Political Uses for Fear and Safety

Of course they're looking out for your safety (image source http://villains.wikia.com/wiki/File:Junglebook-disneyscreencaps_com-6101.jpg)

Of course they’re looking out for your safety (image source http://villains.wikia.com/wiki/File:Junglebook-disneyscreencaps_com-6101.jpg)

In Britain’s dark days of World War II, Winston Churchill famously said “We have nothing to fear but Fear itself.”

There was a good deal to fear at the time, including the possibility of a German bomb dropping on one’s home, the U-Boat attacks on shipping, the lives of armed service members, and of course the threat of a Nazi invasion of Britain and all the horrors that would entail.

But nonetheless, there’s an important lesson in this statement. When we are overcome with fear, we often forget important things we want to protect. We give up our freedoms to a strong leader who promises to keep us safe without much thought about whether we actually trust this leader and what are circumstances under which that leader surrenders those powers.

 

Keep a watch on how politicians use fear and a desire for safety to advance their own agenda. Be critical about what they tell us to fear. Be critical about what they tell us will bring safety.

One of the most dramatic uses of fear was Hitler’s use of the crisis of the Reichstag Fire to cement his own autocratic power. The event is an extreme example, but there are many others in recent history that also serve to illustrate this type of seizure of power in reaction to a fear-stoking event. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reichstag_fire
The George W Bush administration used the climate of fear in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to launch a war in Iraq (which had no connection to those attacks and none of the claimed Weapons of Mass Destruction). He also created the USA Patriot Act and a vast increase in the mechanism for monitoring electronic communication, even for US citizens on US soil, something typically seen as illegal overreach.

 

Recently the Army Corps of Engineers issued an eviction order to the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies that the water protector camp in North Dakota is to be closed “to protect the general public from the violent confrontations between protestors and law enforcement officials that have occurred in this area, and to prevent death, illness, or serious injury” from the winter weather.

This is a definitely example of an appeal to safety that seems plausible, but coming from an organization that has fired rubber bullets and water cannons (in below-freezing temperatures) at members of the group, the concern for preventing death, illness, or serious injury rings hollow. They have already deliberately caused serious injury to dozens of people at this site.

 

In China, the government is dismantling up to ¾ of the town of Larung Gar because it has become a center for Tibetan Buddhism, and the government fears the potential political power. Again, the pretense is that the housing is unsafe. However, their solution is simply eviction and tear-down without any plan for replacement of the housing.

 

The incoming Trump administration, which has already threatened to institute a registry for Muslim Americans and stricter enforcement of immigration laws, could easily use the fear associated with some dramatic event in our near future to enact draconian laws around these issues. Many commentators have warned that we should watch out for Trump’s Reichstag Fire moment – a large scale terror attack or riot to be blamed on immigrants and/or Muslims that he will use to suspend regular processes of law.

For those of us who live in diverse communities, elbow to elbow with immigrants and Muslims, we know that these people are not a threat. They are typically regular people working to improve their lot and help their families. But it seems very likely that the powers of the government will be turned against these people to make their lives more difficult. And a little bit of fear is all it takes to shut down dissent from those who will speak against such policies.

Don’t let those excuses based on fear and safety stand when they are being used to destroy our freedoms and supress our neighbors. Be critical about reactions of attacks – will new restrictions, new spying programs, or new military actions really make us safer? Or are these just ways to give up our power to an unscrupulous leader?

Is this new government going to turn me into an anarchist?

I am in a rather grim mood about our future today. I know people think of me as normally balanced and reasonable. But without any real hope, my reasonability is feeling pretty strained.

 

A year and a half ago, I wrote this article about why I am not an anarchist.

The thrust of it was that I believe that the best argument for a strong Federal government is to provide effective regulation and restraint to those who are destroying the environment. I do not see any other institution that will effectively prevent people from literally trashing the wild places, forests, water supply, oceans, and air. I do not see any other institution with the power to reduce our society’s love affair with producing greenhouse gasses.

With the recent election, I guess it is pretty clear that the new administration and Congress will have no interest in using their power to protect natural areas, curb hazardous practices like fracking, limit or reduce carbon emissions.

I have a growing certainty that we are already past a point of preventing significant effects of climate change, and we keep hurtling down this path to use as much fossil fuels as possible – while we destroy forests and pollute water along the way. Turning away from this path could mitigate, but not prevent climate change – and yet we as a country are determined to ignore the changes needed.

 

I have sometimes said that I am not an anarchist because I don’t have an optimistic view of people’s motives, compassion, or even really about their ability to see what’s best for their own middle-to-long term future. I don’t think that view has really changed. Most people don’t really think about their impact on those around them, the future generations, or the environment.

