Me Too and the Production of Hierarchy

Deviation from the norm, from the ontological priorities that permeate society, increases the risk of sexual violence because the more you deviate the less your body is valued, the less agency you are granted to define and name your own life.

From Shay Woodall

CW: “me too”, Sexual Assault (SA)

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks watching the “me too” movement kick off on social media platforms. My Facebook feed has been filled with people sharing their stories with sexual assault (SA) and a lot of discourse critical of it. As a trans woman it’s been particularly difficult seeing how the language of many Me Too posts have unwittingly ignored trans, nonbinary, and intersex folks. And as a Jewish pagan, I think the topic of r*pe culture is particularly important when the pagan community so often doesn’t address abusers in our ranks. I recall an incident not long ago with a pagan community near me that did everything in their power to protect an abuser while gaslighting the victim, someone I care deeply about.

That dynamic isn’t an isolated incident either. Part of that problem has been a push from “mainstream” Pagans to turn our religion into something apolitical, but religion is inherently political. That our communities reflect the power dynamics of wider society, a microcosm of a macrocosm, is not a coincidence.

I’ve had time to reflect on this issue and a lot of the discourse and I want to take the time to give this the consideration it deserves in a way I hope embodies the compassion I have for my fellow survivors. This essay isn’t going to be an easy one, I know how traumatic this topic is, but sometimes to heal we must delve into the deep soil of our individual and collective traumas and dig out a space in which to plant a seed of healing. That’s the image through which I hope you read this and know that my solidarity is unyielding.

Please also know that this piece, like any of the things I write, is limited in understanding. All of our stories with SA are unique even as they are similar. I do not speak for other survivors, only for my experience. This is the beginning of a conversation and dialogue and I hope that to this thread which is my experience you add the thread of your own that together we can weave a tapestry.

I also want to thank all of the comrades who gave me feedback on earlier drafts of this and who sharpened my analysis of this issue. My gratitude on helping with this can not be understated.

I. Finding Roots

The “Me Too” movement began nearly a decade ago with activist Tarana Burke, a black woman. She is the program director for Brooklyn-based Girls for Gender Equity, a group dedicated to empowering young women of color. She describes the story of its creation when she was a camp counselor. I don’t think I can tell her story more powerfully than she can so I direct you to this article.

When white women and NBWOC take the labor of black women without centering their unique experiences it is a disservice to them and to our ideals of social justice. Let us do better in raising up voices so often erased. Tarana Burke said this which I think really cuts to the heart of this:

“On one side, it’s a bold declarative statement that ‘I’m not ashamed’ and ‘I’m not alone.’ On the other side, it’s a statement from survivor to survivor that says ‘I see you, I hear you, I understand you and I’m here for you or I get it.”

II. Digging in the Soil

There’s a branch of philosophy known as ontology that deals with the nature of “being.” Ontology tries to answer questions about “being,” what the world is made, what “exists.” To do that, ontology typically categorizes matter and often places some ontological category as being “primary” or “first.”In this way, ontological hierarchies create a system of values and “priorities.”

Take as an example how only certain experiences of SA are heard, that by existing lower in the ontological priorities, if at all, certain voices get erased. In society there exists a certain “ordering” of identities, a scale that places people and then assigns them varying degrees of agency. We could say that ontological hierarchies are very similar to animacy hierarchies, but that’s an article of its own. When we are applying intersectional critiques, at heart, we are putting forth a certain kind of ontology, or more accurately intersectional critiques seek to break down ontological hierarchies.

Perhaps the best way to understand this is to see what it looks like in action. We live bound under a capitalist super structure, what Marx described as the culture, institutions, political systems, rituals, state apparatus, etc and which he contrasted with what he called the “base.” or the ordering of and relationships made from the relations of production. Later critical theorists expanded this critique to point to the reflexive nature of the system, that base and superstructure are informed by and inform each other in a way that is inseparable. Seeing the role of ontological hierarchies play out in this superstructure under which we all live will hopefully be elucidating.

Capitalist ontological hierarchies situate the pursuit of wealth through wage labor as the default mode of being in the superstructure. In doing so the capitalist superstructure seeks several things. First, it normalizes the system by painting lack of ownership of the means of production as a default mode of economic and societal organization. Second it shifts the gaze of the working class off the wealthy so as to hide their accountability in the production of oppression. Finally it breaks down a unified class consciousness by subtly gaslighting the working class, having them believe that this system is the only one possible or even desirable.

