Free Against Hope

Lately, I’ve recalled a conversation a friend of mine had with me several years ago, back in Texas. He wondered why I even bothered studying Marxism – “do you really think,” he inquired, “that there will ever actually be a revolution in America? I’d call that a pipe dream.

Looking over a few of my personal political heroes, I’ve weighed his question. After all, their experiences seem to share one particular theme. See if you can spot it:

Each movement created ideas and techniques full of potency and beauty. Each one generated plenty of experiments and concepts from which today’s radicals could learn much. And each one failed, liquidated by hostile forces, their goals still unrealized decades later. Historically speaking, even the cleverest and most effective revolutionary movements stand an overwhelming chance of destruction, not success. Sure, it’s prudent and useful to keep hold of some revolutionary optimism. And unlike my friend, I do believe that there can, eventually, be a successful fundamental restructuring of politics, economy, and society. However, it stays true radicals in the West, by and large, end their lives frustrated or worse. Further, those who do make it to power often find (as did Prime Minister Tsipras and President Mitterand) that winning the political game doesn’t always mean you get to change the rules.

So, one might ask, what’s the point? Is Leftism merely quixotic, just defiance for its own sake? Why should we do what we do?


 

 

 

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Thetis and Achilles Before the Oracle, tapestry, Jacob Jordaens and Jon Raes, ca. 1625. San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco 68.23.

Why did Achilles fight at Troy?

After all, he didn’t expect to capture the city. He knew, thanks to the Pythia’s prophecy, that signing up for that war meant that he’d die in the field before Troy fell. Obviously, that meant he didn’t fight for personal material gain either; what good does a casualty get from plunder? And, of course, he wasn’t trying to contribute to the maintenance of his family or kingdom. If he wanted that, he would have chosen the long and unremarkable life the oracle offered. Few families celebrate a member’s death in combat overseas, or their committing to join a campaign that (according to a respected diviner) was guaranteed to last nearly a decade.

Did he fight for honor, glory, and fame? Sure – but that only bumps the question back one degree, like the monotheistic child who asks “if God made the world, who made God?” Why did Achilles find honor, glory, and fame worth more than his life? What made them so profound that Achilles not only relinquished his chance at survival, but also let go hope of participating in an Achaian victory?

Let’s begin from the problem of Achilles’ motivations and find out what, if any, ethical framework we can extrapolate. Ethics, after all, only means figuring out what to do and why. And, we’ll see, the implicit ethics that Achilles exemplifies also turns out to be quite relevant when revolutionary work faces likely failure.

Traditionally, formal ethics contains three main camps: consequentialism, deontological ethics, and virtue ethics. Roughly, each category proposes a different primary criterion for rightness and wrongness. For consequentialists, the likely results of an act – the consequences – determine its morality. Deontological ethicists, however, say that what counts is the act itself: regardless of consequences, some actions are inherently right and others are intrinsically wrong. Finally, virtue ethicists prioritize the character of the person involved. According to them, ethics means making yourself into someone who exemplifies goodness.

In general, the Left embraces consequentialism. Marxists, anarchists, and reformist socialists all tend to agree that the currently-existing government and economy cause quite a bit of harm. Marxists and reformists also usually believe that they need to respond by engaging with government. Reformists say running for office works best, while Marxists disagree and typically support outright replacing the existing state instead. Anarchists mostly reject working with any state at all, but generally do concede that some degree of social disruption (either violent insurrection or mass nonviolent resistance) will be necessary for any future solution. Few anarchists consider either inflicting or risking violence to be intrinsically morally good, any more than Marxists and reformists consider the existence of governments in general to be. But, in the end, all understand that bringing about needed change to reduce harm doesn’t mean causing literally zero harm in the process. It means selecting the option that offers the least extra harm and the most potential benefit. Even though these different segments of the Left frequently dispute which path, exactly, fits that description, they still typically share a basic moral landscape.

Admittedly, one can also find deontological and virtue ethical undercurrents. In particular, proponents of nonviolence often argue that killing is intrinsically wrong and should not be accepted as a revolutionary tactic. (Typically, they express more comfort with property damage, maintaining the distinction between things and people). Additionally, certain branches of Marxism-Leninism place great weight on the habits of character their adherents cultivate. Nevertheless, in the end, even revolutionary pacifists generally end up framing their position in consequentialist terms: “nonviolence works better,”not “killing is always wrong.” Similarly, even the more character-focused communists ultimately concur that their ethics are only virtue-based inasmuch as they provide helpful rules of thumb in the pursuit of larger, consequentialist goals.

Achilles does, of course, accept the defined goal of the Achaian campaign. He and his comrades fight the Trojans because without conquering Troy, they can’t punish Paris and make Helen come back to Menelaus. But is Achilles expressing a consequentialist’s reasoning that he ought to do whatever will most likely accomplish his stated aim with the least trouble?


 

 

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Dispute Between Achilles and Agamemnon, etching from the workshop of Bernard Picart, 1710.

The philosopher who established Marxist Existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre, affirmed that the relationship each of us has with the world and everyone else rests, in the end, on choice. Whatever external circumstances exist, the way a person responds to them is the way they choose to respond to them. (As Viktor Frankl, the psychoanalyst and Holocaust survivor, observes, even when there’s no external freedom, no one can remove your control over your internal reactions and values.) In Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre reveals that everyone’s orientation towards the world results from their choice to adopt a particular set of values. To deny this absolute existential freedom, he points out, is just self-deception. Whether we admit it or not, we are all already making those decisions. (Indeed, the idea that you don’t choose your own worldview is, in fact, an example of a worldview that you only believe if you choose it!)

Achilles fights on the field of Ilion, but when Agamemnon insults him and refuses to make amends, Achilles goes on strike. He knows that without him, the Achaians will flounder – in fact, he asks his mother, the goddess Thetis, to persuade Zeus to make sure of it! Now, in each case – deciding to fight, and deciding to withdraw – does Achilles live out the same values?

As Sartre observes, we don’t get to pick either the circumstances of our births or the psychological tendencies in our brains. However, we do decide how to react to our circumstances, and whether or not we go along with our mental predisposition. In the end, everyone carries absolute responsibility for the kind of person they elect to become. “Existence,” he writes, “precedes essence.” You aren’t born with an essence, a basic nature. You’re born simply existing, carrying the existential reality of your freedom. Your only “essence,” you create through each choice you make.

(Sartre was an atheist, and characterized his intention as “to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position.” However, even those of us who aren’t atheopagans – for instance, I’m a devotional polytheist – needn’t find any inconsistency there. Accepting many gods of limited scope no more resembles the monotheist theology of omnipotence that Sartre rejects than does Sartre’s own worldview.)

Achilles has chosen to be a person who cultivates personal honor and heroism in combat. To be sure, he wants recognition, but that stays secondary. This is no Sir Robin, who cares so much about his reputation that he won’t go anywhere without poets to compliment him! For Achilles, in the deed, the glory. He doesn’t fight to win (because he knows he’ll die before the war ends). He doesn’t fight for the admiration of his peers (withdrawing from combat would win few popularity contests!). While he certainly cherishes other things too (for instance, his boyfriend Patroklos), honor and heroism always top his list of priorities. He makes his first two major choices – going to war and withdrawing to his ships – because they express the kind of person he chooses to be.

He disdains deontological concerns. If not for the personal slight from Agamemnon, withdrawal would have been cowardly. After the insult, it became honorable; neither fighting nor not fighting is intrinsically right. Further, he eschews consequentialism, except as a subordinate approach. He never renounces the stated Achaian goal of conquering Troy, and overall his actions during the near-decade of siege reflect his military commitment. But when he does withdraw, he goes out of his way to make sure it hurts his comrades: he enlists Zeus himself to ensure it!

In short, Achilles embraces his existential freedom by selecting his values. Then, he implements them in a kind of virtue ethics.


 

 

“[It] is not by turning back upon himself, but always by seeking, beyond himself, an aim which is one of liberation or of some particular realisation, that man can realize himself as truly human.”

-Jean-Paul Sartre

“Hour by hour resolve firmly to do what comes to hand with dignity, and with humanity, independence, and justice. Allow your mind freedom from all other considerations.”

-Marcus Aurelius

I find hints of Existentialism perhaps the ancient Mediterranean’s most popular formulation of virtue ethics: Stoicism.

According to the Stoics, the trick to eudaimonia (“good spirits,” a state of contentment, well-being, and general flourishing and thriving) lies in human nature. They taught that the basic nature of humans involved the application of logos. This uniquely and universally human capacity lets us examine our lives and choices, understand them, and – most importantly – choose to live virtuously, free and content, “unmoved by blame or by praise.” To the person living in eudaimonia, only virtue matters, no matter what anyone else says or does. In the words of the former slave and Stoic teacher Epictetus:

“This is how I came to lose my lamp: the thief was better than I am in staying awake. But he acquired the lamp at a price: he became a thief for its sake, for its sake, he lost his ability to be trusted, for a lamp he became a brute. And he imagined he came out ahead!”

The greatest possible good consists of living in a way that properly expresses one’s nature as a human. But, contrary to modern understandings, “human nature” doesn’t automatically express itself, and it certainly isn’t shorthand for people’s inevitable shortcomings! Rather, as Epictetus proclaims, unvirtuous behavior makes one less authentically human. Human nature is available to everyone, but realized only by those who acknowledge that they are free to become whatever they choose to be (and then choose to be ethical). As Heathens say, whatever happens, we are our deeds.

Achilles tacitly accepts this assessment of his condition, although his understanding of “right values” differs quite a bit from the Stoics’ (or, for that matter, the communist Sartre’s). The oracle of Apollon presents him with foreknowledge of the outcomes of his two options. He selects the more painful one. The privations of war, absence from his home, and loss of longevity matter less to him than embodying the values he has decided to make his own. And, for someone who accepts their freedom and creates an “essence” out of their values, even bodily death can’t negate their virtue.

Like Achilles, we have moral and existential freedom. Like Achilles, we have to decide how to engage with a brutal war, the end of which we can’t expect to witness. How will we choose? What values will we embody?


 

 

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The Fight of Achilles Against Scamander and Simoeis, painting by Auguste Couder, 1825. Paris: Musée du Louvre, 15307.

I believe we should answer the Existentialist challenge by creating a revolutionary virtue ethics.

Gods or not, we are free. Whether or not we admit it, we all choose the values that we enact. As revolutionaries, we certainly ought not select the specific values of Achilles – his honor has too much toxic masculinity and too much of the absolute subordination of women to emulate, especially given the patriarchal dynamics of the activist scene. However, his existential courage should inspire us to live our own values of cooperation, community, and compassion alongside liberty, equality, and solidarity.

Of course, the current Leftist preoccupation with consequentialism does offer benefits we should retain. In particular, we ought to imagine our preferred endgame around “the greatest good for the greatest number,” and our activities require all the strategic and tactical thinking we can muster. Individually, none of us can expect to experience victory, but collectively, we must take risks and make decisions with that goal in mind.

However, that needs to remain secondary. Winning isn’t certain, and statistically, whatever movement does eventually make revolution in the West probably doesn’t exist yet. Nevertheless, we participate in the work because it reflects the values we’ve chosen – and to understand those values properly, we shouldn’t cling to the hope of emerging triumphant. Act rightly because our most authentic human nature demands that we choose to do so. Organize because the horrors that oppression and exploitation create mean that anything short of opposition makes us complicit.

Like Achilles, we find ourselves facing a nearly-indestructible enemy. Like Achilles, we can expect our lives to end before the siege does. Our Troys are white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and empire. Our war has lasted quite a bit longer than nine years, and will continue for many years yet. But, our existential reality is the same as his, and the same as the Stoics’, and the same as Jean-Paul Sartre’s.

