As we reach the close of 2011, it is time to stop for a moment and take stock of the previous year. When you look at (and for) news stories regarding modern Paganism (and related topics) every day of the year, you can sometimes lose focus on the larger picture. So it can be a helpful thing to look at the broad strokes, the bigger themes, the events and developments that will have lasting impact on the modern Pagan movement. What follows are my picks for the top ten stories from this past year involving or affecting modern Pagans.
10. New Christian Missionary Code of Conduct: In June of this year a coalition that claims to represent around 90% of the world’s Christians released joint recommendations for the conduct of Christian missionaries. This document, while toothless in regards to enforcement, it does represent a core shift in fighting “arrogance, condescension and disparagement” among Christian missionaries toward non-Christian faiths and building a new ethos of mutual respect and cooperation between Christians and non-Christians.
“Christians are called to reject all forms of violence, even psychological or social, including the abuse of power in their witness. They also reject violence, unjust discrimination or repression by any religious or secular authority, including the violation or destruction of places of worship, sacred symbols or texts. [...] Any comment or critical approach should be made in a spirit of mutual respect, making sure not to bear false witness concerning other religions. [...] Christians should avoid misrepresenting the beliefs and practices of people of different religions.“
In addition, the document endorses providing “sufficient time for adequate reflection and preparation” in regards to conversions. Frowning on quickie conversions and urging Christians to “refrain from offering all forms of allurements.” All of which is encouraging on its face, though the document also has a political purpose, to help missionaries lobby against anti-conversion laws in places like India. Still, despite the document’s flaws, it does represent a vital shift as revelations of coercive conversion tactics in Haiti, and serious accusations that missionaries stirred up anti-Vodou violence, not to mention an emerging theory within evangelical circles that Christian missions may have helped trigger the witch-hunts in Africa are making more and more Christians questions how the “Great Commission” is enacted. The reverberations of these events and Christian response to it will have long-reaching effects on modern Pagans, indigenous religious practitioners, and ultimately all non-Christians.
09. Pagan Fundraising on the Internet Goes Big: Within our interconnected communities there’s often been the notion that we lack the commitment or cohesion to raise significant funds for causes or projects that matter. That a “poverty consciousness” reigns when it comes to anything outside our immediate wants or desires. This criticism lost a lot of weight in 2011 as a growing number of Pagan projects and fund-drives managed to raise impressive figures for a community as demographically small and philosophically diverse as ours. This year we saw Peter Dybing lead an initiative that raised $30,000 dollars for Japan earthquake assistance, while Starhawk, along with producers Paradox Pollack and Philip ‘Mouse’ Wood, raised over $75,000 for a planned movie adaptation of Starhawk’s novel “The Fifth Sacred Thing”.
In addition, a fundraising drive to produce a memorial documentary project in honor Merlin Stone (author of the seminal book “When God Was A Woman”) raised over $10,000. These may not seem like huge numbers to the larger, more institutionalized, religions in the West, but these efforts, and several smaller ones also held this year, are somewhat groundbreaking for us. It proves that Pagans will support projects they believe in, and that Internet services like Kickstarter have provided an essential tool in tapping that support. As modern Pagans build their own unique infrastructure (more on that next) I predict we’ll continue to see this crowd-funded model evolve into something that can really build (and do) great things.
08. The Growth (and Growing Pains) of Modern Pagan Infrastructure: In addition to fundraising, this has been a year of Community Centers, Temples, and Libraries in the Pagan news. As modern Pagan communities grow as do questions of what, if any, infrastructure we want. Do we want a congregational model? What about temples? This year, more so than I’ve seen for some time, we’ve publicly wrestled with the answers to these questions. This year the Minneapolis-St. Paul community (aka “Paganistan”) saw their Sacred Paths Center go through a number of fiscal problems, though it seems to have weathered its storms, meanwhile The Open Hearth Foundation in Washington DC prepares to launch its own community center . In Delaware, ground was broken for the ambitious New Alexandrian Library project, one that has already gotten some impressive donations to its collection.
“After working through unexpected delays, the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel (ASW) has obtained the building permit to begin construction of the New Alexandrian Library (NAL) and the contractor is preparing to lay the foundation. “We are very excited to finally be able to break ground,” said Jim Dickinson, the NAL Project Manager, “It is ‘a dream whose time has come’!”“This project is about preserving our past and building our future. It is a dream becoming manifest that will inspire scholarship and a deepening of magickal culture. It is proof that our community is maturing,” said Ivo Dominguez, Jr., founding member of the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel and one of the driving forces behind the NAL.”
