Archives For Sam Webster

[From the Editor’s DeskThe Wild Hunt will be leaving the Pantheon Foundation to make another big step forward in its continued evolution. In April, we will begin taking the preliminary steps needed toward becoming our own independent registered nonprofit. We thank the Pantheon Foundation for its time and dedication in helping us achieve this goal, and for supplying us with the needed strength to stand on our own. In addition, we say goodbye to columnist Sam Webster. For the last year, he has shared his writing and work with our readers. We thank him for his contributions and wish him luck in any future projects and pursuits. Starting in April, you will find Webster’s work on Patheos’ Pagan Channel.]

This year, it seems one of the unofficial themes to come out of PantheaCon was social justice. There were many panels, presentations and off-program discussions, and a crisis around issues of race to make it pertinent and lively (see Glenn Turner’s post for a summary.)

We will have to do better before everyone will feel welcome in our halls.

[public domain]

Social Justice / Social Activism

Social justice, and its close companion social activism, are a vibrant energy in our community, at least at the moment. We’ll have to see in what way it will endure. American culture, and we as a sub-culture in it, have a notoriously short attention span coupled with amnesia. Will Pagans and the magical community hold our focus or move on to another outrage du jour? Sadly, the problems, social, environmental, economic, political, and so on, don’t pass so quickly and it has long been the task of social activists to drag our attention back to those problems when our attention wavers.

I laud those whose speech informs us of the oppressions they experience or witness. I honor those who place their bodies on the line to defend, to demonstrate, or even just to demand attention to the intolerable. While not every protest causes obvious change, every action is another weight in the balance that will change society for the better.

The challenges before our community are large. It would take being in a coma to not see the profound social imbalances where some have deep access to resources and others, often simply due to birth, have little to no access. Becoming conscious of these imbalances is necessary. I listen to this discourse and try to learn how others are suffering, what they want to do about it. From that, I determine how I can help.

Beyond the discourse, there are many and various ways of applying effort to actually change society. The really visible ones are the protests, rallies, speakers in presentations and panels. The writers of blogs or other forms of journalism, or more persuasive writing, all contribute to the effort. But not everyone organizes or attends protests, or gives speeches.

There are other less visible types of social activism. The primary kind is voting, a citizen’s duty. The simplest, and I would say most important yet most overlooked, is the raising of children with healthy social consciousness. The mothers and fathers who are doing this are building the next generation. We can see today how important this is in how the Millennials and younger cohorts have such a comparatively decreased degree of homophobia or racism. Generalizing as this is, of course, this is changing society profoundly if slowly.

Serving Community

Other work work to build healthy communities. The small groups that we Pagans form can be ways of concentrating the worst of humanity’s bad habits, or crucibles of transformation that purge our bodies, speech, and minds, of the pernicious poison of sexism, racism, genderism, homophobia, and the like. There is nothing like close contact with the ‘other’ to shatter the barriers in our hearts and build the interpersonal bridges that render the objectified other into a person, even into a friend. Creating these kinds of groups is my work, so I am mindful of its place in the scheme of social activism.

Since graduating seminary in 1993, I have worked as a ‘community minister’ amongst Pagans. Building communities and the empowerment of groups and individuals so that they may be spiritually and materially effective in the world is my work. My space is religion, as befits my training and talents. It is also a space where moral and ethical values can be directly cultivated and expressed.

For thousands of years, basically all the time before the Protestant Reformation (starting 1517), values were expressed and transmitted though ritual and at the hands of the religious specialists of those cultures. We Pagans, who preserve the power of ritual in our civilization, have at our disposal a profound means to transform ourselves, inculcate good social values, and sometimes even directly affect larger society.

Money and Authority

One of the places where we are weak is in our relationship to money. Being one of the four great elemental tools, the coin can no more be ignored than the wand, cup, or sword. Yet we are pretty bad at it, and have serious issues with money. Maybe it’s a hold-over from the hippies who rekindled Paganism in the 60s, perhaps it’s an embracing of spirituality and rejection of materialism and capitalism.

Associated with this is our relationship with the law and with authority. Pagans, witches, and other magical folk, have been marginalized for so long that we forget to use the law to our advantage, even when that law was constructed to protect us or gives us the tools to build what we need. Likewise we sometimes attack authority thinking that it can only be oppressive.

This is quite problematic. Authority begins with the self; yet so many are disempowered that they are not the authority of their own lives. But we can start from where we are, with what little we have. We can then build out from there structures of action and responsibility, which is what creates true authority. As these structures interweave with other people, each their own center of authority, larger more dynamic and powerful structures can be built.

Inevitably, leaders emerge to pilot the institutions the structures create. Recognizing that these institutions are yet another tactic to change society, and that the leaders of those organizations are working to enact the will of those aggregating to create the institution, can help us to realize that this too is form of social activism.

It won’t solve every problem, and only some have any use for it, but certain problems will be hard to solve without these tools. It also has the virtue of being a subtle yet profound means of subverting the dominant social order through alternative, networked, modes of authority. Each success transforms another part of our world.*

Now What?

What to do now that the PantheaCon panels and protests are done? What is the positive creation we can engage in to build a better future?

Overtime, I would like to continue to hear from the overt social activists on what we are able to do. They have done a lot of thinking on the subject. Much of the discussion so far is criticism of self or other, invaluable to understand and be motivated to solve the problem.

Better still that we have also been hearing directly from the oppressed and abused. This should guide our actions. An action plan or at least a strategy is needed that will change our culture or our subculture. What kind of program, what actions can we do to improve conditions? What actionable suggestions can we take back to our small groups to make things better? I’d like to hear some more ideas and apply them.

As for myself, I have a strategy I have been using for decades, one common to the folks working in religion or spirituality. I’ll keep teaching the tools of spiritual empowerment. I’ll keep setting the table to welcome any who wish to do the work, irrespective of race, or gender, or other characteristics. I will continue to build groups and institutions to embody and transmit the wholesome values we must live by if we would live in a just and peaceful society. I will continue to find ways of aggregating the power of individuals and groups into forces that cause good change. These are where my skills and talents lie and how I am best used. There are many other approaches to the problems before us, we will need them all to succeed.

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* Author’s Note: Technically I am an anarchist, of what some call the syndicalist variety. For some concrete examples of how this can work look into the Viable Systems Model by Stafford Beer. It gives a powerful tool and examples for robust self rule. The goal is to use this method of organization for the Pantheon Foundation as it matures. More here.

Column: Magic vs. Religion?

Sam Webster —  January 24, 2015 — 33 Comments

Are magic(k) and religion contrary? One of the ongoing debates in our Pagan Community is the place of magic. Some gather to ‘only’ celebrate and worship. Some find magic central to their practice. Being heterodoxic, Pagans revel in the diversity of opinions we hold, so the range held on this topic is vast.

We are not alone in the discussion. There is a very long standing argument in the academic community about what magic is and how it is different from religion. Attempting to coerce the God(s), which they call impiety, or rites performed outside the customary space, time, and staff for them, which they call illegitimacy are among the more consistent elements. Often this shades over into magic meaning any expected result of a ritual action. [1]

Communal harvest altar at Faerieworlds 2013.

Harvest altar [Courtesy Photo].

Historically, we get these values from the Romans, which were then taken over by Christianity and became dominant in Western civilization. In history, even these ideas are problematic. Going back to Egypt, the use of Heka, more or less what we call magic, was available to anyone with the skills and will. Unless you were using it for crime, the act of magic was in no sense a crime.[2] Contrast this to Europe, through most of its history in the so-called Common Era, where imprisonment, torture and death were the common punishments for magic.

