Editorial: The Witch Hunt That Wasn’t

Five months ago, we published a piece called, “Confronting the New Right,” an information page designed to supplement an essay about a Fascist candidate for elected office in Florida, Augustus Sol Invictus.

It caused a bit of controversy.

Though the article about Invictus was viewed only about 1000 times, the information page eclipsed that article by a factor of ten. “Confronting The New Right” was viewed 10,000 times, becoming the third most accessed essay on Gods&Radicals (behind Sean Donahue’s excellent essay, “The Neurobiology of Re/enchantment” and my review of Alex Mar’s book, Witches of America.)

Neither its extreme popularity or the controversy surrounding “Confronting the New Right” surprised me. What did take me aback, however, was the reaction some ‘leaders’ had to the piece, some of whom I’d worked closely with as the co-founder and co-organiser of the first Many Gods West.  Pagan and Polytheist figures who’d otherwise presented themselves as bulwarks against racism and fascist entryism became very quick to denounce Gods&Radicals and the page about the New Right. Some even joined in on personal attacks and physical threats against myself and other Gods&Radicals writers

While a few of these figures do hold racist, nationalist, or fascist views, none openly disagreed with the general thrust of my argument. Only a few suggested that the New Right shouldn’t be worried about, or that fascism was a non-existent threat. Rather, their primary arguments were on the matter of authority.

Respect Your Elders….

I provided four suggestions for those concerned with the New Right. The two involving spiritual leaders attracted the most rancor:

  • Demand clear stances from leaders: If a leader of any Pagan tradition seems to equivocate on questions of race, identity, or politics, or if they seem to have odd associations with New Right figures, ask them to clarify their stance, especially if they are ‘your’ leader.  Just because they are older or more experienced doesn’t mean they are beyond question; in fact, claiming ‘authority’ as an ‘elder’ or ‘priest’ leads to all manner of abuses, including spiritual abuse.
  • Challenge divine proclamations: While it’s certainly possible that a god may have told someone to do something awful, that’s hardly an excuse to do something awful.  The sacred has long been used by violent people to justify violence, by hateful people to justify hatred, and by authoritarian people to justify authoritarianism.  Just because someone is a ‘professional’ priest or diviner or witch doesn’t mean that their statements about the gods are true. Especially question commands that might grant the giver of the message power over you, or lead you to see a group of people as ‘an enemy.’

I presented both of these suggestions to help address a problem I’d noted in many Pagan-related groups. Many leaders seemed to equivocate on matters related to inclusion of minorities, or declined to criticize other groups who held racist, trans-exclusionist, or homophobic views. Asking leaders for clear stances seemed a common-sense approach to this problem–after all, if they’re ‘our’ leaders, they should be clear.

A common complaint to this suggestion was that I was attempting to ‘politicize’ Pagan groups. In such a view, though, being inclusive is political, while excluding people is not. Many of those who held such a view fell back upon their own perceived roles as priests to the gods, founders of traditions, or bearers of special knowledge. Suggesting that readers use their own discernment on such matters, rather than default to divine proclamations, challenged this strategy.

One essay by a Pagan leader became typical of the panic these two suggestions caused.  In his essay, A Wind That Tastes of Ashes, John Michael Greer accused me of demogoguery, warning:

…he urges them to challenge the traditional roles of Pagan elders and leaders, and to break down boundaries between different traditions. If you’re a demagogue out to bully and bluster your way to unearned power, the respect others give to community leaders and elders is a major obstacle. The tendency of different groups within the community to look to their leaders and elders, rather than to you, is another. Breaking down these particular obstacles is also, by the way, standard Marxist strategy, which suggests where Wildermuth may have gotten his grasp of the demagogue’s trade.

I am, of course, a Marxist. And an Anarchist, a Feminist, a Pagan, and a Polytheist. And I did indeed suggest we challenge the traditional roles of Pagan elders and leaders. But why, precisely? Because I was seeking unearned power? Or as he and others suggested elsewhere, I am a Marxist entryist looking to sabotage already-existing groups rather than build my own?

No.  Rather, it was because of stuff like the Asatru Folk Assembly’s announcement on the 21st of August:

AFA

The Asatru Folk Assembly, founded by Stephen McNallen and supported heavily by many people within the New (and old) Right, is not the only Pagan-aligned group to hold such views. But what I have long found worrisome is that such groups have rarely been so clear about their positions, nor are they often challenged by others.

For instance, Steve Abell, the former steersman of the Troth (the largest Heathen organisation in the world), refused to take strong stances against AFA’s rhetoric. Abell once even wrote an essay lauding Stephen McNallen’s civility while suggesting that a staunch anti-racist, Ryan Smith, was attempting to revive the “Inquisition” by confronting AFA’s racism.

Steve Abell was hardly the only leader to have painted the sort of white nationalist rhetoric that AFA uses as civil while insisting those who confront it are initiating “witchhunts.” More interesting, though, several AFA members led the charge against Gods&Radicals on this very point (many of the comments in Greer’s essay  and several blog posts shared by other critics are from one such member), framing the controversy around Confronting the New Right not as one of racism versus inclusion but rather innocent victims defending themselves from angry radicals.

