo Bueno and El Mundo Malo exist simultaneously, and we summon them by honoring or rejecting the sacred — in ourselves, in others and in the “world” at large. Every time we calm ourselves and remember (re-member … give new form and vessel to) the sacredness of Air, of Fire, of Water, of Earth and of Spirit, we pull ourselves back into the Good Reality.

Rhyd Wildermuth, Alley Valkyrie, T Thorn Coyle, Crystal Blanton and others have all been doing their best to promote a compassionate and engaged Paganism, one that connects deeply with the sacred, with the gods, and with the vision of a way of living that acknowledges that life is sacred. Rhyd and Alley in particular have correctly identified capitalism as the biggest threat to the flourishing of life. Why? Because capitalism disconnects the maker from the made, the worker from their work, and encourages the idle rich to make money from the labour of others. In the UK, the gap between rich and poor has become even wider during the Conservative administration and their austerity programme.

Wikipedia’s definition of capitalism glosses over the biggest problem, which is the extraction of profit by shareholders from the enterprise.

Capitalism is an economic system and a mode of production in which trade, industries, and the means of production are largely or entirely privately owned. Such private firms and proprietorships are usually operated for profit, but may be operated as private nonprofit organizations.

Capitalism is not simply a market economy, where small traders make and sell their goods. It is the notion that a person who invests in a company, but does none of the actual work, is entitled to a share of the profits. The alternative to this (which has proven to be very viable and successful) is the co-operative, where every worker in the co-operative is a member and gets a share of the profits.

Pagan worldviews and visions – of what is sacred, of how we might live in harmony with the Earth and each other – are deeply important in showing what is possible. Pagans were among the first to argue that the Divine is both feminine and masculine. Now that view is widely acknowledged. Pagans were among the first to argue that Nature is sacred. Now that  view is more widely acknowledged. We also were among the first to welcome LGBT people to our circles and groups (though there are still issues with heterocentrism). Many Pagans (but not enough) are actively involved in the struggle against racism. We are often at or near the forefront of movements for social change. We can be agents of transformation, both in the struggle for social justice, and in the practice of magic to help bring about change. I would argue that showing up for demonstrations against injustices is a form of magic, in that it brings about a change in consciousness.

So, I aim to transform my “bubble of complacency” into an effort to bring about the manifestation of El Mundo Bueno for as many people as possible. Instead of luxuriating in my privilege, I intend to work  to extend that sense of comfort to as many people as possible.

The Enchanted, a beautiful article by Lia Hunter at Gods and Radicals expresses the contrast between a world of selfishness, greed, and exploitation and a world where everyone is valued, including the natural world. She writes:

We can cancel the terrible show and start writing and rehearsing, or even remembering one that does not eat our children and destroy mind, body, soul, Earth, and connection. It made us forget what community is, and what sacred means, but we can find them again. Some of us have already begun. Some of us in indigenous communities never lost them and can share them. There are paths strewn with fulfillment rather than endless hunger. We can find the paths with vital air to breathe, clean water to refresh, and solid ground to stand and circle with each other upon. Our ancestors knew them, walked them, danced them. Some continued to remember them throughout empire, despite the illusions of usurious capital and divine right of kings, and preserved markers for us in myth, symbol, and language. Nature, itself, contains markers and inspiration. Our home and kin are calling us.

Yes! We do not have to dance to the tune of war, austerity, destruction, greed, and selfishness. We can articulate a vision of a world of beauty and sacredness. We can build communities, friendships, and connections. We can work towards a world where all are equal, safe, and free. This is the sacred vision towards which our gods are calling us, which the whole of Nature is crying out for.

A lament

Mourner, thought to represent the goddess Isis mourning Osiris

Mourner, thought to represent the goddess Isis mourning Osiris,  by RamaOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 fr via Wikimedia Commons.

I hear the lament coming from the gods
The people are crushed beneath the heel of the tyrants
I hear the lament coming from the trees
The birds cannot sing over the roar of monstrous engines
I hear the lament coming from the waters
The land is wounded and the waters are polluted
I hear the lament coming from the sea
Too many have drowned in the flight from oppression
I hear the lament coming from the land
The mills are grinding the animals and the fields
I hear the lament coming from the people
Our hearts are heavy and our eyes are full of tears
I hear the lament coming from the animals
Exploited and crushed beneath the wheels of progress
I hear the lament coming from the stones
Nothing is held sacred any more

Lamentation, lamentation, lamentation
Our tears are flowing and our hearts are heavy
We must turn away from destruction
Without destrying in our turn
We must turn away from seeing only things
And learn to see the sacred in everything
We must rise up against the oppressors
Without becoming oppressors ourselves
We must rise up against injustice
Without meting out injustice ourselves
We must turn toward the sacred
Without forgetting the joy of the profane
We must turn towards the way of the heart
And open our hearts to each other.

