During it’s slow climb to becoming the state religion of the Roman Empire, Christianity was forced to step into many of the roles abandoned by a collapsing imperial system. It gave shelter, food, and care to the destitute; it offered a gospel of redemption and salvation to citizens overwhelmed with the existential threat of a collapsing way of life. Thus, it gained relevance in the life of everyday–and eventually influential–Romans, until the fateful day a patrician general decided to play with visions and crosses in the battlefield.
I am not advocating, nor will I ever advocate that paganism become the state religion of any country, nor that we cozy up to the powers-that-be in order to gain some sort of “imperial sanction/favor” to prosper, nor do I even advocate using good works to gain converts. I am merely pointing out one very specific, historical trend-line for the most prominent example my readers will be familiar with. A religion must be relevant to the people, in general, before it is allowed to fulfill its role within society–and every religion has a role to play, no doubt.
Paganism, I propose, is precisely at this crossroads today.
Broadly speaking, the recap goes that paganism is an (variably) earth-centered spirituality that has, over time, combined many facets of feminism and social justice into its belief structure. Where those lines are drawn vary from adherent to adherent, group to group, even to the point of including a complete denial in some cases. But I will not focus on those who deny green religion and women’s rights–indeed, all equal rights for all humanity. The hard truth is that they have given up relevance for an esoteric practice that looks no further than themselves and whatever small circles they practice with. In the large scheme of societies and cultures, these individuals are non-contributors (though many may be fantastic witches, sorcerers, and occultists in their own right).
I am concerned with the folks who do feel there is inherent worth in every person, that Nature has not just one/many animating spirits but rights and personhood, that every person has the right to express their gender/sexuality and live in dignity accordingly. I am concerned with pagans who recognize each of our individual rights are bound up in upholding each other’s rights, who feel the deep well of grief from the ecological catastrophe now unleashed across this planet, who recognize the American Empire is in a state of downfall much like ancient Rome centuries ago, who fear the rise of authoritarianism and virulent bigotry, and who wonder about the future of paganism beyond their practicing nuclei to include every person within our riotous Big Tent.
It is time to gain relevance by doing the good works we were put on this Earth to do.
It has already started. The earliest seeds were planted by elders and grandmothers like Starhawk and Selena Fox with their respective organizations. New seeds now blossom, as with the work of David Salisbury in D.C., Michael Hughes binding of Trump and the NRA, and many other public events now emerging elsewhere. Examples abound and this list could indeed catalog a glorious awakening of the pagan spirit bringing its eldritch spark into the work of justice and resistance.
Not surprisingly, these efforts have raised many questions and condemnations from within the pagan community, and that is in part why I write this blog post today. What is it that we’re objecting to, precisely? To argue about the methods and wording used seems almost entirely pointless for two reasons: 1) most critics are not involved in these magical undertakings, therefore have nothing to lose or gain by their critique, and 2) how each person expresses their power and intent varies greatly because the very same people are virulently opposed to being told how to do magic. Reading the many pages of dissent within the pagan community, the comments often strike as either excuses for not participating or apologies to the rest of the world because we’ve dared to transgress.
Have we spent so long making ourselves amenable and presentable to the public that we can no longer claim our power? The image of “the witch” (and by some extension, the pagan) took a severe turn toward apologetic normalcy after the 1990’s Satanic Panic, to the point we forgot that in every culture we’ve always been the outsiders, the transgressors. What authority are we to appeal to for an unbiased opinion, when it is already corrupted by the passage on Exodus 22:18 advising to “suffer not a witch to live”?
And yet, the mantle we took up post-90s was just as appeasing to the “imperial authority” as the Christians pandering to the powerful of Rome. We told everyone who would listen we were a “nature religion” (that would never dare sling a hex at a polluter or animal testing facility) and inspired by “pre-Christian mythology” (but forgetting they quite often were vicious re-tellings of forgotten mysteries). What do we amount to once we adopt a benign facade and chant our spells of white light, ignoring the savage truth of our times playing out beyond our consecrated circles?
How do we honor the “Descent of the Goddess” into an Underworld we have never truly visited, full of shades we’re too happy to ignore, when She Herself has lost the wild wood paths previously taken?
We do not gain relevance by sitting idly by and watching this empire collapse, with all the attendant cruelties and injustices it’ll perpetrate against humanity. Some may be called to bind and hex, others to heal and strengthen the oppressed, some will be called to the berserker’s rage, and some will scout the paths to the future where we find ourselves again. What scraps of wisdom escaped conquest and conversion centuries ago are not to be spent in mere self-improvement, but to be used like knives and salves to save the blood of ancients still running through our veins.
As the boundary thins and the Mighty Dead clamor to be heard, I bid you, listen. Record their stories of resistance and survival, their hopes and dreams for us, their descendants. Record their failures, too; how they became complicit to their own demise once they let go of the reigns of myth-making and sacred obligations to the Land. Share what you receive and chose the path that best suits the talents they have honed within you.