Among my favorite places to visit is the Fakahatchee Strand in South Florida. About an hour west of Miami, the Fak (as we call it) is a narrow swamp forest about five miles wide and about 20 miles long. The shallow swamp sits beneath soaring royal palms, bald cypress trees and tropical hardwoods while its near-crystal waters slowly drain southward into the Ten Thousand Islands region of Southwest Florida. The Fak is home to the Florida panther, alligators, river otters, fox squirrels, Everglades minks, native bromeliads, as well as the fantastically rare Ghost Orchid that was highlighted in Susan Orlean’s novel, The Orchid Thief and its ensuing film, Adaptation.

It is primordial.

Photo by M. Tejeda-Moreno

Inside the Fakahatchee Strand. [Photo Credit: M. Tejeda-Moreno]

The Fak is both close to the city and, like much of Southern Florida, refreshingly and dangerously wild in the word’s deepest sense. In winter, the Fak is crisp and covered in migratory birds. In the summer, you venture with full-body netting and repellent; the mosquitoes are the least of your worries. Spending time in the swamp, whether hiking dry trails or slogging the water, is a constant marvel. Animal noises are punctuated by deafening bursts of silence. You are immersed within the wild; its tangible danger as well as it thick and overflowing life. You become as vigilant as our ancestors in these treacherous places, yet reassured back into modernity as your cell phone makes a weak and random connection. No matter how long you stay or how often you go, you leave transformed.

The experience is a far and away a contrast to the security of our homes and the usual life that we inhabit in cities. Most of us live in spaces designed by humans to maximize both our safety and our comfort. In many ways, however, the Pagan identity is built upon the reconnection with the natural world and, as we have all heard, there is much magic outside our comfort zone.

Many of our rituals address our connection to nature in one way or another; and many of our spiritual traditions place nature as the center point of reverence. Indeed, most of our festivals intentionally pull as away from the familiar, urban life into natural spaces. They help remind us that we are strengthened when we occasionally break away from the structured lives of the city into the randomness and freedom of nature. This is a familiar Pagan pattern: live in the city, renew in the wild.

To be sure, mainstream Western Society has affixed itself to severing connections with the natural world. In the 8th century, Charlemagne’s violent campaigns to Christianize Pagan Saxons culminated in, what the Royal Frankish Annals refers to as, the destruction of the central seat of the Saxon religion, the Irminsul. The Irminsul is described as a large hollow tree trunk clearly connected to Yggdrasil, the sacred tree of Odin that connects the Nine Worlds. The location of the Irminsul appears to have been near modern-day Obermarsberg, Germany towards the Teutoberg Forest; but nothing remains of the location, only the references.

While Charlemagne’s more obvious motive for destroying the Irminsul was to shatter the connections that Pagans had with their religion and ultimately convert them to Christianity, an additional interpretation is that its demolition had the supplementary effect of severing the Saxon connection with nature. Violent and forced conversions are one thing, but if you truly want to permanently decimate a community, disconnect them from the well of their strength.

The Irminsul represented that strength, but urbanizing Pagan communities was the key: that would cap the well. Sever the connection with nature, and the city would subordinate Pagans. The church at the city center would become the new pillar of society and the promised safety and ease of urban life would silence the call of the forests. Indeed, in Latin, Urbanus (city dweller) is the opposite of Paganus (country dweller). Creating city dwellers is the act of destroying country dwellers and, more critically, their values.

[Photo Credit: Stefano Ciotti]

[Photo Credit: Stefano Ciotti]

In time, nature would be seen as wild and ultimately dangerous. The place we came from would become the place we see as alien. Twelve hundred years later, mainstream society continues to embrace Charlemagne’s vision and to villanize nature in many ways. Although we hear occasional Romantic yearnings for the natural world, urbanites constantly, and often inadvertently, whisper to one another the dangers of the wild (not parks, those are “secure” nature”). The mainstream world in which we live collectively encourages urban, modern lifestyles while discouraging people from visiting the wild, reminding us of the risks, hazards and threats “out there.”

Nature is dangerous but it is not a place to dread. Despite the fact the vast majority of people are injured or die in cities, that mainstream world is very invested in us fearing nature to maintain power and profit.