A tangled web

This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Pagan community here.

Whenever I confront my personal ethical choices around sustainability and ecology, I realise that everything depends on everything else. One choice may be more sustainable than another, but it may have other deleterious effects. You fix one part of the ecosystem, another gets broken. You try to fix poverty by donating clothes to charity shops (thrift stores) and then discover you have undermined small-scale indigenous clothing manufacture. You buy fair trade goods and then discover that they have been shipped over vast distances.

This interconnectedness of everything shows that we need a massive global paradigm shift, not merely a cosmetic fix to our already broken system. Capitalism – the practice of creaming off profits to give to shareholders and investors who do not contribute directly to the enterprise – created the opportunity to exploit people and resources, and got us into the mess we are in now. I recently watched a documentary on the origins of the industrial revolution, and it was very clear that it could not have got started without capitalism to fund it, and consumerism to drive demand for the commodities that were produced. Manufacturing snowballed in response to the stimuli of investment and consumer demand.

As others have already outlined, we are in a huge mess right now, and we need action. Climate change is already happening, sea levels are rising, species are dying off. It might be worse if there had not been an environmental movement, and if Pagans had not existed. This is also the premise of the excellent book Hope in the dark: The Untold History of People Power, by Rebecca Solnit.

Two things give me hope: deep ecology and trophic cascade.

Deep Ecology is the radical idea that all life has the right to exist, that no one species is more important than another.

According to Judi Bari, “Nature does not exist to serve humans. Rather, humans are a part of nature, one species among many. All species have the right to exist for their own sake, regardless of their usefulness to humans”.

Biodiversity is essential for the continued existence of the living Earth. As part of this biodiversity, humans must learn to live within nature, according to nature’s laws, and learn to accept our role as one among many.
Centre for Deep Ecology

Environmental justice and social justice go hand-in-hand. You can’t solve world poverty unless we are all in right relationship with the Earth:

‘Deep ecological solutions are the only viable solutions to ensuring that every person on this planet has enough food, has enough water, has adequate shelter, has dignity and has a cultural meaning in life. If we don’t follow the path of living in ways that we leave enough space for other species, that paradigm also ensures that most human beings will be denied their right to existence. A system that denies the intrinsic value of other species denies eighty percent of humanity, their right to a dignified survival and a dignified life. It only pretends that is solving the problems of poverty, it is actually at the root of poverty. And the only real solution to poverty is to embrace the right to life of all on this planet, all humans and all species.’

Vandana Shiva

So we all need  to change our perspective to one of deep ecology, rather than seeing environmentalism as some kind of ‘add-on’ to our existing lifestyles.

How will this change of perspective come about? Like any paradigm shift, it started with individuals who were ahead of their time, and has gradually been building momentum. Sadly, so has climate change, but this means more people will wake up and smell the coffee. We can take action to speed up the process of change. We can re-enchant the world that capitalism and the industrial revolution disenchanted.

There are also interventions that can be made to restore ecosystems.

One of the most interesting discoveries of recent years has been trophic cascade. This is the discovery that if you restore a major predator to an ecosystem, other species recover.

For example, restoring wolves to Yellowstone Park resulted in a decrease in elk, but an increase in the tree species that elk would otherwise have eaten, and consequently an increase in beaver and bison, as well as carrion birds which benefit from the remains of the wolves’ kills.

Restoring beavers to river systems has resulted in the creation of more pools, and hence more habitats for fish and plants.

The problems that climate change has brought, is bringing, and will bring will be severe and disastrous. Maybe we can ride out the storm; maybe it is too late; but if we despair and do not act, it will definitely be too late.

Vampires and Addicts

Vampires are a national obsession right now, especially among young people. TV shows, movies, comics, novels—blood-suckers are everywhere, and they’re big business. For four years, NPR journalist and Pagan Margot Adler shared that obsession. Vampires Are Us: Understanding Our Love Affair with the Immortal Dark Side is her attempt to tell us, quite simply, why vampires are more than the latest adolescent fad.

