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How “Gods Before Politics” Perpetuates Privilege

(A version of this essay was previously published at allergicpagan.com.)

“Ever and always, the Gods come before politics.” — John Beckett

What does “political” mean?

There’s been a lot of argument on the Pagan internet lately about whether Paganism and Polytheism are political, per se, or whether we need to have political-free zones in Paganism.

Some of the confusion has to do with definitions.  When people hear “politics”, they tend to think of political candidates, elections, and voting.  And they think about people arguing about political candidates, elections, and voting.  And, really, who wants to have that at your next Lughnasadh ritual or in your devotional ritual to Lugh?

But politics is a lot more than elections and voting.  It’s even more than signing petitions, boycotting products, and marching in the streets.  Politics is about power: who gets to use it and when and how.  Politics is how we decide who has power … and who doesn’t.  Carl von Clausewitz famously wrote that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.”  If we flip that around, we see that politics is how we peacefully (more or less) resolve the question of who gets to exercise power over whom.

When politics is understood in this way, then it’s easier to see that there is really no place or zone that is free of politics.  Not the marketplace.  Not school.  Not church.  And not your Pagan and Polytheist circles.

Why?  Because all of these places are permeated by complex power relationships, and in all of these places, we are either working to reform these power relationships or we are reinforcing the status quo by our passivity.  You’re either doing one or the other.  There’s no escaping it.  And if you’re not doing it consciously, then it’s happening implicitly, in the background of all your words and actions.

Privilege makes politics invisible

And this is why statements like “Gods before politics” reinforce white, male, hetero-, and cis- privilege.  And this is why the notion that there should be non-political spaces in Paganism is so insidious.  The idea can sound very reasonable — especially when it is delivered in a calm and equanimous fashion to others similarly situated.   So much of privileged talk is like this.  While those who are less privileged seem to be railing about invisible powers.

It’s easy to say there should be non-political spaces when your existence is not perpetually under threat by virtue of your difference, by virtue of your conformity to white, male, hetero-, cis-normativity.  But if you are female, if you are a person of color, if you are queer, or gay, or lesbian, or if you are trans, or if you are disabled, then there is no such thing as a non-political space for you.  Because almost everywhere you go, you are being told implicitly, if not explicitly, that you do not belong, that you do not have the same rights as others, that the exercise of power over you by privileged others is right and justified and deity-sanctioned.

Ginger Drekisdottir explained this well in an article here on G&R entitled, “Paganism is Personal, and that’s what makes it Political”:

“There are groups in Western society which are systematically oppressed: women, people of colour, LGBT people, disabled people, the list sadly goes on and on. These groups are […] oppressed through the very structures which make up our society […]

“For members of these oppressed groups, our daily lives can often be a struggle just to survive, a struggle to carve out a space to live, a constant fight to demand that our lives have just as much value as others. We live these fights just through carrying on with our normal lives, every time we go out to the shops or to see friends, through carrying on breathing; as well as through our activism.

“[…] for oppressed people it is these continued struggles in the face of systems of oppression which make our personal lives political. Yes many of us do activism, engage in demonstrations, engage in direct actions or even the dreaded party politics I mentioned above; but continuing to exist in the light of a system saying that you are lesser, that your life is worth less than others simply because of who you are is just as political. We can’t just shed these aspects of our identities when we step into a space, even a Pagan space.”

In a recent post, entitled “Why the Gods Come Before Politics”, John Beckett responded to Drekisdottir, arguing for the possibility of non-political spaces in Pagan and Polytheist circles.  Interestingly, in the process of trying to make his point, Beckett actually disproves it when he says that “there are limits”.  He writes:

“There is no place for racism in Paganism and polytheism – Stephen McNallen is not welcome at any circle I lead. There is no place for transphobia in Paganism and polytheism – Ruth Barrett is not welcome at any circle I lead.”

That is a political position, an explicit one.  And every time Beckett holds a circle and explicitly or implicitly communicates that racism and transphobia are not welcome in his circle, he is being political.

Consider another recent example, when the Pagan Federation of Ireland was recently asked by a couple of Odinists for help finding a Pagan clergy member to marry them “who only performs heterosexual ceremonies and refrains from marrying those of mixed races,” and the Pagan Federation responded:

“We are most happy to report that none of our clergy subscribe to your views on mixed race or gay marriage, and so we cannot assist you in your upcoming visit to Ireland.
“F**k off.
“Yours very sincerely, Everyone at Pagan Federation Ireland.”

