Harassment in Alcester and other Pagan News of Note

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  July 5, 2011 — 20 Comments

Top Story: The harassment of Pagans by intolerant neighbors isn’t anything new, but it’s rare to hear on-the-record confirmation of that hostility from prominent citizens. The Sunday Mercury reports on the plight of Albion and Raven, owners of the The Whispering Witch in Alcester, a small market town in England. Opened 15 months ago, Albion and Raven claim to have gotten threatening letters, and even had a bundle of wood stacked in front of the shop’s door one morning, seemingly to imply that they should be burned. After talking to the couple, The Sunday Mercury interviews a local Baptist Reverend, and a member of the church who’s a former mayor of Alcester, and they seem to corroborate the hostility, though stop short of endorsing harassment.

Reverend Alistair Aird, from Alcester Baptist Church, condemned those behind the attacks but added: “My impression is that people in the town don’t feel that this is the kind of thing they want in Alcester. [...] Councillor Chris Gough, a former Mayor of Alcester and deacon at Alcester Baptist Church, added: “I’m aware that they are being frowned upon. Instinctively, it is not the sort of thing we want to see in the town. As a church-goer, I think we probably feel strongly about anyone who puts themselves forward as a witch in any form.”

This is exactly the kind of attitude that encourages an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. The faint condemnations of “if it is happening then it is the wrong thing to do” from Rev. Aird all but telegraphs that he won’t put any pressure on his flock to practice tolerance, allowing these activities to flourish. As for Albion and Raven, they say that  “Paganism is a recognised religion and we are here to stay.” Hopefully the press attention will spur some movement on this case, and bring out some local allies who might not have known that this was happening.

Pagans and the Pledge: Should local governments in the United States start with the Pledge of Allegiance? That’s the issue in Columbia, Missouri where the city council has voted to start each meeting with the loyalty oath. Looking for a number of perspectives, reporter Rudi Keller asks Centralia Alderwoman Jessica Orsini, who’s a Hellenic reconstructionist, for her take.

“I modify it a little,” said Centralia Alderwoman Jessica Orsini. “I say, ‘Under the gods’ because I am a Hellenic Reconstructionist, a polytheist. That means I follow the old Greek religion.”

Keller notes that saying personally modified versions of the pledge hasn’t always been tolerated, she quotes associate law professor Douglas Abrams who explains that “as far as loyalty oaths are concerned, there are many examples of American history where we become scared and demand overt statements of loyalty from minority groups.” What happens if religious minorities who alter the loyalty oath to their liking aren’t tolerated by locals? Or what about groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses who are barred from pledging to any power other than their God?  The Supreme Court ruled in 1943 that “compulsory unification of opinion” violates the First Amendment, but what’s legal and what’s tolerated can be two very different things.

National Ancestor Shrine Opens in Paganistan: Cara Schultz at PNC-Minnesota reports that Sacred Paths Center, a Pagan community center in St. Paul, Minnesota, has erected a national public ancestor shrine and sacred spirit altar.

“People talked a lot about having a shrine like this,” said Teisha Magee, executive director of the Sacred Paths Center. “An altar where anyone could come and light a candle, burn incense, put up a name plaque, or otherwise honor those who have passed the veil. Three of our members—Volkhvy, Ciaran Benson, and CJ Stone—came together with one mind and created exactly that.” [...] “The shrine is open to everyone,” said Ms. Magee. “We aren’t checking your Pagan credentials at the door. Candles and incense are available on the altar. Some folks like to leave flowers, food, or other offerings. For a small donation, Sacred Paths Center will inscribe an oaken plaque to go on the shrine. It’s like a small headstone, you get to choose the text and you can include a special message. There’s a plaque request form on the Sacred Paths Center’s website.”

You can learn more about the memorial altar/shrine, here. I find it interesting that two of the major contributors to this project are individuals who bridge modern Paganism and Japanese Shinto. Is Shinto and “Neo-Shinto” growing in popularity among Pagans? If so, will it result in more shrine-oriented projects like this one? In any case, congratulations to Sacred Paths Center on this achievement.

In the Wake of James Arthur Ray: While the ongoing legal maneuvers continue in the James Arthur Ray sweat lodge deaths case, Native Americans continue to try and make their perspectives on the misuse and appropriation of their sacred ceremonies known. One telling exchange happened between Ray and Diné (Navajo) medicine man Leland Grass during the last days of the initial trial.

Aware that many Native Americans, individually and through organizations, were incensed over his transformation and commercial use of their traditions and practices, particularly the tradition of the sweat lodge, Ray approached Grass humbly during a break and offered his hand. Grass shook it, nodded and the two spoke quietly for a time. ”He told me he learned his lesson,” Grass said later. “I said ‘no, you have a lot more to learn.’”