As Adler relates, she read 260 vampire novels before writing the book, which is a long essay on vampires and culture followed by an annotated bibliography of the novels. For Adler, what triggered the obsession was her husband’s cancer diagnosis, and her avid vampire novel consumption continued through her own struggle with cancer. This narrative of her own journey with mortality—the fantasies of becoming immortal, the pain of remaining alive while loved ones die—was one of my favorite aspects of the book, a personal glimpse of a massively influential Pagan writer. (Adler published Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America in 1979; the book is now in its fourth edition, and it is used in college classrooms as well as in Pagan groups seeking to learn more about the Pagan movement.) Adler argues for the ability of non-realistic fiction to effectively capture elements of the human experience that realism struggles to encompass. To have an active fantasy life, she argues, is not necessarily a sign of detachment from reality, but rather a mode of experience that allows the exploration of difficult emotions and situations in another guise.

What, then, can vampires teach us about ourselves? Adler argues that in the twenty-first century, vampires are no longer symbols of the feared other, the way they were in the past. (Dracula, for example, mirrors nineteenth-century Anglo anxieties about the perceived destructive effects of immigration.) Today, vampires in fiction are not monsters to be feared, but protagonists and love interests we are meant to identify with—in other words, they are us, as the title of Adler’s book claims. Moreover, most of the vampires in contemporary novels are deeply conflicted beings who are struggling desperately to be moral—to behave rightly in the face of their predatory natures and their raging addiction to blood. Isn’t this, Adler asks, rather like our present moment in the West? We are complicit in economic systems that are predatory: exploiting the earth’s resources, the underpaid workers who turn those resources into consumer products, and the young people whose sexuality is used to sell those products (whether we really need them or not). We’re addicted to gasoline, Nike sneakers, cheap cornfed beef, and convenient housewares from Ikea and Walmart. To try to wean ourselves away from the products of an exploitative economy often involves partially withdrawing from wider community life (to avoid using a car or airplane; to cut expenses enough to afford the extra costs of locally grown food; to send our kids to schools that don’t push or even require the purchase of corporate products).

Are vampires a metaphor for the way we are drinking other species, the land, and each other dry? Maybe this developing allegory is a stretch, but it’s clear that there’s something about the morally conflicted, damned-but-trying-to-be-saved vampire that audiences are entranced by. Maybe, at the moment, we are no longer confident that we are right or good; in fact, perhaps there’s a suspicion that we are terribly, terribly wrong, even as the power and pleasure of it all continues to be intoxicating, exhilarating. We’re addicts; we can’t stop.

If these issues weigh on your mind as they do on mine—and especially if you enjoy a good vampire novel the way I do—this book will help you track down the very best in genres ranging from historical to romance to sci-fi. And, perhaps, you’ll do as Adler did, and find yourself confronting some of the biggest questions of the human condition, lightly veiled by a layer of compelling fantasy. Happy reading!


Vampires Are Us is a feature in the Patheos Book Club! Click through for more roundtable responses from our Pagan bloggers, vampire video footage, praise from horror novelist Whitley Strieber, and more.

 

Eco-spirituality in practice

Paganism is often said to be a Nature religion, but often Pagans are not very immersed in Nature. This could be because we get distracted by shiny things like mythology, or because many of us live in cities and so are more familiar with brand names than tree species, or because connecting with Nature is just too hard.

One thing that is often suggested as a way to connect with Nature is celebrating the seasonal festivals. I have certainly found it helpful to have the seasonal festivals in my life as markers of time, and they have made me more aware of the passing seasons, but I don’t know if they have made me more connected with Nature. I also worry that we sometimes impose our own patterns on Nature, rather than listening and looking to see what’s there.

Another way to connect with Nature is to get out more, and walk in the woods, by the sea, in the mountains. Meditating in Nature is excellent, and is a very old pagan practice called “sitting out”. Adrian Harris writes, over at Bodymind Place:

The principle of the sit spot could hardly be simpler: Find a place outdoors and sit there everyday for at least 15 minutes.  Though it’s generally traced to Native American teachers, this ancient practise is cross-cultural. What modern Pagans call ‘sitting out’ has a more explicitly spiritual purpose, but is essentially the same thing.

Cultivating a sense of place is important too. The excellent book The Art of Conversation with the Genius Loci by Barry Patterson is one that I recommend highly, because it offers specific techniques for engaging with place, including learning about its history, geology, flora and fauna, mythology, archaeology, and so on.

This approach is also recommended in a bioregional quiz, “Where You At?”, originally developed by Leonard Charles, Jim Dodge, Lynn Milliman, and Victoria Stockley, and updated by Connected by Nature. Learn about your local flora and fauna, what flowers, fruits and vegetables are in season at what time.

We also need to be in right relationship with Nature, so reducing your carbon footprint and your ecological footprint and auditing your lifestyle are important.

Eating food that is local and in season helps the environment, but it also makes you more aware of your surroundings. It’s very hard to eat seasonally in some places, but we should at least be aware of the air miles on what we eat, and try to buy more local produce.