Unfortunately, my faith in the federal government to protect us from the destructive actions of others is now destroyed. My main reason for supporting the idea of a strong federal government has been flushed down the toilet. Wild areas will be logged and mined with abandon. We’re going to keep getting more electricity from coal and less from wind and solar. The EPA will be slow to enforce whatever regulations are left, and polluters will feel quite free to dump and spew in whatever way benefits their bottom line.

I am still not optimistic about people’s ability to not destroy the environment, but that no longer seems like much of an argument for a strong federal government. It just seems like a recipe for drought, storms, poisoned water, and flooded cities. And no governmental authority is willing to take the action to stop it.

Here are some articles about where we’re headed on the environment:

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/nov/11/trump-presidency-a-disaster-for-the-planet-climate-change

http://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2016/11/14/13582562/trump-gop-climate-environmental-policy

http://time.com/4564224/donald-trump-climate-change/

My Big Gay Pagan Agenda

It used to be a common refrain from the Religious Right that we as a country shouldn’t give in to the Gay Agenda. With the increasing acceptance of different sexual and gender identities, that phrase was starting to seem rather silly.

But I am here to admit that with the changes that seem to be facing us, trying to move past despair and fear, I am starting to make up an agenda. Unfortunately, most of these are not things I can do on my own. These are all things we need to pull together to accomplish, and as of January 20, 2017, we can count on very little help from the federal government to support any of these goals.

This isn’t a complete list of what I want, but it’s some of the more realistic areas where we can take action in the political climate going forward.

So, in the spirit of being the change that scares the crap out of the religious right, here is My Big Gay Pagan Agenda.

 

My Big Gay Pagan Legislative Wish List:

Enact laws to ban Conversion/Reparative Therapy (State and Local)

Conversion Therapy is a damaging and debunked practice that attempts to “convert” people with same sex attractions to heterosexuality. Our new VP, Mike Pence, is an advocate for this infamous practice. Several states (California, Illinois, New Jersey, Vermont, and Oregon) have already banned this. If you can push your state and local politicians to enact a ban, I heartily encourage this. http://www.hrc.org/resources/the-lies-and-dangers-of-reparative-therapy

 

Enact laws to ban “Gay Panic” and “Trans Panic” legal defenses (State)

At this point only California has banned the use of “gay panic” and “trans panic” defenses in cases of murder and assault. In the rest of the country, a bad reaction to someone’s sexual or gender identity can be used as an argument for justification or mitigating circumstances for the crime. We need to acknowledge that this is pure discrimination and malice. It should not be allowed as a defense in crimes against LGBTQ people. http://lgbtbar.org/what-we-do/programs/gay-and-trans-panic-defense/

 

Enact laws to protect LGBTQ people from employment and housing discrimination (State and Local)

A lot of people thought that after same sex marriage went nationwide, the Gay Agenda had been completed. Far from it. In many states, people can be legally fired from their jobs or kicked out of their homes because they are LGBTQ. Efforts to push a national bill through Congress have been stalled and we are almost certainly not to see any progress with the incoming Congress. The game is at the state level. If you live in any of the states that do not have such protections, put the pressure on your elected officials. https://www.aclu.org/map/non-discrimination-laws-state-state-information-map

 

Change policies to de-escalate police violence against Communities of Color

This is a huge and complex issue, but Campaign Zero has a lot of concrete and useful suggestions about ways to change and de-escalate policing that too often ends in the deaths of people who pose no significant threat, and are very often not even involved in criminal activity at all. http://www.joincampaignzero.org/#vision

 

I wish I could add issues around environmental protection and immigration reform, but those are questions handled federally, and I’m afraid there’s little hope for progress there, only a wish that the most radical proposals fall apart or are opposed so vigorously that they can’t move forward.

 

My Big Gay Pagan Personal Wish List:

Be Out

Visibility helps, when it comes to sexual and gender identity and when it comes to religious diversity. People are less likely to support discriminatory policies if they know that it would hurt their friends, family, and neighbors. I know not everyone feels safe doing this, and different places can have different levels of safety (out with friends and family, but not at work, for example), but try pushing the envelope. Talk about and normalize your family or romantic situation. Challenge gender stereotyping and gender essentialism. Respectfully challenge the idea that “we all believe in the same god”. Talk about the sacredness of natural places.