With a life potentially on the line, one might think we would have a very clear definition of magic, but that has yet to be produced. Scholars, starting from their Eurocentric foundation, discovered it was much harder to separate magic from religion when they were looking at cultures other than the West. Whereas for us, Christianity supplanted the ancient traditional religions of Europe, but did not come with a substitute for all of the common magics that folks used to potentiate medicine or bring a little luck. (Actually early on it had a number of traditions of magic, taken over from older practice, but these were suppressed in the first centuries.)

To fill this void, spells and techniques from the ancient world were reused, often but not always with a change in the divine names empowering it. The Kyranides text containing elements from the Greek Magical Papyri shows the enduring nature of these ancient spells well into the Christian period.[3] Naturally, biblical resources were deployed, such as using the Psalms for magic. Misunderstood elements of the Mass were taken out of context for magic, giving us the famous “Hokus Pokus” arguably from ‘Hoc est corpus meum’, meaning ‘This is my body,’ the Latin words of consecration.

However, as we well know from our inheritance, many other elements of the classical world came over into Christian culture to provide for the needs of magic. The most obvious ones being the Elements, and the names and character of the Planets. But when we look at the world over, this is unusual. We are possibly unique in that the (once) dominant religion of the West, Christianity, is not the religion we take our magic from. (There may be structures like this in Islamic and Buddhist countries.)

In most cultures the main religion also provides for the deployment of spiritual resources to accomplish the needs and desires of its adherents. Mantra (spells), talismans, all manner of rites of blessing or expiation exist to heal, to help, to make things a bit better. But when they perform these rites, they call upon the names of the Gods they regularly worship. This posed something of a problem for scholars in that it made it hard to see the difference between a prayer and a spell.

While allowing for a few exceptions, most of us who practice magic think what we are doing is good. When we look at how magic is viewed from the perspective of non-magic users (muggles, cowans, normals, etc.), magic is generally seen as bad. Much of the discussion about it in the academy, or among ourselves, really comes down to a value judgment. It is all the harder to discuss since the topic is being variously valued by the participants in the debate: what is the value of magic?

[Photo Credit: by Leila Darwish ]

[Photo Credit: by Leila Darwish ]

The rub is that the definitions of magic, centered in coercion or legitimacy, run into trouble when very similar actions are found in not obviously coercive modes or performed under legitimate conditions. If a need is being addressed through supplication or prayer, the ‘spell’ (such as the Pater Noster or ‘Hail Mary’) is religious, but if presented in a more aggressive mood, it is magic. If done by the right person under the right conditions it is religious but if not it is magic.

We might be able to make these distinctions in our own culture, but they are much harder in other parts of the world. When looked at overall, any given action, such as the repetition of a phrase, would be considered holy japa (mantra repetition) in India, but ‘vain repetition’ in Biblically dominated cultures. (but then there is the Rosary…)

It has become very hard to find an objective difference between magic and religion. So, much of the judgment is actually subjective. It begins with the idea that magic is bad and that religion is good. This is, of course, not universal. The Atheists and Humanists often think of religion itself as bad, but then for them magic is even worse, being vain foolery or failed science. However, the larger society holds to this pattern.

The other major distinguishing factor is the outcome. Are any boons asked, are any supplications made? Is there any hope or expectation that after performing this action spiritual power will be deployed to accomplish what is asked for? If worship is without expectation, but magic expects results, we have an even worse problem separating magic from religion. It is very easy to make the case that the Catholic Mass is magical. It gathers spiritual force and then propitiates the God for benefits for the congregation and beyond. Indeed most worship includes prayer for those in need. If you think about it, even the hope for spiritual improvement or a good afterlife state is still an expectation of result.

What about the ecstasy that comes in worship itself? Is this not an effect or a benefit? When this analysis is applied it becomes very hard to find an example of ‘pure’ worship that has no expectation of result.

I propose that part of the problem with the argument is that we have such a hard time distinguishing between magic and religion that what we are really talking about is a value judgement: is this given spiritual activity good or bad? Calling it magic just becomes a way of saying to someone that their spirituality is bad. Irritating, I know…

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[1] A selection of sources that deal with this problem: Ruth Benedict, ‘Magic’, in Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 10 (1933), pp. 39-41; ‘Religion’ in Franz Boas (ed.), General Anthropology (Boston: Heath, 1938), pp. 64-67; William J. Goode, ‘Magic and Religion’, Ethnos, 14 (1949), pp. 172-82, and Religion among the Primitives (Glencoe: Freepress, 1951), pp. 52-55.

[2] Robert K. Ritner, The Mechanics of Ancient Egyptian Magical Practice (Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization). (Chicago: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago; 2008 reprint edition, 1997). 322 pp.

[3] One example is a spell for getting one’s lover to say who they have been having sex with by putting the tongue or heart of a frog or bird on their breast while they are sleeping. It shows up in all three texts: Hans Dieter Betz, ed., The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), LXIII. 7-12 p. 295, and another version VII. 411-16 p. 129. Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa Von Nettesheim, The Three Books of Occult Philosophy: A Complete Edition, ed. Donald Tyson, tr. Jame Freake, (St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 1993) p. 47, and Anonymous, Kyranides, On the Occult Virtues of Plants, Animals & Stones (Renaissance Astrology Facsimile Editions, 2005) p. 67.

As we gather this season to celebrate the birth of a God in the Levant, on the day the Sun visibly returns north, under Germanic trees, with presents delivered by an Orthodox Greek Bishop+Norse God+Celtic God, carrying a bag used to be a cauldron, driving a sleigh that once was an 8-legged horse, wearing dress popularized by a soft drink company, all of which is but one interpretation of the customs and iconography, it is right, meet, and proper that we give some thought to the world-wide practice of syncretism.

SyncretismAs we build Paganism into the future, we will inevitably syncretize, in the sense of blending elements of religious practices from a variety of sources into our lived religious life. For instance, embracing or rejecting it, Paganism can not help but be affected by Christianity; it affects how we practice and how we think about our practice. More importantly, what we have inherited from the past is fragmentary and must be supplemented with resources from cultures that are not the same as the one from which we are building. That is, of course, presuming there is such a ‘one.’ Some traditions of Pagan practice are simply an amalgam of diverse elements not necessarily hung upon one single root culture. This works just fine…

This use of the term ‘syncretism’ is, however, only one of the three major applications of the term. The first use had political meaning and can be found in Plutarch’s Moralia, in an essay entitled “On Brotherly Love.” The Cretans, who known for fighting among themselves, engaged in what they called ‘syncretism’ when threatened from the outside (Ch. 19), putting aside their differences to repel the invaders. It was later used by Erasmus in a religious setting, to find commonality even amid theological dissension.

However, the term was later used by classicists and other scholars to describe a number of religious phenomena which we should be careful to distinguish between. One is the identification of Deities from differing cultures as being, in some sense, the ‘same’ Deity. We barely notice the union of Venus with Aphrodite, or Mars with Ares, but we know these are different Deities. Zeus being seen the same as Baal or Marduk, or Hermes with Thoth enabled the entering culture (Greek, then Roman) to be able to identify and worship the Deities of the entered culture (Egypt, Mesopotamia, etc.). We can call this ‘identity’ syncretism.