A critique of hierarchy is central to the Anarchist model of social justice. We seek to break down to the deeper roots of oppression. Which is vital to breaking down r*pe culture and the endemic of sexual violence that haunts our world and so many of our lives. To make the link more explicit: kyriarchy (or the interlocking matrix of oppressive power structures like capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, etc) uses SA as a way of enforcing ontological hierarchies. Deviation from the norm, from the ontological priorities that permeate society, increases the risk of sexual violence because the more you deviate the less your body is valued, the less agency you are granted to define and name your own life. Therefore, I want to examine how these ontological priorities impact these discussions and the consequences that result by layering together four intersections: misogyny, cissexism, ableism, and white supremacy.

1. Misogyny and Cissexism

Within the patriarchy that we live men are “normative”, their experiences the ones by which all others are judged. Yet “men” are not a homogenous group, there are cis men, trans men, nonbinary men, intersex men, white men, men of color, abled men, disabled men. Likewise, women are not a homogenous group and neither is humanity in general; each of us occupies a complex set of identities informed by our own phenomenological experiences. By homogenizing the experiences of SA victims we necessarily erase the uniqueness of each individual experience and begin to hide the forces that shape and are shaped by r*pe culture.

The model of gender that permeates patriarchy is a binary between “male/men” and “female/women”. Several ontological priorities flow from this with devastating consequences for trans, nonbinary, and intersex folks (TNI). In the same way that misogyny centers men as being normative, cissexism centers cisness as normative. Many of the posts about me too have used cissexist and bioessentialist language (see here for more information on this) creating an ontological priority that decenters the most at-risk populations.

Take for example the ontological priority of cis women in many posts. By positioning, for example, trans women, as lacking some “essential” shared experience or quality with cis women it allows their priority to be weaponized as a way of erasing experiences deviating from the “norm.” SA itself is used to police gender and reinforce the structures that underpin the cishet patriarchy. Our queerness disrupts the ontological priorities of oppressive structures and SA becomes a way of forcing queer bodies back into the binary box.

Another insidious effect of this is that it drives a wedge through the heart of solidarity in this movement for social justice and community healing. When cis women, who are ontologically prioritized by cissexism, must make room for trans, nonbinary, and intersex folks, there is pushback and we are accused of “attacking” women. In other words, we are accused of being agents of patriarchy who seek to decenter the role of misogyny and the violence cis women face instead of being viewed as active contributors to the deconstruction of patriarchy. This implication, embedded into the language of many posts, results in trans, nonbinary and intersex folks feeling as if it is not our place to share our experiences with SA. And worse, this can result in a lack of resources, access to spaces, etc which can be potentially devastating.

2. Ableism.

Ontological priorities also weave together a narrative of there being a “default” sexual assault experience. Neuro-typical folks are granted an additional amount of agency to define their experiences not afforded to neurodivergent folks. Austitic people, and autistic women, such as myself face the additional burden of being gaslit by ableist structures in society that can be internalized. By denying us full agency through the reduction of our ontological priority our experiences can be erased or dismissed. I’m not “really” a victim of SA, I’m just “cr*zy”. I don’t “really” know my own boundaries, I’m autistic. In short ontological priorities can be weaponized to gaslight victims and cause us to gaslight ourselves.

3. White Supremacy

This section will feature two modes of analysis of white supremacy. The first focusing on anti-semitism, the second widening the scope to white supremacy more broadly and the urgency of the anti-blackness and settler colonialism that underpins it.


I’d like to begin by saying I am hesitant to write this section because I understand just how deep anti-semitism runs in leftist circles; I choose to speak truth to power regardless here in the interest of healing. I bring up Weinstein’s Jewishness, not because it absolves him of guilt, but rather because his Jewishness, animated by white supremacy and anti-semitism, becomes a shield to absolve whiteness from accountability. To be clear, Weinstein, like myself is a white passing Jew and that matters just as much in this conversation as his Jewishness. Jewishness occupies a nebulous category, orienting and aligning itself either with or away from whiteness. It is only through a complex and individual set of circumstances that white passing Jews become oriented away from whiteness as is the case here. (This article might help put some of this in context and why I choose to bring this issue up.)

What popularized the me too movement was Harvey Weinstein’s SA of women being brought to light. For those of you unaware, Weinstein is a Jewish man, and this is important to note because it reveals an ontological priority scheme not about victims but about perpetrators of SA, a scheme that *hides* the scope of the problem.

At the same time there exists a double standard in how Weinstein, a Jewish man, is held to further account than white folks who commit the same harms. Where was accountability for Brock Turner or Donald Trump or the myriad of other white abusers? And underlying this is an ontological hierarchy that masks the systemic structures of who is held accountable. By refusing to wrestle with Weinstein’s Jewishness it hides the ways white supremacy permeates r*pre culture, erases POC victims and survivors, and helps protect white men from accountability of their own actions. The ontological priorities weaponized to hold only certain groups of men accountable for their actions, rather than holding all men accountable, and further all perpetrators of SA, furthers r*pe culture, not undermines it.

