Heathen Family Values
A Guest Post from Ruth Morong
Many would argue that the highest ethic in Heathenism is to defend and bring honor to the family/tribe. But what does it mean to bring honor to the family? What is honor? Honor or worth, (in my opinion) is the just esteem in which a person or family/group is held by the community. (I’m going to explain how I see it in terms of family, but I think it applies just as well to any close-knit social group.)
To build up the honor of a person or family means to make valuable contributions to the community, which reflect well on the contributor and those associated with them (the family). To defend the honor of a family is two-fold: first, it means challenging those who would hurt or oppress any member of the family, and second, it means fighting for the right of the family, both as individuals and collectively, to gain honor and worth. Furthermore, in the combination of these factors, striving to bring honor to one’s family implies leaving the best legacy possible to our children and grandchildren (or our spiritual children).
In practice, building up the honor of ourselves and our families might mean studying to gain knowledge and wisdom to serve the community, building an ethical and respectable career, or undertaking community service. In the modern day, defending the honor of our families’ means fighting for every family member to be treated with respect and dignity. This means defending our right to be safe in our chosen occupation, to be paid fairly for the work we do, and our basic human rights. Defending the honor of our families means pursuing justice against those who have wronged members of our family. It also means fighting for the right to gain honor through education, service, or leadership, and to compete with others for honor in a fair contest. Above all, it means ensuring that there is a place for our descendants to live and a chance for them to succeed.
If it is true that building this sort of honor is the highest goal of a heathen, then there can never be apolitical Heathenism. Politics has the power to affect our lives and the lives of those we care about. How could we be so blind as to carefully reconstruct a heathen tradition for our children to inherit while letting the ability of the planet to support their lives be destroyed? How can we bring honor to our families without fighting for a world in which our families and friends are not being oppressed?
Furthermore, how can we build honor within our family by ignoring dishonor and injustice outside of it? In the sagas, there are cases of a criminal showing up on someone’s doorstep and persuading the householder to protect them on the argument that if they allowed the criminal to be killed while seeking refuge on the doorstep, they would be judged dishonorable by the whole community.
If it is dishonorable to allow a criminal to be killed on the doorstep, then how much more dishonorable is it to allow our tax money to be used to kill innocents? How honorable can it be to allow the poisoning of children? Or the exploitation of children in sweatshops? The ancient heathens were quite obviously active, engaged people, always promoting the interests of their families and pushing for the agenda they thought was right. Turning away from the world in favor of religion was not something they would have understood.
It is this definition of honor that leads me to be a “political” heathen. My family comes first and foremost in all matters, and right now, the future of my family is being destroyed along with the future of thousands of species which will not survive the industrialization of our world or the inevitable post-industrial collapse which will follow. We humans grow sick from cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and other diseases caused by the crap diet that is all most of us can afford to eat. In fifty or a hundred years, even this factory style of agriculture will likely fail, leaving our children to starve. Those poisoning our water and our air, killing our pollinators, and laying waste to our food supply are our enemies.
A good heathen gives their enemies no peace. And yet I still hear the head-in-the-sand rhetoric about “not getting political”. “Not getting political” is giving our enemies peace. “Putting aside our differences” means giving our enemies peace while they destroy our families and the planet. Furthermore, there are many people in our world who face special oppression, beyond the destruction of our world and the general oppression faced by everyone who has to sell their life for money. Should the queers of the pagan world give peace to those who oppose their rights, or who support groups and politicians who fight against their rights? Should people of color give peace to those who would destroy the honor of any person who has the bad luck to be killed by the police? Should those of us who have friends and family who are Black, queer, or otherwise specially oppressed value the bonds of religion over the bonds of friendship and kin?
I know plenty of people will think I’m advocating for a “thought police”. I’m not. What I am saying is that if someone upholds a status quo that is literally poisoning my family and killing my friends (look at the death rates for Blacks, Native Americans, and transgender people), then I don’t need to invite them to my home or draw them into my family’s religious life. It’s not that everyone I work with in ritual needs to agree with me. It’s that a person can’t be working against my interests outside the ritual and then claim to be my kin within the ritual. The idea that the “community of faith” is more important than the “concerns of this world” is an idea rooted in the world-denying baggage of monotheism. It has no place in a heathen’s struggle to bring honor to themselves and their family.