While there has been forward movement, there have also been setbacks and challenges. Temple of the River in Minnesota closed down, a Pagan temple in the Ukraine was vandalized, and in upper New York the Maetreum of Cybele continues its long and drawn-out tax battle with the Town of Catskill, one that will hopefully be decided in 2012. Still, despite the challenges it seems clear that Pagan infrastructure is a growing issue, and that more groups are looking to plant permanent roots in their communities.
07. The Debate Over Gender in Modern Paganism: One of the most sustained and intense discussions within the modern Pagan community this year was over issues of gender, essentialism, and transgender inclusion. Sparked by a breakdown in communication and resulting transgender exclusion at a 2011 PantheaCon ritual, the conversation soon ballooned to all corners of the modern Pagan community. CAYA’s Amazon Priestess Tribe’s Rite of Lilith ended up acting as a catalyst for a long-overdue conversation about the role of gender and transgender individuals within modern Paganism, one that led to a groundbreaking conference in September centered on the question of gender within our communities.
“In her introductory remarks, joi wolfwomyn asked folks to treat eachother with respect and really listen to the different perspectives brought out in the day and that energy of respect really carried forward into the entire day of programming and events. Vicki Noble’s keynote integrated both her personal experience as a feminist separatist as well as her acknowledgement of the multitude of genders that exist and our need to respect the diversity of gender. Her statement on separatism was that it can be through having separate spaces that members of marginalized groups can become stronger and return to the larger community with the confidence and commitment to make real and positive change.”
We are at a crossroads now with this discussion, and despite a few sour notes, most of the exchanges have been reasoned, open, empathetic, passionate, and willing to create a dialog that is inclusive and productive. I have few illusions that all problems will be “solved,” but I do think what we are witnessing here is historic, and will change us in ways we can’t envision now. The collective maturity and willingness we’ve displayed so far in these discussions is a credit to our family of faiths, and when future historians look back at this time they will say “this is when transgendered Pagans began to receive the full embrace and respect of their coreligionists.”
06. James Arthur Ray Convicted and Sent to Prison: At the end of 2010 I listed the story of New Age guru and “Secret” peddler James Arthur Ray’s disastrous and deadly sweat lodge ceremony as one of the most important of the year, noting that “the longterm ramifications of this event will be for Ray, Native Americans, the New Age market, and the modern Pagans who cross-pollinate with these affected communities remains to be seen.” Now, at the end of 2011 we’ve seen the trial, conviction for negligent homicide, and sentencing of Ray. In the end, Ray will only serve two years in prison, though he’s appealing, and has settled the civil lawsuits with the victim’s families for more than 3 million dollars. Shortly after the conviction, I rounded up reactions from Native Americans, the families of the victims, and the Pagan community, many seemed to agree that Ray’s seemingly boundless ego, narcissism, and god-complex led to a pattern of unsafe events.
“I’m aware that this conclusion may seem controversial. Many pagans like to believe that there is no such thing as a universal moral truth, and many recoil at the use of the word ‘should’. James Ray’s sweatlodge puts that kind of relativism to a life-and-death test. As a final remark, my friends, may I say that you do not need to undergo a heat endurance test to the death in order to know that you are strong in spirit.” – Brendan Myers
Ray’s trial and conviction was certainly big news this year, but what, ultimately, does it say to modern Pagans? I think it calls into focus issues of cultural appropriation, of acquiring spiritual technologies outsider your context without proper oversight or training, and is a stark warning about the corrupting influence of power unchecked. James Arthur Ray was part of the “New Age” movement, but many elements he incorporated can be easily found among modern Pagans, and this should be a lasting wake-up call to make sure we don’t fall into the excesses and pitfalls of Ray and his ilk.
Tomorrow I will post the top five Pagan stories for 2011. In the meantime, I invite you to check out the top religion stories from some different perspectives. Here are the BBC’s picks, the Religion Newswriters Association’s picks, Mother Jones’ top ignored religion stories, Religion Dispatches top religion stories that weren’t, top 11 of 2011 from HuffPo Religion, Time’s top religion picks, and the Washington Post’s On Faith picks.