Our only essence is the values we choose to express. Each of us is the kind of person that our choices create. Outcomes aside, that’s inescapably real.


 

 

“It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other.”

-Assata Shakur

Our duty is to make ourselves into the sort of people who fight for universal freedom, and the sort of people who pick their goals, consequentialistically, in order to win. But ensuring the highest possible chance of victory doesn’t mean expecting to experience it firsthand – let alone fighting because we want to individually see the future we envision.

Rather, let’s be revolutionaries because it is right. Let’s let our revolutionary virtue ethics proclaim that it is human nature manifested to “tremble with indignation at every injustice.” In the end, rightness doesn’t come from success (although anything short of wholehearted striving for success would surely compromise our rightness). Whether it ends in victory, tragedy, or anticlimax, virtue justifies itself.

Achilles knew this deeply enough to accept his death for the sake of it. Let’s make our choice, and embrace it too.

 

 


Sophia Burns

Sophia Burns is a polytheist and communist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/marxism_lesbianism

Sophia Burns is one of the authors appearing in A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here.

The Original Sacred

A few days before Beltane I walked the long ridge to the summit of Cadillac Mountain. It snowed that day, winter clashing with spring around me. It was a liminal time in an ancient sacred space. As I walked along stone carved deep by glaciers with the sea roaring below, the land spoke to me of the past and a beginning. It was a lesson about the sacred and the profane that I will do my best to share with you.

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All pictures are from Acadia State Park and are taken by my husband.

When we talk of the “sacred” and “profane” we use them fundamentally as concepts of boundaries and limits. “Profane” means, literally, outside “pro” the “fanum” or temple. The “sacred” is tied into words for agreements and treaties, but also an ambiguous sense of being set aside or outside in the sense of being taboo or even cursed. Focusing on both taboo and treaty, it is clear that the term “sacred” is unavoidably tied to a negotiating of borders. With only these words as our guide we envision a world made of two types of spaces. There is the temple, the sacred precinct, like a small circle of light and there is the vast expanse of the profane that dominates the rest of existence. Surely most things are outside the temple.

The Great Wild

20160425_132408But the mountain, the stone, and the deep churning sea spoke to me of a time before the sacred and profane were measured on a human scale. They showed a story of how this human scale came to be.

The Sacred is not the sane. The Sacred is not the safe. The Sacred is not the tame. Once the wild world was the Sacred, rising around humanity in overpowering movement and blossom. Beautiful and horrifying, deadly and seductive, the Sacred surrounded us and when we were animals amongst animals we too were Sacred. The first pre-cinct, the first circle-girded space, was the first profane in which humanity set itself off in a small space, perhaps of firelight, amidst the Sacred. All was the fanum, the Temple, save our small space of temporary safety. When the world was Sacred and we were of the world we were as “water in water”, to steal an image and phrase from Georges Bataille, but when we set ourselves off we were as nothing before the mighty Other.

There were millennium during which the stars spun and wheeled in the sky and we looked upon them amazed and bewildered – terrified and desperately hopeful. There were years that dwarf all we know of history during which we sat by the fire and faced into the darkness, what lust and anxiety must have filled our eyes. There were those who went into the dark, who crossed the boundaries of sacred living mountains and taboo rivers. Some of those came back but most were lost into the Great Wild. Many of us sat in our circle of the temporarily profane, before beast or cataclysm whipped it aside, while others went Out hunting the divine. There were even those who could bring the Sacred into the circle, establishing the winds of the wild within the home with its hearth.

But we did not come out of that early Great Wild into the light of the profane alone, our first fire was the fire of the gods – stolen, bartered, or given. It survived or died based on the delicate shifting laws of original sacramenta, or sacred oaths. This is largely what magic, and religion, are – negotiating the boundaries of the profane and sacred.

Such delicate pacts and gifts, friendships and hard fought alliances, formed those first flimsy boundaries that protected that space marked by the Sacred within – the Hearth – and the Sacred without – the Wild. From cave to camp to city the formation was the same, and always the boundaries were heavy wrought with shrines and temples, idols and markers, signs of the tentative agreements that allowed the profane to exist along with the sacred heart of the profane that alone kept the space alive.        

But it was clear that not all denizens of the Great Wild, of the Other beyond our boundaries, were open to negotiation, to friendship, or to alliance. Amongst the populace of the Sacred some gods stole fire for us, and others wanted it back. And, of course, a friend to one or some was not necessarily a friend to others.

Negotiating the Profane

20160426_162848Standing at the foot of a mountain can make you feel small, but standing on top of one makes you feel exposed – exposed to the vast Others against whom we build walls and throw up screens. Aristotle claimed that anyone who could live without a polis, without a city or human community, was either an animal or a god. But, of course, the deeper point is that such an entity is neither – it occupies that liminal space that remains from before the wild and the divine were ever separated out. A vital part of the ambiguity of the Sacred is that what is cast-out is just as Sacred as what is worshipped, what is denied is just as holy as what is invoked – the Unseen is alike the exalted and excluded, the inhuman heart of the human community and what is beyond its boundaries. What this makes clear, and what Aristotle missed, is that the complicated, plural, and ambiguous Sacred is always already political. Even the gods debate. 

Not essentially different from the fire-light’s circle, the space of the city and society as a whole was one opened within the midst of the Sacred. The structures of the society, the oaths that bound it and boundaries that sustained and protected it, were the site of compacts with the Sacred. The first politics was born out of negotiation with the divine. Even as there were gods friendly to humanity and antagonistic to it, so too did different gods give rise to different sacramenta and different politics, cities, and societies. And, of course, there were the forces of revolution, the divine allies of the slave, the poor, the rejected, the outcast who were already closer to the Sacred than those comforted within the circle of the profane. But even in the established orders of the imperial gods there was an ambiguity as dangerous as it was protective. Zeus himself was once a rebel, as indeed was the father he overthrew.

 In Ancient Greece, at crossroads and boundaries, stood piles of stones and eventually pillars crowned with a divine head. These were the Herma that marked and guarded the borders and passageways and, in doing so, established them. From these pillars the god Hermes likely drew his name and his nature as a liminal god. The guide of travelers, especially those passing into and out of the underworld, became as well the god of both merchants and thieves – a force that established boundaries and transgressed them, establishing property and taking it away.

The March of the Profane

20160427_132806In Rome the dual headed god Janus played a similar role to that of Hermes as a god of passageways, travel, and trade. But being the keeper of gates meant something more than just this. The gates of the Temple of Janus were kept closed during times of peace and flung open during times of war and “inside, unholy Furor, squatting on cruel weapons, hands enchained behind him by a hundred links of bronze, will grind his teeth and show his bloodied mouth.” (Aeneid I 395-398, Fitzgerald trans.) The protector of boundaries, commerce, and travel was also the guardian of the forces of destruction that he could only temporarily keep at bay or willfully unleash upon the world.

In Virgil’s Aeneid we get a particularly striking sense of the ambiguity here, because the manner in which the gates of Janus when closed contain and limit the force of destructive war and fury is mirrored in similar images of the gods locking away “contending winds and moaning gales” beneath mountains and the natural wildness of humanity being temporarily repressed. The poet compares storms to human riots and allies the aged statesman’s power to calm the crowd to Jove’s power to silence the storm. Virgil dreams of the utter conquest of humanity over the wild and glories in Rome’s breaking the backs of rivers by building bridges over them. Here we see clearly that Empire is always the advance of the profane upon the wild Sacred. But it is also clear that, despite himself, Virgil does not believe that a final conquest is possible – the doorways remain just that, fickle in their tendency to open as well as close, and the last scene of the unfinished epic is that of the hero “blazing up terribly in his anger” and shamefully sinking his blade in fury into the chest of a defeated enemy begging for mercy. The relationship between the Great Wild Sacred, in both its beneficent and dangerous forms, and the profane is always an ongoing and unstable one.

Despite this, Rome did its best to break the backs of as many rivers as possible and push the boundary of the profane as far as it could. This image of the river as a dangerous force to be defeated is one with which Virgil would have been familiar from the much earlier Iliad of Homer where it plays a strikingly ambiguous role. In the Iliad the river Scamander, outside of the city of Troy, rises up several times to take part in battle and defend the city from the Greek invaders. In fact the river alone is able to face the full fury of Achilles and only with the help of other gods can Achilles escape its assault. This wild sacred river, however, is at the same time the original name of the heir to the throne of Troy – the river in this way is also marked as a sacred source of the city and civilization of Troy. In the pursuit of breaking rivers and taming the world Virgil must also have seen Rome’s refusal to accept society’s source in the wild Sacred. Such a project, Virgil suggests, is always doomed to fail.

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The Creator-God and the Artifact Universe

The pagan world is always a negotiation between the sacred at the heart of society, the Wild Sacred outside it, and the small everyday space of the profane with its fragile existence between. The content of these negotiations are themselves political and contain human society and its foundations within themselves. How did things come to seem different?

The rise of monotheism brought with it a dramatic change in the way people saw the universe, for it presented the idea of an absolute Artificer God who crafts reality as a total work. Where pagan cultures have had creator gods these have been, by and large, shapers of already existing realities – for example those who build a world from the bits and pieces of a fallen giant, or snake, and so on. Reality is, and is diverse and resistant to totalizing control and craft. More than this, the forming and shaping of the cosmos is partial and ongoing. We see early shifts away from this idea in the proposal of a demiurge in Plato, but even then the demiurge creates against the background of a greater reality and uses pre-existing material that resists its dominance. But with full monotheism a shift occurs, the Creator-God has absolute and total control and its creation is One. Reality is an artifact, an object or tool in the possession of an absolute tyrant, be that tyrant  more or less benevolent. The totalizing and reductivism is complete. 

The Artifact-Universe, obedient to its Creator, gives rise to a fundamental shift in the view of the Sacred. “Sacred” comes to only mean something like “sanctified”. In other words, all is profane until made otherwise. All is profane until the temple is chosen and blessed by the One. The sacred becomes that which is set off within the general profane, and the Wild itself becomes little more than material-for-use if not a demonic threat where echoes of the old Sacred remain. At the same time, the focus of our relation to the sacred shifts away from this world towards a transcendent with the full denigration of this world that this implies.

These are themes I have certainly dwelt on in much of my work, but I would like to simply stress that the shifting of our relationship to the sacred to a transcendental abstract One served largely to sever society from its foundations. For pagan societies, and indeed all of prehistoric humanity, politics began with negotiating our relationships with the wild and the diverse inconsistent divinities encountered through and within it – and these were as often contentious negotiations as otherwise. These negotiations with the wider wilder world found continuity in our negotiations with each other and with the gods who came to occupy, or at least visit, our societies as well. In the Artifact-Universe politics either became the mad obedience to a transcendental master, as in the case of rabid theocracy, or a distraction from the real heart and meaning of existence. But what comes to seem clear is that politics is “just” about this world, about the sad gears grinding away on the divine artifact. Politics becomes merely and purely profane.

 20160426_160143When the time came to dethrone the One tyrant, this sense of the profanity of politics nonetheless often remained in the odd idea that what I love most, what I commit myself to, what makes for a meaningful life, is somehow divorced from the real work of making a way in a living world that is a community of multiple forces, meanings, purposes, and creatures. Along side this odd idea also arose the rejection, in capitalism in particular, of any re-emergence of the sacred through an insistence that all is profane and everything has its price. In the Artifact-Universe without an Artificer, all things are objects for use and sale.

The question of the Sacred, of its nature and our relationship to it, is the question of how we are to live in the world and live with each other – in other words it is a political question. Such a question cannot be asked without a shuddering, shamed, and honest gaze upon the damage we have wrought to the world and to each other. It requires a new gaze upon the darkness at the edge of our firelight, a new experience of the limits of the profane and the border of the Original Sacred.   