•Anti-blackness and Settler Colonialism

Before I begin it is vital to recognize that I am, in social justice parlance, stepping outside of my lane. My proximity to whiteness and the myriad ways I benefit from it necessarily limit the scope of my understanding and perspective and so this section is going to miss a *lot*. Despite my own uncomfortability in writing this I will not shy away from it either as to do so increases the burden placed on POC comrades, asking them yet again to bear the brunt of the labor in the dismantling of the system which they face the brunt of. With these limitations in mind I ask you read the following as a stepping stone and that we all recognize just how vital it is to center the voices of POC, particularly the work of black and indigenous femmes and women. The following is born from a conversation I had with Raven Raines, a black activist friend (and a lot is going to be lost in translation from their experiences to my own understanding).

Black women and femmes along with indigenous women and femmes face the greatest risk of sexual violence in r*pe culture. The security to be open with experiences of sexual assault, to seek justice and healing, is far less than for white or white passing folks. The confluence of anti-black stereotypes (for example that black folks are inherently more dangerous and violent) combined with the prison industrial complex serves to silence black and indigenous SA victims and survivors. More insidious yet is that male and white notions of black liberation see silence as a necessary condition of that very liberation.

That silence is also weaponized in unique ways against black women and femmes. SA becomes a tool of white supremacy to lessen the ontological status of black women and femmes by dehumanizing and “animalizing”  their bodies. It becomes under the system of white supremacy an impossibility to r*pe black folks because they aren’t seen as human, as deserving or having bodily autonomy and consent.

In the words of Raven:

“Regardless of the white supremacist source of the Jezabel stereotype it is used to further insist that sexual abuse done to black women and femmes is both wanted and desired. To call it sexual abuse, when sexual availability is considered the very nature of black people, is seen as a joke in itself. A riotous one for those suffering under the brunt of mosogynoir”.

III. A Seed of Healing and Hope

So how might we move forward in a way that better captures the spirit me too was created in? We can use inclusive language for one, language that seeks to disrupt narratives of an “universal” SA experience. We can learn to see the sharing of these critiques and experiences as weaving the bonds of community in shared suffering. We can begin to make space for those whose voices get left behind. We can strive to lessen the material consequences faced by those placed at the bottom of ontological hierarchies. And most of all we can seek an ontological “parity” that breaks down the categorizations and priorities of the system. Breaking down, utterly destroying, the ontological hierarchies cuts to one of the core problems underpinning r*pe culture, and allows us to see all our multitude of experiences as “real”.

We can open these conversations in the spirit of communalizing trauma, where we build a culture that values consent at the deepest level and where we get real with our humanness. I think moving forward I’d like to build on that idea of a consent culture and how we can help cultivate it in ourselves and in our communities. It’s also important that as we share our traumas communally we do so in a way that gives power to victims and survivors of SA and in a way that doesn’t mask the systemic structures at play.

Different notes, different voices, different experiences joining together doesn’t have to form a cacophony, it can be a symphony if we put in the work.

PS: I’d also like to take an aside to point out one of the limitations of the me too movement. Not all SA victims and survivors are able to share their stories if they even want to. It’s important that even as we share in communal healing found in me too we don’t forget the very real forces that silence people’s stories. The onus is not on victims to share their story, the onus is on perpetrators of abuse to change their behavior and the r*pe culture they built.

It’s also important that we do not attempt to mask the power dynamics, racial, gender, etc, by using absolutely neutral language. Doing so only serves to mask the ways systemic issues are reflected in our personal experiences.

Shay Woodall

Shay Woodall is a Jewish Priestess and Pagan working to weave a queer and decolonized magic with radical politics. You can find her work here.

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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!

Heathenry and Democracy


Heathenry and Paganism stands at a crossroad in our history and development, and this decision point hinges on the question of how we should organize and govern our communities.

There are many who argue, in Heathenry and the broader polytheist and Pagan communities, for vesting leadership and decision-making in an anointed elite who will guide the rest based on their wisdom and superior abilities. They claim these ideas are rooted in the practices of the pre-Christian ancients and natural hierarchies even though, in truth, the argument they make is far more recent than they assume.