 

Strengthen our support and solidarity networks

Don’t let despair prevent you from connecting with friends, local groups, and support networks. I found this article below from Gods and Radicals to be very thought-provoking and full of ideas to keep moving forward, even if/when there are new repressive actions from the government. Although I don’t advocate illegal actions at this time, I think it’s very important to ask ourselves where the line is. Mass deportations? Religious tests for US travel? Suppression of the press? The justice system turning a blind eye to racial violence?

https://godsandradicals.org/2016/11/12/solidarity-networks/

 

Stand up against harassment and violence

As has been reported in many parts of the country, violence and intimidation against Muslims, immigrant communities, and many other groups have been on the rise since the success of the Republican nominee’s campaign. Many people are noting that bigotry has been emboldened.

https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2016/11/15/update-more-400-incidents-hateful-harassment-and-intimidation-election

 

Support the resolve of Sanctuary Cities

My home city of Chicago is a Sanctuary City, which will not cooperate with Immigration enforcement and will not even request the immigration status of people who interact with police. Otherwise law-abiding citizens who are undocumented are not subject to local law enforcement. The incoming administration has threatened to take away federal funding for such cities who defy the new immigration enforcement protocols.

More information on Sanctuary Cities

 

Support organizations that advocate for the embattled groups and the environment

I’m sure any of these organization will be happy to receive donations of time and/or money. Again, this is a very incomplete list.

ACLU

Campaign Zero

GLAAD

Lady Liberty League

Lambda Legal

Mercy for Animals

NAACP

Pagan Pride organizations

Planned Parenthood

Sierra Club

Southern Poverty Law Center

Wilderness Society

Immigrants’ rights groups, trans advocates, food pantries and homeless shelters, anti-defamation leagues, local LGBTQ organizations, Muslim aid societies, independent press organizations

 

My Big Gay Personal Challenges:

I am introverted by nature, but I am pushing myself to feed and strengthen my support networks at this time. I will continue to grow my involvement with Brotherhood of the Phoenix, an organization for men who love men (gay, bi, trans, queer). This Brotherhood can be a resource and support for the vulnerable among us.

I have limited financial resources, but I will try to help support organizations doing good work in whatever way possible – publicity, volunteering, etc.

I need to remain strong, physically and mentally. Friends and strangers may need a sympathetic ear. They may also need someone to help protect them from abuse or harassment, which is a far more physically demanding challenge.

I am going to seek out a self-defense class at some point in the near future. I am not a person who has a background in physical confrontation, but I fear there may be a time when such confrontation comes to me. I need to be more prepared than I am today.

One of my gifts is that I love to cook for people. Food is an immediate way to give people a bit of support, and it provides an occasion for gatherings and network building. I need to continue to use that gift.

I will continue to refine this Agenda and to keep myself strong enough that I will not be overwhelmed by the challenges ahead.

The Wild and the City

My friend Theo recently posted on Facebook:

“It is often said that when humans built cities the wild retreated. That the spirits and gods and peoples who were there were destroyed, or that they left. But what if they didn’t? What if, like us, they just adapted?”

 

The writer is a city witch, and in a sense, so am I. Initially, I felt the appeal of this sentiment. Humans are part of Nature, right? I want to think there’s a possibility that I can be an integrated part of the natural and spiritual world around me, that I can connect to the Earth, to the elements, to the forces of Nature. But I have to wonder, what is the “wild”? And what I come up with is a kind of negative description. The wild is what is not planned or created by human intervention, and this can come in many different degrees.

I have lived my entire life in cities, but I have been an observer of what is “wild” in my environment, although I wish that when I was young I had paid more attention, particularly to local plants. I would love to be an expert urban forager, but my knowledge is sadly lacking.

My mother loved songbirds, and we always had bird feeders in our yard. We saw robins, finches, sparrows, cardinals, grackles, blue jays, crows, and even the occasional small hawk. Where I live now is a bit denser and more paved over than where I grew up, but we still have pigeons and gulls, as well as the familiar robins and sparrows. Canada geese and ducks show up during certain seasons in nearby parks.

Some creatures do quite well in urban settings. Rats, of course, and pigeons, numerous insects and spiders. We have rabbits and squirrels around all the time where I live, as well as the occasional skunk. A little further into a suburban area, it’s easy to find deer, chipmunks and raccoons.

And of course, there are the weeds. Native and invasive plants show up unbidden in any unattended place. Many of these are beautiful and useful plants, even though there is a cultural imperative to destroy them in favor of even green grass lawns and carefully manicured flowers.

 

So yes – to some extent, the wild adapts and lives with us, persisting in spite of human efforts to sterilize the ground with tar and asphalt, spray pesticides to get rid of those unwanted residents and visitors.

