Pagan Identity and the Plague of White Supremacy

I began this post in June of this year, right before spending a summer completely inundated with rather stressful events in my life and in the nation.  As much as I greatly desired to blog, I’ve been battling the kind of exhaustion that comes with non-stop new stresses and the current state of the world.  Like many sensitive people, it feels overwhelming.  The events recently in Charlottesville prompted me to look back at my already-forming, perhaps prescient thoughts of two months ago.  I’m still struggling with them.

Back in June, I’d been thinking a lot lately about my religious identity.  I can’t help it, really.  I’m a cultural anthropologist by profession.  It causes me to constantly question and probe my own assumptions and the patterns I observe around me.  In short, it gets me into trouble, but it’s usually a good kind of trouble that results in pushing toward a more refined sense of self-knowledge.

I’ve watched the debates, rifts, discussions, and interpenetrations of paganism and polytheism with mild interest for a while.  To be honest, as a person who is far more concerned with ethics and practice, and is rather pragmatic about identity, I can’t fully understand (on an emotional level) why people get so excited about this.  I have data from approximately 800 different self-identified Pagans and Heathens on their spiritual beliefs, practices, and affiliations, and I’m slowly making my way through the data.  It will eventually emerge as an article or book, but in the meantime, I’m also reflecting critically on my own self-identification and journey the last several years.  And I’m trying to sort, even after some 15 years as a Druid, where I fit – if I fit anywhere.

My ambivalence toward Pagan identity was, therefore, already entrenched – embedded in my broader skepticism of claiming identities in general and my inability to get too attached to loosely defined, fuzzy boundaried groups.  The events after Ferguson, and more recently Charlottesville, have produced more deep, ethical challenges for me regarding Pagan identity.

I have considered myself a Druid since about 2002 (and joined the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids in 2005), increasingly leaving the doctrines of Christianity and embracing animism over the course of several years.  I never claimed the Pagan label until I realized – through some prompting by T. Thorn Coyle – that I was in a privileged position of being able to contribute to broader understanding of Paganism by the public, and it could help if I claimed this label for myself.  So I did.  I’m a pragmatic sort, and relatively unconcerned with labels – so if it can help to identify as something, I’m game.  It didn’t change my spiritual beliefs or practices at all, except that it made me more visible and non-solitary.

I began to struggle a lot with the broader Pagan population and identity when the Ferguson protests and Black Lives Matter came into national focus.  I observed a slowness and vagueness in the responses from many Pagan leaders and organizations.  Self-identified Pagans are predominantly white in the United States, and it was clear from people’s responses that my own ethics, values, and priorities were quite divergent from many Pagan organizations and leaders, as well as those in the rank-and-file like myself.

Black Lives Matter banner in oak tree

Black Lives Matter banner in historic oak tree at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, CA

You see, I was raised quite similarly to Quakerism.  My spirituality has always been political and justice-oriented.  I was raised on Marxian social theory, feminism, and Jesus the Radical.  I left the doctrines of Christianity behind, but I’ve never left behind the focus on inclusion, justice, and love-in-action.  I never intend to.  Justice is at the heart of my Druidry, just as it was at the heart of my Christianity.  I left Christianity mostly because I serve many Spirits, not just one.  I left because I don’t believe in heaven and hell, original sin, or the necessity of blood sacrifice (animal or human) to change one’s wrong doing and receive forgiveness.  I left because I believe the earth and this life is sacred, and I am not focused on some vision of a perfected life one day, but rather this life here and now.

But now, here I am as a Druid with deep-seated reservations about the ethics of Pagan traditions.  For two years, and once again now with the events in Charlottesville, I’ve watched white Pagans respond in ways that range from clearly white supremacist (as people who are self-professedly in the “alt-Right” – another name for Nazis and the KKK) to dismissive and ineffectual (asking us to understand and make nice with people who are white supremacists or make vague statements about diverse ideologies in our umbrella).  My own order (OBOD) recently released a clear and strong statement against racism, Nazism, and other ideologies that would harm people – but I read the comments to this statement and was very disheartened by the clear racism present within people who are presumably of my own tradition.

