Over at the Wild Hunt, Jason Pitzl-Waters writes about the recent violence and bullying directed towards young people in the GLBT community, and the culture of suicide and self-hate tolerated and perpetuated by many mainstream faiths often in subtle, unnoticed or unacknowledged ways.
In the end, it comes down to theology. Not, as Sanders points out, the easily defeated cartoon hatred of Westboro, but the more subtle belief systems that make even “accepted” GLBTQ individuals the “other”. A theology that, even if unspoken, privileges a certain kind of person over another. [...] While defenders of these theologies talk of tradition and incremental change, more die, and are harassed, every day. It is for this reason, among many others, that I think we not only have to reassure kids that “it gets better”, but we also have to reject theologies that empower hatreds of this kind and replace them with something else.
His point is well-taken, as is his observation that the Pagan movement is just one of many alternatives striving to offer that “something else,” engaged in the difficult work of challenging and dismantling traditions of systemic intolerance. The modern spiritual traditions that make up modern Paganism have drawn for many decades from the political and philosophical streams of feminism, environmentalism, civil rights, pacifism and social activism. All these movements seek, in different ways, to expand the conversation and complicate our understanding of “other” and “self,” demanding that we bring our attention and our care not only to those “like us” but to those we might otherwise overlook, dismiss or ignore.
However, I think it is a mistake to view this work as solely concerned with social hierarchy and the mechanisms of domination within the mainstream. As feminist philosophy notes, “The personal is political.” While we quite rightly find sympathy and solidarity with those who are marginalized or oppressed by the mainstream culture of today, I find myself disturbed by the frequency of arguments that declare: “We as Pagans should care about this cause because we, like the GLBT community [or other minority group], are also a minority and so what happens to them could happen to us.” Such an argument recognizes, sure enough, the themes of intolerance and hatred in the mainstream that unite us as a religious minority with other marginalized communities (whether they be racial, ethnic or sexual-preference minorities, women, the lower class and impoverished, or the other animals, plants and ecosystems who share this planet with us). Yet such reasoning encourages us to continue to care for and sympathize only with others “like us” — even if they are like us primarily in their socially-defined otherness. It implies that our responsibility to concern ourselves with the problems of the marginalized lasts only as long as we ourselves feel the threat of that marginalization. The ethic of privilege remains unchallenged; we’ve merely succeeded in exchanging one privileged group (the mainstream or majority, conceived as the Western (Christian) white male) for another.
The real challenge, I believe, is to continue to engage in social movements that reject and dismantle the hierarchical, patriarchal and hegemonic systems that give rise to intolerance and hatred towards “the Other,” while at the same time bringing this challenge home to ourselves in a very personal way. It is not enough to identify and care for those groups whom society has ignored, dismissed or overlooked. As individuals, we also have a responsibility to examine our own social and interpersonal relationships, in order to discover those communities and individuals that we ourselves are inclined to dismiss or marginalize.
This may be a difficult task for some Pagans to embrace. In more than a few modern Pagan traditions, an emphasis on local community and a reverence for the kindred and ancestors can too easily give way to a kind of tribalism that defines concepts such as honor and courage in terms of defense against the threat of “outsiders,” or asserts that care for “my” family and “my” in-group takes precedence over more universal social concerns. The joyful celebration of diversity can too quickly devolve into a rejection of anything that connects us or seems to obligate us to our fellow human beings — especially if those fellow human beings come from the “Judeo-Christian” mainstream.
Still, the traditions of modern Paganism also offer a unique opportunity to contribute meaningfully to this continuing conversation about acceptance and otherness. Unlike many social movements of today, the Pagan movement — precisely because it is a spiritual movement — speaks to deeply personal and intimate aspects of our relationships with the world and with each other. From a Pagan perspective, we can take this commitment to healthy community and thriving diversity not only as a socio-political philosophy but as a personal, spiritual imperative, enshrined in the heart of our earth-centered and/or polytheistic religious traditions.
Already we see this attitude at work in many aspects of various Pagan traditions. Our appreciation for history and heritage in a society of shrinking attention spans and an ever-growing obsession with the new-and-shiny not only informs our views on how communities can be organized and nurtured, but connects us with our ancestors and the dead in personal ways through rituals of honor, commemoration and conversation. Similarly, the common Pagan reverence for the natural world and the ecosystems of the earth shape our social and political lives, influencing everything from who we vote for to where we shop, to what we eat and wear; yet our personal relationship to nature is also fostered through meditative and ritual practices that put us in touch with the “spiritual side” of our animal, physical selves and challenge us to discover our own ways of relating to and living with(in) the natural world. While some of us engage in social activism and political protest in support of civil and gay rights, many also worship gods and goddesses who transcend, defy or redefine gender boundaries, who celebrate sexual intimacy as a sacred act, or who have their roots deep in the cultures of non-white, non-Western religious traditions of the past. By entering into relationship with these deities, we transform the cause of equality, diversity and mutual respect from a political platform into a intimately powerful expression of our being. In these ways, and in many others, modern Pagan traditions often bridge the gap between the personal and the political, the spiritual and the social.
I hope that one day Pagans will be just one more diverse and complex community in a manifold, thriving global society. But when that day comes, we will need to have a better ethical standard in place than “we should care about oppressed people because we are oppressed.” While I agree that silence in the face of bullying and violence is unacceptable, neither is it enough to stop with a critique of social trends and larger political patterns in the mainstream, venting frustration that “others” have done nothing to stem the tide of hatred and abuse. Pagan spirituality opens up for us the potential to bring our commitment to social justice, peace and diversity all the way home to the heart of our spiritual practice and our interpersonal relationships. Perhaps one day we can move from an ethic that privileges those who are “other-like-us” to an ethic that embraces and upholds the sacredness of relationship and connection in all its myriad forms. An ethic that says not “we should care because we, too, are different” but one that proclaims, “We should care because we are all, after all, in this together.”