Author

Kadmus is a practicing ceremonial magician with a long standing relationship to the ancient Celtic deities. His interests and practice are highly eclectic but a deep commitment to paganism is the bedrock upon which they all rest. Kadmus is also a published academic with a Ph.D. in philosophy teaching at the college level. You can find some of his reflections on the occult at http://starandsystem.blogspot.com/ or look him up on twitter at @starandsystem .

Blood Cries Out From The Soil

(this is for the dead)

Fighter jets are flying overhead; their screeching rage punctuating the rumbling roar of heavy-tread machines behind me. Particles of dust and exhaust cling to sweat-drenched skin in the searing sun. Everything feels dry, desiccated, as if all the shadowed life of this place has been swept over by a sudden desert.

My attention’s drawn to something unexpected–four red strokes against white, crimson vivid as blood, pasted against a steel pole. It’s a glyph, a sigil, with a power steeped in terror.  I need to leave this place to find a friend, but my attention is held. Something hardens in me as I stare, a sorrow awakening in veins constricted by anger.

I cannot believe what I am seeing. I look around myself to see if others note it. Women wearing head-scarfs are gathered nearby, speaking to each other quietly next to buildings which soon, too, will become rubble to be hauled away. It’s unlikely they’ve seen this mark.

I scrape it off the pole. No one seems to note my actions, neither the uniformed man who watches the gathering of Arabs a hundred feet from this pole, nor all the others passing by. It peels off easily, and I slip it into a pocket to show others, just as another aerial machine-of-death makes a second pass over where I stand.

“Indian Country”

I’m standing on a street corner in Seattle, not the Middle-East.

There’s a naval celebration going on–those jets are The Blue Angels a military performance troupe. I’m not in the middle of a declared war-zone, but I am in the middle of an occupation. And the sticker? It was three K’s, placed on a light pole in the middle of a traditionally black neighborhood undergoing massive gentrification. The bulldozers behind me are tearing down old homes and shops to make room for high-priced condominiums.

This was not far from the house I’m staying at. My host has been a First Nations man who was adopted out as a child to a white family who actively worked to keep him disconnected from his indigenous past. Neither of us have ancestral connections to Seattle, though he’s got closer claims to actually being on this land than I.

Also, he’s gay, like I am. Seattle’s a remarkably “tolerant” place for sexual minorities who play the middle-class games.  It’s one of the reasons why I’ve stayed here so long, why I returned here after being gone for a year. I was elsewhere, searching for home, but this place called me back.

But by being here, I’m helping to displace the people who lived in this neighborhood before. In fact, this was one of the few places where blacks could live in Seattle due to redlining and other practices. I’ve met folks who still remember when it was called “coon town.”  They’re younger than you’d think.

White, mostly liberal folks, flooded this area after the recent housing-price collapse, buying up foreclosed homes. Many of those evicted were black. Many, from the stories I’d heard, had taken out equity loans on houses that their grandparents were born in and found the sudden inflation of rates meant they couldn’t pay it back. Real estate agents harassed the residents who hadn’t lost their homes; My neighbor and friend complained of still getting unsolicited offers from white realtors several times a week. The poor, mostly minorities were pushed out, and bourgeois entered.

Blacks were hauled over in slave ships to help white people make money in America. Immigrants were brought in to build the railroads and then vehemently oppressed when they were finished.  And all these groups helped displace the indigenous First Nations before them.

Collected Buffalo Skulls, 1870. The U.S. Government and private corporations encouraged the slaughter of Buffalo to starve First Nations peoples.
Collected Buffalo Skulls, 1870. The U.S. Government and private corporations encouraged the slaughter of Buffalo to starve First Nations peoples.

Did I just say displaced? I’m sorry. I meant slaughtered.

You used to be able to get money for “Indian” scalps. The U.S. government once encouraged people to shoot buffalo to help starve the First Nation resistance to westward expansion. Freed-slaves who joined the army were heavily involved in the Indian Wars and called Buffalo soldiers. And even today, “Indian Country” is U.S. Military slang for enemy territory.

But because of all that violence, the smallpox blankets and massacres and starvation, this open, tolerant, liberal city I live in has space for me. I’m “free” to practice my Pagan religion now, and the same military which killed natives now officially recognizes both my religion and my sexuality. This is all supposed to be “progress,” except I just saw a KKK sticker in a traditionally black, gentrifying neighborhood, and we’re all on stolen, conquered, and occupied land.

We Inhabit The Past

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What we know and believe that the past and our histories greatly determine how we encounter the present. Without knowledge of slavery, for instance, I might be inclined to see the poverty of minorities in America as some sort of problem inherent within their cultures or, worst of all, intrinsic to their very nature.  And if I am ignorant of that past, I might encounter all the anger, rage, and despair of minority communities as unwarranted, unjustified, and dangerous.

Most everyone, though, knows about slavery and has at least a vague understanding of the slaughter of First Nations people on this continent, so the matter is less what is actually known than what is actually believed about those things.

As I’ve mentioned before, belief affects human actions, not just human perceptions. Our accepted histories are not mere narrative. They rise to the category of belief precisely because they determine the way we encounter the present.

One of the most difficult problems in our histories is the notion of “progress;” the Enlightenment notion that we have moved beyond the past into a better present. This Progress Narrative is a way of divorcing and disconnecting our present from all the atrocities of the past while justifying our actions now. Once, Americans held slaves and treated minorities as less-than-human, but now, we are equal. Once, Americans slaughtered indigenous peoples on this land, but now we’ve passed to a more progressive, enlightened state.

It’s a narrative of the past, certainly, but it defines what we think of ourselves now. Post-Colonial, Marxist, and Anarchist scholars have variously noted how Western civilization creates a conception of itself which poses all other present and former societies as primitive, existing in a less (politically, economically, and socially) evolved state. That is, it “others” all societies besides itself, positions itself as the most-evolved form of society humanity has yet attained, and then sees all societies (including itself) through this filter.

A particularly pernicious effect of this, though, is that parts of our own society that do not fit this narrative become ignored, made invisible by the story we tell about ourselves. We see moments of crime against sexual, religious, and racial minorities as aberrations to the liberal, tolerant society in which we live, as if all the past is behind us and all the blood of scalped and starved natives, of tortured slaves, of murdered immigrants do not, even now, fertilize the ground upon which we plant our organic gardens. And when we look at our past, we disconnect those events from the present in which we live. The displacement of peoples, slavery, First Nations genocide–those happened then, but we live in now.

But history is full of processes, not just events and presences, which continue to haunt and continue to not just shape but inhabit our modern interactions with each other.

The post-colonial historian, Dipesh Chakrabarty, writing about European mode of disenchantment and secularism, noted:

what allows historians to historicize the medieval or the ancient is the very fact that these worlds are never completely lost. We inhabit their fragments even as we classify ourselves as modern or secular (Provincializing Europe, p112).

This has a terrifying consequence. Our notion of being different and removed from the atrocities of the past is utterly false, even more so when those atrocities are unacknowledged and unrepaired. White Americans do not currently own African slaves, but the conditions of slavery continue to affect the descendants of those slaves and the wealth derived from slavery continues to benefit the descendants of those owners and American society. The land taken from indigenous peoples through violence is where we all now live. We’re not just the inheritors of atrocity–we are also the beneficiaries and the continuation of them.

We can look at our present through this lens and start to understand much of our current political, racial, and economic crises and how we, willingly or more often inadvertently, continue the atrocities of the past into the present. The United States of America was birthed in colonization with the oppression of peoples. Is it any wonder that our government supports other governments doing similar things?  It took a very long time for the U.S. Government to stop supporting Apartheid in South Africa precisely because “European settlers on non-European land” looked awfully familiar.  We can see the same thing in the Middle-East, as well. Regardless of what one thinks of that conflict, it should give us pause that the U.S. Government has given more military aid to the Israeli government since the second World War than to any other country in the world.

“Not in My Name”

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From the frontispiece of Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes

Speaking of governments, one of the other legacies of The Enlightenment besides Capitalism, Nationalism and Democracy, is the notion of complicity. Like egregores, the modern state demands a shared identification of its people. That is, since sovereignty no longer derives from the land or the gods and now is said to derive from “the people,” it’s become difficult to separate the actions of a government from the people whom they are said to represent.

This is different in other countries though. I first noticed it with a German friend. She and I had been talking about American CIA involvement in the overthrow of socialist governments in the Middle East and South America. I’d said to her something regarding how “we claim to believe in Democracy, but will undermine it when the people vote for someone we don’t like.”

“Why do you keep saying ‘we?’” she asked me.

I didn’t understand the question.

“We?  Why ‘We’?  You weren’t there, and you didn’t do it. The government did. Americans often say ‘we,’ and I don’t understand why. Germans don’t do that.”

I’d noticed this, but had thought it was merely a linguistic difference. “You never say ‘we’ when talking about Germany?”

“That’d be silly,” she replied. “I’m not Germany. I’m German, but I’m not Germany. You’re not America, either.”

I still think on that matter. It was relieving to understand that I was not personally responsible for everything the U.S. government had ever done. It was also terrifying, because I began to understand the meaning of implicit consent; how people in power were bombing children in Afghanistan and Iraq as if they represented my interests, and I was helping to pay for it with taxes from my paltry wages.

Before I’d understood this, my reactions to the founding (and foundational) violence of America were most often ones of disbelief. Sometimes I’d accuse the historian of such horrors of lying, or twisting facts towards an agenda.  But I realized I was mostly just being defensive, because I couldn’t believe “we” had done such a thing.

Thing is, “we” didn’t. Others did, just as others do now. But they did it in “our” name, just as they do now.

I’m a vehemently anti-racist Pagan Anarchist. On what grounds could a government ever have thought I’d want them to kill indigenous people? Or buffalos? Or allow and encourage people to own slaves?  And how could they possibly think that they’d be accurately representing my will by dropping bombs on children in the Middle East?

The answer’s awfully obvious. No government such as that could ever speak on my behalf.

There’s another side to this idea of sovereignty and complicity. If the actions of a government are a reflection of the will of the people, then it makes perfect sense that our government was wrong to attack us directly.  For any government to attack the people for whom that government is a mere proxy. After all, governments just do what they’re elected to do, right?

Many Gods, No Masters

So here I am, a gay Pagan living on stolen land. I didn’t steal it, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was stolen. Not having been directly responsible, I cannot personally make amends, nor can I, with all the magic of the gods and spirits, hope to resurrect the dead, to undo those crimes.

More difficult, I have little choice in this matter. I live where I can; where I can afford; where things are open to me; where I feel safe. And I’m bound by the citizenship conferred to me at birth. I cannot merely “go back to Europe,” to my ancestral lands, because I have no legal claim to do so.

I guess I could perhaps do what many people do, which is ignore the whole thing, tuck the horrors away into a neat little envelope called “past” and pretend like these things don’t still happen. The more I work with spirits, though, the more I realize the dead don’t just go away like that. Besides, the horrors continue.  Poor minorities are still shot dead on American soil by city militia. The descendants of slaves continue to live in deep poverty and are thrown in prisons now, instead of slave ships.  And the government which claims to represent me, which derives sovereignty from my “consent,” slaughters people in other countries, too.

Knowing all that, I cannot look away.

This, too, is why it’s impossible for me not to see conflicts elsewhere as part of the same legacy of which we, in America, still re-enact. Watching the conflict in Israel/Palestine, I cannot help but think both of the plight of the people in the occupied territories and their poverty as being similar to what the indigenous people around me suffer. Simultaneously, I cannot help but identify with people in Israel who did not themselves choose to steal land from others. Many of them are the descendants of people who moved elsewhere, some are also people who fled from violence and hatred elsewhere.

