We Are Our Deeds…
Heathenry boiled down to one sentence comes out as “We are our deeds.” Throughout our lives, we co-create the web of life with all that is and all that has come before. This is the meaning of wyrd- it is the way our individual actions weave into the actions of others both past and present, to create a reality that is based upon what came before, but is moving in the direction we believe is right.
We all live within the web of wyrd, and we cannot step outside of it. Every one of us is completely free to make our own choices, yet our view of which choices are honorable is deeply influenced by where we came from. We are our deeds, because our deeds shape who we effect in our lives, and who affects us, and what those effects are. Over a long enough time, our choices change culture and wyrd, because we have made more or less likely the forming of connections between people. Our lives are defined by how we influence the world around us- we are our deeds.
I think that this has political meaning for heathens. We are not bound by a fixed fate- we can change and influence our world and how we relate to others. We are also not without a past. Who we are is shaped by our familial past, our upbringing, and our culture. So I think that a heathen perspective on identity politics is necessary right now.
We are our deeds, and our deeds are the result of our choices. Our identities are not the creation of our circumstances they are the creation of our deeds within the framework of our lives. No matter what my deeds (barring suicide, of course), I would be right now a 25-year-old white biological female. There is nothing I can or could ever do to change that. So how can that be my identity? I am my deeds, not what I was born.
My choice is to be a radical. My choice is to fight for a better world. My choice is to stand by the oppressed. My choices define me. And I am sick of identity politics proponents trying to take away and diminish my choices. I am not a racist because of my skin color. I am my deeds, and my deeds include fighting for social justice. I want to ask you to think about the people who know. Think about whether they fit into a demographic box. Think about how they have lived, what they were born with, and what they earned. Do you know people from different backgrounds? Do you think the experience of a black man from the susburbs is the same as a black woman from rural Alabama? Do you think the experience of a white person from rural Maine is the same as the experience of a white person from a ritzy suburb?
What I find interesting is the way each of us starts out in life with certain things. This is how I interpret the idea of privilege. A part of our wyrd is laid out before we are born. Some of us will have advantages that others do not, whether those advantages are money, skin color, gender, intelligence, excellent or poor parents, or any other thing. We are definitely woven into the web of wyrd from a starting place.
And I think it is worth broadening our scope here and looking at the whole world, not just America, and not just this time period. There are those who claim that white people are woven into the web as oppressors, and that we can’t change that. So I would like to look at the families represented among those I know, at their histories (as best as I know or can imagine based on the history I know). Are we truly woven into the web as oppressed and oppressors? Or are we woven into the web in a muddle, oppressors over here, liberators over there, oppressed in that corner, all of us tangled together in the tangled weave of oppression we call capitalism?
Strands of the Web…
First I want to look at this time period. Each and every one of us is an oppressor. America is not the world, and all of us bought our food from stores that sell produce picked by migrant farm labor- un-unionized, oppressed, and often kept in slave-like conditions. Our clothes are made from cotton grown by poor farmers who might have been driven to suicide by companies we hold stock in. Those clothes were assembled by people making next to nothing. We are all of us oppressors, and all of us benefit in a way from the oppression of people (mostly of color) worldwide.
There is no pass on this oppression for your skin color, your gender, your religion, anything. If you are American, you are an oppressor. Your tax dollars are at work right now killing some Syrian’s children. The military you pay for is currently terrorizing people in third-world countries to keep them from unionizing, or electing a better government. Even those “off the grid” homesteaders and permaculturalists generally use solar panels requiring mined materials. And those mines are not nice places to work.
This is not to say that we can’t be oppressors and also fight oppression- that is a false argument. We all have to eat to live, and to eat we have to work, and to work we have to reproduce our labor. Which means using and buying things which are the products of oppression. We must use the tools oppression gives us to fight the system of oppression.
In this time period, we are also, all humans, and all other life, the oppressed. The same factories that oppress thousands also put out greenhouse gasses that threaten the future of life on this planet. The ships which bring the goods to America use an enormous amount of fossil fuels. The monoculture required to produce the tons and tons of cotton, soybeans, and corn that turns the wheels of industry is degrading our soil and water supplies at an insane rate. No one who must face the fact that their children or grand-children may see the last generation of life and can do nothing is unoppressed. The enormity of the destruction of life is so often ignored in our political conversations. We talk about oppression, yet we don’t talk about history’s largest genocide the wiping out of all life, of every culture, of every tribe, of every animal, of every plant, of every fungus, or every amoeba, and of most bacteria (some of those crazy bacteria might make it).
