Finding Pagan Culture, Part Two

PART TWO:
THE HOW

 

This post continues and elaborates the arguments started in Part One: The What and the clarifications made in the Disclaimed interlude. I hope that it can stand on its own, however, if you already sense the problem and are seeking possible solutions. As stated before, these are personal views and I exert no authority here.

When Michael Hughes wrote his blog post A Spell to Bind Trump or when Laura Tempest Zakroff manifested the rising consciousness that #WeAreAradia (inspired by a Tweet from Storm Faerywolf), a new phase of American Paganism was sparked into being. It was born after the Inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States of America, in a time of struggle and panic for most people, from disenfranchised minorities to even the placid white, cishet middle class. Something had broken in our civic life and some gutsy witches were awakening from the shock to find themselves uniquely capable and trained to deal with the crisis.

And yet, the internet exploded with controversy. Tradition, intent, efficacy, and Karma itself was called into the argument on either side. It nearly broke the online community–always broader by default–that is tied to the physical, county-wide community I live and lead. Of course, some pagans were Conservative voters and they often felt the ire directed towards their President touched them, also. Others could not move beyond their privilege to see their friends were frightened of a future that had turned suddenly darker, three months prior.

It seemed, to me, that what little culture there was within the pagan community, even one as blessed as the one I am a part of, wasn’t enough to contain such a shock. It took a great deal of careful steering, the loss of some vocal members, and the departure of valued friends, before the stormy waters settled again. Those perilous months, more than anything, prompted me to think on this subject as deeply as I could manage; which is to say, with the knowledge acquired through ample research into religious communities and an aborted Master’s thesis in Anthropology.

The few solutions I could find are presented below. I hope to read your own.

Recognizing Kinship

It is more or less true that our idea of paganism–and more specifically, who and what we think of as “fellow pagans”–is often a mirror of our own practices. As clarified before (in the Disclaimed post), this means we more often than not recognize only those pagans whose culture more closely resemble ours. To the Gardenerian, often those initiated by a Third Degree High Priestess comes to mind. Feri witches might think of their own, first, before counting the offshoots. Heathens follow the same example, as do CR folks. Eclectics might have a broader identification within the Big Tent, but will often prefer fellow eclectics. It is inevitable, human nature to recognize those within the “in group” before extending similar status to anyone perceived of as different.

I have carried out this experiment many times before, over fourteen years. If you think this doesn’t hold true for all pagans, ask a dozen pagans you know what is the first thought they have when they hear those words. Make sure to have a varied sample size, though! I pray your results are different from my own.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this. We are a creative group of people, often separated by many miles and availability, and basing our emerging cultures on a myriad of ancient sources and ideals.

The problem lies in the lack of cohesion that may threaten our shared goals and ideals when a threat or challenge presents itself. The bickering and grandstanding that takes place on public forums as a result of controversial topics is less a problem of social media than it is a symptom that different groups do not socialize enough outside of the internet. Thus, we hew to our own, get overly defensive and inherently distrust anyone whose views vary even slightly from our own. When the dust settles, our communities are further fractured than ever before, with life-long enmities that are often passed on to newcomers.

There are too many “flame wars” or “witch wars” to count in our recent history, and each of them arose due to differences perceived to be too great to reconcile. In the context of our sub-/counter-culture, this weakens external boundaries with the overculture. It makes these boundaries–essential to maintaining shared identity–permeable, allowing the intrusion of dissonant elements, and allowing the loss of engaged members due to disillusionment.

This is the way consumerism (as an integral activity in gatherings/festivals), the pagan version of the “Prosperity Gospel” and other memetic units from the overculture have infiltrated the pagan cultural boundaries, weakening us overall.

The solution I propose is to begin from a foundation of kinship across all pagan paths and traditions. Much is said about the Big Tent of Paganism, but few concrete actions have been taken to manifest such a reality. When different paths/traditions co-mingle, there is often a weary distance and conversations happen on eggshells. Those are the successful examples. While peaceful, they rarely lead to the revitalization of the pagan movement as a whole through exchange of knowledge or the forging of new bonds.