Besides thinking Capitalism is the worst thing we’ve ever come up with, this is why I’m an Anarchist. The foundational violence which haunts every “freedom” in America was perpetrated by people who were not me. The violence which America still enacts in the world is committed by people who falsely claim to be acting on my behalf. I did not consent to those horrors, nor do I consent to them now, nor will I allow them to do those things on my behalf.

Anarchism doesn’t stop at rejection of a government. Recognizing that the suffering of other people relies on my implicit consent, I cannot allow that violence to occur. Governments who claim to represent my interests and who extract money from me in order to commit atrocities must be toppled, and the conditions which have allowed them to thrive must be changed so that they no longer may do so.

My Anarchism, however, is also my Paganism. The gods and spirits we’ve pushed out of our present continue to exist, as do the dead. Just because I live in the present, I am not absolved from my inheritance, nor of my legacy.  I cannot perform rituals on stolen land without working to have it returned, I cannot worship gods of place and people without fighting those who’d poison those places and sever those people from their gods.

There’s something really liberating about this knowledge, though. The notion that the past is dead is false, and this means we Pagans who are attempting to reconstruct ancient worship of ancient gods are still living among fragments of those religions. We don’t need to prefix what we’re doing with “neo-,” even if what we come up with, guided by our gods, is a different configuration from what our ancestors had.

That is, if the past is not ever truly gone, it can be rewoven, reshaped. It’s around us now. Processes which started centuries ago and continue to this day can be ended and amended. Fragments buried in plain sight under our illusion of being modern can be teased out from their hiding places.

We only need to stop claiming that the past is over, so we can own up to the past that is still with us.


[This piece first appeared on The Wild Hunt on August 9, 2014]


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd AuthorRhyd is the co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s usually in a city by the Salish sea in occupied Duwamish territory, but he’s currently trekking about Europe for the next three months. Follow his adventures at: PAGANARCH.

 


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Book Review: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Read for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge 2016 and the Apocalypse Now Reading Challenge 2016.

Method of the world’s destruction: ecological devastation, corporate greed, and a mad scientist’s bioengineered supervirus.

Oryx and Crake is the second Margaret Atwood book I have read. I am finding that I have mixed feelings about her. I think she’s a brilliant writer. Her prose is magical and her sense of character amazing. I can’t help but feel a little pride in her as a Canadian. But the critics always wax rhetoric about how wonderfully original she is. She’s not, at least not that I’ve seen yet. Obviously these people just don’t read science fiction.

Atwood’s basic scenario here is a weird mating of The Time Machine, The Stand, and Frankenstein. Professional reviewers claim that Atwood has written “an innovative apocalyptic scenario in a world that is at once changed and all-too familiar because corporations have taken us on an uncontrolled genetic engineering ride.” It sells books because of our secret fears of genetic engineering. However, it’s not true, and if that’s what these people think then they weren’t paying attention. Also, one professional reviewer who was quoted on the cover of the edition I read said it was “uproariously funny.” I don’t think it was funny at all, and I think that if this guy thought it was funny he’s probably one of the corporate drones that Atwood was critiquing in the book. Someone in a review also said that it was confusing because she jumps back and forth between different moments in time and changes tenses when she does; and this same reviewer had the audacity to criticize Atwood’s grammar! Her grammar was the professional quality one might expect of such a critically acclaimed writer, and the story started in media res and was told primarily in flashbacks, and if that was confusing, I think you should stick with teen fiction.

What is actually great about this book is the fact that it is a brilliantly-written Greek tragedy that ultimately results in the likely extinction of the human race; along with quite a lot of the animals that we are familiar with. There’s a lot of “for want of a nail” stuff going on here. At several points disaster could have been averted, but it isn’t because of human flaws and human mistakes, and so all hell literally breaks loose. The epicenter of many of those flaws and mistakes is the protagonist, once called Jimmy but now known as Snowman, who found himself uniquely in a position by which he could have saved the world but, like Hamlet, fails to do so because of ignorance, negligence, and his tragic flaw, which is a desperate desire to be loved or even liked by someone, largely stemming from childhood neglect, emotionally distant parents, and a very lonely childhood. I love it because so many people in real life fail to do the right thing because of that flaw, or they overlook things that probably should have triggered alarm bells.

Others have found Snowman to be really unlikable as a result of those tragic flaws, but I didn’t. I found I had a lot of sympathy for him, and I could understand why he did a lot of what he did. Jimmy’s mother reminded me of my own, who was bipolar, undiagnosed and untreated for the length of my childhood. You learn that she and Jimmy’s father were at odds over some morality issue associated with the work that Jimmy’s father did for the Corporation they both used to work for. And in this future vision, Corporations own Compounds and keep their people entirely separated from the rest of the world, which they call the “pleeblands” (which of course was actually “plebelands” at one time, one would guess), and your worth, status and wealth depend entirely on your usefulness to the Corporation. Scientists and mathematicians are valued; artists and writers are considered a waste of oxygen; unless they write advertising for the Corporation, of course. Protesting the Corporations is outlawed and demonstrations are punishable by death. In this, Atwood borrows extensively from the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction (or, if you believe her and the critics, she reinvents the wheel).

You learn also, mostly as side stories in Jimmy’s personal observations of what goes on around him growing up, that the world is in a desperate state of ecological disaster due to climate change, there are too many people and too little resources, and the work that the genetic engineering companies do is actually important, or at least some of it is, in assuring the human race’s survival; except that they create primarily what makes the CEOs of the Corporations money, rather than what is good for humanity, due to selfishness and an innate sense of their own superiority over the pleebs (the rest of the planet). In this we also see some shades of the overpopulation horrors of the 1970s, such as in Soylent Green (or Make Room! Make Room!, as the book it was based on was called.)

Quickly you learn that Snowman is looking after an artificially-created sentient race that bears some resemblance to humans, and who comes from humans, but who aren’t quite human. They’ll remind science fiction aficionados of H.G. Wells‘ Eloi. They were created by someone named Crake, who is a very important character in the novel, being the mad scientist in question, and who was once a friend of Snowman’s. Also, there was someone named Oryx in his past, a woman he quite clearly loved, who for some reason was believed by the Crakers to be the creatrix of the animals. But since they are guileless, innocent, and somewhat simple like the Eloi, their beliefs seem almost mythological or biblical. You also learn that Crake was somehow responsible for whatever killed humanity, which was clearly a plague, and if Atwood tried to tell me she never read either The Stand or I Am Legend I would call her a liar, because parts of the book were full of eerie scenes of human life stopped dead, just like Stephen King and Richard Matheson wrote about so well. The title of the book is meant to represent both sides of human nature and not just the characters.

Sounds like spoilers? Nope, not a bit, because you find out most of this stuff in the first chapter. The story is more about how it all unfolds than what happened. And in this, Atwood displays a masterful understanding of the dark side of human nature and how the light side of it can be manipulated and twisted to dark purposes. It’s an amazing story and I was reading it with page-turning alacrity because it was gripping and fascinating. Only at the very end does everything become clear.

There are many questions that should concern the modern mind. Have we already gone so far with climate change that it will inevitably destroy the human race? How far is too far to go with genetic engineering? What are we going to do when there are so many of us that we overwhelm the planet’s resources to care for us, which might already have happened? Are we doomed to destroy ourselves out of greed, neglect, indifference?

And yet there are also subtler questions of human morality and the nature of religion. The Buddha’s dilemma comes up; the Buddha abandoned his wife and child to pursue enlightenment. Did he do the right thing? Buddhism is founded on the idea that attachment is sin, but if anyone did this in modern society we would call them a nutbar or a jerk, and certainly they don’t have normal human empathy and are probably something of a sociopath. There’s a Frankenstein-like element too; the Biblical references in the story of the Crakers is quite clear. Did God mean to create us? If so, was S/He aware of the full consequences of that? Were we created imperfectly and almost by accident, to be lesser, or greater, beings than our creator(s)? Was the Creation a total accident, or some madman’s weird plan?

And there’s a subtle human dilemma too, and that is the damage created by neglecting a child and denying them real love. Snowman might have been able to recognize that Crake was a sociopath if he’d had anything resembling normal parental empathy, but he had no basis of comparison. Is Atwood subtly critiquing the fact that since our society demands that both parents work, our children are being raised by babysitters and the internet? I think perhaps she is.

I really wish I could recommend this novel to everyone, because it does what really good science fiction is supposed to do, which is to make you question the world and society we live in, in a setting that is weird enough to make us feel a little safer than confronting it directly in the present, real world. But not too safe, because some of this sounds a little far-fetched; but not enough of it. Not enough of it by far.

View all my reviews

When Deities Say “No” to Apolitical Polytheism

While the New Right discussion has most recently dredged it up, everyone who combines a religious affiliation with Left politics hears it eventually. Apparently, because we prioritize both areas of concern, we must therefore be putting politics first. (Ironically enough, while our coreligionists make that claim, we often face the opposite accusation from political comrades.)

Of course, that begs the question: why should left-wing and religious concerns be at odds? Many Pagan leftists have reiterated lately that everything involving more than one person is, in some sense, political by definition. Others have denied any strict delineation between the religious and political components of their worldviews. I also might observe that when right-wing or reactionary politics get injected into Pagan theology, their proponents might get told they’re wrong, but they don’t get called “fake Pagans.” Not uncommonly, our detractors suggest that the mere existence of the Pagan Left somehow impedes the revival of polytheism itself. Sure, I think that right-wing politics and redbaiting are absolutely wrong, but I’d certainly never question someone’s religious sincerity on those grounds. I’d prefer to be extended the same courtesy, particularly from people who accuse us at Gods&Radicals of attempted censorship. It seems to me that there’s less a backlash against “bringing politics into polytheism” per se than against bringing in leftist, as opposed to rightist or liberal, politics.

(And again, there’s a category difference between censorship and asking Pagans to stigmatize the practice of discrimination. Public criticism isn’t censorship; for that matter, neither is no-platforming. Censorship means using violence, the threat thereof, or a direct position of power over someone to prevent them from disseminating their ideas. Anything short of that is just disagreement, and even if G&R wanted to censor our critics – we don’t – we lack the logistical ability to censor anybody, conspiracy theories aside. It’s not as if we’re a government agency with police powers.)

As a devotional polytheist, I don’t think that the gods’ multiple and divergent agendas cleanly line up with any worshiper’s ideology, my own included. I don’t promote a set of generalized or supposedly-universal spiritual values. Instead, I have specific deities whom I serve in particular ways. Am I putting my communism “first?” Without looking at the actual relational content of my religious life, there would be no way to coherently say. So, let’s take a look – after all, to my mind, my devotional situation actually requires some sort of political engagement.


“[Gallai] wear effeminately nursed hair and dress in soft clothes. They can barely hold their heads up on their limp necks. Then, having made themselves alien to masculinity, swept up by playing flutes, they call their Goddess to fill them with an unholy spirit so as to seemingly predict the future to idle men. What sort of monstrous and unnatural thing is this?”

– Julius Firmicus Maternus

 

“Transies who attack us only care about themselves. We women need our own culture, our own resourcing, our own traditions. You can tell these are men…Women are born not made by men on operating tables.”

– Z. Budapest

I am a galla. I belong to Kybele, Mother of the Gods, and Attis. I’ve taken vows to serve them however they prefer. That’s my unshakable priority.

Not everybody can be a galla. A cisgender person couldn’t, nor could a trans man. Being a galla requires a transfeminine identity. (Theologically, this involves the devotee’s relationship to the apotheosis of Attis.) After all, my deities’ spheres of patronage include the transgender community. Kybele collectively adopted us thousands of years ago, and my individual spirituality needs that context to work. One consequence of that is the importance of venerating the non-biological ancestors who constitute all the previous generations of trans people.