Egyptologists use the term syncretism quite differently. In Ancient Egypt, more properly Khem, the distinctive character of the individual Deities was so important that, in invocation, a priest-person might declare, “I have not confused you with any other God/ess.” Yet, Deities of very differing character would be found in a combined form. In the Am Duat, at the darkest and deepest hour, Ra is united with Osiris. Elsewhere, He also had unions with Sobek, Khnum, and Amun. Sometimes the union would be between Deities from outside Egypt, such at Anat-Hathor, and Serapis during the Roman period, which was the union of Osiris, Apis, Zeus and Helios. Evidently, since cults were developed for some of these united forms, at some point someone experienced a theophany of the united form and duly set up a cult. This kind of syncretism is sometimes called Egyptian syncretism, but if we are trying to characterize it we might call it ‘fusion.’

Reliefs of Ptolemy VIII in Edfu Temple [Photo Credit:  JMCC1 via Wikimedia, cc. lic.]

Reliefs of Ptolemy VIII in Edfu Temple [Photo Credit: JMCC1 via Wikimedia, cc. lic.]

Then there is the wholesale blending of religious cultures. The Wikipedia reference for syncretism has a long list of vibrant traditions built upon syncretic foundations. The experience of Africans in the Caribbean and South America produced Candomblé, Vodou, and Lucumi (Santeria.) Unitarian Universalism combines so many different traditions that it no longer considers itself Christian. Buddhists and Hindus have learned from and integrated a large array of sources during their long histories.

Those are naturally only a few examples. In the modern Pagan traditions, the ways of the Witches and the Magicians both draw from a rich collection of sources originating in a variety of continents, as do many of our traditions. This can be termed ‘synthetic’ syncretism as these communities of practice are synthesized out of constituent elements. No pejorative meaning should be attributed to this term.

Two major countervailing streams oppose syncretism: modernism and orthodoxy. Modernism, with its fetish for ‘purity,’ created absolutist categories, which get instantiated in notions of nation and race, inevitably leading to nationalism and racism, reading its apogee in the politics of the Second World War. Orthodoxies of various stripe emerge all over the world, wherever there is sufficient power concentrated to dictate the thoughts of others. The best known example of this in the West, of course, is Christianity, which has imposed a thought system upon Europe, the Americas, and beyond. However, it’s drive for ‘right-opinion’ (ortho-doxy) has lead to the 40,000+ different sects of sometimes quite differing opinions.

Diversity in thought and ecosystems is normal. Nature always and only destroys monocultures. The exchange of ideas between cultures is likewise normal, and biologically modeled in the robust genetics of recombinant DNA. Or, in other words, sex demonstrates the value of idea exchange in embodied terms. Likewise, often in human thought, purity is considered the sin qua non of strength. Yet steel is ‘just’ dirty iron, and alloys like bronze and chrome-nickel-steel display strengths far greater than the sum of the strengths of their constituent materials. Highly diverse biomes are massively resilient. Syncretism in religion is an analogous process.

Amazon Rainforest [Photo Credit: lubasi via Wikimedia, cc. lic.]

The biodiverse Amazon Rainforest [Photo Credit: lubasi via Wikimedia, cc. lic.]

Being a young religion, we have much to do to stabilize and establish ‘a’ Pagan way, with all of its attendant and necessary diversity. We will do that in part by learning from the older religions (living and dead) around us, both from their good and worthy ideas and spiritual technologies, as well as from their errors and problems. Given our healthy aversion to orthodoxy, we will learn those lessons and apply them in innumerable ways. The greatest dangers in this are cultural and moral. As we to take in or retain ideas from non-Pagan ethnomes or religions, at what point does that group stop being Pagan?

Ours is a vibrant and growing religion, one developing and maturing. On the way we are learning from and absorbing the lessons (and the Deities) of many other religions. In this era of extraordinary communication and with a long history, we have to opportunity to learn with greater self-awareness than most religions get to have. Let us use this power wisely.

Happy Syncretizing!

How do we know if a Pagan leader is any good, is ethical, or if they are qualified to teach or lead? Today we have their writings and their reputation. This can be a lot, but the standards are inherently subjective and some kind of objective verification would be beneficial. Some matters, like lineage and certification, can be strictly factual. Can these be verified with confidence? Would it be good to have a trusted place to look up any Pagan leader’s qualifications, history and reputation?

Lydia Crabtree, has just such a project. Called Pagan Pro, the idea is to produce an on-line database to which leaders in our community can register and have third-party verification of their Pagan and academic qualifications. The ability of the public to comment on and validate the skills and character of those leaders will be featured.

Pagan Pro logoWhat are the ethics of this? What choices do we have? Our way has generally been ad hoc. Strategies of staying under the radar, out of public light, and unaccountable except to our immediate circle have been fading away as Paganism is becoming a better known minor religion. With the exposure, we, as with other societies and communities, need better ways of validating the quality of leaders with whom we wish to work. This comes with the specter of ‘professionalism’.

In the medieval period, three professions arose: medicine, law, and theology, for doctors, lawyers and (mostly) priests. To do any of them required an education and certification process, often with a licensing dimension as well. One went to a qualified school, got a degree or certificate, and then was granted a license to practice by some authority. This was hardly different than the trades, where (simplifying enormously) the apprenticeship was the education, your master administered the tests and attested to your skills, and then you were inducted into the guild as a peer to engage in your trade. What they all have in common is an educational process, validated by the educator, and then again by the members of the profession. The peer relationship is most visible in the trades and least in theology, which was subject to the authority of the church.

In modern times, these structures are still present and echoing in medical, legal, and other trade organizations which create a professional body to certify or license members of the profession. In this case, peers police themselves. They are, usually, highly motivated to protect the reputation of the profession and recognize that the bad actions of one reflects badly upon all.

Less present today, but not absent, are those organizations that have a hierarchy in place to qualify members. In this case a central organization is created that validates and vouches for the quality and character of its professionals. This is the common mode in religious professions and the Roman Catholic Church is the archetype. The hierarchy itself has institutional power to enforce its standards and, in theory, should maintain the quality of its member professionals.

As Pagan culture advances, we will need to find ways of validating the quality of our leadership. Should we choose to create professional organizations, and certainly some of the lineages attain to this capacity in some measure, this approach would require Pagan leaders to subject themselves to each other’s scrutiny, and be willing to accept the judgment of their peers. Our fiercely independent character, born of years of oppression, make it hard to yield to external authority.

Creating a centralized organization with the authority to control, deploy, and discipline Pagan leaders is even less likely. Seriously, would we ever do that? But it is the most direct method and available to those organizations and societies that have consolidated power. A few Pagan or para-Pagan organizations have this kind of structure and wield that kind of power over their membership, but the community as a whole would never stand for it. Overall our kind of authority structure most matches an immature and developing form of what we see richly and maturely in Hindu culture, with its highly distributed power and plural, diverse, centers of authority.

Since we are not going to put up with a centralized top-down power structure (and nor should we), and we may be a ways out from creating any kind of Pagan leader professional organization (if we ever do make one), we still have the problem of being able to vet our leadership.

Lydia M. Crabtree

Lydia M. Crabtree [courtesy photo]

This is what Pagan Pro is seeking to find a way around. Since the primary task is informational, the seeker should have a way of looking up a leader’s qualifications in order to choose more wisely. Does a given person have the skills to lead a Pagan group or to teach a Pagan way?