A foundation of kinship would recognize that each of us are embedded within a larger cultural milieu, pressing in from all corners in different ways. While there is no need for animosity with so-called “Western Culture” or the Abrahamic Faiths, we should recognize that we come from conquered people. It is the ghosts of the slain, raped, and forced to convert that we count as ancestors and honor at Samhain. Consequently, from the start, paganism was cast in the mold of the counter-culture, allowed to blossom at last with the repeal of Anti-Witchcraft Laws in Britain.

By that token, we should also realize that we are neither weak nor oppressed so long as we stand united in kinship and ceremony. Once we stop doing the overculture’s work of sowing dissent and suppressing differing viewpoints, we inherit the strength of the survivors in our blood.

Concrete examples of such a foundation could take the form of diverse organizing committees in long-running festivals and gatherings, designing inclusive spaces for different traditions and paths to share celebrations, milestones, and camaraderie. It could manifest as a willingness to experience and learn different pagan points of view, and decide to honor the people who practice them regardless of our preferences. It could be brought into fruition with diverse friendships and alliances, if one must be formal, that in time make kin of us all. Kin willing to stand with each other in times of trouble, to be watchful of external and internal threats to paganism as a whole, to be given respect and even honored.

Building Community

A haggard High Priestess puts on yet another marvelous sabbat at her own home. Everyone thanks her profusely, but at least one third of the guests forgot to bring a dish for the potluck, and less than a handful stay to clean up after the revelry is done. Only she–and perhaps her increasingly begrudging family–did the work of putting everything together, from writing a ritual to mowing the backyard stone circle, to making sure there were enough candles and incense for everyone.

This problem is often cited for coven leadership burn out, but it is by no means exclusive to formal Wiccan groups. To be a pagan leader today is to sacrifice a great deal of time, effort, and money to serve a community only dimly aware of your hours of unpaid work. Compounded by the problem described above, we have a serious monster in our midst:

No matter how inclusive, revitalizing, and affirming our communities may be, they are essentially non-sustainable, mostly because they fall on the shoulders of one or less than a handful of individuals.

As discussed before, in order for culture to fully play out, it must play out in a physical place that fosters interaction between all its members–human and otherwise. This reality cannot exist unless several dedicated people work toward manifesting it, usually at their own expense. When unaided, these efforts wane and eventually lapse. The community loses vitality and eventually falls apart–or, worse, leadership passes into the hands of an egomaniac all-too-willing to abuse their role.

Communities, like cultures and trees, require long periods of maturation and stability before the roots are firm enough to weather a storm. Entirely new and unique facets aren’t discovered until the years wear down social awkwardness enough to foster true cooperation. Harmony takes time to foster, especially given the challenges here discussed.

We have a few examples of long-standing communities that have risen to the challenges time and fate have thrown their way. We have such organizations as Reclaiming and Circle Sanctuary and the EarthSpirit Community, which continue to be institutional cornerstones of the pagan community. Their stories are diverse, but rarely the outcome of a single individual’s Herculean efforts. Each of them found temporary or permanent partnership with others of like mind to root the work and let it flourish after many seasons of toil. Each of them fostered an involved community, and continue to do so today.

In many ways, we have a greater challenge ahead of us, when considering the entire pagan movement on its own. We can remain in separate enclaves and echo-chambers, allowing outside forces to lull us into placid complicity, or we can do this work on a grander scale than ever before. Recognizing Kinship is the first step, but it must be followed by the labor of Building Community discussed in this section.

When there is a local event–specially an event to help members of the community, or benefit a cause–one must be involved. When a member of the community falls ill or in financial hardships, we must treat them as kin. When there is a need for specific service, and it is within our ability to serve, one must serve. Our interactions must go beyond ritual, spellcasting, and readings, though those are important expressions of our beliefs. Our interactions must mimic that of the village, but now without borders.

To quote Amanda Yates Garcia, Oracle of Los Angeles, in Magic for the Resistance: “… we must all become initiates […] We must all become leaders…” Hers is a call for activists to arise from the pagan community, but I maintain my original question: Rising from what circumstances? Unified as what? With what support?

If you are reading this long blog post, then let this be your call to action: those communities that exist all over the United States need your attention. And, if there is no community nearby, but there are those in need of community, consider coming together now with these ideals in mind.

