Column: Social Justice as Spiritual work in Paganism

Crystal Blanton —  August 16, 2013 — 20 Comments

Interfaith has been a path that Pagans have become accustomed to hearing in our community, and very comfortable with the role that Interfaith plays in connecting our community of practitioners to the greater religious society. Covenant of the Goddess and Circle Sanctuary are examples of some of the prominent Pagan organizations that have invested time, money, and effort into developing trained Interfaith representatives.

While Pagans in the Interfaith community continue to work toward religious tolerance, integration, and networking, we are hearing more about the work of social justice in the community. Is social justice becoming the new interfaith?

University of Berkeley’s Social Justice Symposium defined social justice as “a process, not an outcome, which (1) seeks fair (re)distribution of resources, opportunities, and responsibilities; (2) challenges the roots of oppression and injustice; (3) empowers all people to exercise self-determination and realize their full potential; (4) and builds social solidarity and community capacity for collaborative action.”

Increased attention, advocacy and education have been seen within the themes of festivals, workshop offerings, Pagan blogs, and first-hand involvement in social justice activities. From the Occupy movement, forums addressing discrimination, prison work to peaceful protests, we are seeing some of our fellow Pagans being active in the theme of social equality.

starhawk 5 19 04


As the Pagan community is a microcosm of the larger macro society, how does working in social justice correlate with the paths of those Pagans who are active in the work? Starhawk made a recent statement on her Facebook fan page reflecting on the Martin/Zimmerman verdict, “I advocate nonviolence. But nonviolence is not passivity. It calls us to actively acknowledge that racism and patriarchy are deep, inherent, endemic forms of perpetual violence that infuse our society deeply, and will take much thought and work and courage to transform.

And for those of you who have said, ‘I love your Pagan, spiritual stuff but I’m not sure I’m with you on this’ – this IS my spiritual stuff. The Goddess I embrace is both love and rage, is She who inspires our passion for justice, and sustains us through the long hard work to bring it about.”

Environmental activism has long been associated with goddess worship and Paganism, but this type of social commentary has not always been something considered a spiritual staple in the overarching beliefs of the community. Yet we are seeing more opportunities for social activism, and an increased amount of voices and actions working towards topics of justice.

Joseph Nichter, author and Wiccan Prison Chaplain, took the opportunity to talk about his role of social justice work in the Prison system, and as a Veteran. In referencing the “other” listed on his dogtags in the military, Nichter talked about equal access to rights as a Pagan.

Joseph Merlin Nichter (aka WitchDoctorJoe)

Joseph Merlin Nichter (aka WitchDoctorJoe)

“Those tags were merely precursor to the religious discrimination I experienced while serving my country.  Although my military service has long since come to an end, those experiences left a lasting impression and social justice has come to play a significant role in my spiritual path as a Wiccan Prison Chaplain. I’ve come to believe with every fiber of my being that social justice is of critical importance to health and welfare Paganism, and that Paganism is of critical importance to the health and welfare of our future civilization.” – Joseph Nichter, author, Prison Chaplain.

Pagan activists are becoming more involved in some of the social causes, needs of the greater community, and more vocal about being involved. I reached out to several other Pagans who have done some recent work around issues of social justice advocacy concerning rights for prisoners, LBGTQ, military, the Occupy movement, and systemic injustice.

David Salisbury

David Salisbury

“Social justice is crucial in my spiritual life to the point of being my spiritual life. I cannot separate the two. Any time I’m able to contribute to the movements I’m involved in, I do so as an offering to my gods and the spirit of the world. It’s a holy act for me.

I was originally taught that Paganism is all about relationships — to people, the gods, and the land we inhabit. I think social justice is important to our many traditions because it’s about healing and strengthening the relationships between the three. In my animistic worldview, I can’t help but act because I can so easily see my gods in the face of every suffering person and animal.” – David Salisbury, author, Activist.

T. Thorn Coyle

T. Thorn Coyle

“Social justice has always been very close to my heart. As someone who experiences the sacred in all things, it is incumbent upon me to honor that to the best of my ability. Injustice causes a rift in the fabric of being. It is part of my work as a spiritual person to try to mend that rift, to help reweave the fabric of love. Nothing is devoid of spirit: not the stove or pots at my local soup kitchen; not the ancient forests that require protection; not the family whose teen was killed for little reason other than he was black. I feel a connection to all of these. I must help to right the world.”  – T. Thorn Coyle, author and activist.

Glenn Turner (Photo: OaklandNorth)

Glenn Turner (Photo: OaklandNorth)

“Pagans have a holistic view of the world that I believe polytheism fosters. The joy of a diversity of gods, gives us joy and tolerance of diversity. Through diversity we gain strength and resilience in adversity.