We never really talk about the truth and the horror of what we are doing. Think about what this really means. Jesus isn’t coming to rescue us. We’re not moving to outer space. We are all co-committing mass homicide and suicide and ecocide (us First World people more than others). I hate to gloss over what I just spoke of, to move on to other things, like other things could have any importance in light of the end of the world. But that is what we must do. It is the oath I took (and as a heathen, nothing could be higher law) that “I will not surrender in the presence of doom.”*
So I’m going to return to the narrative I promised you: the real or likely story of some ordinary people into the web of wyrd. The first step back in history is here.
Wyrd Through Time…
I know a family that originated in the south. They likely had some ancestors who were white sharecroppers, some who were over-seers, and likely some slave owners, too. The branch of the family I know moved north at some point, trying to escape the low wages caused by being forced to compete with slave or free black labor. Like thousands of Southerners, black and white, they fled north seeking work, higher wages, and a bit of freedom. Up until the current generation, they retained an attitude of superiority to blacks, even while they faced the same struggles and felt that black individuals they knew or heard about were getting a raw deal. This is a family that has supported a racist, sexist, and homophobic system and jealously guarded their privilege. Yet the potential for future generations to condemn racism and embrace solidarity has been realized, in some cases.
I know black family whose ancestors comes from Florida. I don’t know if any of their ancestors were part of the Seminole tribe and the resistance to colonial oppressors represented by the alliances of people of color in Florida, but I can easily imagine such strong personalities, backed by keen intelligence and a strong work ethic, being more than capable of building an alternative society and resisting the incursions of colonizers for centuries.
Growing up in New England, I knew several people descended from shipping families. They were not part of the slave trade, but were part of the merchant group aginst whom the Boxer Rebellion was organized. Let’s not forget the very real colonization of Asia and the South Pacific in our quest to understand how white people have been linked to other people throughout history.
I happen to be descended a long line of lighthouse keepers. My ancestors were not involved in the slave trade (only working the Maine coast). Given that the older generation always tried to use the “correct” words for people of people of color (“colored” in the 1940s, black or African-American today) and supported civil rights, I’m going to guess the family historically were quiet abolitionists who did nothing about their opinions. They could be considered guilty of a crime of omission, but sought to treat others with due respect within the culture of their time periods. I fault them a little for not being revolutionaries, but I can’t fault them any more than I fault myself for being a tax-payer.
Some of my ancestors are Irish. I know many others of Irish descent. I have no way of knowing whether the ancestors of the Irish I know fled the Potato Famine on ships where one out of every three passengers died, or whether they were brought over the work the mills or build the railroads. What I do know is that they likely at some point worked processing the cotton grown by slaves into cloth. Those workers were generally women, who faced twelve-hour days, sexual harassment, religious oppression, and highly dangerous working conditions. Other ancestors are likely buried in the mass graves used for railroad builders worked to death. If this is benefiting from the oppression of other races, I’m at a loss as to how. What I do know is that the labor wars of the late 1800s and early 1900s were led by immigrant workers and women like these ancestors. I- and every working class person in America- owe those who were brave enough to fight for the rights of labor a deep debt.
Taking a further step back in history, I can guess that the black people I know are descended primarily from people in Africa who were taken from their homes, chained into the coffin ships, and shipped across the Atlantic to be sold at auction like a horse or a dog. They faced whipping and mutilation at the whims of their “owners”. They were told that their enslavement was a good thing because it brought them Christianity.
The English and Irish people were likely driven out of their homes by those who claimed that their ancestral lands were now private property. Harsh vagrancy laws forced them to seek work in factories where they died by the thousands. Those “unfortunates” who failed to find work in factories were rounded up and sold as “indentured servants”. Again, this was justified because it took away their slothful habits and made good Christians out of them. Similar programs in other countries left much of Europe’s peasantry homeless and in search of a better life. Remember that at the same time America’s sharecroppers were struggling to survive, Russia’s serfs were still considered part of real estate and were bought and sold along with pieces of land.