The Pagan Pro scheme is to ask each leader or teacher to post their qualifications, and then have a staff member validate them though research. Did this person get trained to the level and from the person they claim? Do they have the academic education claimed? Are they members of any Pagan organizations? And so on…

The Pagan Pro organization would base and stake its reputation on the fact checking. A service like this could be a registry for leaders asserting that they follow professional standards around the treatment of students, sexual conduct, willingness to adjudicate conflicts and others. Then if they are found in violation of these principles, the breech could be published there too. More aggressively, should a Kenny Kline-type predator emerge, then they could be logged on Pagan Pro, as could any other person who failed a background check and still sought leadership status. While this is intended to be a non-judgmental resource, that may prove difficult if it does include anything other than a factual listing of a person’s claimed qualifications.

In the next months Pagan Pro will be launching a Kickstarter campaign to get the project moving. At that point you will have the opportunity to vote with your wallet communicating your opinion as to how valuable this idea is for our community. But, since we have the advantage of the blogging medium, I invite you to discuss the concept in the comments below. I’m sure Lydia Crabtree will be listening.

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Disclosure: Lydia Crabtree is the sister of Wild Hunt columnist, Crystal Blanton.

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In our era of deep individualism which produces such horrors as the 1% oligarchy that rules our nation, we have a society that places individual benefit, greed, and self-centeredness at the acme of life. In ancient Athenian society, a person who behaved in this way was called an idiot.

"O Partenon de Atenas" by Steve Swayne [Lic. CC Wikimedia]

“O Partenon de Atenas” by Steve Swayne [Lic. CC Wikimedia]

Individualism is a strong force within the Pagan community. If Helen Berger is correct, 70% of us are solitary, which is very unusual for a religion. Of course, we are all used to the chorus of, “I joined this religion to get away from religious authority!” This is an understandable sentiment given the authoritarian religions that surround us.

Even the defensive assertion of being a ‘small-group religion’ is another aspect of this individualism. In this case, it is slightly extended to the local crew. While I am a fan of the small group, individualism has a centrifugal force that isolates and disempowers us in our solitude and small circles. It makes it hard for Pagans to join in a coordinated action in response to opportunity or oppression.

One of the most important tasks of religious leadership is to critique, challenge, and deconstruct the religion or a spirituality’s beliefs, perspectives, and practices.Today you are invited to contemplate Pagan solidarity, or civitas, and what the ancient Athenians called the idiot. Reclaiming the word ‘idiot’ and contemplating the criticism it embodies is hereby commended to you for discussion. The ancient world provides us with insight.

In ancient Athens those who gave no thought to the public life, the needs of the Polis, the community, were called ‘idiots’ and considered deficient in honor. This was contrasted to ‘citizenship,’ or civitas in the Roman. This is a life which is dedicated to community and which had to be inculcated by education.

[Public Domain; Pixabay]

[Public Domain; Pixabay]

If you read the Wikipedia listing for it, citizenship arose in opposition to slavery. The military defense of the City by citizens was to prevent enslavement by conquest, which was the normal outcome of war in the ancient world aside from death.

With so much to lose, the Athenians, like many other people in the world, banded together to defend and strengthen themselves against oppression, and for mutual prosperity. Those who did not participate, seeking only their own benefit, were called idiots. Citizenship was considered a virtue and accrued honor to those who gave up some personal benefit for the sake of the community. The respect of one’s fellows was considered ample compensation.

So, at times we should ask ourselves, are we a bunch of idiots? Do we Pagans see things that benefit our community as a whole and beyond our immediate circles (regional, state, national) as something worth our effort?

Admittedly we are in an era of speciation, spawning off new religious practices and traditions like Reconstructionism, [Hard/Soft-] Polytheism, Humanist Paganism, Heathenism and other culturally focused forms, and many more. We are in a centrifugal mode. Diversity is good for us overall; diverse ecologies are healthy and robust. This also pulls us apart into our many factions or sects, too often painfully at odds with each other. A necessary phase of development, but solidarity need not be ignored.

So, what of our civitas, our awareness of being a community? There are none like us in this world. We are a new, rising, vigorous, religious movement, only a few hundred years old. Contemporary Paganism is twined with the origins of modern science and liberal governance (freedom of speech, press, rule of law, etc.), but also with a revival of ancient forms of religiosity with their insights and Deities. Altogether a more wholesome form of religion, better suited to today, I warrant, than any other. But we are not a very powerful or effective one; the poster child for disorganized religion.

The Maetreum of Cybele is struggling to get tax relief for their monasteryThe Seekers Temple in Beebe AR is being attacked for trying to operate its Pagan church by a Christian church across the road). And I’m sure there are more such oppressions in the U.S. and abroad. Our ability to come together to support each of these members of our community, or failure to, constitutes a measure of our civitas, our citizenship as Pagans.

Two positive examples of civitas are the Lady Liberty Headstone Project, which lobbied the Veterans Administration so that deceased Pagan Military could be buried with headstones marked with Pagan religious symbols, and the recent fundraiser for The Wild Hunt. This vital Pagan news outlet was able to reach its basic funding goal with two weeks to spare. We can, as a community, put it together at times.

But is it a virtue to us? Is civitas a value in our sub-culture? How do we embody our solidarity in action? Pitching in and helping out is especially necessary when we don’t have institutions and paid leadership to take on the skut work. It’s not glorious, but it is necessary. Will we honor and respect, and support, those who labor on behalf of our community? What of those who set up our spaces and clean them afterwards? What of those who handle the accounting and book the sites — those not out front and visible leading ritual? Civitas is that special unity that comes from finding ways of joining together to achieve our hopes and dreams. In it, there is honor, respect, and support, for those who shoulder the burden. The alternative is sheer idiocy.

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Accountability is a critical aspect of leadership in any community. For Pagans, this is a special challenge because our structure and power dynamics are neither the norm, nor easily shaped to produce accountability.

Ordinarily, there is a strong dimension of economic and regulatory reciprocity in the relationship between leaders and the communities they serve.The CEO is hired by the board of directors. The minister is called by the congregation (in congregational polity) or placed by the hierarchy. The president is elected by the people. If a leader does not perform to expectation or to standard, he or she can be fired or replaced. In the case of the president, the standards for malfeasance are high, but so are the consequences: impeachment, removal from office, or simply not being reelected.

[Graphic by lumaxart - CC lic. via Wikimedia ]

[Graphic by lumaxart – CC lic. via Wikimedia ]

Pagan leaders are unusual in that they are often ‘self-called’ to their role. They decide to form a group and do so by collecting people around them. They are generally not paid, and often the group meets at the leader’s home. Generally, they are the principal teacher, and likewise, the sole initiator. This makes censuring or dismissing the leader very difficult. It usually disbands the group and, only sometimes, will a fraction of the group continue without the leader. The usual penalty of loss of pay simply does not apply.

Shauna Aura Knight recently wrote about the difficulty of holding leaders, or ‘elders’ in her frame, to account. In a previous and cited work on whistleblowers, Shauna describes the painful reality of individuals speaking out against the abuse of leaders and elders.They are regularly disbelieved and punished, while the accused is often powerfully defended. Many instead choose to remain silent.

The economic dimension of mutual control is only the most obvious lack in Pagan groups. When viewed per their power dynamics, most groups are (hopefully) benevolent and consensual autocracies. Besides being the founders of the group or the event, the leaders are the bottom line, and the one who maintains the commitment to making it all happen. Flakey and unreliable as many Pagans are, without firm leadership events fail and groups fade away.