Meanwhile, a juror has broken silence and talked with the press about the trial that convicted Ray of three counts of negligent homicide. It seems the jury didn’t buy the pesticides defense, though he also noted that prosecution didn’t do a good job of proving the more serious charge of manslaughter. Once the sentence for Ray’s conviction is finally handed down, you can bet there will be more appeals and legal wrangling to come.

How is Paganism Good for America? That’s the question posed by Star Foster at the Patheos Pagan Portal. I gave my own short response, which you can read at the portal’s Pantheon blog.

“No theology is perfect, but I believe polytheism, the belief in a multiplicity of the divine, is uniquely suited towards preparing the United States for its future. In his book “The Deities Are Many: A Polytheistic Theology,” York University Professor Emeritus of Humanities Jordan Paper concludes that “polytheism at best is a very positive human experience and is never less than benign. We do not find the angst, let alone the doubts, that many experience with regard to their relationship with the divine in the monotheistic traditions.” As America slowly moves into a post-Christian era, a nation where both immigrant and home-grown religious minorities are growing, and an ever-larger percentage (currently 15%) of our fellow citizens claim to specific religion at all, only a theology that can embrace the full tapestry of human belief will be able to change and thrive with these often tumultuous times. Modern Pagans are pioneers into this future, and have already encountered and accepted a multiplicity of belief systems, finding ways to not only coexist, but to create vibrant communities that encourage participation and engagement.”

You can read the whole thing, here. You can also check out Star Foster’s response to the question. If you want to weigh in on this issue, leave a comment here, or email Star Foster to submit a longer response.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • http://www.facebook.com/enodiaofthestar Lindsey Vaughn

    I hate to hear about any group (religious or not) getting crap for being open about their position and I hope the bullying stops for Albion and Raven soon.

    I love the idea of public shrines and hope more are erected in other places. I also hope noone gets the idea to desecrate it.

  • Anonymous

    I have a feeling that something else is going on in Alcester. One significant point in the Sunday Mecury article is that Raven and Albion did not report any of the list of harrassments to the local police. But they have, during their time there, undertaken endeavors to promote tourism to the village. Still, the anti-Pagan sentiments are icky.

    Loyalty oaths…heartfelt or crossed fingers???

  • http://pink-thatcraftybitch.blogspot.com/ Pink

    Ever since learning as a teenager that the words “Under God” were added to the pledge in the 1950s I have simply omitted them. One cannot me held to saying the pledge, nor can one be held to saying it the same way as everyone else! A persons religious views and their patriotism can co-exist

  • http://notawiccan.blogspot.com Meganneawoodland

    As a Columbian, my eyes are still going a little crossed over the pledge being said, but it has little effect over me. If the city council wants to say it I’m not going to stop them from it. It does, however, give me a little thrill any time Centralia Alderwoman Jessica Orsini gets mentioned in, well… Anything. I find her so inspiring!

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    I’m glad the Sacred Paths Center is vetting the inscriptions for the shrine. One can easily imagine spiritual vandalism from Christians.

  • Mr Willow

    A few things:

    The faint condemnations of “if it is happening then it is the wrong thing to do” from Rev. Aird all but telegraphs that he won’t put any pressure on his flock to practice tolerance, allowing these activities to flourish.

    Isn’t that the same sort of limp-wristed admonishment church authorities were telling their missionaries. A weak, “Oh, yes, love your neighbour, respect your community, Jesus and the Bible say it’s wrong to beleaguer others for being different and you must respect them and their views; but I certainly don’t want those evil pagans around.”

    If the shepherd doesn’t lead his sheep, the sheep will do as they please.

    where the city council has voted to start each meeting with the loyalty oath.

    Whenever I hear the words “loyalty oath” expressed anywhere within a governmental body (except perhaps the military), I can always hear nationalism marching in the distance.

    As to the Pledge itself, I agree with Pink.

    “No theology is perfect, but I believe polytheism, the belief in a multiplicity of the divine, is uniquely suited towards preparing the United States for its future. . .

    I agree completely with your article.

    America was set up as a place where anyone could come and attempt to stake a claim. We are a nation of immigrants, and as such there are multiple viewpoints intermingled to make up the overarching idea of America. I get very flustered when I hear people saying there should be this way or that way. Why not take the best of both and discard the rest.

    The pluralistic qualities of Paganism offer that opportunity.

  • http://oldmoonsisterstars.wordpress.com Apuleius Platonicus

    I think the question of “how is Paganism good for American?” is pretty bizarre.