How do I respond to this?  How should any of us respond?  Do we remain and fight from the inside?  Do we leave and wander alone in the wilderness?  How do I reconcile that there is a clearer and more effective resistance to the scourge of white supremacy and hatred in the Episcopal church my wife and I attend (we’re an interfaith couple) than I see out of my own tradition and Paganism as a whole?  And should I bother trying to support a group of minority religions if that support is also mostly going to white people, many of whom display outright racism and many more of whom constantly dismiss the pain and suffering of our siblings of color in our traditions?

This is not a crisis of faith.  The Spirits I Serve are unequivocal in Their perception that white supremacy, and hatred and fear toward others in general, is a dead-end in human consciousness and the biggest barrier to our reaching our potential as a species and as individuals.

It’s a crisis of identity.  I want community.  But if I’m joined in community with people who harm those who are vulnerable, how do I avoid being complicit in that harm?  Is the answer changing organizations from the inside, or leaving them altogether?  How much of my desire in various directions is governed by self-interest, and how much by pragmatic strategy to support justice?

I don’t have any answers yet, only questions.  I have to lean into the discomfort again and again.  Each one of us should lean into this discomfort: listening to Pagans of color rather than dismissing them.  Educating ourselves about the history of people of color and questioning what the responses should be from our religious traditions.  Ferreting out the source of our defensiveness as white people and doing shadow work around it.  Looking to our ancestors with frank honesty: acknowledging that some walk in grace and some are broken by the evil they did to others.  Asking ourselves what our priorities and values are – and who these benefit in the world.

I can’t say yet if I will still claim the label of Pagan.  At the moment, I don’t know what the label means anymore.  I’m deeply concerned that its associations – given the fuzzy and inadequate responses to white supremacy that some Pagan organizations and leaders present – will be indelibly negatively linked to the worst kind of hatred.  All I can do is sit with the discomfort and listen.  Listen to my Pagan siblings of color.  Listen to the Spirits I Serve.  And wait with openness and willingness to learn what comes next.

About the Author

I'm Kimberly Kirner, a Druid (in the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids). My spirituality is focused first on serving the nature spirits of this lovely being we call Earth. I'm a professor of cultural anthropology by profession, specializing in environmental and medical anthropology. I started this blog (and my website) to collect my thoughts and experiences that arise from my spiritual and creative (rather than professional) practice. I wanted a space, a time, to move differently in the world (and with a different group of people): to balance between an analytical approach and an intuitive one. For me, Druidry is about expanding our capacity to connect and communicate with the non-human world, deepening our commitment to justice for all beings, and re-enchanting the world so that we heal the brokenness and discord that exists between humans and our home. In many ways, my Druidic practice is a path toward walking between the worlds - of waking and dreaming, of the world as it is and the world as it could be. It is an attempt to love all beings through service, study, and art. I am not always great at it, but it's the commitment and perseverance that counts.

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10 Comments

  1. Thank you for such an intelligent and well reasoned article! I find myself in a similar situation owing to some questionable practices and unethical shifts I have observed in my own local Pagan community. Some folks seem to ignore the personal work of becoming a better and more balanced human being, choosing instead to focus on the “look” and trappings of Paganism. Such people will effortlessly excuse any selfish or harmful behaviour as “witchier than thou”, setting a terrible example for the others that are starting to follow them. The easy path is always so much more attractive…

    Can I change this from the inside? In truth, do I even have the right to do so if this is what others seem to want? I will continue to be and do as I must, but though I am Pagan and have been for many years, I am standing aside and waiting. I trust that when They need me to act, They will let me know.

    I wish you every blessing in your own search for a place to stand.

    -Caradawg

    1. Hi, Caradawg- Thank you for writing about your own experience with this. It is really difficult. Some days, I feel very much like leaving the label behind (my practices would continue on regardless). Other days, I wonder if I should stand and fight for the religion I always hoped for, as Kenneth encourages in the comments. So far, I balance somewhere in between, though I often use the label “Druid” when others ask about my religious identity (not that Druids are never problematic, but I’ve found that the greater organizational structure of the two largest orders, and the way they function, mean that at least in my own experience, I’ve encountered fewer of the ethical issues that I’ve heard about in smaller traditions that are more oath-bound).

  2. I hear you and hit similar challenges years ago – still serving the Gods and Mother Earth – similarly yet differently – might I suggest reading something by Jordan Paper or on eco-spirituality?