So why keep us from visiting nature? Because visiting nature is unimaginably rebellious. It causes us to question how we live. It reminds us that the future is only possible through sustainability. It exposes us to how we are part of a web of life and, perhaps most importantly, how we humans can uniquely make choices that strengthen and weaken that web. Being in nature helps us recognize that our human strengths involve cooperation and acceptance, rather than control and suppression.

And science has taken notice. In 1984, myrmecologist, professor and “father” of biodiveristy, Dr. E. O. Wilson proposed the Biophilia Hypothesis (later more fully developed by Wilson’s colleague, Dr. Stephen Kellert in 1993). Broadly and simply stated, the hypothesis proposes a human urge to “affiliate with other forms of life.” It was a development from the work of Psychologist Dr. Erich Fromm who first coined the term and proposed the subconscious psychological attraction to be immersed in and have a deep affiliation with nature. To Pagan ears, that probably sounds so obviously self-evident it would merit sarcasm. To urbanites, it is heresy.

Indeed, the Biophilia Hypothesis actually leads to some interesting questions in evolutionary psychology, the subfield of psychological science that explores the evolutionary advantages of our psychological and behavioral characteristics. Because we evolved in a natural environment, that natural environment must also expose those characteristics that represent our optimal functioning. In other words, does being in nature somehow reveal our nobler sides that are possibly hidden by modern urban existence?

As it turns out, yeah it does. In one study, UK researchers examined panel data from 10,000 individuals. Panel data refers to information collected in the same way but at multiple times (pre- and post- testing is an example of simple panel data). The researchers found that after controlling for individual and regional differences, individuals living in urban areas that had more green spaces also reported lower levels of mental distress and higher levels of happiness.

Now there are other factors there that need to be explored and understood more completely, but the interesting point is that an effect was still detected (White, Alcock, Wheeler & Depledge, 2013). In other words, all things were expected to be equal, but they noted a difference. And, that points social science in an interesting direction.

Recently, Canadian researchers conducted three experimental studies to explore more carefully the causal direction of some of those nature findings like the one described above. They presented participants with a “commons dilemma.” It is a specific kind of problem that pits people’s short-term self-interests against longer-term group interests. In this case, it was a fishing simulation that basically boiled down to whether you would harvest fish competitively to make a profit for yourself now or harvest fish cooperatively with others to sustain the group for the future.

Before participants entered the simulation, they were randomly assigned to two groups. One group watched a nature video prior to entering the simulation, and the other group watched a city-building video. The Biophilia hypothesis would predict that watching nature would make you feel more part of it and make you more aware of your actions. And that’s just what happened: the group that watched the nature video exhibited significantly more cooperative behaviors and fished sustainably. The groups that watched the city-building video behaved more competitively. When the study was repeated by introducing a third group that viewed a neutral video, the same cooperative behaviors were still demonstrated (though somewhat more weakly in statistical terms) by the nature-exposed group. In other words, exposure to nature leads to more human cooperation.

[Photo Credit: Stefano Ciotti]

[Photo Credit: Stefano Ciotti]

Now in a third study, the same researchers used a similar design but replaced fishing with a questionnaire on perceived important social values and sustainability. They also changed the videos with generic videos of nature and generic videos of cities. They altered the experiment because they wanted to eliminate the association between fishing and nature, to still see if the effect on cooperation was present.

Instead of the fishing exercise, the participants completed the questionnaire after being randomly assigned to groups and viewing the videos. Again, participants who watched nature videos were more likely to endorse cooperative decision-making and sustainability than their counterparts who watched urban-focused videos (Zelenski, Dopko, & Capaldi, 2015).

The findings speak very loudly: Exposure to Nature is transformative. It reinforces those aspects of ourselves that strengthen our society like cooperation, mutual support, collective good, and sustainability. Those values create collective wealth and sustainable enterprise that expands- not exploits– our relationship with Nature. What science underscores is something that Pagans know: Nature exposes that which makes us Human. Nature reminds us of the human social powers that helps us make collective and positive decisions without needing a central authority, whether that be king or gospel. That is something, I think, Charlemagne could never have come to terms with. Simple, and so very Pagan.