The position advanced by these would-be theocrats is rooted in modern political theory. In the liberal democratic societies many such Heathens, Pagans, and polytheists live in there is the central assumption of an unceasing, ongoing clash between democratic governance and rule by the few. Those who argue from one position or the other accept, without question, that humanity’s base setting is one of endless violence, rule by the few, and oppression of the many. They further claim that democracy as we know it is only possible in modern society and is a very recent development. Examples like Athens are seen as flukes or exceptions rather than the rule. One of the most eloquent expressions of this idea in American political philosophy is a famous passage from the Federalist Papers which says:

“But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

If this were true then it would be easy to assume that monarchic, strong-arm rule was the default for all pre-Christian, pre-modern societies making these arguments for new autocracies indisputable. Yet when one digs into the histories and lore of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples nothing could be further from the truth. Investigation into their past, their lives, and social organization shows the default mode of governance among these people was highly participatory and democratic. Power rested in the hands of all the people who made, enforced, and upheld the laws of society. The freedom of these peoples was maintained by them directly, not an external lawgiver or a benevolent state.

The best term for the form of governance used by the Germanic peoples is the Thing system, taking its name from the Old Norse word for these popular assemblies. Things were directly democratic assemblies where participants met under the open sky, debated great matters, passed laws, and resolved disputes. Every free person, man or woman, could speak before the Thing and seek redress of their grievances and in some cases even thralls were given voice and space before these assemblies. These Things were the bodies that made and deposed kings. The leaders of the Germanic world, quite contrary to the assumptions cultivated in popular culture, ruled at the behest of the Things.

This system was incredibly ancient and widespread among these peoples. The Roman historian Tacitus, in his famous Germania, wrote about the Things of the Germanic peoples living in the lands now known as Germany during the early 100s AD. According to Tacitus:

“In the election of kings they have regard to birth; in that of generals, 50 to valor. Their kings have not an absolute or unlimited power; 51 and their generals command less through the force of authority, than of example. If they are daring, adventurous, and conspicuous in action, they procure obedience from the admiration they inspire. None, however, but the priests 52 are permitted to judge offenders, to inflict bonds or stripes; so that chastisement appears not as an act of military discipline, but as the instigation of the god whom they suppose present with warriors.”1

Tacitus makes it quite clear this is no system of elective monarchy or people choosing which absolutist ruler shall lord over them but is extremely participatory, especially when one compares it to the oligarchic government of Rome during the same period. He goes on to describe exactly how these assemblies functioned and what they held power over:

“On affairs of smaller moment, the chiefs consult; on those of greater importance, the whole community; yet with this circumstance, that what is referred to the decision of the people, is first maturely discussed by the chiefs… When they all think fit, they sit down armed. Silence is proclaimed by the priests, who have on this occasion a coercive power. Then the king, or chief, and such others as are conspicuous for age, birth, military renown, or eloquence, are heard; and gain attention rather from their ability to persuade, than their authority to command. If a proposal displease, the assembly reject it by an inarticulate murmur; if it prove agreeable, they clash their javelins; for the most honorable expression of assent among them is the sound of arms.”2

They even held the power of judging crimes and assigning punishment:

“Before this council, it is likewise allowed to exhibit accusations, and to prosecute capital offences. Punishments are varied according to the nature of the crime. Traitors and deserters are hung upon trees: cowards, dastards, and those guilty of unnatural practices, are suffocated in mud under a hurdle.”3

He makes it clear those who administer such justice are chosen by and are accountable to the people:

“In the same assemblies chiefs are also elected, to administer justice through the cantons and districts. A hundred companions, chosen from the people, attended upon each of them, to assist them as well with their advice as their authority.”4

Such practices endured on the continent among Germanic peoples, like the Saxons who lived in northwestern Germany, who held true to the old ways. One description of these proceedings comes from the account of the Frankish Christian missionary St. Lebwin who reported the following on Saxon governance practices around 770AD:

“It was also the custom among the Saxons that once a year, they held an assembly by the river Weser on a place called Marklo. There come usually the chiefs from all the (twelve) different communities, as well as twelve chosen noblemen, an equal number of free men and unfree men. There they together renew their laws, pass verdicts on important matters of justice, and decided how to proceed in matters of peace or war that they had before them that year.”5

In the Scandinavian world the Things are an extremely well-documented phenomenon. One cannot go through the historical sagas of the region without tripping over Things at every turn. Great matters were resolved by these public assemblies and the people, not the kings, were the ones who held power. Two powerful examples from Scandinavian history are the cases of Hakon the Good and Torgny Lagman.