I think of the spiritual version of the wild as very much like this. Some parts of it may adapt to places dominated by humans. Some parts seem almost tame to us, and we will happily bring them into our lives. Some parts of it can easily live alongside humans and our desire to control the environment. Some can feed off what we throw away. Some are so persistent that they will push up through the cracks in our spiritual pavement to assert themselves in spite of our efforts.

 

But there is a difference between noticing that the wild is never fully eradicated and embracing and/or cultivating the wild in our world and within ourselves. And neither one of those is the same as leaving a wild place (relatively) undisturbed and left to its own way. If a forested plot that’s full of woodland creatures and spirits is cut down for a new subdivision of “McMansions” with manicured lawns, why would we think that the wildlife or the spirits who lived there would want to adapt to the bland and non-nourishing changes that humans imposed on that environment for their own profit? If a wetland that harbored hundreds of kinds of plants, insects, amphibians, and spirits gets filled in and covered with a parking lot, why would we think that either the wildlife or the spiritual life would stay around to hang out with the parked cars?

 

Have we, as humans, adapted to our environment, or have we done our best to force our environment to adhere to our desires? We create our interior micro-climates, safe from wind and rain, with temperature and humidity controlled. We keep out the bugs and the mice. We shuttle ourselves between these protected spaces in our air-conditioned cars on road surfaces made unnaturally flat and even. I am guilty of this, too. I may not be able to control the wind and the snow of a Chicago winter, but I can ride it out with minimal outdoor trips, watching Netflix streaming and ordering dinner from GrubHub. This may be a comfortable, unchallenging way for me to live, but does that mean I “adapted”.

 

To a large extent, I think this is how we avoid, rather than how we adapt.  We shut out the weather, we shut out the pests, we open a small window for those poor others who labor away to grow and then deliver our food – but only long enough to grab their products and throw our money at them. And yes – I think that when we shut out the wildness, the natural forces, we also shut out the spiritual forces that exist outside of our human-built controls.

Will most of the spirits of this land, the gods of the Pottawatomi people who were here before us, the ancient presences who lived in the trees and swamps will just sit down on the couch and watch “Stranger Things” and eat Pad Thai with us? I don’t think their goal is to tune out real life, like modern humans do. So much American life has its primary goal to tune out of reality – TV, movies, drinking, drugs, video games, amusement parks, cat videos on social media – these are all escapes, ways to tune out.

If we wish to, we may be able to connect with those spirits if we find some remnants of wild and neglected places in parks, forgotten corners, and vacant lots that nature begins to reclaim. Or we can unplug from our distractions and get away from all of our current built environment to find some of those wild spirits that live outside.

Pagan and Polytheist Monasticism (and me?)

I recently discovered that there is a network of people who identify themselves as Pagan and Polytheist Monastics. It has forced me to confront some things within myself. I have to admit that on one level, there is an appeal to an ascetic religious life, while at the same time, there would be certain sacrifices I couldn’t contemplate and many complications in my current life that would entirely prevent me from making some of these life changes.

 

Let me back up a little bit. My sister is a member of the Discalced Carmelite order, which is a contemplative order within the Roman Catholic Church. She lives in a monastery with a small community of women (it has varied roughly between 8 and 15 while she has been there. Structurally, it is not meant to be much more than 20 at that location.)

When she joined this order, it was a huge shock to our family. She was a college graduate with a successful career who had lived independently for years. We all knew she had become increasingly religious, and it wasn’t even a great surprise that she was considering becoming a nun. It was the specifics of her adoption of a monastic, contemplative life that was a bit surprising.

When joining a Discalced Carmelite community, she renounced the outside world, and to a large extent, that also included our family. Through various levels of initiation she becomes engaged to, and then marries Christ. She does not leave the house/compound. We, as family members, can visit her, although only at pre-approved times, and the public rooms are always separated from the monastic rooms by bars. She is always on the inside and you are always on the outside.

She does not own anything personally, and is discouraged from keeping personal mementos. All resources belong to the community, including anything we may give to her with a personal meaning. The community is supported entirely by donations – of money as well as time, effort, and various goods. Repairs, yard work, and medical care are donated. Food is sent. They are well taken care of by an army of donors, volunteers and well-wishers.

She wears an outfit that fully covers her body except for her hands and face. I do not even know such simple facts about her as, for example, if her hair has turned gray. She did not take a vow of silence, but they practice silence for much of their day. They are focused on prayer.

Of course, the vows of chastity and obedience are also a part of the package. And she does not leave, with the occasional exception of trips for medical or order-related business matters. She does not visit family, not even for weddings, baptisms, or funerals. This is part of her vow.