  3. I came to the conclusion long ago that my identity as “Pagan” is not something I can allow to be driven or defined by others. I wear the Pagan label and identity because I am called to Pagan deities with every fiber of my being. My entire worldview, the way I conceive of divinity and humanity, the virtues I aspire to, the way I love, work, celebrate and mourn, are all Pagan. The label simply fits in a way that no other label can even approximate. At the end of each day, it’s about the relationship I have with the gods and how that translates into my deeds. That’s the whole ball game for me. Whether or not self-styled “leaders” or the “movement” live up to my expectations (and they frequently don’t), has no bearing on the matter, just as my identity does not hing on being considered “Pagan enough” by these people.

    My beliefs and actions in the areas of social justice are informed by a Pagan perspective, but the bottom line reason I consider myself Pagan is because I’m called to it. Many people, unfortunately, come to Pagan identity not out of calling but because it seems to offer a groovy refuge from the dogmas and strictures of their birth religion (usually Christianity). “Becoming” Pagan is seen as a way to rebel, and a place to “do spirituality” with no real demands. It’s also seen as socially progressive, especially in the areas of feminism, the environment and LGBT acceptance. None of those things offers firm enough soil to hold a true spiritual or religious identity, any more than claiming to be Muslim simply because you love the poetry of Rumi or the discipline of Ramadan.

    If your identity, your deepest conception of yourself is Pagan (or Christian or anything else), then live it. Own it. Fight to embody the values you find within it. If that is not the case, there is no reason to cling to a label which does not fit. Take the time to discern the answer, and the answer may be that no label fits you. “None” is a perfectly respectable option (and one of the fastest growing religious identities).

    From what I have seen, Pagans are not on the whole any better or worse at engaging racial justice issues than America itself. We have some outright Nazis among us, as well as plenty of others whose conceptions of the gods and “heritage” or “folkish”traditions flirts very heavily with racist ideology.

    We also have a hell of a lot of people who are on the front lines ever day fighting hate groups in places like Charlottesville. Remember the Portland train stabbings back in late May? The killer was apparently one of those extreme racist Pagans. Yes, one of ours if you will. But so was one of the two men who died trying to protect a young Muslim woman from the killers abuse. His name was Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche. I am honored and humbled to know that he was one of ours too, and represents the best of us.

    In the very wide space between the villains and heroes lie the vast majority of Pagans, who, like much of America are white, generally well meaning, but also ignorant of the lived realities of black Americans. They don’t “get it” not because they’re hateful, but because their entire life experience put them in places where they didn’t have to get it. Some are more willing than others to work toward such understanding. THAT is where 99% of race justice work has to happen. It won’t happen if Pagans who care walk away. If we don’t step up to do this hearts and minds ministry on race issues, you can bet the other side has people who will.

    1. Hi, Kenneth- I so appreciate your contribution here. It is inspiring, and I hear you on fighting toward a the kind of Paganism that we desire to exist. And yes, there are Pagans who are working hard for racial justice. I think that we do need to be deeply critical of our own community, such as it is, because Pagans of color have repeatedly described encountering microaggression and dismissive attitudes. The jury is still out for me if, in the long run, “pagan” describes me (for a number of reasons) — but as you put it, so far there isn’t a better identity label, so it’s what I have for now!

  4. Hi Kimberley, there was a fifth century Druid who asked a St Guenole, who was trying to sell the ‘one true path’, “do not all paths lead to the same great centre?” There’s a tolerance inherent in that question, but that doesn’t mean we should be tolerant of intolerance. My Grandfather volunteered to go fight the Nazis in WW2, and I am ashamed that our generation has allowed the far-right back into the centre of our political life.
    I’m proud to be a Druid, I’m proud of my ancestors, but I’m becoming an angry Liberal!

    1. Hi, Matt- Indeed, sometimes righteous rage is useful. I try not to live in an angry state, but rage can be a motivator for attempting to change what is intolerable. And some things, I would argue, should be intolerable. Tolerating dangerously intolerant ideology or practices that cause harm and suffering to others, both human and non-human beings, is being complicit in causing such harm. In those cases, I think the Law of the Harvest takes hold — if we fail to stand for justice, for peace, for love, for the earth — we are inviting negative outcomes into our own lives.

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