That was a political action.  If the Pagan Federation had helped the Odinists find a racist, homophobic clergy-person to conduct their wedding, that would have been a political action too.  And (pay attention now) if the Pagan Federation had just ignored the request, that would have been a political action too.

The next time someone tells you their Paganism is not political (or the next time you think it yourself), ask whether they would welcome a Neo-Nazi to their ritual or place a swastika on their altar.  If the answer is “no”, then ask them why.  Their answer will inevitably be political — because it has to do with who has power and who does not.  If they say “yes”, then ask how they think a Black person would feel at their ritual or standing before their altar, and whether they care, and why or why not.  That answer will inevitably be political too.  We are being political whether we are conscious of it or not.

Is your Pagan circle explicitly open to LGBTs?  Is so, congratulations, your circle is political.  If not, shame on you, but your circle is political too — it’s implicitly political.  Has your Polytheist group declared that Black Lives Matter?  If so, good job, your group is political.  If not, you need to wake up, but your group is still political.

The luxury of being “non-political”

Only a white, male, heterosexual, cis-gendered, able-bodied person like me, or like John Beckett, could really believe that such non-political spaces exist.  As Kiya Nicoll wrote in the comments to Drekisdottir’s essay:

“When I observe someone saying ‘This is not a political space’ what I hear is ‘I have never had to think about whether or not my sort of person is welcome to show up.'”

Only people like Beckett and me have the privilege or the luxury of being (or seeming to be) non-political.  We have that luxury because every aspect of society is structured so as to make us feel empowered and diminish our discomfort.  We have that privilege because the people who exercise power in our society look like us, and act like us, and love like us.  And because of that, we can believe in the myth of non-political spaces.  Other people don’t have that privilege.  What I perceive as politically neutral spaces are in fact highly adversarial spaces for people who do not look like me or love like me.

(Not to mention, we have the luxury of being “non-political” only because two generations of Pagans have fought for our political right to be Pagan and openly so.  We still have a lot of work to do to secure our rights as Pagans, but we’ve come a long way.  If we we couldn’t hold open Pagan circles or if Christianity were the national religion, I wonder how “non-political” Pagans would be then!)

It’s true that there is no political test for Paganism.  There are Pagans who Democrats and Republicans and Greens.  There are liberal and progressive Pagans and conservative and right-wing Pagans.  There are anarchist Pagans and there are libertarian Pagans.  But saying there is no political test for Paganism is not the same thing as saying Paganism is not political.  Your Pagan tradition may not tell you how to answer specific political questions of the day, but there is no escaping those questions.

If you’re not being consciously and intentionally political, then you being unconsciously and non-intentionally political.  And I think there are good reason, good Pagan reasons, for favoring the former over the latter, for favoring conscious activism over unconscious conformity to the status quo.  In fact, I think the definition of an “activist” is simply someone who performs their politics actively and explicitly, rather than passively and implicitly.

Beckett writes, “Good religion has both an internal focus (becoming better people) and an external focus (building a better world).”  He’s right about that.  Where he’s wrong is thinking that one of these is political and the other isn’t.  Both inner work and external activism are political.  Being political isn’t just about working to change the world; it’s also about working to change ourselves too.  And some of that work has to do with recognizing our privilege and learning how to use it for good, rather than perpetuating the status quo.

change

The politics of the gods

Beckett is right that we all need to do spiritual work, to stay connected to our source.  If activists don’t engage in self-care, if we don’t stay connected to the source of our inspiration and energy, then we burn out.  But it’s not a question of whether to perform devotions to our gods or get out in the street and march.  We need both, obviously.  But if you think you’re not being political when your praying to your gods, then you’re deluding yourself.  Think about it … What are you praying for?  Are you asking for help to make the world a more just and peaceful place?  Or are you only praying for more divine favors for yourself, to keep what you have, and get more for yourself?  If it’s the former, then you’re being political.  If it’s the latter, you’re being political, too — just in a bad way.

And what about our gods?  Do your gods bear an uncanny resemblance to you?  If your gods are Black or queer, then your choice of gods is political, because it is a challenge to the status quo.  And if you’re white, male, heterosexual, cis-gendered, and able-bodied, and your gods are too, well then, your choice of gods is also political.  If it’s because you’re avoiding cultural appropriation, that’s political.  But if it’s because it’s what you were drawn to, then that’s political too, implicitly.  And if you tell me your gods chose you, not the other way around, and that their resemblance to you is purely coincidental … well, I would invite you to look more closely at that.