Basic funding for them also tends to come out of the pockets of the leaders as well, bringing back the economic aspect, but without checks and balances. On the other end of the political spectrum, in consensus-based groups there can be a problem assigning accountability (not to say blame).  However, there can be an advantage in being accustomed to group decision-making, which provides its own kind of accountability. But when the consent breaks down, so do the groups.

There are alternatives but these require significant effort on the part of the group-members and real courage on the part of the leaders. In the Facebook thread on her page commenting on Shauna’s above mentioned post, Samuel Wagar (09122014) pointed to the way our society as a whole has worked out how to solve this problem:

I have created lasting groups (the festival now twenty years old, the church ten years), using democracy and congregationalism as the keys. And one such group fired a leader, and has disciplined others. It can be done, with a model that is not centered on the charismatic leader.

Here, democracy is the power structure, congregationalism is the social structure and ownership model, and not being centered on the charismatic or celebrity leader is crucial to long term success. Since groups of all kinds are most commonly started by charismatic leaders because they are the ones with the chutzpah to make it happen, we need to build models for migrating start-ups into long standing organizations. The leaders themselves need to take the lead in this transformation, and the members have to step up and take on the load.

[Photo Credit: Chris Beckett/Flickr]

[Photo Credit: Chris Beckett/Flickr]

This is not easy in a corporatocratic and consumer society. We don’t believe we have the power to govern the institutions in which we are embedded and, in many senses, we believe we should just be delivered good services without our having to work to make them good. This is reinforced by the belief that the ‘invisible hand of the market’ will just provide.

Experience does not support this notion. The iron law of oligarchy (Robert Michels, 1911) painfully shows that, without considerable will, power and authority accrue to the few or the one. The challenge is that leaders need to empower the membership and then give up power and authority to those they empower. Then the membership needs to not develop a new oligarchy. It’s not easy.

We can begin by building feedback-mechanisms. Starting with something as simple, if challenging, as setting up a council of advisers, leaders can begin to establish true two-way communication with committed members. Asking the difficult questions like, “What am I doing wrong?” and “What is the worst thing I have done?” are not fun to ask, hear, or even reply to. Doing this before crisis and developing a de-escalated methodology in a low emotional charge atmosphere can be a significant part of building an organization that learns, corrects its mistakes, and figures out what it is doing well so it can do more of that.

A powerful technique used in businesses committed to being learning organizations is to perform “Plus/Deltas” at the end of each meeting. It is often worthwhile for someone other than the meeting’s facilitator to run. A fresh facilitator steps up at the end of the meeting, draws a line down the middle of the note-taking surface (e.g., white board or easel pad) headed by a plus sign (+) on one side, and a triangle (∆) for the Greek letter Delta on the other. Then the facilitator asks the group what went well in the meeting (plusses) and what should be changed (deltas). Even simply taking down the list of these plusses and deltas  and seeing them on the page leads to improvement.

Building feedback and accountability into organizational structures is a serious challenge, but the laws of our country support a powerful means. This is the board of directors in a corporation. Corporate structure allows for the design of governance structures that can reflect the values of the community that creates the organization and give them the force of law. The community owns the corporation, selects the board of directors, who then empowers the executive officer(s) to run the operation.

[Photo Credit: rrafson CC-BY-SA-3.0  via Wikimedia Commons]

[Photo Credit: rrafson CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

How this is done is up to the community. The board can be elected with a limited term. The executives could have very specifically defined powers. The Unitarian Universalist Association and its member churches are built this way, and something like this structure is what Samuel Wager is referring to in his above comment. When started by a charismatic leader, the leader has the task of setting up the organizational structure on behalf of the future, designing in democracy, and then subordinating themselves to its authority. Incidentally, this is what the Founders of the United States of America did, and why they deserve the honor in which are held. They easily could have set up an oligarchy.

Besides having the right structures, when there is a (potential) problem or abuse, the right procedures have to be in place. There is a reason why we have developed the justice system that we have in the meta-society. Humans are awful at determining guilt. Due process, worked out over innumerable errors and injustices, has produced the body of jurisprudence that governs our courts. While we neither need nor want that level of complexity, we do need to learn from its wisdom. Besides the general idea of innocent until proven guilty, three specific items are critical:

  1. If someone is accused of malfeasance, the person bringing the accusation has to have ‘standing’“ the ability of a party to demonstrate to the court sufficient connection to and harm from the law or action challenged to support that party’s participation in the case.” This protects the system from frivolous suits and acts of power from outside of the community in which the offense occurred. This is where the whistleblowers are crucial; they alone have the standing to bring accusation. It also means they need to have access to proper representation and counsel.
  2. The body (court) to which the case is brought must have ‘jurisdiction,’ meaning “the practical authority granted to a formally constituted…body or to a…leader to deal with and make pronouncements on legal matters and, by implication, to administer justice within a defined area of responsibility.” They must have authority over the parties involved and the actions claimed to have been done. Otherwise, one organization is asked to rule over another organization’s problem, without explicit agreements that they can. Naturally, all parties may ask an otherwise outside group to adjudicate a matter but, in that case, they are intentionally submitting to that authority.
  3. A case must be presented. The accuser must produce a defined accusation, preferably in writing, which states that the accused did some specified action at a particular time and place. Without this, the accusation can be a vague claim of misbehavior or abuse which becomes impossible to prove or counter. What is left is a vague air of impropriety; the besmirching of a reputation. No resolution is possible without a specific and clear case.

Instituting structures and procedures like these, appropriately informed by our Pagan culture and values, is part of the long process of maturation that we are undergoing as a community. Our increasing diversity also signals the need to find ways of working out our differences as well as managing conflict and misbehavior. Building the right structures and procedures are foundational to justice and fairness. By Maat, Themis, and Forseti, justice must be duly applied or it becomes a vendetta when we bring accusations against anyone, leader, follower or whistleblower. With time, I pray we can find our way to suitable means in which we can live in justice, correct our errors, and find methods that helpfully support and hold our leaders to account.

Accountability is a mutual relationship. It is not automatic or assured except with effort. Organizations have to be designed with built-in accountability. All parties in the system must fulfill their roles with energy and diligence. The ad hoc approaches that we have used in our small-group religion are reaching their limits, and our community is showing the strain. Hopefully this brief exploration of the common means of accountability and adjudication can provide some guidance for advancing the quality of Pagan leadership.

Today there are engineered foods designed to not trigger leptin, the hormone that tells us we are full, so we eat the whole bag. Planned obsolescence has us throwing away rather than repairing appliances and other consumer goods, so they go to landfills and scrap yards. Advertising is intended to cause desire and dissatisfaction, so we buy things we don’t need and don’t even want.

We are told that economic growth is the way for all of us to financially succeed. Yet the growth since the 2008 crisis has been entirely to the benefit of the ownership class; this tide floats only the yachts. The exemplars of things that grow uncontrollably are cancer and algae blooms. The first kills its body; the second drowns itself in its waste. How can we believe in an economic doctrine that contradicts how we know Nature works?

The Pagan way of walking lightly on the earth is a value, even if often only an aspiration. It is a way of expressing the experienced sanctity of this world in which we live; a way of positively valuing the natural and the sustainable. It is rooted in our experience of ourselves in integration with the world, especially the natural world around us. This spirituality (spiritual knowing) leads to ethical decisions and policies regarding our patterns of consumption, intended to reduce their negative effects.

