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.
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.