Such a switch starts to sound like obfuscation, an attempt to silence critics who challenge the power of white (often male) leaders and elders who have long either ignored the political implications of their views, or actively attempted to hide them (as AFA often did).

But We’re Not Political…

Religious claims have political implications, especially those arguing for exclusion or strict hierarchy. Consider AFA’s claim that gender is ‘a gift from the holy powers and our ancestors,’ rather than a social construct. Something coming from ‘the holy powers’ (gods) is no different from claiming it to be ‘divinely ordained,’ just as some polytheists claim authority and hierarchy to be.

If the gods declared it, then any person faithful to the gods must accept this, lest they go against their will.

In such a view, the divine order (gender and sexual orientation, in the case of the AFA, or authority and hierarchy, in the case of some polytheists) is apolitical; any attempt to alter it is a politicization of something that should instead be sacred. Thus, on one hand there is the will of the gods, and against it stands radicals, ‘cultural marxists,’ or demagogues.

But who declares what is sacred? Who tells us what the will of the gods is?

Why, of course, the priests. The elders. The leaders. People who have a vested interest in hierarchy and a respect for authority, because they are at the top of it.

We are told merely to trust that devoted priests of the gods, founders or leaders of spiritual traditions, and elders who have accumulated years of influence have a better grasp of what the gods want than we do. Their experience, their ‘professional’ roles, their expertise should unquestioningly give more weight to their words than those of others, especially when the question arises as to what the gods will for humans.

There are some leaders I trust, some elders whose words I heed much sooner than others, some priests whose insights into the divine has proven repeatedly to be sound. But the trust I grant them comes not from their position as leader, or elder, or priest, but from my own experience with them.

Also, they each have something in common: they never pull rank.  Rather than relying upon a divine order of hierarchy or a sense of innate authority, they speak as fellow humans, themselves sharply aware of the possibility they might be wrong.

None demand I listen to them. None suggest they possess special powers or specific expertise that others cannot possess. None demand I follow them, nor are they surrounded by people who believe them to be any different from themselves.

Whether those who would claim the ability to speak on behalf of the gods (yet rely upon claims of divinely-ordained hierarchies and authority) are just deluded or seeking more power is impossible to know. Does the current AFA Alsherjargothi, Matt Flavel, really have the ability to know what the ‘holy powers’ have ordained regarding gender and sex?

We can’t answer this, and it’s maybe not even the right question.  Instead, we should be asking why anyone would accept such a claim, and why other Pagans and Polytheists–themselves leaders–insist that questioning authority and hierarchy is equivalent to a witch hunt.

The Witch Hunt That Wasn’t

Witches, of course, were not people in power. They were not leaders, large land holders or rich aristocrats. They were not bishops and priests, leaders of churches or even their community.

Instead, they were women, often those who did not conform to ‘divinely ordained’ standards of gender expression and sexual activity. The charges against them included dressing like men, having sex with other women and with the devil. They were often accused of undermining the authority of rulers, going against the strictures God ordained and priests declared. They refused the authority of man in favor of their own wills and desires.

They were disobedient, unruly and unruled. Just as the heretics the Catholic Church hunted claimed their own ability to hear God was equal to that of the priests, witches refused to settle for the divine order dictated to them.

Witch pullIt is not–and never has been–the leaderless, the self-ruled, and the self-possessed who hunted down innocents because they disagreed with their opinions. There is a reason history is not full of stories of racists or white nationalists finding burning crosses in their yards or being lynched. Likewise,  we do not hear of homophobes dragged behind trucks for miles, or burned alive, or slaughtered en-masse at a night club.

There has been no great ‘witch-hunt’ against fascist and authoritarian Polytheists by leftist neopagans. No leaders were strung up by the readers of Gods&Radicals, violently purged and shoved into ghettos or camps.

But some leaders have been challenged, and that’s what they fear most.

Those who claim that I or any other critic of authoritarian or New Right Paganism are attempting to initiate a witch-hunt know full well they have no such thing to fear. What they do have to lose, though, is their influence and power.

If I suggest you might be able to speak to the gods yourself, or if I and others (as in the recent My Polytheism series) assert you might be able to craft your own relationship with the divine rather than relying on self-proclaimed priests, then self-appointed leaders will have to find other ways of gaining our respect.

If people start questioning artificial ideas of hierarchy or divinely-ordained authority, leaders will have to earn our respect the way the rest of us do, step down from their pedestals and thrones and learn alongside us. They’ll have to find their own power and their own place within our varied traditions, and do the real work of building community, rather than authoritarian structures based on hierarchy.

In such a Paganism, statements about ‘the holy powers’ ordaining gender and sexuality will be seen as what they are–political opinions of racist, sexist, and anti-gay leaders who have too long hidden their ideas behind authority and the gods, expecting the faithful to fall in line.

I’m proud to help build such a Paganism.


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd manyis the co-founder and Managing Editor of Gods&Radicals.

Dread of a Revolution

By Anthony Rella

behead-poolI dream that a friend of mine is leading a ritual to teach us about capitalism and its damages. The ritual is bizarre and colorful. After, I see a group of elders heading toward a table, complaining about how they don’t understand what was happening, expressing their anger at my friend. I tell another person about this, who says, “They’ve forgotten the role of fear and trembling in religion.”