Further, I find myself charged with work going past prayer and cultus (though certainly including those!). Kybele’s children aren’t all ancestors yet, and Matar has conveyed to me that serving her implies serving trans people, too. Necessarily, that includes supporting other trans people’s material as well as spiritual and social needs. The ways trans people inhabit our bodies are often painful but always sacred. Every trans woman and nonbinary transfemme moves through the world echoing Attis’s own divine physicality. So when prominent and powerful people call those holy bodies little more than walking rape machines, trying to punish us for existing as we are, how apolitical could I in good faith allow myself to be? When Paganism contains leaders who theologize that rhetoric, how could I not challenge it without dishonoring my deities?


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I last entered a Christian church on November 20th last year. The pastor had offered his sanctuary to a small advocacy group for their annual Trans Day of Remembrance vigil. As I stood there, candle in hand, reading aloud the names of some of the newest trans ancestors, I silently recited a prayer over and over. The TDOR list includes just the ones whose deaths were reported as murders and classed as hate-motivated, just the ones whom the police identified as trans, just the ones whose bodies have been found. Even without factoring in the many driven to suicide, everybody involved knows the official list represents a small portion of those actually killed. Despite these restrictions, I still can’t recall a year when the number of names didn’t hit triple digits. I venerate the trans dead alone every day, and once a year with everyone I know. This is part of my polytheism.

Anti-trans violence, of course, is neither bad luck nor a natural disaster. The nexus of racism, patriarchy, and capitalism that impoverishes trans communities also exposes Black, Indigenous, and Latina trans women to the most intense violence in the LGBT world. The patriarchal gender system and lack of legal jobs that disproportionately lead transfeminine people into sex work also criminalize that work, partly causing astronomical rates of incarceration (plus plus pushing up the work’s danger level). The gentrification in Seattle, where I live, that leaves so many trans people unhoused also gives us the third-highest rate of anti-LGBT hate violence in the US. The right-wing Christian organizations that cause parents to kick trans kids out also push laws that criminalize trans bathroom use and slander us as rapists.

That’s the shape of American trans people’s reality. These conditions kill some of us and prevent many more from living free and fulfilled. They are Kybele’s children’s needs.

My religious mission demands I address them. I can’t pretend they’re not political.


“With the realization that what we saw as personal problems were in fact social ones, we have come to understand that the solutions must also be social ones.”

– Chicago Women’s Liberation Union

Sure, I could ignore my community’s material conditions, but Kybele and Attis deserve gallai who don’t choose ignorance. Honest engagement requires analyzing these problems as they actually exist. They are structural, economic, and political. Personally, I’d connect the particular strain on trans people to society-wide systems that organize power and resources – capitalism, racism, and patriarchy. My opinion is that the best empirical understanding of those systems says that they’re about who does what work and who enjoys the benefits created by that work. Various divisions of labor have led to a class system, where some people make a living by skimming a chunk off the top of what working people create. Those people are a ruling class of business owners. They enforce their exploitative and unaccountable power through both organized violence and sophisticated propaganda. That’s capitalism. Further, capitalism keeps certain kinds of work – housework, emotional labor, most sex – out of the money economy and mostly makes women and femmes do it. That’s patriarchy. Under patriarchy, your gender isn’t just a question of your own identity. It’s equally a matter of whether or not others, in a given situation, expect you to do that unpaid gendered work. Trans women and nonbinary transfemmes get expected to do that work in an extra-exploited way. The enormous levels of violence (emotional, social, physical, and spiritual) that get thrown at us serve to keep us in line, doing that extra-exploited work. Marxist feminism means figuring out ways to fix all that.

Obviously, plenty of people disagree with that description of society. And while I believe it’s empirically true, my deities certainly never sat me down and said “read Silvia Federici.”

You may well think that’s 100% off the mark and incorrect. However, once we’re talking about whether my specific ideas are the most accurate ones, we’ve already conceded the point: politics won’t be dodged. If you think my politics are wrong, then all that means is that yours differ. I’d never expect my coreligionists to become communists en masse just because I’m one. No one else on the Pagan Left asks for that, either. Hell, I don’t even demand it of the people with whom I do secular activism.

But, my religious commitments and desire to piously serve my deities don’t permit me to eschew some sort of political consciousness. I take polytheism seriously. Therefore, I can’t ignore Kybele and Attis’s imperative to address the trans population’s needs, material ones included. Thus, I have to know and address those needs as they really are. More often than not, what they are is political.

My deities come first. That’s why I’m an organizer. That’s why I lack the option of deferring to “civility” or some supposedly-apolitical polytheist unity. Racist and male-supremacist discrimination is already happening in Paganism and polytheism. Attis and Kybele want and deserve gallai who won’t leave that alone.

The Pagan Left’s critics wish we’d just focus on rebuilding the cultus of the gods. Because I take that same mandate seriously, I’m with the Pagan Left. The gods don’t automatically align their plans with conservative polytheists’ comfort zones. From time to time, deities do, in fact, decide to be patrons of acutely oppressed populations. Mine are among those, so I do politics.

And that is what living polytheism looks like.

 


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Sophia Burns

Sophia Burns is a galla, vowed to serve Attis and Kybele, and a Greco-Phrygian polytheist. After coming out in the small-town South, she moved to Seattle, where she is active in the trans lesbian community. Other than writing for Gods&Radicals, Sophia’s activities include political organizing, attending nursing school, and spending time with her partners, friends, and chosen family. This fall, she will lead a ritual at Many Gods West.

Sophia Burns is one of the authors appearing in A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here.

Faith & Politics in Paganism

Public domain image.

Public domain image.

Should we link our politics and our faith?  This is a question that is beginning to be asked in our community.  Some of that has to do with the stir that Gods & Radicals has created, especially the recent controversy.

I try to stay out of online bickering, and when I feel I must get involved I try to do it in the form of a column so that we can have a mature, intelligent debate rather than a bunch of back-biting, pot-stirring and name-calling, with the usual wake of vultures showing up to cannibalize whomever looks weakest for their own self-glorification through gossip.  Hard experience has taught me that wading in to the mix while the shit is still flying is never helpful.  But even I was drawn partway into this one.  I guess it’s because it’s such an emotional issue for me.  It’s a button-pusher, and my buttons were pushed.

Sometimes that’s a good thing.  It makes you consider where it is that you really stand on important issues, and why; or it forces you to confront all those shadowy sub-motivations and personal issues that you bury under the subconscious muck.  For me it did both.

One thing that made me very . . . I won’t say angry, but perhaps exasperated is the correct word . . . was the accusation leveled against the writers of G&R that we put our politics before our faith.  That couldn’t be more wrong, and I felt inspired to explain why.

Religion Informs Culture

There is a movement not to use the singular word “community” to describe us Pagans, because we don’t really have one.  That’s true.  But we do have a distinct Pagan culture.  Anthropologists who study us refer to it as a “sub-culture” (which we don’t like, because we’re too proud to be “sub-anything,”) or a “counterculture” (which isn’t exactly true; most of us aren’t directly opposed to the culture we live in, we just don’t entirely agree with it.)

The separation of church and state is something Americans hold as an unalienable right.  Weirdly, you are kind of alone in the world.  Most other countries, even we Canadians, your closest neighbours and probably closest to you culturally, don’t quite go that far.  Culture is something we talk about as being an important force.  Culture is an issue that our bilingual country, which was founded on, and continues to grow by, the juxtaposition of three distinct cultural aspects — Anglophone, Francophone, and First Nations (note the plural) — has had to be hyper-aware of since our founding.

We do believe in the principle of not enforcing a religion through the mechanism of the state.  Our Charter of Rights & Freedoms (our Constitution) protects freedom of religion.  We Canadians are strong supporters of that right and we try to accompany those rights with equal respect (which aren’t quite the same thing).

But religion is also a part of culture.  The Quebec court systems and legislature in many cases still carry crucifixes on their walls, because when they joined Canada, Quebec was a distinct French Catholic culture living under English Protestant rule.  Much of the religious element is moot now in the wake of what was called the Quiet Revolution, which happened in the mid-seventies.  The Catholic church was a significant part of everyone’s life in Quebec, running most social services and so forth — until, all of a sudden, they weren’t, and much of that became secularized.  But there are remnants.  For instance, property still passes to the eldest son, at least in part, after a man who owned it dies, rather than entirely into the hands of his widow.

This distinct Francophone culture ultimately culminated in a long series of Constitutional crises and an endless series of referendums, a strong Quebec Sovereignty movement and a federal political party whose entire goal was Sovereignty for Quebec.  There were arguments and a lot of bitterness on both sides, but I think we seemed to have settled into an uneasy peace that is becoming easier with each passing year.

However, the triumvirate of religion, culture and politics doesn’t have to be a negative thing.  That Anglophone-Francophone cultural tension is part of what makes Canada so unique.  It teaches us to have a broader appreciation for cultural differences in general and to create a truly beautiful fusion in many places.  And we’re learning how to do it better.  For instance, many First Nations incorporate their spiritual practices into their social services and decision-making processes.  They believe that this helps to create a sense of community which makes it easier to come together on divisive issues.  Furthermore, many official federal and provincial functions are beginning to include elements of First Nations’ ceremonies.  I think this is a positive trend and I’d like to see more of the cooperative decision-making elements of some of our most politically powerful First Nations included as well.

This culturally diverse history is why we can open our arms to 25,000 Syrian refugees without batting an eye, knowing they will bring their own unique colours to our mosaic.

Ethics

Much of the American and Canadian judicial system is founded in English Protestant Christianity.  Our system believes in “right” and “wrong,” and it punishes what it sees as wrongdoing.  The enforcement of concepts of good and evil is an Abrahamic concept and you probably don’t even think about this, since you grew up in this culture and despite the efforts of the more extreme of us to throw off that yoke, it still influences our behaviour and perhaps always will.  Christian ethics also led them to found the very first hospitals and pensions for widows and orphans — institutions no one but the most dedicated libertarian or fascist would argue against now.

Yet Protestant Christianity has a powerful Humanist influence, which culminates in trying to balance the needs of the state with the rights of the individual.  In a way, both Paganism and Atheism are simply following the reasoning of Protestant ideas — human rights, personal dignity, and individual relationship with the Divine — to their ultimate conclusions.  (Please note that I do not say “logical” conclusions.  Faith, by its nature, is illogical and is something we engage with emotionally and then justify through reason.  At least, that’s what I think.)

Ethics are, perhaps, the most significant influence that religion can have upon us.   This is something we Pagans tend to be a bit fuzzy on.  We’re a new religion (yes, even the Reconstructionists) and so we are still trying to figure this stuff out as we go.  Most of us would say that the Christian ethic simply didn’t work for us and that was the impetus that drove us into this crazy patchwork quilt of a community.  Many of us, if pressed, would say that we have no dogma at all.  We are liars, but at least we are subconscious liars.  It’s our genuine belief, not an intentional falsehood, and I think it’s based in a misunderstanding of what dogma actually is.  Kind of like when people say they’re not religious because they don’t believe in Jesus.

Many of the definitions of “dogma” don’t fit, including anything that is declared, proclaimed or handed down.  But as Brendan Myers once tried to explain to people in a lecture I attended, that very thing is dogmatic!  Part of the Pagan dogma — one of our most “settled or established opinions, beliefs, or principles” — is that no one has the right to act as an authority for the whole group on anything, ever.

Where am I going with all of this?  I’m suggesting that Paganism does, indeed, have some powerful dogma that affects our ethics.  Like, for example, a strong ethic of personal rights and freedoms.  A slightly less strong ethic of personal responsibility.  I have written about my belief that the Charge of the Goddess is a series of ethical commandments that is at least as important as the Rede, if not more so.  And I’ve also written about my belief that the Rede is not nearly such a black-and-white, namby pamby ethical code as you may have been led to believe. Other Pagan faiths have their own liturgies and their own codes of ethics, such as the Nine Noble Virtues, and these will dictate ethical choices just as surely as mine do.