A step farther back in history brings us to the conversion of Europe. Charlemagne’s genocidal wars against the pagan Saxons. The Crusades against the Lithuanians. And above all, the repression of women in society. The tortures used against colonized people were first turned against women in Europe. The stocks and the scold’s bridle, the public whippings and burnings, these were methods of control perfected on women before being used to subjugate other races. The dehumanization of an obviously human part of the population, and the precedent of giving one part of the population (men) a bit of privilege in exchange for their help in subjugating the others was set during the conversion years.
Religious oppression backs up all the other forms of oppression. It is no accident that fundamentalist Christianity and the alt-right are in bed together. It’s no accident that there is a flag hanging in most churches. The history of capitalism is the history of the oppression of indigenous religions, their lifeways, connections to the natural world, and gender relations. From the conversion of the Saxons to the Doctrine of Discovery, the idea that Christianity would make people work hard and go to heaven by oppressing them has been a recurring theme. The idea that the world is a perversion of the divine plan, a dead thing for our use, or a land of temptation to be rejected has led us to a profound ecological crisis.
We should be the ones fighting this…
I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m going through all this and when I’m going to get to the point. Here it is: we pagans should be the ones fighting all this. We should see the long tendrils of ideology weaving their way through the web of wyrd. We can see the mass of the past actions of our oppressors and how they have used religion, race, gender, and sexuality to divide us. We should recognize these demographic divisions as a tool of those who have historically oppressed all of us, and who threaten our future today.
And because of this, we are the most feared enemies of the rulers. For a revolution to be successful, we need an ideology and a worldview that sees the current system of oppression as wrong, and a tradition to reach back into for wisdom. This is why the Red Power and Black Power movements took steps to create or recreate a religion and culture for the oppressed- one not based on oppression.
As the holders of a religious and cultural ideology capable of giving those of European descent (and anyone else who wants it), a cultural identity as a collection of cultures and not just oppressors, we pagans are the deepest, darkest fear of the rulers. It is no accident that I know a racist who was happy to rent to a black couple because they are Christian. It is no accident the entheogens used by many non-Abrahamic religions are illegal (they tend to have the nasty side-effect of causing people to reject ecocide). It is no accident that the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) got music banned from the airwaves if it carried an “occult” message (this campaign supposedly failed, but now all the rock radio stations play the same ten songs from the seventies over and over and over and over and….)
Overall, we pagans have the knowledge of history to realize that an injury to one has been a good predictor of an injury to all. And we have the potential to realize our place in history on the side of the oppressed. Our ancestors may have been oppressors, and in some ways, we are oppressors ourselves. But our choices still matter. We can choose to reject oppression. And the choice to reject oppression matters.
Historically, pagans faced great oppression. In recent times, our oppression has lightened, so long as we hold a Christian worldview and just change the name of the god. Should we truly follow our religions, whether by using entheogens, or fighting for life (I refuse to trivialize it by calling it “the environment”), or having abortions, or celebrating the Hieros Gamos, or reading tarot, or fighting for a better life, or following gender roles accepted under (some forms of) paganism but denigrated under Christianity, we face serious consequences. We could be arrested, thrown in solitary, killed by the cops, or made “unemployable”. In other countries, the consequences for being non-Abrahamic in religion can be quite…medieval.
Our struggle is real, and the more we become involved in fighting for a better world, the harder the hand of the rulers will turn against us. And make no mistake, we white pagans are no more popular among the fundie crowd than black people- probably less popular, in fact. I know a racist landlord who was so proud of herself for renting to a Christian couple- they were black. I know someone who was kicked out of foster care for practicing Wicca. How many teenagers have no place to go because they draw the stigma (or stigmata?) of devil-worship?
The discrimination against pagans hits the most vulnerable the hardest- those teenagers who must rely on fundamentalist parents to survive, or those adults who must stay with family in order to survive due to disability, poverty, or lack of opportunity, those adults too poor to afford housing that is private enough to permit practice without raising eyebrows, those of us who work blue-collars jobs where being a beer-drinking, flag-waving Christian is important. Cultural conformity is a huge part of being in the “in-crowd”, and with networking as the primary source of jobs, being part of the “out-crowd” can have serious consequences. When religious oppression intersects with racial or gender-based oppression, it can get very nasty- and that sort of oppression is very common for the rural poor in economically depressed areas, where losing out on a job opportunity can mean poverty or a huge upheaval and move.