Although I was the member of the family whose religious outlook had moved farthest away from our family’s Roman Catholic upbringing, I was the least upset by my sister’s choice. I supported her decision to follow her path, even if it led to some unconventional choices. And frankly, the decision must have worked for her. The monastery is not an environment where “faking it” works, and she has been there for over 25 years.

Her devotion to the Christian God is not my path. Her belief in the salvation and afterlife it promises is not my belief.

 

But when she was living as a young professional woman in late 20th century American materialistic consumerist culture, virtually every moment was a struggle to live according to her values and spirituality.

This is where I start to feel her tension, her urge to step away from the lives we live. We are bombarded with messages about what to buy and what to wear, how to pick up the newest gadget promising to be faster and more convenient. We’re constantly urged to sign up for this “game changer” service (as if we’re all somehow playing the same game). We hear about hot vacation spots and TV shows we need to be watching.

Meanwhile, finding space for deep thinking seems harder to find. We collect online “friends” but struggle to make true personal connections. No one thinks about the implications of our constant purchases of new gadgets and time-saving services. Compassion is a rare commodity. Insight seems hard to grasp. Wisdom will probably be no more than the brand name of an expensive organic juice that you buy in a plastic carton at the grocery store as of next week.

Although my tradition and beliefs are more “world embracing” than traditional Christianity, less prone to see humans as sinful, more accepting of a variety of spiritual paths, I completely understand the appeal of unplugging from the consumerist world and withdrawing into a community based on prayer, meditation, and mutual support.

But Pagan and Polytheist traditions don’t have such places to plug back in, like the Catholic Church does. The institutions that we have are fairly ad hoc and unstable. There’s no continuity to create an “order” like the Discalced Carmelites and nowhere for people to find those who would help others to create such institutions. Sure, maybe you could try to crowdfund something, but Pagans are rather infamously bad about giving money to support their religious communities.

I know that the Christian monastic traditions, starting with St. Benedict, were very much influenced by the Pagan Stoics of the ancient Greek and Roman world. That said, none of those earlier institutions or the social structures that supported them survived.

The desire to “unplug” and get away from the noise, greed, and distraction of our current culture is something more closely associated with the Hippy movement and communes of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Unhappily, few of those ideological movements and communities have had staying power.

 

I know Pagan intentional communities (the currently-favored terminology for such places) do exist, but they are hard to find, and I don’t have any sense of how many are well established communities versus being simply aspirational experiments. I have tried to research such places with very little luck, and I would love to learn more about them. In any case, Paganism and Polytheism are diverse movements and communities, so there would be no guarantee that any such community would be compatible with my own path. I am fascinated by this idea, though, and I may even find myself daydreaming a bit about living a simple life devoted to spiritual pursuit. For the moment, it doesn’t feel like it could be much more than that.

Ecstasis Event October 8th – Brotherhood of the Phoenix

In the cosmology of the Brotherhood of the Phoenix, we are in the season of the Divine Androgyne. I think the Androgyne has many things to teach us about accepting parts of ourselves and finding a way to keep a dynamic balance, particularly in times of change.

Ecstasis is our celebration of the Androgyne, and it is open to people of all genders and sexual identities (ages 18 and over). Because it is open to everyone, we typically get a nice crowd, filled with our friends and supporters. I would like to welcome you, too. It is the evening of October 8th, at a location just west of Chicago’s Loop. We will have a ritual followed by a potluck. Find more details at one of the links below.

Facebook Event Page

Event information on the Brotherhood of the Phoenix website

Is “Hospitality” Enough For An Anti-Racist Framework?

Let me start with an admission. With all the back-and-forth that Heathens have been having about racism, tribalism, folkishness, etc. I am so glad that I have never been called to a path in Heathenry/Asatru/Northern Traditions. It’s not my intention to offend those who are called to these paths, but I’m sure many will be offended, at least in part because outrage seems to be the default mode of online discourse in many of these communities.

I feel like Heathens have a certain stigma to accommodate, even if they aren’t white supremacist, even if they adhere to the more “universalist” interpretations of Heathenism. The fact there are so many white supremacist voices within the community is horrifying. To feel the need to put your time and energy figuring out what place, if any, these people have in your tradition – well, it has to be a drag on the whole tradition. Not only that, since people outside the Pagan and Polytheist community don’t know the difference between the various factions, it’s an embarrassment to everyone who calls themselves a Pagan and/or a Polytheist.