Dreaming Big

Long ago, the whole world was pagan. It wasn’t a particularly more virtuous world than it is today–women and LGBTQ+ people were still oppressed, raped and murdered; wars were fought at the whims of monarchs; elites controlled society with absolute power; courts were mockeries of Justice; racial superiority and prejudice still existed. There is a great deal of ancestral healing left for us to do, so it is no surprise we’re the ones called on to officiate those rites worldwide.

I consider our role in modern times to be no less than that. Why else have we spent all those hours meditating, healing our past wounds, and learning how to “bend reality” with our Wills?

Perhaps you haven’t heard the call, or felt the pull, but many have. In some form or another, many pagans today are building up their skills to face the challenge of healing the overculture, at long last infirm from all these ills. (And, while the dominant religion and cultures have changed drastically over the last two millennia, the ailments remain and fester. It seems the work of one Jesus Christ yet remains to be done by his followers.)

In short, we must confront the hypercapitalist hell-world our planet has become, devaluing the worth of feminine persons just as it devalues the worth of Nature. We must move beyond the flawed ideas that we inherited from our ancestors, yes, but also the flawed philosophies that emerged under Christian and Enlightenment thought. We must learn to reach beyond our own intelligence and abilities to cause change–beyond commanding–and towards relationships with the world-at-large.

In order to meet this challenge, we must find the common nuclei of pagan culture. That is, we must find some sort of terra firma on which to stand.

We might come to accept that “healing the overculture” is the Grand Project of Paganism, yet still lack direction. Here are some modest proposals:

  1. Learn to trust some level of authority: It must be democratically derived, driven by integrity, devoted to service, and accountable to those it serves, but someone will eventually emerge who can chart the course forward and maintain all alliances needed long enough for pagan culture to emerge strong.
  2. Treat each other as kin: Because in-fighting will slow our progress and cause more wounds to heal than we can manage. In a way, we are bogged down in this aspect of healing now and must move past it. We are needed!
  3. Form institutions of support/care: We all fall on hard times. As kin, we should be able to offer each other support across state and national boundaries. If there are indeed more than a million American pagans, then our collective funds are significant. Let us help one another, rather than buying that second latte.
  4. Present ourselves without fear or shame: While many of us are active in one cause or another, how many do it as pagans or witches? How many insist on prayer or the role of spirit in inspiring action? If we believe in our power, then we must use it openly without fearing ridicule, sidelining, or persecution.
  5. Whenever possible, meet in the flesh: It is not enough to exchange posts on Facebook, ideas on Pinterest, hearts on Instagram and retweets on Twitter. We must become a flesh-and-blood community, planted physical to a sense of place where we can bring our joys and sorrows and our healing.

Calling Forth Thinkers

This part is like evoking the element of Air, from the East. But it is more complex than that: I am calling on those “qualified” to think about the problems here presented and to add their own erudition in a constructive manner.

Go beyond critique and dig into historical and social experiments of how to build thriving, healing communities–there are examples out there! Rediscover the survival strategies of our ancestors who survived Roman conquest or Christian conversion the longest and adapt them to our current situation. Find out how pockets of civilization endured during the most recent Dark Age, and all the ones before that, so we can plan for our future in the Anthropocene. Research.

It is what you are uniquely equipped to do and thus, what you can offer to the world. In turn, the world of pagans must recognize there are intrepid individuals exploring new paths toward the future. We must give them support at times, but hear them out always. And if their ideals do not connect, or fail to bring forth healing, then we must allow them to continue the search. They go before us, drawing a hazy map of the future we must ourselves walk into reality.

 

Why must we do this? Because we’ve come to the crux of history, the turning of the tide, where such a work is necessary. The signs are everywhere, and I’ll speak more of them in Part Three: The Why.

5 thoughts on “Finding Pagan Culture, Part Two

  1. The 5 points above are great practical advice for building any community.

    I think the problem is that pagans don’t agree on what aspects of the overculture need to be healed. For some, it’s social conformity of any kind. For others, it’s monotheism (and all of its attendant “monos”). For others, it’s alienation from the feminine or from nature. For others it’s capitalism or fascism. For others it’s transcendentalism and anti-materialism. For others it’s logocentrism and scientific reductionism.

    The challenge is to weave these critiques together into a culture.

    Like

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