Outside my window right now, a breeze lingers and turns through the riotous green of the trees, and the climbing ivy clings to the mottled red brick of the house next door. My cat sleeps curled on the futon next to me, making a gentle noise that is sometimes a purr and sometimes a snore. The pale yellow curtain billows to brush my arm, and above everything, the sky crests blue.
I want to begin this way because I know that writing for Pagan+Politics as a pacifist and an anarchist is likely to be a difficult and sometimes daunting task, that my views will likely stir up a lot of criticisms and objections among some of you, maybe even provoke a few unkind accusations. Comments might get heated, and issues will definitely get complicated as together we tease out the many implications, false assumptions and unacknowledged fears tangled up around words like “peace,” “freedom” and “responsibility.” I have been writing publicly about pacifism for several years now, and it still remains a challenge to face down my own anxieties about misinterpretation, hypocrisy, judgement and impotence. It is not always fun to write about ideals and ethical principles that can make not only my readers but even myself feel uncomfortable, uncertain, inadequate, angry or sorrowful.
So why do it? Because I honestly believe that, despite our discomfort and uncertainty, despite our habitual resistance to the idea, the truth is that peace is easy and freedom is innate. Though we are surrounded today with myriad examples of violence, war, hatred and rage, though we have complicated systems of government control looming over us at every step — ordinary, everyday life for most of us is still characterized by spontaneous, consensual cooperation and moments full of the profound simplicity of peaceful relationship. Outside my window and here in this room, the world revels in this sunny spring afternoon, a spring that came without coercion or malice, that arose delicately and swiftly out of the interplay of countless creatures and forces, gods and forms, all organizing themselves through their striving and reaching and vying and dancing, rooted in the necessary rot of autumn, preserved through the inevitable cold of winter, and deeply engaged in the ceaseless process of becoming something beautiful.
It is undeniable that violence, too, can be all too easy, and this is why I believe that Paganism needs committed pacifists among its ranks. As a small but quickly growing, often chaotic community cobbled together from the bits and pieces of memory, history, scholarship, creativity, identity and hope available to us in a modern/postmodern, globalizing/global-warming world, we are not only wild and strong-willed on the fringes of mainstream culture — we are also vulnerable and clumsy, still finding our feet. The Wild Hunt‘s coverage last month of the child abuse case involving a self-proclaimed “druid” reminds us in no uncertain terms that we cannot take for granted this vital process of forging healthy relationships both as individuals and as communities, relationships based on values like honor, honesty, kindness and love. Even simple, natural things like peace and freedom can take a lot of hard work to realize in the face of resistance.
As philosophical schools with a history of hundreds of years across many cultures and religions, both pacifism and anarchism have sturdy roots in the spiritual as well as political world community. Like Paganism itself, they are often misunderstood, misapplied and intensely debated even among their practitioners. Yet the broad, mind-bogglingly diverse community that is today’s Paganism can benefit greatly from a study of these philosophies. While most of us are familiar with the popular, often-quoted Wiccan Rede, as a community we have grown beyond the point where its simple eight-word instruction can serve as a meaningful starting place for conversations about harm, violence, intention, freedom and peace-making. Though the Rede’s laissez-faire moral code may work very well for some of us, it cannot possibly speak to the huge range of perspectives found among those practicing Druidry, Asatru, Neo-Shamanism, Ceremonial Magic, Feri, Dianic and eclectic Witchcraft traditions, Hellenic, Khemetic and other Reconstructionist paths, Voudon, Santería, and the almost endless permutations and combinations thereof. Pacifism and anarchism can provide the Pagan community both with a fertile common ground for conversation, and examples of effective direct action from the past and present day. Each has its theorists and activists, its intellectuals and apologists, its heroes, martyrs, tragedies and holidays. What Pagans can learn from the history of struggle, debate, defeat and subtle triumph of these philosophies, which have existed on the vulnerable, breath-taking fringes of the mainstream for generations, cannot be underestimated.
Yet there is something perhaps even more important about what we as Pagans can bring uniquely to the philosophies of pacifism and anarchism. Grounded in acts of civil disobedience, conscientious objection and nonviolent resistance, pacifism has long suffered under the common misperception that it is passive and detached in nature, characterized by a refusal to engage or participate. The muddy, sweaty, full-bodied liveliness of modern Paganism, expressing itself creatively through engaging ritual, drama, sensuality, art, music, poetry, story-telling and writing, can bring an earthy energy and a sense of sacred embodiment to our understanding of pacifism as peace-making, an active process of attending and creating, in which new choices are made and new alternatives forged even in the midst of violence. Likewise anarchism, breaking free from the rule of law and the comforts of government, can too often flounder into mere chaos as passionate individuals pursue disparate goals without grounding in a common vision. As Pagans, our engaged experiences of nature provide just this needed grounding, building organically from the natural laws, energies, currents and forces of the earth as a living, spirit-filled organism and ecosystem. As people aware of our place in the natural world, we can discover and honor a shared but intrinsically local emergent order and structure to community life without reliance on externally-imposed rules or hierarchical rulers.
Even as there are leaders and role models in the Pagan community whose spiritual and political lives are guided by the theories of pacifism and anarchism, there are many critics who would argue that pacifism is, at its most basic, against our human nature, or who claim that anarchism is fundamentally opposed to peaceful, cooperative social existence. My own view of peace-making and free community, however, has been guided with every breath by an honest and reverent relationship with the natural world, one that does not rest easily with the naïve view of nature as safe, cute and cuddly, but pushes instead towards a more expansive understanding of the roles that destruction, death, power, passion, will and conflict might play — roles that do not degenerate into violence and oppression, but instead lead us human animals in the ceaseless process of becoming something beautiful.