It’s not just pagans who are going to face this. McCarthyism is starting to make a comeback. The rulers of this country have broken the left before, and they will try to do it again. What is annoying redbaiting now could turn into blacklists, lost jobs, unemployability, and even execution in the future. (Remember Sacco and Vanzetti? The Palmer Raids? Eugene Deb’s imprisonment? The shootings at Kent State?) I don’t say this to make us afraid, or to cause people to give up. I say this to help prevent the white left from absorbing the right-wing message that we are just privileged whiners.
The arguments that white people benefit from racism and that various groups have this group-wide privilege can be useful tools for pointing out some of our own blindspots to work on. Don’t get me wrong: I had to think long and hard about my privilege and I think everyone should take the time to consider their own privilege. But these arguments about privilege can also turn into a subtle gas-lighting of the white (and/or male) left, causing us to doubt our right to stand up for ourselves as well as for more-oppressed groups. If we go around saying that we’re privileged whiners, then how can we effectively combat the narrative that we’re all a bunch of privileged children who need “tough love” to kick us out of our safe spaces into “the real world”?
These divisions along race, gender, and sexual lines among the left disturb me greatly. I don’t think that they are progressive. As a pagan, I can see the history of capitalism, and I see it beginning with the oppression of pagans, particularly women. I see that some groups (such a the Native Americans, or African-Americans) suffered far more than others. But I still see a pattern of oppression of all by the rulers. And I think we have a common enemy in the rulers. I’ve written before on the subject of tribes in politics, and the illogicality of considering an entire race a tribe. I think it’s time to apply this same logic to identity politics. (I think the same logic also applies to gender relations, also.)
We are all individuals. We come from different places and make different choices. We are our deeds, and our deeds define us. Ben Carson’s deeds define him as a racist. A man I know who fights with bikers over institutionalized racism is defined by his deeds as not a racist. To claim that any race has an overarching common interest opposed to other races, is pseudo-tribalist propaganda that allows the rulers to keep us divided. (That is not to say that all black people don’t have a common interest in gaining rights- I merely state that that common interest is not IN OPPOSITION to any other group’s rights, except the rulers “right” to oppress.)
People of different races and genders are not warring tribes, each trying to carve out a larger slice of a tiny piece of the pie of human rights. We are natural allies. When a black man is shot for carrying a sandwich, it sets the precedent in the courts that a cop can use lethal force if he feels threatened by a sandwich. That precedent can be used against a white person, since the laws are not written to have separate precedents for white and black people. When a black man loses his job for speaking out against racism, it sets the tone of a workplace that no one can organize there for fear of losing their livelihood. We need to stop fighting over the scraps of humans rights that the rulers choose to give us, and start demanding the whole pie.
Human rights aren’t “privileges” to squabble over. They are RIGHTs. It is horrible when black people are denied their human rights, and it is horrible when white people are denied their human rights. Leftists shouldn’t be gleeful that Trump-supporting coal miners are losing their health care. We should be enraged. We should be engaging with those coal miners, not to say, “I told you so”, but to engage them in a productive struggle, so that they can have options for resistance to the rulers other than voting for His Orange Majesty because he says mean things about other politicians.
Reweaving the Web
We don’t know someone’s level of privilege from their appearance. It’s fine (and necessary) to say “We live in a system where white people get treated better than black people.” That is 100% true. But that does not negate the choice of white people who choose to fight that system. Nor does it negate the very real struggle of white people who don’t conform to some leftist’s idea of an average white life, complete with white picket fence. Our demographic identities shape us, often in ways we can’t even see. But they do not define us, unless we define ourselves by them. We are many things, few of which are visible to the naked eye.
No one should be told that they don’t matter. And when we tell a white pagan who lost their living situation due to their religion, a mentally ill person, a blue-collar worker whose job just went to Mexico, or a woman who has faced discrimination that their oppression “isn’t that bad” or “doesn’t compare” to the oppression faced by our pet demographic group of the day, we are erasing their struggle. Of course their struggle probably isn’t as bad as the struggle a black person faces, or the struggles that Native peoples face. That doesn’t make it unimportant.