Deities Inform Your Politics

Polytheistic faiths have an additional factor that influences these things, and that is the individual Deities we choose to follow (or Who choose us) will also influence our ethics and our priorities, and thus, our politics.  A devotee of Coyote or Loki is probably a bit of a shit-disturber, coming from the understanding that sometimes the wisdom of the Fool and the Trickster is needed to make us question ourselves and take us down a peg.  A devotee of Apollo, on the other hand, is going to resent anything that breaks the harmonious order.  Neither side is wrong, and both are needed, but they will clash in places and as Pagans, we must simply accept this as part of our reality.

alley-fist

A Personal Perspective

Winding this discussion in from the wide perspective to the personal, I am a Wiccan, so for me there are some definite ethical guidelines–contained within the smattering of liturgy we have–that I feel I should observe.  I say “guidelines” because individual interpretation and understanding is also one of those ethical guidelines.

One of these ethics is an abhorance of slavery.  “You shall be free from slavery,” my Goddess(es) says, and so I must believe, since Her “law is love unto all beings,” that She would want me to fight for the freedom of all.

There’s more to it than that, but a lot of these things intersect.  Environmentalism comes from a love of the earth and its creatures and a desire that we might all be free to enjoy the earth’s bounty.  My sex positivity and my staunch defense of all rights to choose in reproduction, relationship and personal expression are bound up in a combination of that freedom from slavery principle, love unto all beings, and the exhortation to sing, feast, dance, make music and love, and the need for beauty and strength, power and compassion, honour and humility, mirth and reverence.

As a result of all of that, I feel I must defend the oppressed.  Oppression can be expressed socially, politically, militarily, or economically.  It is my understanding that these things are abhorrent to my Goddess, and abhorrent to me, that drives me to take a stand against them.

Culturally, as a Pagan I have allies.  Culturally, Pagans of various stripes, but perhaps none more so than the Women’s Spirituality Movement, have a long history of forming peaceful but outspoken opposition to oppression.  This has filtered over into the whole community and in particular, a lot of Polytheists seem to be on board.  It makes much more sense for me to support the work of my allies in this complex and wearying fight, driven by my religious ethics, than to do it alone.  I get more done that way.  And I get encouragement when I need it.  I don’t always agree one hundred percent with everyone who writes for Gods & Radicals.  But dammit, they’re doing something.  And I would answer their critics with, “and what are you doing?”

Spiritually, I also believe I have a calling to do this work.  I have written before about how Diana accepted my offer to pray to Her before I realized what that really meant.  At the time, I was connecting to the Maiden Warrior Goddess in the Moon Whose name I had been given.  I believed in feminism and the wild and its preservation and I had no interest in sex whatsoever, so Her Maidenhood was attractive to me.

But over time that relationship changed.  I learned, as I began to realize my bisexuality, about Diana’s preference for the company of women.  And about Her love of the occasional man who was especially worthy of Her attentions.  I discovered Women’s Spirituality then and a spiritual impetus to support my desires for equality.

And then, when I had finally reconciled my sexuality and the idea of the holiness of sex, when I had accepted a path to become a High Priestess in the way that a Catholic might have accepted a calling to become a nun, I discovered Diana, Queen of the Witches, Mistress of all Sorceries, seducer of Her brother, Lucifer.  She and Lucifer gave the world a daughter, Aradia.  She was sent to the world to teach witchcraft to the masses and liberate the oppressed.  Hence, the choice of my Craft name.

I suppose, as my awareness of politics has grown, I have realized that in many ways, it is a part of my spiritual calling and the oaths I have sworn to become involved in politics.  It is my sacred duty to defend the underdog, to raise up the powerless, and to oppose oppression wherever I see it.  And if you haven’t read Aradia, Gospel of the Witches, the “oppressors” that Aradia led Her followers against in the myth were the Church and wealthy landowners.  In other words, the 1% of their time.

I won’t disagree that there are drawbacks to this stance.  In many cases I can’t just “go along to get along.”  I can’t keep my mouth shut.  It’s like a Bard’s Tongue; silence for too long will just cause blunt, tactless statements to slip out.  Sometimes I have to point out elephants in living rooms.

Some people would rather not have to confront a lot of these issues.  I don’t blame them; it’s tiring and I don’t always have the energy for it either.  I hate fighting.  But sometimes I have to.  If I don’t, who will?

There are places where politics and faith must not mix; for example, a Pagan conference, or a Pagan Pride Day.  I once chastised someone for posting information about an environmentalist rally on the local Pagan Pride list (which I was moderating).  I was intending to go to that rally myself, but that wasn’t the point.  The point was that it was presumptuous to assume that other Pagans shared that political view.

But the blogosphere is not one of those places.  Indeed, I would argue that this is the very place to discuss and debate politics, faith, spirituality and ethics.  The blogsophere is the modern Pagan Agora.  If you don’t want to be part of that, you’re welcome not to.  But you can expect that I — that we — are not going away any time soon.

*Note – When I read back the article I realized it sounded like I had a negative opinion of the Francophone-Anglophone cultural juxtaposition in Canada.  Nothing could be further from the truth, so I expanded that paragraph.  Also, I added a link to a great article that Steve Posch wrote today about Aradia and the opposition against slavery.


Sable Aradia

Sable Aradia Author 1I have been a practicing Witch for more than 20 years, and an active organizer and facilitator in the Pagan community since 1993. I am a third degree initiate in the Star Sapphire and Pagans for Peace traditions, and an ordained Priestess and recognized Religious Representative in the Congregationalist Wiccan Association of British Columbia. I was the first Local Coordinator in the Okanagan Valley for the Pagan Pride Project. I am a practicing herbalist (Dominion Herbal College) and a Reiki Master/Teacher.


 

Gods&Radicals is not just a site of beautiful resistance, but also a publisher of A Beautiful Resistance! Our second issue is out soon, and there’s still time to pre-order or subscribe. You may also like  A Pagan Anti-Capitalist Primer (featured above).

On Hierarchy

By Anthony Rella

“The notion of natural hierarchies is very problematic, and it hides the fact that hierarchies are created through power and political process.” 

from Confronting the New Right

I wish to explore this statement further, drawing out places where I agree and disagree with the position taken in that information page, specifically with regards to hierarchy. Critics have taken issue with this passage and its adjacent question about the hierarchy of a forest, pointing to naturally occurring hierarchies among animal packs and king trees in forests. I offer this as a contemplation on hierarchy.

The Evolution of “Hierarchy”

The concept of hierarchy originated in relationship with the sacred, and a particular individual or group who facilitated the relationship between the Gods and the people. In a comment responding to John Beckett’s “Guilt by Association,” Polytheist Ruadhán J McElroy states that the root of the word is “the Hellenic Hierarkhas, meaning ‘the leader of sacred rites’.” Consulting the dictionary, the word breaks down to the roots of hieros (sacred) and arckēs (ruler). In contemporary English we tend to say “priest” and “priestess” for these roles, but I have no doubt the Hierarkhas is a role with distinctions from contemporary understandings of priesthood.

McElroy and others suggest that attacking hierarchy, therefore, is an attack on polytheism itself. These days I do not know whether I fit into the Polytheist movement, but as a witch and a Pagan I have spent much time contemplating the problems with, and inevitability of, hierarchy. Firstly I think it needs to be conceded that, whatever the origins of the word, the definition of hierarchy as most English speakers understand it today is very different. If we do not acknowledge this, then I think we willfully speak past each other in arguments about it. “Hierarchy” has developed troubling connotations that are worth acknowledging if we are to lift up what is useful and affirming about those original meanings.

During the Renaissance, Christian Europeans looked to the beliefs and thought of pre-Christian culture to renew their societies. (That sounds relevant, doesn’t it?) Christianity made love to NeoPlatonism and birthed a notion called “The Great Chain of Being.” According to this, all existence is arranged “in hierarchical order from the barest type of existence to the ens perfectissimum, or God.” That which was closest to the Christian God had the greatest amount of holiness; that which was furthest away was the more depraved matter, with the Devil as nadir to God’s apex. These hierarchies applied to classes and qualities of beings as well, so all is ranked.

Great_Chain_of_Being_2For harmony to exist, according to this conception, that which is closer to the Christian God must rule over that which is further from. Combined with prevailing assumptions of the times, this meant reason should rule over unreason, humans over beasts, men over women, and the “Divine Ruler” over inferior humanity. To rebel against the divine ruler was thus not only politically dangerous but a grave sin against the Christian God and the natural order. I understand this to be a key distinction from the notion of sacral kingship in other polytheist cultures, in which rebellion against the king’s rule is a sign of disfavor from the Gods, that the ruler has failed to uphold their role and obligations.

One important observation from this piece of history is what happens when religious doctrine aligns with and reinforces political structures, obscuring human-centric political structures with divine trappings. Politics and religion seem to be in a constant ongoing dialectic. In Christian traditions, governments employ their teachings and practices to validate and bolster oppressive political structures (slavery, segregation, patriarchal control of women, queer oppression), while those challenging and opposing those structures draw upon the same traditions to produce liberation theologies. There is a tension for me, as a person drawn to studying Kemetic traditions and reconciling my democratic bias with its vision of sacral rulership.

Why am I talking about Christianity? I think it pertains to an unstated question: why do we use the word “hierarchy” when we mean “any system of leadership in a group” or “a stratified group where there’s people on top and people on the bottom”? We have so many -archy words that could describe a social arrangement in which someone’s in the lead and someone’s not. I think the broader English-speaking Western cultures have retained “hierarchy” because of its connotations that the people in top are or should be superior to those below. Culturally we still hold the fantasy that if “the right people” were in charge things would be “better.” W.E.B. Du Bois, for example, believed “the talented ten percent” of the Black community could liberate the whole.

What qualities in theory signify superiority? Intelligence, strength, pragmatism, ruthlessness, charm, merit, family lineage, accruing wealth, spiritual attainment? And what qualities in practice actually allow people to rise to the top?

Unpacking the Rhetoric of “Natural Hierarchy”

Does hierarchy occur in nature? With regards to social differentiation and power differentials, yes these things occur. Honey bees have specialized roles in a regimented social structure. Primate communities demonstrate dominance hierarchies. Perhaps what makes humans unique is our ability to choose how we structure our hierarchies and our capacity to envision egalitarian relationships. The rhetoric of “natural hierarchy” becomes dangerous when yoked to a story of inherent superiority for a particular species, person, family, ethnicity, or racial group.

When Western discourse began to differentiate science, politics, and religion, the notion of hierarchy as divine ladder from inferior to superior transferred into secular thinking. Scientific racism justified political oppression through studying the skulls, intelligence quotients, and other behaviors of racial groups; claiming that there is a racial hierarchy arising from innate evolutionary advantages and disadvantages; and dismissing any possibility that unequal treatment and oppression could be part of perceived disparities.

[Since this publication is frequently charged with being anti-science, I want to be clear that I am pointing to the ways that scientific inquiry and understanding is not immune from being shaped by cultural and political biases. That does not invalidate science as a discipline that produces important knowledge and technology, capable of also challenging cultural and political bias. Please note that what I am saying about science is parallel to what I have said about religion vis a vis its relationship to politics.]

This has had enormous, painful consequences for people of color and indigenous communities in the United States. Government programs forcibly separated indigenous children from their families, sending them to school to learn “superior” ways of being. Politicians and authorities cite “innate” criminality and low intelligence to justify poorly funding schools that serve largely Black students, enormous disparities in the enforcement of law, mass incarceration, and police brutality against people of color. Queer people have had to fight, and continue to fight, against accusations of being “unnatural” to get the healthcare we need—including the historical failure to act against the AIDS epidemic and the struggles for trans and intersex people to receive competent, dignified care. When it comes to human politics, those wishing to sustain the status quo will obscure political structures and social biases by using the rhetoric of “natural” social hierarchy.