 

But let me move on to my main point here. There has been a loud and ongoing series of discussions, arguments, angry exchanges, accusations, defensive responses, (etc.) around the topic of Heathens and Racism. It has been a dominant topic within the Pagan/Polytheist online community for a while. I have already made my thoughts about this clear.

I have to make an observation for those Heathens who are striving to assert themselves as anti-racist.

Many of those who argue for an anti-racist Heathenism point to the ethic of Hospitality (which is one of the Nine Noble Virtues taught by some Heathen traditions). They argue that anti-immigrant, xenophobic rhetoric, policies, and violence are the opposite of hospitality. They argue that welcoming those who are different is a lauded virtue in the lore. That’s great. I am a believer in hospitality. I think there is much to be admired in using that spirit of generosity and hospitality as guiding principles. Another often repeated addition to this is that we should treat strangers as if they may be Gods in disguise, for there is a long tradition of just such stories.

But hospitality is dependent on a certain defined relationship. Someone is a host and someone is a guest. The host is the owner. The host belongs there. The guest is an outsider. No matter how gracious the host, the guest is always a guest, i.e. the outsider.

As Americans, we live in a land that is multi-racial and multi-cultural, as well as being open to people of different religions and immigrants from different parts of the world. All of these people are part of our country. Hospitality works fine when we are talking about welcoming people into our place of residence, and sometimes when we are talking about our small local organizations. But it breaks down when we try to apply a Heathen hospitality to a larger societal scope.

Heathens don’t “own” towns, much less states or the country. People of northern European descent don’t “own” these, either. They may own property and participate in the political process and economic life, but American values and laws guarantee that entry into these activities is not determined by race, ethnicity, or religion.

Further, everyone in this country of northern European descent is descended from an immigrant. Thinking of those Americans of northern European descent as our society’s “hosts” and people of darker skin or other religions as our society’s “guests” is a thought trap.

It’s a manifestation of the same racist thinking that assumes that a default American is a person of white race. This country obviously had people of Native American background long before the Europeans showed up. People of African descent have been on these lands for nearly as long as Europeans. Chinese people and other east Asian populations have been in this country for hundreds of years. We should not think of ourselves as a white European population with non-European guests. That never was a true way of thinking about it, and as time goes on, it is less and less representative of the reality of the American population.

So, to be honest, I don’t see how hospitality on its own can really encompass true inclusion in a multi-cultural and diverse society. Those of us who look like what our culture has told us is a default American identity – i.e. cis-gendered, able-bodied white people – need to realize that this doesn’t automatically mean the country is “ours”. The inclusion and participation of others who don’t fit that definition should not be defined by whether we are feeling generous that day. African Americans, Asian Americans, Jewish Americans, Muslim Americans – these are not our guests. They are fellow Americans, who have an equal share in our society.

 

Since I am not a Heathen, there will be those within those traditions who won’t even consider my voice in this conversation. But since the conversations happening within these communities reflect on the larger Pagan and Polytheist communities, I am impacted by those conversations. I hope that they can embrace a way of thinking that is more in line with full rejection of xenophobia and racism. I think that will require moving beyond an ethic based on simple hospitality.

 

If you are curious about the Heathen anti-racist movement, one of the most prominent groups is Heathens United Against Racism (HUAR).

Online vs Face-to-Face Community: The #mypolytheism Question

John Beckett recently voiced some doubts about the #mypolytheism website and project. There was a huge number of comments in response, mostly expressing disappointment, and sometimes anger, at John’s lack of support. As I mentioned already, I am a contributor and fan of the project. I love hearing from a variety of polytheists presenting their religious perspective in a non-judgmental platform.

John’s main criticisms were that he questioned the “no debate” format and felt like it would squelch potentially fruitful discussions. More to the point of what I want to address here, he felt that to form a community, people must come together face-to-face via groups or events. An online forum, especially one so diverse, is not going to manifest a real Polytheist community.

 

To address my thought on this, I have to break a convention, in a way, and talk about this blog. I have been blogging for over three years here. I think the habit of writing regularly has improved the quality of writing. I would like to think that the level of writing and thoughtfulness is on a par with most of the “Pagan blogosphere”, although I would not claim to be among the best. I have certain posts which seem to show up in search engines and get somewhat regular clicks. I occasionally catch the attention of a high profile blogger who comments or shares a particular post, which means extra clicks.

But let’s be honest, I have a low readership. As a gay pagan vegan writing reflective posts, I don’t exactly expect to be a viral sensation. But honestly, I do wonder why I am still relatively obscure within the world of pagan bloggers. For example, when The Wild Hunt does a compilation of commenters and the subject is something I write about frequently, they would never think to ask for my contribution. I am even toward the top of the list of “Fall Funders” (it’s alphabetical), so my name appears prominently on their web page. Yet, I am not on the radar.