The alternative to this are the zombies. The current form of this trope is the deceased, and the newly so, become mindless consumers…of consumers: us. In this image, ‘we’ are the prey-food. But we also represent all consumer goods, and the zombies are the ultimate consumers. They have no limits to their consumption, nor any apparent goal, save to consume, and perhaps to make more consumers; that is zombies.

Zombies from "Night of the Living Dead" (Public Domain)

Zombies from “Night of the Living Dead” (Public Domain)

Zombies are also lacking one other critical component: interiority. They are mindless and unfeeling, relentless and untiring. There is “no one home” in the mass-consumer zombie. From this comes the zombie hunter’s ethic: zombies can be killed without qualm. Humans have long had classes of beings that can be thoughtlessly killed: slaves, infidels, foreigners, never mind the animals, even plants, ecologies and so many more. Their otherness makes them easy to slay. The zombies are aggressive, which makes it ethically easier.

Where does this lack of interiority in the zombie trope come from? There is a place in life where we meet humans that appear to have no interiority. They are silent until their stop comes. Then they all move without any apparent cognizance of each other. These are the people on the street, on the bus, the train, even in the other commuting cars on the road ways. Deep down inside, with the flickering of the subway lights, do the fellow riders look pale and bloodshot, ready to rise up and eat you? Consumers, consuming all in their path. It is the image of our society.

This image is a failure of spirituality. It is a failure of the lived experience of the interiority of the Other. Most folks can barely conceive of the feelings and thoughts of others; not naturally, of course. The dulling of their lives on the treadmill of indentured servitude servicing debt narrows the horizon of the ‘cared for’ to their families, if they are fortunate, or only to themselves. Arms stretched out to clutch at the desired, never to be satisfied, yet consuming all. What else is there to do?

Trees and sun in Oregon. Photo: Jason Thomas Pitzl

Trees and sun in Oregon. Photo: Jason Thomas Pitzl

Pagans recognize that an animistic perspective is a profound contradiction to this horror show. While it takes many forms throughout the world, animism is fundamentally the intuition of interiority and subjectivity in all entities about us, whether humans, animals, plants singular or in collectives, ecologies, even machinery, buildings, natural features, nations and so forth.

For some at the beginning, this is the mere knowledge that the Other has interiority. But with development comes the taste and touch of other minds and presences. Over time these presences become relationships, friendships, even kinship. Many Pagans have this experience; mature Pagans live in it. Here the subway lights steady, warm to flesh from their pale florescence, and we perceive the inner lives, joys, suffering, and purpose in those who sit beside us. We feel with them and share in those subjective realities. We feel their fears of the zombie apocalypse, the revelation that everyone else is out to eat them. But, we catch an eye, share a smile that spreads and warms the entire car. We see the person, not the consumer.

Our society in its current, raging pathology does not support seeing our neighbors as ourselves. We are isolated in our competition for the few and the rare, even when the shop shelves are full. Even in the pews, they all sit in rows staring up at the man with the book, not seeing each other alongside themselves. The zombies are a pale, aggressive reflection of our consumer, consuming culture. Yet when the light shifts, the color to their faces return, their feelings within become visible. When they are animate, ensouled and living beings, we see them as none other than ourselves.

In the animistic view, we meet the domestic cat and dog, the wild bird and squirrel, the creek, the mountain, and the sea all as living entities, to talk with, cry with, to support and be supported by, just as we do with the rest of our two-legged neighbors.

Can we see in the zombies flesh-eating dissatisfaction, in their out-reaching arms the desire to connect with other? Is there anybody out there? Would they sit beside us ungrasping if they were fed and satisfied? If the food filled, if the goods were reparable, if the media did not dangle forlorn carrots of unobtainable delights to sell laundry detergent, would the zombies stop?

In the sixth century BCE the Buddha taught that in all experience is dukkha, unsatisfactoriness, and that the way to end this is to not grasp after the transitory. Our overculture makes insatiable zombies of us all, trapped in profound suffering, creators of suffering. Yet the nectar of subjectivity recognized in all, the profound insight of animism, cures the zombie plague. Then we meet our neighbors, human and not, and know we are not alone.

Ministers are among the legally mandated with a duty to report abuse. But what a minister is in the Pagan community, is a vague notion. Some folks call themselves ministers or “reverend” because they lead a group of Pagans in religious activity. While this is certainly an appropriate position for a minister, the profession of ministry requires a lot of education (4 to 5 years) and that education is rarely undertaken by Pagan religious leaders.

[Photo Credit: Paganavebury / CC. Wikimedia]

Handfasting [Photo Credit: Paganavebury / CC. Wikimedia]

The expense is only one of the barriers. Many of self-declared ministers are skilled priest-folk, but that is not the same office as minister. I’ve written about priesthood and ministry elsewhere. In brief, a minister, in most congregations, is at least a Master of Divinity. They have been through an education that is partially academic, but also one balanced by a significant amount of spiritual and personal challenge delivered by a seminary, and informed by the deep experience of those who have gone before.

In the past five hundred years, a significant body of learning and experience has developed in the seminary community, which can only be transmitted by studying in one because it is a culture – not simply information or technique. It is a body of knowledge and skill richly informed by the enormous amount of error that the professional religious community has foisted upon those they serve. This may seem like a strange endorsement, but those errors are the precious stuff of wisdom. Much of the spiritual care that humans benefit from looks no different from spiritual harm. The only way to know is empirical; it has to be tried. Then each success and failure has to be passed to the next occasion and to the next generation of religious professionals. This is done in seminary.

The ‘challenging’ of the minister-in-training is an important part of rendering a human capable of serving and helping another. Mostly, we, who go into the helping professions, do so for egoic reasons, which poisons any help we give. In training for a profession such as social work or psychotherapy, the practitioner has to be ‘broken’ of self-centered impulses. This is no less for the minister-to-be; rather even more so given the spiritual content of their service and profound responsibility that it entails. The ‘challenging’ is an ordeal that tempers the person who would serve in deeply transformative ways.

[Photo Credit: Elijah Nouvelage, Flickr/CC]

[Photo Credit: Elijah Nouvelage, Flickr/CC]

Training is only the first step. It renders the master of divinity fit for the task, but that is only half the story. There must also be the contribution of the community to making an effective minister. This has two parts, one permanent and the other temporal. The first is ordination. This is where a community, often by means of its leadership, acknowledges the training and preparation of a minister-to-be and consecrates that person to the task of spiritually serving that community. This, and whatever act of blessing, sometimes laying on of hands, is what makes a person a ‘Reverend’. The second, more temporal part, is the actualization of that blessing in a call-to-serve a specific community. What is most important to note here is that the community has the power and responsibility to invest its minister(s) with delegated powers and a mandate to act on behalf of and in service to that community.

Which brings me back to the mandated duty to report. Naturally, everyone has a responsibility to report abuse. What is different for those legally mandated to report is that they can be brought up on charges if they don’t fulfill the mandate and report the abuse.

A minster, for the reasons above, has a legally-mandated duty to report sexual abuse of minors, abuse of elders, as well as reporting responsibilities with respect to harm to self (suicide) and harm to others (assault, murder.) This is founded on the presumption that the minister is trained in the ability to recognize abuse and has been given the responsibility to observe, counsel, and correct the community they serve. Without that training, the identification of the problem may produce unacceptable numbers of false positives and negatives. Without the community’s mandate, what right does the minister or person have to speak up?