Darwin’s theory of evolution laid a challenge to anthropocentric worldview of humans being the inevitable and clear “superior” being upon earth. One way of understanding evolutionary theory is that life, all life, strives for survival in a harsh environment with limited resources. Mutations that work improve the species’ ability to thrive and reproduce. In this way, humans succeed in their ability to adapt to a variety of harsh environments, manage disease, and improve birth outcomes; as do many other species. One well-documented model is the competition between species, “survival of the fittest,” but collaboration and symbiosis are also successful survival strategies. The bacteria that live in our guts have improved their survival success by becoming necessary to us. Dogs and cats and several species of plants have also improved their survival rates through their usefulness to humans.

That decentering of humanity I think has been very difficult for the Western ego to accept, and the belief in an innate “natural” social hierarchy has persisted in social and political rhetoric for some time. If we do not have the Great Chain of Being as a frame for our thinking, there is no intrinsic superiority of a human to a bacterium. Indeed we would be in very bad shape as a species if our gut bacteria rebelled and became toxic, or the animals that pollinate our crops died off.

Mexican_Wolf_Pack_(12033414114)As far as superiority among animal groups, the way animals develop and enact those arrangements continue to be studied and questioned. Wolf researcher L. David Mech was once formerly a proponent of the “alpha wolf” conception of wolf packs, but now believes that wolf packs more closely resemble families, with the “leaders” being the breeding parents. The Queen Bee has biological distinctions that make her suited for her job, and not for the job that the other bee groups do. The hive depends upon her, and she depends upon her workers. Interdependency, not superiority.

Reconsidering Hierarchical Relationships as “Doings” Versus “Beings”

All this said, I do not see it as desirable or possible to eliminate stratification and leadership in human communities. In my early witch days in Reclaiming, I fell in love with the ideas of nonhierarchical communities and each of us being our own authority, every person in community having equal voice. Coming from a religion in which I felt spurned and marginalized, this felt empowering and exciting. Eventually, I grew to feel at odds with it.

I want to step back and give honor and respect to my Reclaiming teachers and peers and those who are still passionately engaging in building community. I think their work is a needed project, striving to empower and include as many voices as possible and find ways to create sustainable community. Reclaiming taught me a great deal and instilled in me a sense of ethics and community orientation that is still very much a part of my view of the world. Where I disagree now, and the conclusions I’ve come to about community and hierarchy, emerge from my relationship Reclaiming values.

I observed in myself and my community an aversion to leaders with a lack of clear boundaries around who was in and not in community. Communities may function with one or the other, but both seemed to cause stuck and toxic dynamics. We were in constant debates, decisions, and revisions of the decisions. It was difficult to move forward.

During one discussion surrounding yet-another community restructuring effort attempting to address concerns, one person said that we had to change our ways because “People out there hate us.” That statement caused me to begin asking the questions that led to me walking away from that process: What people? What do they hate about us? How could we address their concerns if we don’t know what they are? Why aren’t they coming to our open meetings in which anyone can participate in shaping community? If they aren’t willing to do that, then why are we trying to address their concerns? There is little you can do with “I hate your community,” and even less with “Someone out there hates your community.”

This led me to a paradox about community, represented by two conflicting truths:

  • Everyone has a unique perspective that has innate worth and is a necessary facet of the wholeness of the world.
  • When it comes to making decisions, we have to decide whose opinions matter and whose do not.

I believe every community and movement, each of us individually, would do well to reckon with the implications of this paradox and come to some resolution. I do not believe in perfect, unproblematic solutions. Everything we do will be open to legitimate criticism. If we make decisions without considering contrary or dissenting views, we become brittle despots.

It is impossible, however, to make a decision if all opinions have equal weight. Amy Schumer has a skit about birth control in which she has to ask almost every man she knows (and doesn’t know) if they think she should get a prescription. It is a hilarious satire of patriarchy’s control of women’s health issues and a great illustration of the problem of the second truth. If we want to build communities, for example, that value and include people of color and queer people, then their opinions must hold greater weight than the opinions of those who would exclude them.

When I struggled in Reclaiming, a peer pointed me toward an article by Jo Freeman, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” This article about the women’s movement, first presented in 1970, lays out a clear critique of “structureless” groups that extends toward “nonhierarchical” groups. I would recommend reading it in entirety, but here is a relevant excerpt:

Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a structureless group. Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion. … This means that to strive for a structureless group is as useful, and as deceptive, as to aim at an “objective” news story, “value-free” social science, or a “free” economy. A “laissez faire” group is about as realistic as a “laissez faire” society; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. … “[L]aissez faire” philosophy did not prevent the economically powerful from establishing control over wages, prices, and distribution of goods; it only prevented the government from doing so. … As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules. Those who do not know the rules and are not chosen for initiation must remain in confusion, or suffer from paranoid delusions that something is happening of which they are not quite aware.

Freemen suggests that social hierarchies inevitably form as certain individuals or groups acquire power within the group, particularly when there is no process to openly name and bring accountability to power. A group that believes its own myth of structurelessness will be impaired in its ability to address power abuses, or constantly caught in drama as these dynamics form, get attacked, dissolve, and reform. The question is whether we make the process of structure forming explicit and accountable to the group or keep it covert, invisible, and beyond accountability.

Another text that informed my thinking comes from Cynthia Jones of Diana’s Grove, an organization that wrestled with the joys and challenges of implementing Reclaiming values in a sustainable organization. In their 2005 document, The Bones of Mystery School, Jones writes of hierarchy in an article entitled “Myths About Power, Community, and Being Hero-Less. I would recommend this in its entirety as well. It interlinks with Freemen’s critique of structurelessness in pointing out how the creation of hierarchy is inevitable:

“Another natural law: all groups have leaders. A group without a leader will be lead by the person with the strongest agenda, the most pressing issue, the most charismatic personality, or the person who is most able to take action.”

Those with the loudest voices control the narrative, particularly when bolstered by socioeconomic and political power. The rest have to find a place within it.

Jones speaks to how people unwilling to claim their own power will create structures to yield power to another, a paternal figure who has the answers. We see this in the United States political arena, in which Presidential candidates become imbued with mythic power as the ones who can bring all the change, revolution, or comforting fascist tyranny we desire, permitting us to divest ourselves of the responsibility to participate. When it turns out they’re human, we get to become disappointed and cynical.

Power is amoral and distributed relative to the needs and values of a group. A person considered powerful in my small witchcraft community may not be so powerful in the larger society, because my community has different values and needs. Allowing group process to work through these issues organically seems wonderful, up until those in power develop structures to retain and bolster their power.

If leaders and hierarchies emerge no matter what, then in my opinion it is best to be intentional. That means acknowledging that they are political constructs created by humans. As I write this, I want to reframe the notion of “hierarchy” from a ladder of superiority or sacredness to rather be a ladder of power and influence. Thus, again, “hierarchy” seems less and less useful of a term and something like “kyriarchy” much closer to the truth. Either way, how can we create leadership structures that serve a thriving community?

Jones argues that a leader’s responsibilities in a group are to:

  • “Uphold the group’s intention for being together. 
  • Create healthy and inclusive structures, structures that enable each person in the group to have a place in the group.
  • Uphold the group’s agreements. 
  • Assure the safety for all group members.”

In my view, all of these fall under the leader’s role to hold the container of the group. This includes knowing who is in and out of the group, and whose voice has more weight. The complaint of someone invested in the group should have a different weight than the complaint of random person commenting on the Internet.

What I want to be conscious of is essentializing rhetoric around hierarchy that erases the political process that contributes to its formation and maintenance. The High Priestess and the Sacral King are roles that human beings perform for a specific purpose. Sovereignty does not inhere in a human being, it arises from what is invested in the leader by the community and, for some, the Gods.

This brings up the limitations and problems with all manner of our historical myths about hierarchy. Aristocracy, for example, posits that there are particular families or ethnic groups with innate superiority, uniquely suited to being the ruling class. We see in history that believing literally in this myth leads to inbreeding, which ironically weakens the genetic legacy of the family and increases the likelihood of illness and the expression of genetic disorders. Meritocracy seems like a great idea so long as everyone in every generation begins from the same baseline, but we see very quickly how the children of the middle and upper classes have access to the training and resources they need to stay at their class level, no matter if they have “less” intelligence and drive than those with less access.

I am not active in Kemetic reconstructionist religion, so I cannot speak to how those communities work with these issues. As a person engaged in my own study of Kemeticism, however, I see a history of intertwined politics and religion. Both Heru and Set are depicted as sacral rulers, sometimes each acting as opposing pillars to uphold Ma’at. When Heru challenges Set’s claim to the throne, the Netjeru have a lively debate over whose claim has validity. They argue, they entreat, they take sides. Atum endorses Set, while Neith goes for Heru. The two compete through passionate entreaty, deception, debate, gathering allies, and ultimately violence… dare I say “politics”?

Structures of power in human communities may be inevitable, but I do not see that they can be separate from human politics. If we ground ourselves in egalitarianism, a sense that all beings have equal worth and dignity, then we can remember that our leaders are humans, perhaps with skills and relationships that we do not have, but someone we can still question and argue with. We can have leaders of sacred rites doing necessary work for community and the Gods, and that person may not be the right person to help the community pay its bills, rent ritual spaces, or manage media relations. We can have hierarchical structures and roles to step into and out of as needed rather than essentialized beings who are intrinsically superior. We can have specialization and interdependency.

Bless the Bees!


Anthony Rella

09LowResAnthony Rella is a witch, writer, and therapist living in Seattle, Washington. Anthony is a student and mentor of Morningstar Mystery School, and has studied and practiced witchcraft since starting in the Reclaiming tradition in 2005. Professionally, he is a psychotherapist working full-time for a community health agency and part-time in private practice.


 

Anthony Rella’s essay, The Soul is a Site of Liberation was published in A Beautiful Resistance: Everything We Already Are. Copies are still available, as well as pre-orders and subscriptions for the next issue!

Praxis

Most of the discussion about polytheism and politics has focused on theory. This is a little bit strange because you often hear people saying that polytheism is a matter of “orthopraxy not orthodoxy.” As it happens, I am not particularly a fan of either. Still, if it’s all about “right practice” then why has so much of the conversation been about “right belief”?

 

Nearly every aspect of my daily life is marked by religious practice. I pray when I wake up, at midday and before I go to sleep. I pray before I eat or drink anything. I leave offerings frequently, and do trance-work for an hour about three times a week. I tend a candle every 20 days for Brighid as a Brigidine flamekeeper, and meet with a small group for prayer and offerings every new moon. When religion plays such a large role in my daily life, it’s only natural that I would also turn to religion whenever I have to go on a journey or face any kind of challenge.

 

A few weeks ago, I started a Southern Maine chapter for an antifascist organization. I’m not going to name the group here, because they are not a religious organization and might not prefer to be mentioned in an article about paganism. I’m sure the members come from a wide variety of backgrounds, both secular and religious. However, the current membership of the chapter I founded is the same group of people I worship with on the new moon every month. Our current focus for antifascist activity is the Trump campaign, so when we found out that Trump was going to be speaking at the Hyatt in New York City on April 14th I decided to go.

 

The night before the action, I stood in front of my deity altar and prayed the Sloinntireachd Bhride, the Genealogy of Brighid in Gaelic. This prayer is the center of my daily spiritual practice, and under normal circumstances I recite the Sloinntireachd at least twice a day. I’ve said this prayer so many times over the years that I can recite it during sleep to dispel a nightmare. Almost everything else I do starts with reciting this prayer.