Citations
Kellert, S.R. (ed.) (1993). The Biophilia Hypothesis. Island Press.
White, M.P, Alcock, I., Wheeler, B.W., & Depledge, M.H. (2013). Would You Be Happier Living in a Greener Urban Area? A Fixed-Effects Analysis of Panel Data. Psychological Science, 24, 920-928.
Wilson, E.O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Zelenski, J.M., Dopko, R.L. & Capaldi, C.A. (2015). Cooperation is in our nature: Nature exposure may promote cooperative and environmentally sustainable behavior. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 42, 24-31.

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May 1 and the surrounding days mark the traditional dates for many major spring festivals celebrated by modern Pagans in the northern hemisphere. Such holidays might include Beltane, Bealtaine, May DayFloraliaProtomayia, and Walpurgis Night to name a few. These festivals herald the coming of summer or the apex of spring – a time of merriment, awakening and bounty; a liminal time when the barriers between our world and the other world are thinned. In many traditions and cultures, it is also a time of divine union and fertility. And, for our friends in the Southern Hemisphere, the beginning of May marks another seasonal festival entirely, as winter is ushered in with the celebration of Samhain and the honoring of ancestors.

[Photo Credit: Jengod via Wikimedia]

[Photo Credit: Jengod via Wikimedia]

Here are some quotes for this holiday season:

To the pastoral Celtic people’s of Europe the changing pattern of the seasons was a matter of life and death, and marking these changes key moments in the life of the community. Beltane – “bright fire” – was one such marker celebrated in various forms across Ireland, Scotland and Man as the starting point of summer. A celebration of the time of light and growth to come, Beltane was associated with a variety of practices, from the display of fresh greenery to the baking of Beltane bannocks. Perhaps the most important element, however, was the lighting of Beltane fires on the first of May, which would recall the growing power of the sun and provide an opportunity to cleanse and renew the conditions of a community – both humans and their animals – that had spent the dark months indoors. – Beltane Fire Society, “A Detailed History of Beltane”

Perhaps it is best to remember this as the time when Aphrodite, who rules the sign of Taurus, is coming into her own. She presides over the realms of love and sex and beauty, but also over the flowers and fruits which bring us such pleasure: delighting our senses with their colors and scents and tastes and juices. She fills blossoms with nectar, and her body is beneath us as we walk and dance upon the newly-yielding, softened earth, alive again after the dormancy of winter, full of new life …  – Peg Aloi, The Witching Hour, “You May Call it May Day, We call it Beltane”

Sensuality – what a lovely word. It rolls off the tongue – you have to say it slowly, it really doesn’t work otherwise.  Like dripping honey.  Sweet molasses.  A cat’s stretch. It needs time, awareness, mindfulness … Sensuality is often misinterpreted as relating solely to the sexual experience. What we need to do is bring the sensual back into our everyday lives, seeing how it relates to the whole experience rather than just a sexual one. Sensual – input from the senses. – Joanna van der Hoeven, Druid Heart: Living a Druid Life, “Beltane and the Sensual”

We can think of ‘the sleeper’ as being our own consciousness, lulled into a kind of soporific dullness by everyday life. When we ‘awake’, we become aware of what is around us. If we can start to live fully in the moment, extracting from it all that it has to offer, then we are truly alive. The idea that the true potential of the psyche is latent and asleep in a kind of waking dream is common in spiritual traditions. Beltane is a good time to wake the psyche. The days grow longer, the weather draws us out of doors, and nature is frantic with activity. The energy of Beltane is all about wakefulness. – Vivianne Crowley, Greening the Spirit, “Beltane the Sleeper Awakes”

This Friday I’ll keep my son home from school, and the kids and I will go walking in my favorite wood, a place where the Spirits are keenly present. We’ll take offerings and work on listening to and looking for the Other-than-Human. We’ll spend the afternoon enjoying one of the fine public parks in my town. We’ll not spend a dollar, nor do anything that requires some one else to work. We’ll pass out reminders of beautiful resistance. And we will celebrate the efforts of my husband, who works every day, and many weekends, to provide for us. – Niki Whiting, A Witch’s Ashram, “May the First”

A Very Merry May to All!