Sometimes I think it’s enough for me to live a life that is simple and useful. No big drama, no public persona, no extremes of wealth or fame, simply showing up every day to be of service and lighten others’ burdens as best as I can. When I look at what’s in front of me, what it’s within my skills and capacity to do as a therapist, I feel a sense of ease and purpose. Being present in a room with someone, trying to listen and understand them deeply and help them to listen to and understand themselves deeply, feels powerful and satisfying and I know it improves quality of life and quality of relationships.

Yet often I wonder whether a simple and useful life is enough for the world. Is my service too myopic? Am I retreating to the comfort of believing myself powerless when I fail to speak out against mass incarceration, against rampant inequality, against the decimation of our environment? I may never have to experience some of these problems directly, yet I believe we all suffer from their existence. To live in a city in which one’s condominiums were built on a site that formerly housed 160 low-income families who have to find somewhere else to live that they can afford—itself built on a site colonized and annexed from its earlier inhabitants—no matter how noble I think I am, no matter how much money I give or how I pay lip service to the right slogans, at heart I know that my lifestyle includes evil. Not an obvious, movie villain kind of evil; an evil that quietly kills joy, exploits the land and living people, and grinds hope to dust.

I know that the iPhone that adds convenience to my life also includes evils of worker exploitation and environmental degradation. Riding a car, even riding a bus, my lifestyle depends on fossil fuels and energy consumption that includes evils of war and the pollution of air, water, and soil. The culture in which I never needed to consider why most important historical figures, writers, scientists, and artists all look like me is the culture that inflicts evil on people of color, assaulting and diminishing self-esteem and dignity, justifying disproportionate incarceration and state-endorsed murder. There is no opting out of this system.

We need more than personal change to create just, joyful, resilient, life-affirming cultures. I know that I cannot fix all these things myself. What I am best able to do is show up daily and support people, one by one, in being their best selves and creating better worlds. In my life, huge transformations have come when I simply kept showing up for daily practice and the work that was in front of me. That answer feels incomplete. Even when I meet individually with the people experiencing these harms and help them to become more resilient, more self-possessed, and more joyous, they still return to a system set up against their well-being.

To be honest, the idea of revolution terrifies me, as I suspect it terrifies anyone who has privilege, who benefits from the world as it is today. In The Concept of Anxiety, Kierkegaard says of anxiety that it is “a desire for what one dreads.” One source of fear is the real possibility that revolution will leave people more oppressed and spiritually impoverished. Another source of fear is the belief that change will likely involve pain, at the very least discomfort. White people’s terror of Black people’s anger, I believe, is because deep down we know it’s warranted and just. We imagine how we would feel if the roles were reversed. We know that our ancestors benefited from the brutalization and exploitation of people of color. My Irish and Italian ancestors, at one point non-white in this country, might have once found common cause with people of color in protest. Instead, we got the “upgrade” to Whiteness, which was deliberate and strategic as explored by Noel Ignatiev in How the Irish Became White, and we’re now stakeholders in White privilege.

So I see in my heart the anger and resentment when people speak up about their oppression and it implicates me. I practice setting aside my defensiveness to listen, but still part of me wants to silence the oppressed, shame them, dismiss them. Part of me wants to pretend their stories aren’t real, their anger isn’t justified, or somehow exempt myself from the conditions that oppress them. Once I’ve begun to dismiss and silence, I’ve committed another crime against humanity. I’ve numbed the drive for justice and integrity. I’ve chosen to swallow the pain of life as it is and avoid the possibility that we can make things better. I’ve chosen to abdicate my power to make change and simply pretend that incomprehensible forces beyond my control made things the way they are, instead of humans making human choices.

While writing this piece, I encountered this quote from John Michael Greer:

It occurred to me the other day that quite a few of the odder features of contemporary American culture make perfect sense if you assume that everybody knows exactly what’s wrong and what’s coming as our society rushes, pedal to the metal, toward its face-first collision with the brick wall of the future. It’s not that they don’t get it; they get it all too clearly, and they just wish that those of us on the fringes would quit reminding them of the imminent impact, so they can spend whatever time they’ve got left in as close to a state of blissful indifference as they can possibly manage.

I don’t know the answers, or more likely I’m terrified by the answers in front of me. What I know is that we need those on the edges: the radicals, the queer, the marginalized, the ones who speak up and remind me of what I’d want to ignore. These are the voices that see we are the Titanic plowing heedlessly into the ice and shouting for us to stop. We need these voices if we’re going to survive the changes that are already happening.

Meanwhile I continue to show up to my spiritual practice every day, and show up to my life trying to seed connection and joy. If I am to continue, however, I must also own and nurture the part of me that feels anger, that pushes for change, that strives for a world in which everyone has a warm place to sleep, enough to eat, and does not live in fear of being harmed by the people who are supposed to protect them. Survival is not enough. Comfort is not enough. Fear is not enough. We must be whole, passionately loving this earth and our humanity, and striving for justice.

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.


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