Consider these images, which were among the first that came up when I Googled “Pagan god” …

il_fullxfull.411443169_6ark

Consider the implicit sexism of this image. (Source: “The Council Of Cernunnos” by Emily Ballet)

duo

Why are images like the one on the left ubiquitous in Paganism, but not images like the one on the right? (Sources: Left: “The Tree of Life” by Laura Zollar; Right: “Pagan Gods – Wincest” by Milla1990)

Our choice of gods is a highly political act.  I wonder why so many Pagans can be critical of the actions of the Abrahamic god, and yet seemingly uncritical when it comes to Pagan gods.  As “timberwraith” wrote in response to Beckett’s post, just because a god is more powerful than us, does not make it more virtuous or more just:

“[…] the Abrahamic god is deeply flawed at best. So, that begs the question of how many other gods are questionable in their values and conduct, the degree to which they value human life, and their preference in followers. […]

“The Abrahamic god has been a source of active and violent oppression of queer people for ages. I’m not about to give any other deity automatic respect as a divine guru of awesomeness. Just because people label an aware, non-biological entity as a ‘god’ doesn’t mean I’m going to automatically kiss their supposedly divine bottom. […]

“If the gods are truly individuals, some will behave like complete rotters, some will behave with care and empathy, and a large swath will fall between those possible modes of conduct. Respect should only be applied to those individuals who deserve such consideration. That means one must actively evaluate the nature and persona of said individuals…and that inevitably involves politics, for politics, by definition, concerns the flow and conduct of power, and allegiances formed in the context of power. If god-like entities hold greater power than those of an embodied existence, then said power differential indicates that the realm of the political applies.”

Beckett quotes Abraham Lincoln as saying, “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side,” to support his argument for putting the Gods before politics.  But — and this is critical — Lincoln’s conception of “God” was of an infallibly just and virtuous being.  The pagan gods, in contrast, are not described in this way.  In fact, they are often ambivalent and sometimes antagonistic to human cares.  As I’ve written before:

“If the myths are to be believed on any level, the gods are just as flawed as human beings — they just have more power.  Why bow down to power, if it is not paired with virtue?”

The notion that the pagan gods are embodiments of virtue seems like a very Christian conception of deity.  Compare Beckett’s statement, “Ever and always, the Gods come before politics”, with the one below:

jesusisking

Now, if one of these statements bothers you and the other doesn’t, you have to ask: What it is about the Pagan gods that you think puts them, and not Jesus, above politics?

I admit, I’m just starting to understand how privileged the statements like “gods before politics” is.  And when I first read Drekisdottir’s essay, I didn’t really get it.  So I shouldn’t be too hard to Beckett.  But people like him and me need to get this.  We need to see that when we are supposedly being “non-political” we are nevertheless reinforcing structures of power that privilege us and hurt others — and that is political.  The myth of non-political Pagan spaces acts as a blindfold for many of us in the Pagan community — especially those of us Pagans who are privileged.  It perpetuates implicit racism, patriarchy, and hetero- and cis-normativity — all of which continue to exist in our Pagan spaces, whether we see it or not (especially if we don’t).  And if we’re not consciously and actively working to see it and deal with it, then we’re passively helping to sweep it back under the rug.

13 Comments »

  1. I’d agree there’s no separation between the gods and politics but I don’t think that should prevent folk from putting the gods first. For many polytheists, privileged and underprivileged, having a deep, devotional relationship with one god or more is the thing that gives them the strength to get by in the political world.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I don’t understand what “putting the gods first” even means.

      If I put one of my gods first, I am obligated to political action to carve out social space for the marginalised in society and fight for that to be included. If I put another one of my gods first, I am obligated to deal with the social context of motherhood, which includes the ways in which mother-categorised parents are socially marginalised. Another god – one I’m less close to, but still of significance – has a lesser-known role as a patron of orphans. One is focused directly on the mechanisms and nature of leadership. One is justice herself and the way that manifests within communities. If I draw strength and support from a god to deal with the crushing weight of some of the shit I have to deal with in the sociopolitical context, that’s blatantly, obviously political; people-like-me are under that god’s protection, and when I act in the interests of people-like-me I am active both devotionally and in my own self-interest.