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The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) heard two and a half hours of oral arguments Tuesday in a case called Obergefell v. Hodges, which considers if all fifty states must allow same-sex marriages, or recognize such marriages when they legally take place in another state. The case includes more than 20 plaintiffs from four different states.

Priestess signing legal documentation for a same-sex married couple in Alabama [Courtesy K. Privett-Duren]

Priestess signing legal documentation for a same-sex married couple in Alabama [Courtesy K. Privett-Duren]

The questions to be decided
There are actually two questions the court is now looking at in this single case. The first is whether the U.S. Constitution requires states to allow same-sex marriages under the Equal Protection Clause, or if it should be left up to individual states. This is similar to the way states regulate age and the degree of blood relations for prospective couples. Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment reads:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The second question is whether states can prohibit same-sex marriages, yet be required to recognize same-sex marriages that legally took place somewhere else under the Full Faith and Credit Clause. Article IV, Section 1 reads

Full faith and credit shall be given in each state to the public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of every other state. And the Congress may by general laws prescribe the manner in which such acts, records, and proceedings shall be proved, and the effect thereof.

Generally, a marriage performed in one state has been recognized in all fifty states, unless that specific union has been outlawed in another state. Up until the mid-1960’s a number of states still banned interracial marriage, and those states did not recognize interracial marriages performed in states where it was legal. The full faith and credit clause was never used to force a state to recognize a marriage that it did not wish to recognize, such as an interracial marriage. However, this question will only be decided if SCOTUS rules that states may, in fact, ban same sex marriages.

Background on the cases
Obergefell v. Hodges isn’t just one case, it’s four cases that have been consolidated into one.

April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse live in Michigan where they own a home together and have three children. Because they are not allowed to marry and jointly adopt their children, DeBoer adopted one child and Rowse adopted the other two. This creates challenges in providing health insurance coverage for all three children and custody of the children if one partner should die.

James Obergefell married John Arthur in Maryland, a state that allows same-sex marriage. A few months later Arthur died. Obergefell filed a lawsuit in Ohio, where the couple lived, to be listed as Arthur’s spouse. Because same-sex marriage is banned in Ohio, the state refuses to list Obergefell as Arthur’s spouse on the death certificate.

Sergeant First Class Ijpe DeKoe married Thomas Kostura in New York, where Kostura was living. New York permits same-sex marriage. After Sgt. DeKoe returned from deployment to Afghanistan, the couple relocated to Tennessee, where DeKoe’s new duty station was located. Tennessee refuses to recognize the couple’s marriage.

Gregory Bourke and Michael Deleon were married in Ontario, Canada. The couple and their two adopted children live in Kentucky, where same-sex marriage is illegal. The couple is arguing that Kentucky should recognize same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions.

marriage equality

Human Rights Campaign symbol for marriage equality

Where the Justices appear to stand
Justices Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia threw out tough questions to the attorney representing the same-sex couples. They also seemed open to the idea that states should continue to be able to regulate marriage. Justice Thomas, as usual, was silent during the oral arguments, but he is expected to rule in favor of allowing states to continue to regulate same-sex marriage and against forcing states to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states where it is legal.

Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Kagan, and Sotomayor pushed back strongly against the idea that marriage should be limited to opposite-sex couples, because marriage is centered around having children and encouraging parents to stay married to care for their children.

Justice Kennedy appears to be, once again, a swing vote and there isn’t consensus on which way he will rule. If he sides with the four liberal Justices and rules that same-sex marriage bans are unconstitutional, everything is cut and dry. If he’s either undecided or leans more toward the three conservative Justices, Chief Justice Roberts may try to broker a compromise.

Chief Justice John Roberts appeared concerned that the court, by issuing a decision that changes the status quo, would prematurely shut down societal debates on this issue. He also noted that marriage has been commonly defined as a union between a man and women up until just “just a dozen years ago.” Yet Roberts is known as a compromiser and appeared to already be proposing a deal between the liberal and conservative wings of the court. Leave the question of gay marriage up to each state, but force states to recognize a same-sex marriage performed in other states where it is legal. This would, effectively, make same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states without eroding each state’s right to regulate marriage laws as their citizens’ see fit.