Social Justice is basic to a democracy that believes in equality and liberty for all. Our country was founded on these tenants. People have mostly come here to escape injustice; for slaves brought here against their will, their progeny deserve to find liberty and equality. The nurturing of the poor and disadvantaged can only strengthen our community and environment. Mutual support is a key to group magic and we are all in this world together.” – Glenn Turner, Founder of Pantheacon, Activist

Where Interfaith work has often had a focus on networking Pagans into the greater religious community, social justice work appears to be focused on greater societal issues that are not specifically focused on Paganism. This greater community work is a calling, just as interfaith work, and it is playing a large role in the momentum of how Pagans are investing energy in today’s social issues. While social justice does not replace the role of interfaith, they might just be closely related cousins that will continue to work in tandem with an agenda of spiritual accountability, inclusivity, equal access to religious resources, and social equality.

T. Thorn Coyle best summarized these thoughts in a final statement about the intersection of action, spiritual work and justice:

“We forget. We forget we are connected. We think our states of disconnection are the only reality, but the deeper reality exists in remembering that we are all alive together. When I scrub pots at the soup kitchen, or stand for people in Oakland who have been killed by police, or talk about the importance of the Voting Rights Act, or help send supplies to tornado victims, or organize a blood drive, or write about racism , I do all of this as a reminder to my soul: “You are part of this whole world, and it is of you.”

For full quotes, please see links below.

Glenn Turner

T. Thorn Coyle

Joseph Nichter

Crystal Blanton


Crystal Blanton writes the monthly TWH column "Culture and Community." She is an activist, writer, priestess, mother, wife and social worker in the Bay Area. She has published two books "Bridging the Gap" and "Pain and Faith in a Wiccan World," and was the editor of the anthology "Shades of Faith; Minority Voices in Paganism." She is a writer for the magazine Sage Woman and Patheos' Daughters of Eve blog. She is passionate about the integration of community, spirituality, and healing from our ancestral past, and is an advocate for true diversity and multiculturalism within the Pagan community.
  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    This is a topic that leaves me somewhat conflicted.

    On the one hand, this blurs the line between religion and politics, which sits uncomfortably in my mind.

    On the other hand, I would love to be able to totally immerse myself into my spiritual practice so that everything is informed by it.

    I am unsure whether I like the idea of a Heathen theocracy or not…

    • David Salisbury

      Social justice doesn’t have to be political. Most often it’s not. Most social justice that involves political elements involves forming relationships with political allies for specific causes, rather than trying to elevate the status of a specific religion.

      For example, if I lobby my Senator for marriage equality as a Wiccan minister, I’m doing so to represent my support from that sect for that particular issue. It’s not to say “I am Wiccan and believe in marriage equality and because of my religion, it has to be law.” Instead, it’s saying “I am Wiccan and that informs my need to see equality, which is why as a citizen, I support marriage equality.” It’s very different from what the “religious right” does, using religion as a tool of dominance to push a political agenda.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        It’s a microfine distinction.

        Politics is a tool of social justice, and when someone calls for legislation based on their religious outlook (no matter how softly), there is an element of religion influencing politics.

        Like I said, I am unsure if that is a good or bad thing.

        • Baruch Dreamstalker

          Religion always influences politics. Religion is one voice in the polity of a state or nation, and it would be undemocratic to bar it from the political discussion.
          The difficulty arises when one religion has undue influence, or when it stifles the exercise of other religions.
          Where to draw that line is often tricky. For example, the debate over contraceptive health coverage in the US is a fine muddle, the like of which we will probably never see the end of.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            In my country, we have high ranking clerics from one religion holding automatic seats of power/authority in our government.

        • David Salisbury

          And also keeping in mind still that most of the social justice I see has very little involvement with politics at all. For example, Thorn scrubbing pots at the soup kitchen might be a religious experience for her, but it has nothing to do with politics. Same with Allie Valkyrie with her amazing acts of civil disobedience in Eugene.. etc etc. We don’t always have to get legislators involved to make a wonderful impact.

          • Joseph Nichter

            I agree. While the religious rights of inmates obviously has its minefield of political elements, I do not engage the political arena directly, but seek to have an impact on an interpersonal level with the inmates themselves.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            I was allowing that Politics is only one tool. Social Justice is much bigger than just a political angle.

  • Cairril Adaire

    I founded the Pagan Educational Network back in the ’90s to combine “building community and educating the public about Paganism.” I organized the Pagan Summit in 2001 to bring together leaders of national (American) Pagan organizations for the first time to talk about the mechanics, logistics, and goals of the movement. I worked with about 50 leaders to change dictionary definitions of “Witch” and “Pagan.” As such I got blasted by lots of Pagans who thought Paganism and politics don’t mix. Totally bizarre to me — by not participating in the process, you’re condoning the status quo. Pagans believe in profound personal change — why not profound social change as well? Certainly if we want our rights, we have to step up to the plate and work for the rights of others. That means allocating resources, stepping into the political system (even if only on the local level), and working with people of all stripes who share the same values and goals. The whole experience left me with little patience for those who think “politics” is a dirty word. Get involved. Get change. Get changed.