    Are some religions good for America, while others are bad for America? Or, in a spirit of political-correctness, are we to insist that all religions are good for American, but some are better for American than others? Or, to get even warmer-and-fuzzier, are all religions equally good for America, but each in their own very special and unique ways?

    • Anonymous

      “Or, in a spirit of political-correctness, are we to insist that all religions are good for American, but some are better for American than others?”

      Or as George Orwell might put it. . .

      All religions are equal, but some religions are more equal than others.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      I hold it self-evident that religion that leads to homicidal terrorism, whether of the clinic-bombing variety or the 9/11 variety, is bad for America.

      • http://oldmoonsisterstars.wordpress.com Apuleius Platonicus

        That is most certainly a self-evident truth!

        But showing a causal link between any particular religion, or sub-variety of religion, and acts of violence can be tricky. Not impossible. But tricky.

        • Baruch Dreamstalker

          I agree, and I wouldn’t attempt to go that route, in part out of my own attachment to the free-speech and free-exercise language of the First Amendment.

          I think it’s no more than second-best to promote a religion on the basis of what it’s not, but I wouldn’t be averse to letting contrasts like this speak for themselves.

          • http://paosirdjhutmosu.wordpress.com Djhutmosu Si-Hathor

            I’d certainly be more than happy to point out such contrasts, myself. I’ve found that a lot of people’s idea of what religion /is/, is poisoned by the long, sordid history of the ones with the clinic-bombers, plane-hijackers, and other such people, so pointing them out can be educational.

            I know /I/ used to think religion was inherently just intolerance, inflexibility, and fanaticism, once upon a time.

    • http://greyhawkgrognard.blogspot.com Greyhawk Grognard

      The question makes perfect sense, if one presupposes that the Christian world-view is “correct” in some sort of objective sense, and that anything seen as being antithetical towards it would be seen to be antagonistic to the God of Abraham, thus inviting the wrath of said god upon the population that tolerates such beliefs.

      Unfortunately, such a presupposition is the default point of view for far too many people in this country, on all points on the political spectrum.

  • http://blog.chasclifton.com Chas Clifton

    Jason writes, “As America slowly moves into a post-Christian era, a nation where both immigrant and home-grown religious minorities are growing, and an ever-larger percentage (currently 15%) of our fellow citizens claim to specific religion at all, only a theology that can embrace the full tapestry of human belief will be able to change and thrive with these often tumultuous times.”

    So instead of arguing that “demographics are destiny,” we are now also arguing that “demographics are theology”? Very utilitarian, but it leaves any mystical experience waiting on the sidelines.

    • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

      I would argue that polytheism is more apt to accept mystical experiences and
      revelations than a monotheist status quo. I don’t know if I’d go so far as
      to say demographics are theology, but the shifts I discuss will need to find
      a new way to approach the diversity of our future. Secularism only goes so
      far, people will want to grasp for a narrative in which to understand a
      truly pluralistic reality.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      With respect, mystical experience cannot be relegated to the sidelines. Unless brutally repressed (the experience of many Americans who go to church) it will burst forth. One thing Paganism can do for society is widen the area where that experience is welcome to burst forth. Whether this aspect of Paganism is a good selling point in the culture as it is, is less clear.

      • Charles Cosimano

        Actually, the history of the 20th century shows that while it cannot be repressed it certainly can be relegated to the sidelines. All it takes a good, concerted campaign of ridicule because it does not matter whom is speaking. What matters is whom is listening.

    • http://oldmoonsisterstars.wordpress.com Apuleius Platonicus

      Of all the religion stats out there, the one that might actually be the most “real” is the truly astonishing increase (over the last half century) in the percentage of Americans who state that they have personally had a “religious or mystical experience” at some point in their lives:

      1962 22%
      1976 31%
      1994 33%
      2006 47%
      2009 49%

      That’s our target market, if I may be so tactless.

      Numbers from here:
      http://pewforum.org/Other-Beliefs-and-Practices/Many-Americans-Mix-Multiple-Faiths.aspx#6

  • http://greyhawkgrognard.blogspot.com Greyhawk Grognard

    I completely sympathize with the folks in Alcester. For the past two years, my house here in New Jersey has been the subject of repeated vandalism, often on the same night we celebrate outdoor rituals. Last October “Satan sucks” was drawn on the street by our house. And last night our mailbox was destroyed by something “bigger than an M-80″. Verrrrry difficult to catch the perps, of course, and nearly impossible to prove a bias crime, but quite enough to put me in the “stand up for your rights” column on this issue.