SCOTUS is expected to issue their ruling on this case in late June.

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BALTIMORE – On Monday, funeral services were held for Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old young black man, who died three weeks ago shortly after being arrested. Many local residents, officials and even strangers joined Gray’s family and friends to say goodbye. In addition, there was a call for peace and for calm during the ceremony, after a few minor skirmishes broke out during a mostly peaceful weekend of protests.

Baltimore [Photo Credit: JJS Photo via Wikimedia]

Baltimore [Photo Credit: JJS Photo via Wikimedia]

However, by Monday afternoon, the climate in Baltimore changed drastically. According to reports, a small group of teenagers became engaged in a violent conflict with police around a mall. The situation then escalated, attracting others. Bonnie Hoppa, a local volunteer firefighter and CAYA member, confirmed the news reports, saying that the tensions were ripe for violence. The groups of kids were charged and angry, and the police were already preparing for the worst. It was a disaster waiting to happen.

The violence quickly escalated and took center stage in the media, pushing aside news stories about the Nepal tragedy and completely covering up reports on the 1000s of other people who continued to protest peacefully in other parts of Baltimore. Hoppa said, “The media is really blowing that out of proportion. [Thousands] of peaceful protestors are getting less media time than a few hundred causing violence … The numbers of those driving the violence and damage do not represent the majority of who were initially there and who are marching now.”

As the crisis in Baltimore continued, many activists, protestors and outspoken or visible members of the community, such former NFL player Ray Lewis, called for peace; however, they also voiced a strong understanding of where the aggression itself came from and why. In a Huffington Post article, speaker and activist Kevin Powell directly addressed this, explaining “Why Baltimore is Burning.”

As noted in Powell’s article and by a number of others over social media, the violence was not simply a random riot by a few angry teens. It was an uprising. In a post, Pagan activist Xochiquetzal Duti Odinsdottir echoed Powell’s own statements, saying “A riot feeds the 24-hour newscycle’s need to strike fear in the hearts of white folk who live in Middle America and who think the world is pretty durn good as it is. An uprising is the strength and power to take a stand against an unjust, corrupt system that has broken one too many backs for far too long and that needs to topple to the ground.”

It is difficult for outsiders to comprehend what has been happening in Baltimore. Media reports are often only partially reliable. Therefore, we reached out to a number of local Pagans to get a better look at the situation as it stands now.

As mentioned earlier, the local protests began over the weekend. In reaction, Black Witch, who is originally from the affected neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester, published a long impassioned blog post Sunday, beginning, “I was downtown on Saturday because I’m helping out at a store in Federal Hill but got dismissed early because of the protests since I knew they would attempt to disrupt traffic.”

As she continues, Black Witch shares very serious frustrations and anger at the bigger issue of unresolved, systemic racism facing not only Baltimore, but the entire nation. She wrote, “I lived in this city my whole entire life. I was raised in the hood, I’m not at all surprised that this turned out the way it did.” Then, she ends with, “So, what is going to happen now? Not much, really. People are going to get their glass replaced, there are going to be more marches probably and nothing significant is going to happen. I’ve got nothing to be hopeful for, there’s no reason for me to believe that anything different is going to happen.”

Black Witch’s post came before the Monday uprising. However, her frustration and sense of hopelessness was echoed by others in the wake of Monday’s violence. Erica Shadowsong, a Unitarian Universalist religious education professional and solitary eclectic Pagan in Maryland, said:

To be honest, today my primary feeling is one of hopelessness and despair. It’s not the violence against Black people that has me so down; it’s witnessing the complete control of the narrative, and all American daily narratives, by powers that every day exploit the American people. The media, the militarized police force…these are symbols of oppressive power. We are losing our freedoms every day to the point that the justice system can be boldly skewed and the outrage doesn’t change it. I’m concerned and convinced more and more that we are no longer living in a country built on freedom. We are living in a compound run by a few corporations and individuals in business and government who exploit our labor, and export violence here and abroad.