Peter_Nicolai_Arbo-Haakon_den_godeHakon the Good became King of Norway during the early 10th century through rallying the support of the people of Norway for pressing his claim. Central to his campaign was promising to restore the land rights they’d lost under King Harald Fairhair’s rule.6 After making good on this promise he then went before the people of Norway at the Frosta-Thing, a major assembly in Norway, and asked they convert to Christianity. The response from those assembled was not positive:

“As soon as the king had proposed this to the bondes, great was the murmur and noise among the crowd. They complained that the king wanted to take away their labor and their old faith from them, and the land could not be cultivated in that way. The laboring men and slaves thought that they could not work if they did not get meat”7

The main voice of the opposition, Asbjorn of Medelhaus, rallied opposition to conversion with this speech:

“We bondes, King Hakon, when we elected thee to be our king, and got back our udal rights at the Thing held in Throndhjem, thought we had got into heaven; but now we don’t know whether we have really got back our freedom, or whether thou wishest to make vassals of us again by this extraordinary proposal that we should abandon the ancient faith which our fathers and forefathers have held from the oldest times, in the times when the dead were burn, as well as since that they are laid under mounds, and which, although they were braver than the people of our days, has served us as a faith to the present time.”8

He then warns Hakon what will happen if he refuses to back down:

“If, however, thou wilt take up this matter with a high hand, and wilt try thy power and strength against us, we bondes have resolved among ourselves to part with thee, and take to ourselves some other chief, who will so conduct himself towards us that we can freely and safely enjoy the faith that suits our own inclinations. Now, king, thou must choose one or other of these conditions before the Thing is ended.”9 (emphasis mine)

According to Snorri Sturluson, “The bondes gave loud applause to this speech, and said it expressed their will, and they would stand or fall by what had been spoken.”10 Hakon was forced to agree and remained king of Norway until his death in battle against an invading army from Denmark. Following his demise Eyvind Skaldaspiller composed the Hakonarmal which ends with Hakon being welcomed into Asgard by the Gods who, according to the skald, say:

“Well was it seen that Hakon still

Had saved the temples from all ill;

For the whole council of the Gods

Welcomed the King to their abodes.”11

torgnyAnother example of the power of the Scandinavian Things occurs during a war between King Olaf Skotkonung of Sweden and Olaf Haraldson of Norway in 1018. The war between the two kings was going poorly and emissaries had arrived pleading for peace. When the matter was brought before the Thing of All Swedes in Uppsala King Olaf of Sweden angrily denounced the emissary and his foe, demanding the war go on.12 “When he sat down,” says Snorri, “not a sound was to be heard at first.”13 Torgny Lagman, a respected lawspeaker, then rose and delivered his response beginning with a recitation of the great deeds of Olaf’s ancestors before saying:

But the king we have now got allows no man to presume to talk with him, unless it be what he desires to hear. On this alone he applies all his power, while he allows his scat-lands in other countries to go from him through laziness and weakness. He wants to have the Norway kingdom laid under him, which no Swedish king before him ever desired, and therewith bring war and distress on many a man. Now it is our will, we bondes, that thou King Olaf make peace with the Norway king, Olaf the Thick, and marry thy daughter Ingegard to him. Wilt thou, however, reconquer the kingdoms in the east countries which thy relations and forefathers had there, we will all for that purpose follow thee to war. But if thou wilt not do as we desire, we will now attack thee, and put thee to death; for we will no longer suffer law and peace to be disturbed. So our forefathers went to work when they drowned five kings in a morass at the Mula-thing, and they were filled with the same insupportable pride thou has shown towards us. Now tell us, in all haste, what resolution thou wilt take.”14 (emphasis mine)

“Then the whole public approved,” says Snorri, “with clash of arms and shouts, the lagman’s speech.”15 King Olaf, clearly bested, says, “he will let things go according to the desire of the bondes. ‘All Swedish kings,’ he said, ‘have done so, and have allowed the bondes to rule in all according to their will.’”16

This system of social organization is even present among the Gods. Along with the mention of the council of the Gods in the Hakonarmal there are direct references to the Gods working in council in the Voluspa. Every aspect of the creation of Midgard was handled by the Gods meeting in council to resolve critical matters. As it says in the saga:

“Then sought the gods their assembly-seats,

The holy ones, and council held;

Names then gave they to noon and twilight,

Morning they named, and the waning moon,

Night and evening, the years to number.”17

They also met together to resolve their own affairs, such as discussing the question of how to distribute the gifts given by the residents of Midgard to the Gods:

“Then sought the Gods their assembly-seats,

The holy ones, and council held,

Whether the gods should tribute give,

Or to all alike should worship belong.”18

Such methods of decision-making are so ingrained in the Gods they stay true to government by council even in the face of Ragnarok and their own demise. According to the Voluspa:

“Yggdrasil shakes, and shiver on high

The ancient limbs, and the giant is loose;

To the head of Mim does Odin give heed,

But the kinsman of Surt shall slay him soon.