 

There is a long tradition of antifascist streetfighting, going back to the decades before the Second World War. Even now, many groups take an aggressive approach to antifascist action. I do not condemn this strategy, but due to past experiences in my own life I have made a personal commitment not to ever fight except in self-defence or direct defense of another. I chose the particular organization I’m part of because they have made the same commitment. Nevertheless, my next step in preparing for the protest was to make an offering to Macha.

 

Why would I pray to a goddess associated with war and conflict before going to a nonviolent protest? Because civil resistance is a form of conflict even when the participants reject violence as a tool in that conflict. Past protests against Trump have been marked by violence against the protesters, and the NYPD has a reputation for violence at protests too. I left a small bowl of milk and honey, and asked Macha to keep me safe and sound on my journey to new York and in the protest itself, and to bring us victory if such was her will.

 

Next I went to my ancestor altar and made three bowls of fiery water for my dead. Fiery water is an important symbol in Celtic lore, representing the water in the Well of Wisdom. There are a number of different ways to make it. I poured a libation of cold tap water into three glass bowls, lit a white pillar candle, then circled each bowl sunwise over the candle flame to put the fire in the water. Then I spoke briefly with my dead, asking them for both protection and moral clarity. In emotionally-charged and confrontational situations like a protest, it’s easy to get caught up in an emotion and carried away by events. I asked my dead to warn and counsel me if this should happen. I finished with an appeal to the spirits that watch over me, then went to bed.

 

If any of my spirits or deities had a strong objection to my plans, or a warning of great danger, I would most likely hear about it in my dreams. That night I dreamed that one of my spirits approached and smiled at me, so I knew that all was well and I could proceed as planned.

 

I have the primary responsibility for childcare in my family, so part of our planning for this event was to arrange for the other members of our group to help with babysitting so I could make the trip. Before I left, the babysitter spoke a blessing over me in the name of Thor. Then I got on a Greyhound bus for the eight-hour journey to Manhattan. I brought a history of the Spanish Civil War to read on the long bus trip.

 

When I reached Manhattan that evening, I had to walk as quickly as possible from the Port Authority up to the Hyatt on East 42nd Street to join the protest. As I made my way through the crowds, I saw one police van after another heading down the street in the same direction, followed by a column of officers carrying zip ties for mass arrests, and a bus to transport arrestees in case the vans weren’t enough. I’d be lying if I said that didn’t make me nervous, but I knew I was as well-prepared as I could be.

 

When I heard the sound of drums up ahead, I knew I had found the protesters. The drums belonged to the Fight for $15 contingent, which also had its own team of dancers for the event. Protests tend to attract an almost-random collection of people with different causes to push, but in this case the connection was easy to understand – Trump is on record as saying that current wages are too high!

 

There was also a large contingent from Black Lives Matter, and another from a group called People’s Assembly. In case anyone assumes this was a partisan protest, many of these groups had also been protesting Clinton the day before. The People’s Assembly speaker was saying something to the effect that “Trump doesn’t speak for us! Clinton doesn’t speak for us! Sanders doesn’t speak for us!” This wasn’t about the Democrats versus the Republicans.

 

I managed to find the local chapter of the group I’m affiliated with somewhere in that crowd of a thousand or so people. They were right up in front of the police barricades. These were intended to keep us separated from the much, much smaller contingent of pro-Trump protesters on the other side of the street. The barricades were not entirely successful for this purpose, as a Trump supporter had already come running across the street to punch one of the protesters several times in the face. As any activist knows, you can be arrested without warning for something as simple as stepping off the sidewalk at the wrong time, but the Trump supporter who attacked the protest wasn’t arrested or even asked to leave. The police just told him to go back to his own side of the street.

 

Shortly after I reached the barricade, I saw one of the protesters being carried away on a stretcher and placed in an ambulance. People were saying he fell off a barricade and hit his head. As the EMTs wheeled him by, I recited the Sloinntireachd under my breath to ask Brighid to bless and help him.

 

I introduced myself to the other people from my group. Solidarity is a type of love, not based on personal history or affinity but on the simple act of standing together as comrades even though you might have almost nothing else in common. Solidarity is real spirituality, it can bring people together who would normally never have any reason to even speak to each other. I had never met any of my comrades at this action or even exchanged an email with any of them, but they all welcomed me to join them with warmth and acceptance.

 

As we were making our introductions, another protester walked by carrying an effigy of Donald Trump, filled with needles and pins like a so-called “voodoo doll.” Surprisingly enough, this led to a debate between two of my comrades over the relative merits of Vodou and Santeria! (Neither of which actually uses this type of magic, but that’s beside the point.) I turned to them and said “whatever gets the job done” and they burst out laughing. That was the end of the debate.

 

The woman who had made the fliers for our group had just had hip surgery, so she couldn’t walk through the crowd to distribute them. I volunteered for that job, but there were a lot of protesters packed into a small space and various random New Yorkers kept trying to push through the crowd. A pedestrian pushing a bike happened to get behind me just as I was turning around. I fell over his bike and landed on the sidewalk, but a Black Lives Matter activist quickly leaned in and pulled me to my feet before I could get hurt.

 

The police were trying to keep us away from the Hyatt and Grand Central Terminal with two rows of barricades and a large contingent of uniformed officers blocking us from crossing over to the other side. Despite their efforts, a hundred or so protesters managed to get around them (possibly through the subway system, I’m not sure) and were soon in front of the doors on the other side of the street.

 

The police immediately swarmed in on them while moving to close off access to the rest of us. I tried to slip through a gap in the barricades and cross the street to join the other protesters, but found the way blocked by a row of cops and new barricades. I thought I might be able to get around them if I went down the street a little way and then crossed at that point, but there were police blocking the way no matter how far I went. They were letting commuters through at one spot only, so I removed items that would have identified me as a protester and slipped through with the commuters.

 

I tried to circle back to where the protesters were trying to get into the building, but the police weren’t letting anyone through. I walked up to 45th, then cut down a side street to try to approach from the west. I happened to pick the street the police were using as a staging area for their reinforcements. More vans, more beat cops, a row of cops on horses. I walked right past them trying to look casual and a bit distracted so they wouldn’t realize I was trying to rejoin the protest. It worked, but by the time I got to my destination all the protesters who were trying to get inside had done so, and cops were standing in front of the doors. I found out the next day that around 30 of us were arrested in total, so despite their preparations the cops didn’t arrest that many people.

 

At this point the action had all shifted elsewhere and my people were nowhere in sight, so I returned to Port Authority for the journey home.

 

As I was walking up 42nd, I recited the Sloinntireachd one more time to thank Brighid for her protection. We may not have succeeded in shutting down Trump’s event, but I did what I came to do. The more people who stand up and confront neofascist ideologies, the stronger the resistance gets. We’ll keep building this movement until Trump is defeated – either before the election or after it. Then we’ll turn our attention to the next threat.

 

Fascist ideas may be resurgent, but so is the willingness to confront and defy them. May the gods protect and bless us as we do so!

Christopher Scott Thompson

Christopher Scott Thompson is a writer, historical fencing instructor and founding member of Clann Bhride, the Children of Brighid. He was active with Occupy Minneapolis and Occupy St. Paul. His political writing can be found at https://alienationorsolidarity.wordpress.com/.

The Politics of Spiritual Service

Anne_Hutchinson_on_Trial Antinomian Anne Hutchinson stands up to the Puritans. Public domain image.

Some people seem to think that Gods and Radicals writers are part of a Marxist conspiracy to destroy polytheism. Of course, most Gods and Radicals writers don’t know each other personally, and don’t really have any way to coordinate such a sinister conspiracy even if we wanted to.

Some of us are Marxists, but some of us are not. Personally I identify more with thinkers like Kropotkin and Bookchin, but it doesn’t bother me that some of my fellow writers here like Marx more than I do. One of the reasons I don’t identify with Marxism is that the anarchist Bakunin tried to warn Marx of what would happen if people used state power to implement his ideas. History seems to have proved Bakunin right, but that doesn’t make Marx personally responsible for the crimes of Stalin or Mao. Anarcho-communists who read Marx certainly cannot be held responsible for the crimes of a totalitarian state they would have resisted with all their power. So, even though I don’t hold the exact same opinions as some of my fellow writers here, I’m proud to stand with them in resistance to capitalism. We don’t all speak with one voice and we don’t have to.

Which brings me to the topic I’d like to discuss today. Dr. Bones recently published an article called “Against Tradition,” where he discusses his own antinomian attitude toward spiritual traditions and divine beings. During a visionary dream of the goddess Hestia, Dr. Bones refused a direct request to become her servant. This got me thinking. My chosen religious name is Gilbride, which means “Servant of Brighid.” In the human world, I fight against power systems and identify with anarchism. In my religious life, I describe myself as a servant and am fully comfortable with that role. Is this a logical contradiction? Not to me. That doesn’t mean I think Dr. Bones is wrong, it just means that I base my decisions on different ideas and come to different conclusions, because Dr. Bones and I have had different experiences in life. For us to agree about everything wouldn’t make any sense, which is exactly why the idea of a monolithic Gods and Radicals conspiracy is so ridiculous.

So why am I comfortable with calling myself a servant of Brighid? There’s a Bob Dylan song with the line “it may be the Devil, it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” I’ve always liked that song. I don’t agree with the dualistic theology expressed in it, but I still like it. It expresses something that I think is true: our actions in the world will always tend to promote, support and further (or “serve”) whichever power or principle we center our lives on.

If we center our lives on a human leader, our actions will promote, support and further that leader. Even if that leader turns out to be corrupt, self-serving, or incompetent. This process can be especially poisonous in spiritual communities, where the members risk handing over their deepest inner selves to a wolf in sheep’s clothing. There are people who lead with the best interests of their followers always in mind. Still, I choose not to serve any human leader.

If we center our lives on an established tradition, our actions will promote, support and further that tradition. Even if that tradition turns out to be oppressive and destructive. When people find out that their tradition has been used as a cover for terrible crimes, they will often do whatever it takes to defend the tradition rather than expose the crimes. I am not against the concept of tradition; there are traditions I value highly. Still, I choose not to serve any established tradition.

If we center our lives on one of these vast and numinous powers we call the gods, then our actions will promote, support and further whatever that power represents. Brighid is a power of inspiration, creation, healing, justice and peace. I have no problem promoting, supporting and furthering those wonderful things. I choose to serve Brighid.

In person, I tend to be assertive – at my worst, I tend to be arrogant. Thinking of myself as Brighid’s servant doesn’t create an imbalance for me, instead it counters the aspects of my personality that don’t live up to my own values. Another person, loving Brighid just as much as I do, might feel uncomfortable with the word “service.” That’s fine, because there are other words and other ways of being in relationship with her.

In my own dreams and my own visions, I have refused point-blank instructions from spiritual entities on some occasions, and accepted those instructions without reservation on other occasions. What determines my decision to accept on one occasion and to refuse on another? Nothing but an inner sense of the truth and rightness of what I’ve been told. If it feels right and true and in line with my highest vales, I do it. If it doesn’t, I don’t. Brighid has never once told me to do anything against my inner sense of truth and rightness.

The religious equivalent of anarchism is known as “antinomianism,” a word meaning “against the law.” Antinomian religious movements reject the claimed authority of spiritual leaders and the laws they would seek to impose on others. Instead they insist on the right of the individual to decide, based on the inner light of one’s own understanding. I claim this right for myself, which naturally includes the right to place myself in service to that which I believe is worth serving.

Christopher Scott Thompson

Christopher Scott Thompson is a writer, historical fencing instructor and founding member of Clann Bhride, the Children of Brighid. He was active with Occupy Minneapolis and Occupy St. Paul. His political writing can be found at https://alienationorsolidarity.wordpress.com/.