Similarly, Bonnie Hoppa, who has been actively working in the affected areas, expressed her own fears in watching the events unfold. She said, “Social media was a horrendous place to be. All the dehumanizing bigots came out to have an opinion. People from outside Baltimore, even outside the state, joined the looting and bragged about it.” As the protestors clashed with police, Hoppa said that one fire truck was damaged and another had its supply hose lines cut for an active fire, which put more lives at risk. Several news reports listed specific damages to the community, including a new senior center, library, businesses and, even, local journalists.

Hoppa said that the situation there is very complicated, based on decades of problems. She also described a growing resentment within various facets of the community, and added that the “underlying narrative of violent intention toward anyone who is a ‘thug’ or black and labeled as aggressive is extremely disturbing.”

As the sun rose Tuesday and the hours progressed, the city saw far fewer incidents of violence. There were reports of volunteers cleaning up damage, and residents helping each other recover. Hoppa was called to help care for many of the children in the area, who were out of school for safety reasons. She said, “84-85% of the students in those schools are low income and are getting reduced or free lunches. For a lot of them, no school can mean no lunch, and possibly no breakfast, either. Some kids are in extended before/after care programs, because of the hours their parent(s) work.” She described the climate within the safe centers as upbeat with children playing and laughing.

Local ADF chapter, Cedar Light Grove (CLG) held a vigil from 7-9 p.m. to “hold space and a good fire for those wishing to say prayers, make offerings, or seek guidance from the kindred during this turbulent time in our city.” The group closed its temple at 9 p.m. so that attendees could get home before the citywide curfew. CLG will continue to hold open for vigils as needed. Thursday they are hosting a public Reiki session for anyone in need of healing.

[Courtesy Cedar Light Grove]

[Courtesy Cedar Light Grove]

The curfew will reportedly remain in place for seven days, and tempers have calmed to a degree. The cleanup in the city continues but the crisis itself is far from over, in Baltimore or around the nation. Community groups such as I am Love Baltimore or national groups, such as Hands up United, will continue to organize meetings and demonstrations. Today at 4:30 p.m, I am Love Baltimore is sponsoring a “March for Justice, March for Love.” On its event page, the group wrote, “Don’t forget we are not only marching to spread love in this time of high tension, but we are also marching for justice to be served for Freddie Gray.”  Hoppa will be there, along with others from the local Pagan community.

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KATHMANDU, Nepal –This past Saturday, at about noon local time, Nepal was struck by an 7.8-magnitude earthquake said to be equivalent to 20 thermonuclear bombs, causing widespread destruction and loss of life. As of this writing, the death toll is reported at over 5,000, and that number is likely to rise as information is gathered from the remote areas closest to the epicenter.

Nepal Earthquake 2015 [Photo Credit: Krish Dulal via Wikimedia]

Nepal Earthquake 2015 [Photo Credit: Krish Dulal via Wikimedia]

As is often the case with powerful disasters, there is a strong desire to help. However it’s not always clear what assistance is going to be the most effective. The Wild Hunt spoke to Peter Dybing, whose experience on the front lines of disaster relief for the 2010 Haiti earthquake gives him a unique perspective on the issue.

Disasters like this have several phases, Dybing explained, and each phase has its own needs. An earthquake of this severity,which occurs roughly every 75 years in this region, will likely require both immediate aid and longer-term, sustainable solutions. The first step in providing aid, however, is assessing both the needs, and how well the surviving infrastructure can support aid workers. “If you don’t have everything that your people need,” he said, “they become part of the disaster” with each additional body needing food, water, and shelter – items already in short supply.

What is known so far is that many Nepalese survivors are sleeping on the streets. From what Dybing understands, water is likely in short supply in the more remote areas, where it must be trucked in along mountain roads. One organization that is particularly good at not becoming part of the problem, Dybing said, is Doctors Without Borders. “They bring all their teams, shelter, food, and water, and can be up and running in 24 hours,” he said.

Most NGOs, or non-governmental organizations, are not quite so nimble. In evaluating which organizations will be able to provide the needed help effectively and quickly, he says, it becomes a question of existing contacts and area infrastructure. In Haiti, he said, “We looked for a school to set up as an incident command base, because it has everything we would need.” For the Nepal response, Dybing expects that relief will be coordinated through India; navigating geopolitical tensions is but one of the challenges that relief organizations must be prepared for in order to be effective.