We can remediate the lack of training with specific training. I hear that at the upcoming COG Grand Council/Merry Meet there will be two different trainings given. One of which is explicitly about the mandated duty to report. This is excellent, although making sure this training is universal for all who take leadership roles is a problem yet to be solved.

However, the more general problem of mandate remains. Outside of our small groups, which is where most of our leadership exercises its (rightful) authority, at larger events where the problem of predatory behavior is more prevalent, who has the mandate to speak? The event coordinators already have their hands full and can’t be everywhere, so other means of observation and reporting have to be present. We can easily acknowledge that leaders in general have this responsibility implicitly. However, we can see from the reports that we have on this problem, this is insufficient to solve it. Some are taking responsibility on themselves, such as the Council of the Phoenix. While noble to step up, who has given them this authority? No one, and so they wisely limit themselves (thus far) to being a resource hub.

[Photo Credit:  RainArashi, deviantArt/CC]

[Photo Credit: RainArashi, deviantArt/CC]

One approach is to establish a certification body. This would be an organization of members of our Pagan community, presumably with appropriate training, who could then establish standards on the basis of law and best practices. Then individuals, organizations, and events can apply for, duly receive, and proudly proclaim that they have been certified to comply with the law and those practices.

Another approach, which ideally would build on the certification principle, is to establish professional organizations of Pagan leaders and likewise assert the law and best practices. This would then lead to a culture of self-policing. The members of the organization would be mutually bound to observe, report and correct their fellows to maintain the high standards of the organization.

Of course, having more Pagan leaders who have been through the seminary process would also help. Scholarship and other support for those who feel called to the work are ways our community can cultivate good leadership. The Pantheon Foundation in our very first year of operation in service to the community has established the Diotima Prize to provide support (this year $1000) to a Pagan Master of Divinity student.

Yes, this comes down to a matter of power. Who do we empower to act on our behalf? And who will watch the watchmen? These are not easy questions or we would have solved them by now. But, now we have to get to work on them.

More Information:

NCSL: Mental Health Professionals’ Duty to Protect/Warn Clergy as Mandatory Reporters of Abuse and Neglect

Missouri: Missouri, Ministers Duty to Report

Washington: Confidentiality and Mandatory Reporting: A False Dilemma?

California: Mandatory Reporting (Elderly)

California: Mandatory Reporting (Children)

Have you heard about the GM ignition switch recall? It was a long-standing problem that resulted in a number of deaths but ignored by the executure. Rightly, many are horrified but few have the magical insight or the systems theory to understand how GM could be so stupid. Here is how a Pagan might understand the problem…

Corporations are useful tools. They are one of the most effective and efficient ways of humans to work collectively. They can be built and focused on very specific or very general tasks, and bound to those tasks legally by the very documents that form the corporation. They can have whatever governance structure the establishers desire: autocratic, democratic, consensus, or whatever. In the creation of a corporation, there exists one of the few ways private citizens can effectively establish what amount to laws for those involved in the project and how that project will function in the world. It also has the virtue of being able to outlast any of its founders, and so it is an effective way of projecting values across generations. But of course, none of that has to happen. Corporations can be created to simply seek profit to the exclusion of all else, and be run in a completely autocratic manner. Today many are.

[Photo Credit: Bo Nash/Flickr]

[Photo Credit: Bo Nash/Flickr]

Much like a hammer, a corporation can be used to build or kill. When ill-formed and ill-governed, a corporation can be a nightmare. This is what we are seeing in GM. It is huge, distributed and diverse, making it hard to govern. Its sole purpose is to make profit for its shareholders, which is the crux of the problem. This principle determines the outcome of decisions: Will this add or detract from shareholder/owner profit?

Pagans, due to our magical inheritance, and Jews for similar but older reasons, know of a creature that is very much like the corporation: the Golem. The most famous Golem tale is from Prague during the reign of Rudolf II, where Rabbi Lowe made the figure of a man out of clay and using Divine words animated it to protect the Jewish Quarter from pogrom, what we would call today ethnic cleansing. In the bad version of the story, the Golem runs amuck and can’t be stopped. It is extremely strong, has the power to work tirelessly and is (mostly) invulnerable. But that which is made by word can only be unmade by word.  So the Rabbi, who wrote Emet (meaning Truth, spelled Aleph Mem Tov) on the brow of the Golem to bring it to life, erased the Aleph to spell Mot, meaning death, and deactivated the creature.

The similarity to a corporation is striking. Like a Golem, a corporation is made by words; its articles of incorporation once signed and seal by the Secretary of State bring it to life. At one time ‘life’ might have seemed like hyperbole, but living in the age of the Citizens United ruling, corporations have personhood before the law and with it ‘human’ rights. It will continue doing what it was set up to do unless commanded or forced to stop. This can be very hard to do when those with the power of command are benefiting (making profit) from the creature’s actions. It is effectively immortal, only to stop functioning when it runs out of cash or credit, its life blood so to speak. It can only ‘die’ if it is disbanded by sale, in which case it continues in another form, or experience ‘true’ death by the revocation of its articles of incorporation, which will actually end it. Like the Golem, it will only stop when its words of creation are ‘erased’.

40 Wall Street [Photo Credit: Massmatt/Flickr]

40 Wall Street [Photo Credit: Massmatt/Flickr]

Golems are also notoriously dumb. Most don’t speak so that is quite literal. But they are also stupid, in that they will do what they are told perpetually until stopped. There is no thought or will or compassion to guide them, only purpose. So due to bad governance, the corporation GM plodded along making profits because it did not see that the death of customers was a problem. No one took responsibility for the equipment failure, which would have taken less than a dollar part to fix.

We’ll come back to the Golem in a bit. The ‘real’ problem GM and others face is that the problem, in this case bad governance, is the result not of human intent (no one wanted anyone to die), but the unanticipated properties of the complex system that is the GM corporation. And this is true of all systems. In GM, they did not recognize that their governance structure, motivated primarily by profit, took no responsibility for fixing the issue until forced.

The problem with Golems is that they are not persons; although some versions of the story make them so. They are ordered to their task and can’t choose to stop. Choice is the basis for morality, and so without it, the Golem can’t be the moral actor. This dynamic plays out in these two posts about GM and Enron from Forbes Magazine and Robert Reich centered on the “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one” meme. They each have their points, but I’m with Reich on this one. The persons who made the moral choices did not pay the same kinds of penalties that a human would for the same outcomes. They did not go to prison; they were not executed, although Enron was disbanded. I’m for much harsher penalties. Besides holding the executives and other deciders to criminal account, when a corporation is charged with any crime, all trading on its stock should be stopped. This prevents the stockholders from being able to unload what may suddenly become worthless property. It also makes the stockholders accountable for how their property behaves, and therefore they are much more likely to exert their own responsibility for right governance. Should a corporation be guilty of murder, immediate liquidation of all its assets; the end of all trading of its stock, and the revocation of its articles of incorporation is about the closest we can get to execution. I would look to the outcomes to determine if creditors should benefit from the liquidation.

As Pagans know, the other side of the coin from death is life, and this case immortality. Corporations don’t die unless killed. As it stands they can kill and pay wergild and continue in business. The unfolding profit motive makes the risk calculation simple: if the profit is in the billions and the price for killing humans, never mind other species and ecosystems, is only millions, than it is acceptable to kill humans. Since making profit is the life of corporations, killing people while making profit is just good business. It also puts corporations higher than humans on the food chain. I have a problem with this.