How fare the Gods? How fare the elves?

All Jotunheim groans, the Gods are at council;

Loud roar the dwarfs by the doors of stone,

The masters of the rocks: would you know yet more?”19

If the norm for these peoples was a system characterized by democracy, direct participation, and rule of the many how is it possible such norms were replaced by the autocracy of feudalism and monarchy? The first, kneejerk reaction of some would be to argue humanity’s base inclinations overtook their higher aspirations, bringing down the Things and their democratic norms. Yet this line of reasoning is one with no support from history.

The beginning of the end of the Things, such as those in Saxony, came not by internal decay and downfall but through sword and Cross. Beginning in the 770s Charlemagne, the King of the Franks, initiated a series of bloody, vicious wars against the people of Saxony to force their submission to his rule and Christianity. One of the many atrocities committed against the Saxons by Carolingian forces was the notorious Massacre of Verdun where an estimated 4,500 Saxon warriors and chiefs, who had converted to Christianity shortly before, were slaughtered without mercy. Frankish chroniclers claimed the Verdun River ran red with blood for weeks after the king’s cruel verdict. Just over a century later the Christian Emperor Otto would do the same in Denmark, forcing their conversion through invasion.20 Following conversion Denmark would be the only Scandinavian country where the people were forced under the yoke of serfdom. Many other ambitious warlords, like Olaf Tryggvason and Olaf the Thick, followed the same pattern of using Christianity to justify naked ambition, slaughter, and oppression, destroying all who stood against them.

There is little doubt the arguments for rule by the few and submission by the many have no weight or substance. As is shown in the history of the pre-Christian peoples Heathens draw our inspiration from power was widely shared and vested in the people, not crowns or thrones. As a new and developing religious movement we stand at a key turning point in our development where we can repeat the mistakes of the past by descending into clerical and personal autocracy or avert them through a bold, decisive stand for the ways of the ancients. It is clear those who seek to dominate others in the name of all that is holy do so at the expense of those they claim to guide and protect. Their arguments of natural orders have no basis in human history or behavior. Modern Heathens, Pagans, and polytheists should heed the example of the Things and live through methods, structures, and systems that reflect the needs & desires of all adherents, no matter who they are, instead of glorifying and elevating a self-appointed few at the expense of the rest.

  • 1  Germania, Tacitus

2  Germania, Tacitus

3  Germania, Tacitus

4 Ibid

5 Vita Lebuini, Hucbald

6  King Harald’s Law for Land Property, Heimskringla, translated by Peter Laing

7 The Frosta-Thing, Saga of Hakon the Good, Heimskringla translated by Samuel Laing

8 Ibid

9 Ibid

10 Ibid

11 . Hakon’s Death, Saga of Hakon the Good, Heimskringla, translated by Peter Laing

12  Of The Upsala Thing, Saga of Olaf Haraldson, Heimskringla, translated by Peter Laing

13 Ibid

14  Thorgny’s Speech, Saga of Olaf Haraldson, Heimskringla, translated by Peter Laing

15 Ibid

16 Ibid

17 Voluspa 6, Poetic Edda, translated by Henry Adams Bellows

18 Voluspa 24, Poetic Edda, translated by Henry Adams Bellows

19 Voluspa 47-48, Poetic Edda, translated by Henry Adams Bellows

20 24-27, King Olaf Trygvason’s Saga, Heimskringla, translated by Peter Laing

Ryan Smith

Ryan Smith is a Heathen devoted to Odin living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is the co-founder of Heathens United Against Racism, a founding member of Golden Gate Kindred, is active in the environmental justice and anti-police brutality movements, and recently completed his Masters in modern Middle East History and economics.

A Radical Pagan Pope?

Last week, Pope Francis’ much-anticipated environmental encyclical was published. As was expected, the Pope acknowledged the “human origins of the ecological crisis” (¶ 101), specifically that global warming is mostly due to the concentration of greenhouse gases which are released “mainly” as a result of human activity (¶ 23). And he called for the progressive replacement “without delay” of technologies that use fossil fuels. (¶ 165)

The Pope and small-p “paganism”