    • cernowain greenman

      Cairril, thank you for all your work over the years. It has had a great impact on the Pagan movement.

      • Cairril Adaire

        Thank you, cernowain. That means a lot to me. Blessings on your path.

    • Franklin_Evans

      I, too, honor your work, but (perhaps since it’s a personal hot button) I must criticize what I see as a passive-aggressive attempt to coerce agreement.

      “…by not participating in the process, you’re condoning the status quo.”

      This is a claim, not a fact nor even an observation. It implies mind-reading. It is, as a public statement on an important issue, a strong way to alienate potential allies.

      There is a much clearer and stronger word choice that preserves (what I see as) your intended message and leaves room for those of us who are in fact working but in ways not readily viewable in public: …by not participating in the process, you’re passively letting the status quo continue.”

      Certain Quakers of my personal acquaintance set the standard to which I hold. How one lives one life can be a profound statement to those who witness it. It may take longer, even years or decades, for your standard to become known to many others, but that is not justification for coercing one to live one’s life differently in any aspect.

      • Cairril Adaire

        Allow me to clarify: by “not participating” I mean “navel-gazing.” PEN’s whole approach was to work at the grassroots level by volunteering in whatever organization you felt called to in order to build community. That might be Habitat, a local interfaith group, a soup kitchen, playground monitor, whatever. Then, after you got to know people and *if it came up* and *if you felt comfortable*, you could disclose you were Pagan. That’s it. If others want to know more, you answer questions. No proselytizing. Just very low-key education.

        I never wanted to change the minds of the extremists — I have always thought that the broad mid-section of America would be fine with Paganism as a whole if they just knew some Pagans. Same issues as the LGBT community. So my approach has always been to encourage grassroots work for everybody and then also make sure the people who are running the national organizations are talking to each other so we can coordinate on state and national issues. It’s been very effective.

        So I agree that living your life in your own truth is a powerful method of change. You *are* participating in the process if you’re conscious. What I have problems with are the people who think “politics” = “dirty.” No social movement has ever succeeded without both grassroots and coordinated national action.

        • Franklin Evans

          Cairril, thank you for that clarification. As I mentioned, I tend to be oversensitive to certain rhetoric.
          My local experience confirms your expectation. Our activism relationships with other communities, notably LGBT, has always been on the positive side and continues to be so. I’m still not satisfied with the depth of interfaith dialogue here (Philadelphia) but I remain encouraged, and examples like yours and your work give our efforts a legitimacy we often can’t earn on our own.

  • trumoonbear

    You lost me at “… fair (re)distribution…”

    • Ashley Yakeley

      Yeah, me too. I’m big on this one:

      (3) empowers all people to exercise self-determination and realize their full potential;

      but kind of suspicious of the political assumptions behind the others. I like the idea of Social Improvement rather than Social Justice; more emphasis on better (for everyone or anyone or at least someone) rather than fairer.

  • Thorn says:
    “You are part of this whole world, and it is of you.”

    John Donne:
    No man is an island (and a few other pithy bits in his 17th Meditation).

    I can’t be as active in social justice as many are, but I can write legislators, sign petitions, VOTE, speak up, and more little things that all flow into the river of change.
    A single drop cannot turn a millwheel, but many, joined, do.


    I consider “social justice” (by the way I don’t like this notion since it has been usurped by politicians and utilized as an object in infertilr political battles…) very important part of Pagan ideology. I’m Slavic from extraction and when I read ye olde chronicles I’m instantly enthralled.

    Their lifestyle clearly conforms to mentioned in the article “social justice” definition. NO mutual oppression, NO drastic inequitable stratification of goods (even no mendicacy!) but truest community of spirit, fair interpersonal links, brotherhood, genuine democracy (unlike ours…), joint work, calamities and joys, glorification of Mother Earth etc.

    Perhaps the vectors of civilization were not as dynamic as contemporary, but quality of life and contentment reached the peak back then. And this is clearly Pagan to me!

  • Franklin_Evans

    Engagement is a choice. My experience of the various forms of modern Paganism is a consistently high value placed on personal choice. It hits me (edging from metaphor to experiential) most strongly with those who continue to stay in the “broom closet” despite progress against the knee-jerk prejudices about us. At the very least, I remember the intense trepidation I felt when I consciously chose to become public. I’ve experienced none of the negative consequences feared by those others, but that is not justification for me to insist that they will not face them.

    Social Justice. The first word implies public exposure. There are other ways to support social justice efforts that don’t involve personal exposure, and I’m guessing there are many Pagans who choose that.

  • “The urge to save humanity is almost always only a false-face for the urge to rule it.” H. L. Mencken