It is no accident that, up until now, humans were on the top of the food chain. We struggled long and hard to get there. We tend to eliminate all large predators wherever we live. It is why I don’t believe in vampires; we would simply hunt them down and kill them. Now we have created a kind of Golem, a system-creature, in ways that we can scarcely govern. We didn’t have to, and there are many corporations which aren’t, but we did create enough of them to threaten us all. It is profitability that blinds corporations to climate change, to the inequities of our medical system, and to the cruelties heaped upon the economically disadvantaged. What will happen when robots have rendered 80% of the work force redundant?

Will we tolerate beings that prey on us? Generally humans don’t.

Taking Place

Sam Webster —  May 23, 2014 — 11 Comments

Ours is a religion of living rooms and backyards. How this will change as we Pagans become more prominent in society remains to be seen, but the conversation is underway. Recently Rynn Fox focused her Perspectives column here on The Wild Hunt on the “Gods of Place” and elicited a somewhat surprisingly uniform set of views on the topic, centering on the spiritual beings associated with places.

Moving here from my other blogspaces, I am more mindful today of the place than its spirit, the tension we have with place and what the future will require of us as we take our place in the wider world.

Humans have been making places special far back into the depths of time. After visiting the cave on the Gower peninsula of Wales where the Red Lady of Paviland was buried some thirty-three thousand years ago and which was used for (likely) ritual purposes for some eleven thousand years, I found a timescale in my mind that I could scarcely comprehend. My civilization is not as old as this place had been used.

Below Paviland Cave on the Gower [© Copyright Jeremy Bolwell and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons]

Below Paviland Cave on the Gower [© Copyright Jeremy Bolwell and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons]

Living in America, a third generation child of immigrants, I wonder where my sacred spaces are? When I was a young Catholic, the churches were sanctuaries (my parents helped build three), and some of the buildings were magnificent. Once I realized we weren’t worshiping the same God, I no longer found those places quite as congenial. Many Pagans find the locus of the sacred in Nature. I’ve crossed this continent by ground seven times and seen majestic natural spaces. In each case I was struck by the feeling of sanctity. Here in Northern California, we have Redwood groves whose hushed and dappled columns move so many to declare them cathedrals.

The First Peoples, of course, have many holy sites on this continent. We know of some, but they are not always sanguine about us using them, or think us foolish for visiting places abandoned by all but ghosts, like Chaco Canyon.

In Europe Pagans are confronted by a different situation. First off there are many ruins, some very prehistoric, cairns, long barrows, dolmens, standing stones and stone circles. Once they were thought to be Druidic, now we know them to be much older, although maybe the Druids used them too. Who wouldn’t? Nowadays they are claimed by contemporary Pagans as belonging to our Ancestors, but since the genetic relationship between us and these immensely old sites is dubious to non-existent, whose are they? What should they be used for? The classic example is Stonehenge at Solstice. What a crowd! And Druids presiding!

It is a serious issue in Europe. The tensions between the archeologists, the responsibility of the state to preserve an important heritage, the desire to offer worship at ancient sacred sites, and the resistance of certain parties, theist and non, to such worship makes for a complex power dynamic. I am personally quite sure that with good communications and affirmed shared values to preserve the space, the right kinds of offerings and material prayers could certainly be arranged. (Water libations are not going to hurt any outdoor ancient site.) As Pagans become more socially, economically, and thus politically powerful, we will have the opportunity to participate effectively in the right use and preservation of these sacred places. We have a duty to preserve the past which is even greater than our present desire to worship, for we, better than most people before us, know that civilizations are evanescent.

Pantheon [Photo Credit: Richjheath Public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

Pantheon [Photo Credit: Richjheath Public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

But then there are the cathedrals of Europe. So many of them were built on places considered holy by the pre-Christian peoples, which is mostly why the churches were built there. Folks continued to worship in the same place, only differently. Today many of these splendid buildings stand mostly empty as Christian populations decline. I can’t help but think, Can we have them back now? You can keep (most of) your art. We’ll keep them open and preserve them for posterity. Fortunately for Pagans, most cathedrals don’t have pews, so we can just clear the chairs out for dancing and circles. (If they have pews, we can save some for the sidelines, but the rest will make a lovely bonfire.) My eye is on the Pantheon of Rome. While it may not actually have been used for worship by the Romans (the debate is not settled), it was the first building taken over by the Church and used for worship in the city of Rome. They have plenty of their own buildings now. Can we have it back? Alas, I am not Italian and have no standing to ask…

In the States, we build new places where we can buy them. In the country or in the cities, Pagan sanctuaries, stone circles, even monastic sites are being founded. Yet the “Pagan Retreat Center” is something of an epitome of failure. How many of us have fled the city to build a facility, only no one came, the bills piled up and we had to abandon our dreams? At the Pantheon Foundation, we have already received several requests for help with new Pagan land. The challenges of capital development and cash flow dog our community. Yet twenty families can put together a church without much fuss. Here in San Francisco Bay, we have dozens of these little churches. A question we cannot afford to ignore is why we can’t do this for ourselves?

In the ancient world, there were a number of ways of selecting sites for worship. One was social, establishing altars, shrines and temples for the benefit of a city and so were located in high or central places determined by the polis. The other, far more prominent, was to establish a place because of a theophany. The Deity showed Itself to someone at some place which thereafter became a locus of worship. Or perhaps the Deity told someone to set up an altar or shrine at some suitable location, like when Odysseus was told to carry an oar inland until someone asked where he was carrying that threshing pole (they did not recognize the oar), and there he was to set up the shrine to Poseidon, make sacrifice, and expiate the crime of blinding one of His sons. On so many ancient altars it is written that it was set up in thanksgiving for the gift of the Deity, some act of power saving a life, or liberation from suffering, or granting a benefit, or in expiation as with Odysseus for a wrongdoing. Then others could come, remember the Greatness of the Deity, and there offer sacrifice.

But this is a world where most of the land was unclaimed and where a shrine would be respected. Recently I set up a small herm at a crossroads near my home, and within twenty-four hours, the engraved stone was gone. We live in a very different world.

How are we to establish enduring places of worship in Nature, which we so love? How do we respond to theophanies? How can we, when we meet the numinous in some location create enduring space for worship to take place? As Pagans grow in power in our society, this will become easier, but it will require forethought to do well. Let us begin thinking about how we will take place as holy…

[Photo Credit: Jose M. Vazquez/Flickr]

[Photo Credit: Jose M. Vazquez/Flickr]

There is another side of this issue of place that needs be addressed before ending. The Christian interregnum scattered us, but like seeds we grow again spreading our way into new lands. While for many of us in the States that scattering separates us from the ancient sanctuaries of our Gods (please take care of them!), it has forced us to learn how to make wherever we are sacred (to ourselves, it always was sacred).

As our spiritual and scientific understanding grew, we also learned that the center of the world is where we stand at any moment. With sufficient depth of practice any place can be experienced as supremely holy. It can be said that we are no longer dependent on the ancient places. No longer can our religion be suppressed by tearing down our places of worship or stripping our temples of our sacred icons, relics, writings, and so on. We are mobile. We are on the internet. With a candle and a prayer we can make any living room into the Temple of the Gods, the Hall of Initiation, the Center of the Cosmos.

But I still want the Pantheon back…