Image courtesy of the Scottish Skeptic
Image courtesy of the Scottish Skeptic

Even before Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical was published, critics were calling the Pope a “pagan”. This isn’t all that surprising given how the religious right has always accused environmentalists of “paganism”. And indeed there are some similarities between the Pope’s statement and contemporary Pagan discourse. For example, in the encyclical, the Pope personifies the earth, calling the the earth “Sister” (¶¶ 1, 2, 53) and “Mother” (¶¶ 1, 92). However, this language is drawn from a Christian, not a pagan, source: St. Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of Creatures”. And Pope Francis makes a point of saying that he is not “divinizing” the earth. (¶ 90) Instead, his intent is to emphasize the “fraternal” nature of our relationship with the earth and its inhabitants, both human and other-than, which he says have their own intrinsic value independent of their usefulness to us. (¶ 140)

Some of the language from the Pope’s statement resembled language in “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment.” For example, no less than 8 times throughout the encyclical, the Pope observes that “everything is interconnected” (¶¶ 16, 42, 70, 91, 111, 117, 138), a fact which, he says, “cannot be emphasized enough” (¶ 138). Similarly, the Pagan statement begins by recognizing our interconnectedness with the web of life:

“In recent decades, many contemporary Pagan religious traditions have stressed humanity’s interconnectivity with the rest of the natural world. Many of our ancestors realized what has now been supported by the scientific method and our expanding knowledge of the universe — that Earth’s biosphere may be understood as a single ecosystem and that all life on Earth is interconnected.” — “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment”

The Pope also observes that we are inherently part of the earth: “Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it.” (¶ 139) The Pope introduces the encyclical with the observation that “our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.” (¶ 2) This also resembles very closely language in the Pagan statement:

“We are earth, with carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus making up our bodies one day, and incorporated into mountains the next. We are air, giving food to the trees and grasses when we exhale, and breathing in their gift of free oxygen with each breath. We are fire, burning the energy of the Sun, captured and given to us by plants. We are water, with the oceans flowing in our veins and the same water that nourished the dinosaurs within our cells.” — “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment.”

However, this does not make the Pope “pagan” (much less a “Pagan”). As Pagan Studies scholar Michael York explains, “even though such world religions as Christianity and Islam might cherish nature as a divine gift, they do not comprise nature religions. Instead, I argue that any religious perspective that honors the natural as the sacred itself made tangible, as immanent holiness, is pagan.” Rather, the Pope’s statements merely show how ubiquitous the idea of our interconnectedness with the earth has become. More than anything else, they are a reflection of the Pope’s acceptance of what has become scientific consensus.

Getting to the “root” of the matter: Anthropocentrism

A more interesting question than whether the Pope’s encyclical is “pagan” is the question whether the encyclical is as “radical” as some are claiming. No doubt, it is a radical challenge to capitalism (which will undoubtedly be a subject for future posts at G&R), but just how “radical” is the encyclical’s ecology? The word “radical” comes from the Latin radix or “roots”, so another way to ask that question is: Just how “deep” is the Pope’s ecology?

A truly deep ecology is one that challenges the anthropocentric paradigm which places humans hierarchically “above” other living species and above inanimate matter, which is seen to exist in some sense “for” humans. The Pope states that the encyclical is an “attempt to get to the roots of the present situation, so as to consider not only its symptoms but also its deepest causes.” (¶ 15) But while the Pope comes to many right conclusions about anthropogenic climate change and the limits of capitalism, the encyclical is nevertheless plagued by a lingering anthropocentrism which he never manages to root out.

At first glance, it appears that the Pope is critical of anthropocentrism, but a closer look reveals that he always qualifies the word “anthropocentrism” when he uses it. For instance, he criticizes “distorted” or “excessive” or “tyrannical” anthropocentrism (¶¶ 68, 69, 116), but never just plain anthropocentrism. This implies that there is such a thing as an “undistorted” anthropocentrism or a “right amount” of anthropocentrism. And this becomes clear when the Pope insists on humanity’s “pre-eminence” (¶ 90) and “superiority” (¶ 220), and when he eschews “biocentrism” (¶ 118) and declines to “put all living beings on the same level” (¶ 90).

The Pope’s justification for a qualified anthropocentrism is flawed. He argues that, in the absence of a belief in our superiority, human beings will not feel responsible for the planet. (¶ 118) It is true that human beings are “unique” in many ways among the world’s fauna, but only in so far that other forms or life are also unique in their own ways. And while it is reasonable to argue that humans have special responsibilities to the earth, due to our highly developed cerebrum and opposable thumbs (especially considering the messes we have made with our highly developed cerebrum and opposable thumbs), the notion that a feeling of superiority is a necessary condition for a feeling of responsibility is specious. In fact, a belief in humanity’s “superiority” can actually weaken people’s sense of ecological responsibility, just as a heightened sense of responsibility can grow out of the loss of that belief.