Part of my lower profile is that I don’t court controversy. I don’t make outrageous assertions just to get clicks. I don’t write rants or screeds. I don’t jump online and respond in a heated way to something I just read. I usually think about and balance various perspectives before writing on a subject.

 

But to take John’s point and turn it on its head, I am beginning to suspect that a lot of people don’t pay attention to writers in the Pagan blogosphere unless they’ve physically met the blogger or seen them talk. It’s like the online presence isn’t acknowledged or deemed worthy of attention when there’s no physical presence at events.

I don’t show up at the big national conventions. I have never been to PantheaCon or Many Gods West. I have never gone to any of the major camping festivals. I haven’t even been to more regional conferences like Paganicon or ConVocation. I just have not had the time or money to play along, to “show up”. I also feel like flying across the country several times each year is not compatible with an environmentally responsible ethic.

I belong to my own local group, which is very small. Many of them do read my blog. It’s rare that the content is so tradition-specific that they would be the only ones to appreciate it. I have gone to our local Pagan Pride, and I will again. I have met some other Pagans and Polytheists in this context. I have even been on a local esoteric radio program and made presentations to local groups. I am still far from a well-known person, even within the local Pagan community.

 

So, sadly, unless I am overestimating the quality of or audience for my writing. I think that there’s a kind of harsh validity to John’s point. An online voice is probably an unheard voice – unless it has been backed up with some other presence, particularly a physical presence at the right events. The online Pagan community is basically a way to amplify the voices of people who already have a voice via books, public speaking or group leadership.

 

Judging from what I’ve read from many of the contributors to #mypolytheism, many will never have those other platforms. Many will have difficulty attending large events to get the attention of the right people. Many of them are not likely to lead groups, even at a local level. This isn’t me criticizing these contributors. This is simply meant to be an honest observation.

Can #mypolytheism be a true community that brings unheard voices to a larger audience? That is certainly a part of its aim, and I hope it can achieve that goal. We’ll have to see if it works out that way, if it can sustain this initial flush of new and unique contributions, or if it ends up sliding into being a platform for voices that are already represented in the Pagan and Polytheist online world.

 

Some Updates for September

It’s Pagan Pride season, and our Chicagoland celebration will be held on Sunday September 18, 2016 in Oak Park, Illinois (just west of Chicago). I wrote about last year’s celebration here, and I included a number of photos.

Brotherhood of the Phoenix will be leading the opening ritual this year, and I will be helping our spiritual leaders in that task. Leading a large public ritual, outdoors and filled with many strangers, is quite a bit different from celebrating our usual group rituals. Two years ago, I did take a role in a public ritual at Pagan Pride led by Earth Traditions, so it’s not an entirely new experience for me. I held one of the eight points of the circle around which a giant web was woven, which was a wonderful visual image. (I am in the deep background in photos 5 and 12 in this photo set.)

If you are in the area, please join us on Sunday the 18th. In addition to leading ritual, the Brotherhood will have a tent/table, so you can connect with us there.

 

On a separate note about my ongoing involvement with Brotherhood of the Phoenix, I was elected to the Council of Guardians at the National level for the organization, which is the organization’s governing body. I have already been involved with the Council for our Chicago Temple, but this is a new level of involvement, and as always, I am learning a great deal at each step along the way. It is an exciting time for the Brotherhood, since there is likely going to be a new temple within the next few months in a new city, which represents a significant expansion for our small and emerging order. We’re also revamping the website and going through various other interesting changes.

 

I love the Fall, and my garden has been very productive with tomatoes, summer squash, turnips, kale, and other goodies. Ceres is a great provider and I am in constant awe. I think the worst heat of the summer has passed (although you never can really tell). I’m looking forward to the next few months, even as I realize the country in general, and the Pagan community in particular, is in a divisive mood. Certain people’s prejudices have been on display more boldly and harshly than usual lately. I want to hear people’s perspective, but sometimes I have to unplug from the anger and, frankly, lack of compassion that I hear so often.

 

Enjoy the harvest season, my friends!

My Polytheism

As part of a project to present many different views of polytheism, as shown on the My Polytheism website, my contribution is here.

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My Polytheism is about variety. At its heart, it’s based on a belief that no one is “in charge”, at least not in any over-arching sense. There are many powers in the world, many of which are greater than human powers. As we make our way through the world, we encounter many of these (if we are paying attention) – Gods, Goddesses, spirits, genii loci. Some are specific to places and times. Some have greater power to exist over long periods of time and great expanses of space. Human perception of them is limited. Human understanding of them is incomplete. But, if we are lucky, we are able to have some kind of communication with them.