I don’t care how someone identifies their politics. What I care about is whether a person is going to be screaming in my face when I go to Planned Parenthood, or donating money or time to some conservative Christian politician who seeks to destroy my religion and degrade the honor of my friends and family. Right-wing politics in America are based on denying environmental concerns and continuing the oppression of non-Christians, queers, racial minorities, and women. Right-wing politicians make a point of trying to deny the reality of climate change, force Christian prayer in schools, appoint justices who will discriminate against non-Christian religions, and restrict the rights of women. For pagans to claim that right-wing politics are not opposed to paganism is as silly and illogical as Caitlyn Jenner’s insistence that Republicans don’t oppose transgender rights.
This is serious. Politics is not a game that can be set aside for other “more serious” matters. Politics is life or death. It is the ability or inability of my children to survive. It is the hours I will have to work enriching someone else to feed my family, it is the amount of my money which will be stolen from my paycheck in taxes, it is how much my student loans will cost me. Politics is in the cost of my food, the time I have or don’t have to pursue my religion, and in the air I breathe, and in the water I drink. Politics determines whether I can teach heathenism to my child to whether social services can harass me for having a different religion.
The time has come to stop hiding our heads in the sand and face the world with the courage that can win a better world for our children. I can envision a different heathenism. One in which we make teaching true family values a main part of our religion. If we want a better world, or even a world as nice as this one for our children, our economic, political, and environmental system has to change. I believe this starts with changing our culture. It is my belief that heathenism has a lot to offer in developing a culture which respects the Earth, prioritizes the future of our children, and recognizes the value of other people, cultures, and traditions.
Heathenism offers us the long-term view- the knowledge of the struggles and victories of our ancestors, and the concern not just for our lives, but for the lives of future generations. I know that my ancestors fought for a better world and won worker’s compensation, the weekend, the eight-hour-day, equal pay for women, an end to child labor, and over-time pay. I honor my ancestors by fighting to maintain the rights they won. In the present, fighting for the rights of the working class might save my parents and grandparents, friends, and extended family from dying for lack of access to healthcare, unsafe work practices, and pollution-related diseases. In the future, fighting for a world that puts the long-term survival of our species above profit might lead to a future for my family. I honor my ancestors by defending and expanding the rights they fought for. I defend the honor of my family by defending our rights. And I leave a good legacy to my children by fighting for a better world.
Heathenism informs my struggle in that historically heathenism has put a high value on knowledge and cunning. We know that the head of the heathen pantheon was Odin, whose main interest seems to be in gathering knowledge and wisdom. Thor, the mightiest of the gods, was once defeated (in Utgard) by a giant who swapped a hill for his head (among other tricks). To see clearly friends and enemies and to recognize when an enemy is using deception was more valuable that might and strength alone.
In the modern day of red herring politics, gaining the background knowledge and experience to know what questions need to be asked and how the politicians and pundits frame the debates in ways that support their positions is critical. Follow the example of Odin and seek out enough knowledge to see the world clearly. Seek out information and perspectives from people you don’t like or trust. Wander outside your comfort zone and see what you can learn from people who might be hostile.
Heathenism is a practical (some might say cynical) religion. Heathens are concerned with the future of our families, and we value honorable behavior. These values imply that we must not shut out the problems of the world, but instead face them with courage. As the story of Thor’s journey to Utgard implies, our first weapons must be cunning, knowledge, and wisdom, or else all the might in the world can’t save us. We need to start using these tools that our religion gives us to figure out the true intentions of those who would win us to their causes.
This world desperately needs family values- the sort of family values that mean caring about what the Iroquois called the “seven generations”. Right now I look around and I see mostly people concerned about their own future, not the future of their children. I see people so unaware of the triumphs of our ancestors that they don’t see the need to defend things like over-time pay and human rights. They accept these things as natural, not as victories handed down to us by our ancestors and in need of constant defense by our generation.
It is my belief that our culture is poison. It is certainly poisoning our world. The heathen focus on family is one way to counteract that poison, but it will only help us if we are willing to take heathenism outside of the “religion” box and make it a living force in our lives. Which, as many people have pointed out, implies politics.
The alternative to allowing politics and heathenism to mix is to try to separate religion and politics- which means that we are left with a religion that we don’t allow to have any bearing on the deep questions of our time. By taking that route, we are guaranteeing the slow death of heathenism as a religion. It is unreasonable to cut off a religion from the life-ways of the people who practice it and then expect it to be able to survive.
I’m a Heathen and Radical. I’m a union construction worker with a useless college degree. My main concern is taking care of my family. In my spare time I listen to heavy metal and read books. My ranting is at Pursuit of Sol (https://pursuitofsol.wordpress.com/).
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