9 times out of 10, white people aren’t really trying to compare their struggle apples to apples to the struggles of oppressed groups. They are merely trying to find a common ground. They’re reaching out a hand, saying, “I see you. I’ve struggled, too. It’s wrong that we have to struggle like this just to survive. Let’s make a better world together.” And right now, the left is returning that outstretched hand with a slap. The left is saying back “Fuck you, you’ve never struggled. You can fight for the liberation of others, but remember that this is about the liberation of others, and not about yours. You’re a part of the problem”
This is not liberating. This is not radical. This is awful. How do you think it feels to be a queer person in the closet and be told that you have no idea what it’s like to be queer, and that you’re privileged? How do you think it feels to suffer from mental illness and be told that you’re privileged? How do you think it feels to be disabled and then to be told you’re privileged? How do you think it feels to be living in poverty and be told by someone who makes three times as much money that you can never understand the challenges of systematic racism and poverty because you’re white? How do you think a white woman who’s been raped feels when someone tells her that because of her race, she has no idea what it’s like to feel powerless, or helpless, or unable to seek justice because of an external factor?
Statistics are meaningless to the individual. We can’t take people and replace them with our idea of what someone of their demographic experiences on average. That is dehumanizing them. We can’t go around telling people “you’re not really oppressed”. We can’t judge the oppression of others without taking some serious time to step into their shoes. I have no problem with using critical thinking and debating the depth of oppression faced by certain groups, but I grow tired of off-the-cuffs answers where no white, no male, no cisperson, no straight person, can know or understand oppression because “privilege”.
I know straight white men who are dead scared of the cops- for good reason. I know black families who’ve had to fight to keep their kids from being diagnosed as retarded because they had a bad week at school. I know black men who’ve been entrapped deliberately by the cops, and I know white men who’ve been pressured by the cops to leave a town because they didn’t make enough money. I know women of all races who’ve been assaulted.
I am also disturbed by the circular logic of some proponents of identity politics. I, as a young white women, need to listen when the older black ladies I know when they talk about what it is like to be black in America. I need to treat her with respect. Some of them disagree strongly with the idea that white people are all racists benefitting from white privilege. They thinks that is a racist argument. It is absolutely not my place to tell them (even to think to myself while not listening to then): “I’m a white person half your age, but what’s really going on is that you have internalized racism. Now let me educate you.” I don’t have to agree one hundred percent with their politics, but I do need to take their views into account when I think about what it is like to be black in America.
I think that we on the left need to create a space for disagreements. The circular logic of identity politics is that if you are white and you disagree, you’re a racist. If you are of color and you disagree, you have internalized racism (a.k.a., you’re a racist). There is no space for anyone to disagree, yet still earn respect for their work. We need to treat the experiences of others with respect. We should treat the experiences of African-Americans, immigrants, Asians, men, women, other genders, whites, pagans, Christians, and everyone else with respect. We shouldn’t get so busy trying to educate others that we forget that we have much to learn ourselves, and turn into arrogant jerks who can’t take any criticism of our ideas (I’ve done that before, so if those words hit home, remember that I’m describing myself at various times in my life, not trying to attack anyone.)
Oppression may hit some communities much harder than others, but that doesn’t mean we get to set ourselves up as the judges of oppression and privilege. We also don’t get to set ourselves up as the judges of other people’s ideas. If a privileged person contributes to a movement, and shows by their deeds that they support that movement, then they should have as much right as any to a voice in that movement. We can’t change what we were born, but we can change how we relate to others.
We, as believers in freedom, should not be telling anyone to sit down and shut up. We should make sure that everyone has a voice and is heard respectfully. If we need to ask that the next few speakers be from minority groups to keep the discussion from being dominated by straight white males, then we do that. If we need to stay until 3am to make sure that all those straight white males do eventually get their chance to speak, we stay till 3am. A democratic movement should never silence anyone who is aligned with the goals of freedom and justice for all people. We should never be telling people that their voices aren’t worth hearing, that their experiences aren’t worth sharing.
I am not my demographic group. I am not Last Name, First Name, female, aged 25, straight. I am myself. In some ways I’m very privileged, in others I’m very unprivileged. But those things are not what define me. I am a heathen, and I believe my deeds define me. And my deeds are in service of my goal- to build a better world, one in which a person is who they are, not a skin color, not an age, not a gender, not a religion or a sexual orientation, but an individual. Get to know me, and my deeds, before you judge my worth. I matter, and I think you matter. Let’s talk about how to show them that we matter. Let’s work on forcing the world to accept that we do matter. Let’s work on making sure there is a world left to matter in.
*Credit where credit is due for this quote, from Darkseed’s song “King in the Sun”
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/).