Papal paternalism: the Great Chain of Being

A related problem with the encyclical is the Pope’s repeated characterization of the earth or nature as “fragile.” (¶ 16, 56, 78, 90) If by “fragility” he is referring to the fact that all of our actions affect the environment or that the ecosystem is sensitive to change, then that is true. But the earth itself is not fragile. It is we — and other species — that occupy a fragile place in the ecosystem. The ecosystem itself is resilient. As “Mother Nature” says in a video from Conservation International:

“I’ve been here for over four and a half billion years
Twenty-two thousand five hundred times longer than you
I don’t really need people but people need me

… I’ve been here for aeons
I have fed species greater than you, and
I have starved species greater than you
My oceans, my soil, my flowing streams, my forests,
they all can take you or leave you
How you chose to live each day whether you regard or
disregard me doesn’t really matter to me
One way or the other your actions will determine your fate not mine
I am nature
I will go on
I am prepared to evolve

Are you?”

While he speaks of an environmental “crisis” and “irreversible damage” to the ecosystem, there is no sense in the Pope’s encyclical that human beings are facing an existential threat (in contrast to the his earlier statement in May that “If we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us.”).

The Great (Hierarchical) Chain of Being
The Great (Hierarchical) Chain of Being

This insistence on the “fragility” of nature and humankind’s “superiority” is a symptom of an implicit paternalism running throughout the encyclical. This paternalism is premised on a vision of nature as the Aristotelian “Great Chain of Being”, with God at the top, angels and humans in the middle, and (other) animals, plants, and the earth at the bottom. This arrangement places humans in same relation to the earth as God is in relation to humans — that of a powerful father to a weak child. This is why the Pope rejects “a divinization of the earth” (¶ 90), as it would effectively break the order of the Great Chain.

The Pope also repeatedly refers to the earth as God’s “gift” to humanity (¶¶ 71, 76, 93, 115, 146, 159, 220, 227), an idea which the foundation of a stewardship model of environmentalism. The idea that the earth is God’s gift to humanity first of all implies that the earth is “property” which can be gifted, which undermines the Pope’s earlier talk about humans being part of nature (¶ 2). It also perpetuates the hierarchical vision of the cosmos and implies that our responsibility to the earth derives not directly and horizontally from our “fraternity” with nature, but indirectly and vertically through our filial duty to a paternal deity. While the introductory paragraphs of the encyclical do speak of interconnectedness and fraternal responsibility (see above), ultimately the Pope never breaks out of the stewardship model of environmentalism (¶ 116), a model which has been thus far insufficiently radical to effect the “deep change” (¶ 215) which is necessary to revolutionize our collective relationship with the earth.

The same old story: Hierarchy

In 1967, professor of history Lynn White published an article in the periodical Science, entitled “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”. The article examined the influence of Christianity on humankind’s relationship with nature. White argued that the environmental decline was, at its “root”, a Christian problem. For White, the belief that the earth was a resource for human consumption could be traced back to the triumph of medieval Christianity over pagan animism, and even further back to the Biblical injunction to man to “subdue” the earth and exercise “dominion” over every living thing. Medieval Christianity, according to White, elevated humankind, who was made in God’s image, and denigrated the rest of creation, which was believed to have no soul.

In his encyclical, the Pope attempts to answer White’s charge, and he makes a valiant attempt to reinterpret the Genesis “dominion” language. He rejects the notion that being created in God’s image and being given “dominion” over the earth justifies “absolute domination” over other creatures. (¶ 67) Instead, he says, a correct reading of Genesis understands that language in the context of the corresponding commands to “till and keep”, the latter word meaning “caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving”. This, he says, “implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature.” (¶ 67)

In spite of this, the Pope’s qualification of the word “domination” with the word “absolute” implies again that a limited domination is justified. “We are not God,” he says. Citing scripture, the Pope says that the earth and everything in it belongs to God, and has been given to us. (¶ 67) Thus, it is not humankind’s domination of the earth that concerns the Pope, so much as humankind’s usurpation of God’s domination over everything.

This is the same old Christian story we know well, with its Great Chain of Being and the upstart human beings who don’t know their place: “a little lower than the angels” and with all the creatures of the earth “under their feet”. (Psalm 8:5-8) While arguably the Pope’s encyclical is more “theocentric” than “anthropocentric”, this turns out to be a distinction without a difference because humans are still placed above above all other forms of life (other than God and angels) in the cosmic hierarchy. Ultimately, the Pope fails to truly get to “root” of the ecological crisis, and his environmental encyclical never rises (or should we say “descends”) to the level of a truly “radical” — much less “pagan” — declaration.