I understand these powers to be distinct beings, therefore I embrace the term polytheist. Trying to think of them as part of some unified being seems intuitively wrong to me. Sometimes they seem to look almost human and communicate in a human way, but that may be either their effort to be relatable, or my own mind’s attempt to comprehend what I am experiencing. Sometimes they have existence that is clearly not like that of humanity.

In creating my own framework for a modern polytheism, I look to ancient Rome for inspiration, but I do not aim to slavishly recreate Roman practice.

I love that the Roman religious world was multicultural, eclectic, and pragmatic. Gods and Goddesses from various traditions were incorporated into the Roman religious landscape without any perceived contradiction. I love that at least one major strain of Roman devotion has a tradition of not using animal sacrifice (the Numa tradition).

I am fascinated by the way that Roman religion worked in multiple layers.

  • There was a home-based religion, based around the hearth and the lararium.
  • There were public temples and shrines, as well as festivals, often sponsored by wealthy individuals or groups. These could be for the benefit of a neighborhood, a full city, or on the roadside for travelers. I would love to see some of this in our modern age.
  • There was a state-sponsored religious cult*, dedicated to certain Gods, and eventually to deified Emperors. I don’t have much interest in a revival of this (and I don’t even understand how that would work in our current society).
  • At the same time, many people belonged to mystery cults* – initiatory organizations usually devoted to particular Gods and Goddesses and offering a more personal revelatory and/or ecstatic experience. These organizations had their own rules and practices.

None of these methods of devotion were contradictory. People could pick and choose their devotion (although for political reasons, there were expectations or even compulsions for the actions of public figures around the public festivals and state religious rites).

*When I use the word “cult”, it refers to a devotional tradition and it does not carry the negative connotation that it often does in modern usage.

At the same time, the Romans were deeply conservative, in the sense that they revered any practice or tradition that was seen as ancient. There was a strong cultural drive to maintain rituals, both in the broad and specific senses of the word. They were very picky about the specifics of how rituals were performed, often stopping and starting again from the beginning if something unexpected happened. They had the tendency to continue traditions long past the time when anyone had the faintest idea of their purpose or origin.

This kind of unexamined adherence to the past is not my way. In fact, if it were, I would likely still be a Catholic, perhaps even a priest of that Christian religion where I was raised. The truth is, for my family and for nearly everyone in this country, there is no unbroken line of polytheists. Any such traditions are revived (with varying degrees of guesswork involved) or created anew.

Because I believe in the reality of the Gods, Goddesses and various other spirits, I believe these new traditions can be valid and guided by divine inspiration. But going from divine inspiration to concrete ritual, texts, and institutions will always be colored by the current cultural landscape and individual personality of those involved.

And that brings me to my involvement with the Brotherhood of the Phoenix. The Brotherhood is a neopagan order for men who love men (gay, bi, trans, queer). Being neopagan, it isn’t explicitly polytheist, but my experience of the Gods of the Brotherhood is polytheistic. As part of the emergent tradition, there are eight Gods that we work with (an example of my work with them here), and I understand them as distinct deities. Not everyone in the Brotherhood does. But the training that I have gained through the Brotherhood has been formative for me, and it has effected my practices beyond the Brotherhood Gods.

The Brotherhood traditions are influenced by Western Ceremonial Magic tradition, and my sense of ritual and ecstasy, of mental preparedness for spiritual experience is formed by this. Going back to the framework of Roman religion, this is an initiatory group, with a special spiritual focus for the enrichment of its members. I include it in the broader scope of my religious life, and lately, it has been in a central place.

Finally, I want to say that my polytheism is ecstatic (or it aspires to be). I think the experience of Gods, Goddesses, and various other spirits is what makes it all meaningful. My polytheism doesn’t give commandments, it offers experiences. It may be that sense of wonder when walking in the woods on a gorgeous day or looking out over the ocean and trying to comprehend its vastness. It can be much more specific – a God talking to you, appearing in some form, giving you messages. It can be the feeling of a Goddess giving you a message that you must write down and pass along.

To me, much of the purpose of devotion is to honor and grow closer to the deities and spirits, to welcome them into our lives and value who they are, as far as we can understand it. It may even be just to express our awe and appreciation, and it may be to ask for guidance, focus our minds and hearts, or provide us peace. As long as we understand that these relationships do not work like vending machines, but rather that we are cultivating relationship, we can see the value in our practices.