      I know a lot of people who deal with – as a for example – queer gods, whose relationship with those gods is what gives them the strength for survival. But that is, fundamentally, a political strength, a political support. The interest of those gods is having their people survive, and some of their people are gay, or trans, or gender-diverse. This isn’t a private shrine thing, this is about the interests of the gods. Putting the gods first includes taking care of their people. And their interests. And so on.

      (I saw someone commenting the other day that Thor is obviously the god of day laborers and unions, and someone replying that yeah, he gets shade for that in ancient texts, something like “Odin gets the warriors who fall in battle, but Thor has the kin of servants.”)

      I mean, I don’t deal with all of the gods I am devoted to on a heavily political level (Anpu (Anubis) and I don’t have a lot of relationship hooked into his interest in orphans, for example) but if all of someone’s divine relationships conveniently skirt around the parts of those gods’ domains that have clear and inescapable political consequences I don’t see “putting the gods first” as a likely explanation.

      Liked by 4 people

      • That’s pretty much what I meant! For me putting a god first involves establishing a relationship which is reciprocal and consists in doing their work. I serve Gwyn ap Nudd as an awenydd. He’s a god of the dead and the Otherworld and much of the work I do for him is telling the forgotten stories of the ancestral people of my locality and the people of the Otherworld – recovering their individual stories from the Arthurian myths where they are oppressed. One hundred per cent a political task. I’m not saying there is any separation between the gods and the political. Only that putting a god first is a matter of calling rather than privilege.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. You’re right, a non-political space exists as much as an emotion-free space. Unless that space is occupied by exactly one person, then all bets are off.

    However, I’ve seen the privilege thing get twisted around so goddamn much on the SJW internet that this is a discussion I need to take a break from for a few years. (And clearly that statement gives me away as being cis and straight and monied and able-bodied and white, right?) I’ve seen too many people – and I really mean that – say, implicitly or explicitly, that everything in a “privileged person’s” life needs to take a back seat to the needs and demands of those without privilege. To literally be at the beck and call of a people who are quick to remind that they are not a monolith (how do you take and apply advice from everyone? you can’t without contradicting most of it.)

    So sometimes things other than “the struggle” need to come first. Sometimes those “things” are ourselves. Or the Gods. There’s a little thing called “burnout” that happens if we do nothing but struggle 24/7/365. There’s a reason its recommended that you secure your own oxygen mask before assisting those around you. You can’t help anyone if you’ve suffocated to death already.

    Why bow down to power, if it is not paired with virtue?

    Depends on what you mean by virtue. Because if you’re drawing the line I think you’re drawing, we ought to be cutting off just about every God that we have names for.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. PS – I just noticed the two tree spirit images you used. Good god, man.

    Why are images like the one on the left ubiquitous in Paganism, but not images like the one on the right?

    Because the one on the right is fucking incest fanart of Supernatural characters Sam and Dean Winchester. jfc.

    Like

      • Well, given the theme of this post, I find it to be an ironic choice of images – what with the whole issue of straight female fetishization of gay men getting passed off as good allyship, etc.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, you’re not wrong, Keen. It’s definitely an ironic choice of image. For someone who isn’t a big Supernatural fan though, I wouldn’t have had any of that context. I would have thought exactly what John obviously did: “Gee, it’s nice to see two men in a sacred image of a passionate embrace for a change!” I might have even used it in ritual until somebody pointed that out to me (which they would have; just because I don’t watch Supernatural doesn’t mean that my friends don’t.) It’s just disappointing and it startled a laugh out of me initially, is all.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Great article, John. You’re spot on. I agree with your belief that as mortal potential worshipers, we have a right to apply our discernment in that choice. And I agree that every human group interaction is political by its nature (and that includes the discussion of faith as well as its practice.)

    Like

  5. In one of my facebook groups, “political” discussion is not allowed. Why? Because in spite of history, “national socialism” is considered a political stance. I don’t want to deal with neo-nazi asshats insisting that my Mexican great-great grandfather eliminates my right to be a heathen. If you want to talk about that shit there are places to do so. We are in the group to try to learn. Blatant politics are the only type of post I’ve seen eliminated from the group. We joyfully argue about what the gods think of everything else. But I don’t want to deal with nazis saying only pure white people can be heathens. So I fully support the “no politics” rule in the group. I have my own political viewpoint. Arguing with someone who vehemently disagrees is like hitting yourself in the head with a hammer. No matter how many times you do it, it will never stop being stupid and all you get is a headache.

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