"Kathmandu - open spaces have become home for thousands of people afraid to return to their houses." [Photo Credit: Walter Lines / Flickr]

“Kathmandu – open spaces have become home for thousands of people afraid to return to their houses.” [Photo Credit: Walter Lines / Flickr]

Having contacts on the ground and a knowledge of the lay of the land is critical to being able to funnel money to where it is most needed, Dybing added. And, the Pagan community itself has just such a resource in the form of the Patrick McCollum Foundation, which has put out its own call for donations for earthquake relief.

“Patrick is the man,” Dybing said. “The idea that he could have a better idea where the needs actually are, and where to send the money, is an awesome thing. The issue is that there’s not an accountability put in place, so you have to trust the person, but I trust Patrick implicitly.” And, because the foundation is based in the United States, it’s required to spend all the donations made for Nepalese earthquake relief on exactly that.

McCollum, who was unavailable to comment, has traveled extensively to this part of the world, which is why his foundation is well-positioned to direct relief efforts. While the organization is primarily focused on social justice and world peace, Dybing said that, right now that specific mission is less important than McCollum’s knowledge about the needs and existing infrastructure in Nepal. “The logistic piece is huge,” Dybing said. “It can cut response time from 10-15 days down to three or four.”

Another small organization that is skilled at fast response is Heart to Heart International, which earned Dybing’s respect in Haiti for quick, effective deployment, followed by its working toward more sustainable, long-term solutions. As for groups with infrastructure already on the ground, Dybing named the Australian Red Cross.

Larger NGOs have what Dybing calls a “long logistics tail,” and take more time to get mobilized. “We were treating trauma victims in Haiti for nine days before the American Red Cross showed up,” he said. While these bigger organizations, like Care International, can’t provide immediate relief, the need in Nepal is probably going to last for years to come, so donations to these larger organizations will not go to waste.

People line up for clean water. [Photo Credit: Walter Lines / Flickr]

People lining up for clean water. [Photo Credit: Walter Lines / Flickr]

It’s also possible, he speculated, for the Pagan community to come together to provide some kind of longer-term, sustainable relief, perhaps targeting the small number of animists living in that nation. Out of a population of 26.5 million people, 3.1% report following Kirantism, which is a tribal religion with strong animistic and ancestor-veneration elements, and another .4% consider themselves animists. By comparison, 1.4% of those counted on the last Nepalese census called themselves Christian.

Just yesterday, Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship (ADF) announced its ADF Cares – Nepal fund, through which money will be sent to Global Giving for longer term relief. “Pagans raised $30,000 for Doctors Without Borders after the Japan earthquake, which was the first time we did that as a community,” Dybing noted. “It blew the doors off the myth that Pagans are poor.” He speculated that such a sustainable effort might involve individuals contributing $30 a month for some years, allowing aid workers in those populations to eventually train Nepalese replacements to continue the effort.  With this level of destruction, Dybing added, “Two weeks isn’t going to cut it.”

 

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Elder Flint of Dragon Ritual Drummers

Elder Flint of Dragon Ritual Drummers

It was announced this week that Dragon Ritual Drummer founder and elder Flint has lost is battle with cancer.  Flint was diagnosed July 2014. The doctor’s gave him only two months to live, but he fought hard, even performing with the band. Utu Witchdoctor posted on the group’s Facebook page, “Brother Flint was one of our founding members, a force to be reckoned with, a soul that touched so many, one of the best there ever was. Our man Flint was the grounding force in our troupe, kept all us youngins’ in place, he was our father, our brother, our best friend.”

After Flint’s family is finished with its private ceremony, the Dragon Ritual Drummers will be holding a special, public Viking funeral for him. Utu Witchdoctor said, “We have already begun the construction of the funeral boat, and it will be set a flame and cast out into the waters as everyone drums and celebrates his life, full open pagan ceremony and celebration.” 

Despite this loss, the Dragon Ritual Drummers will not be taking any time off and plan to honor Flint at every one of their scheduled performances. The next one will be at Florida Pagan Gathering, where the group plans to share many of their memories and release some of their grief. Utu Witchdoctor also noted that the song Bamboula, performed at the end of most shows and captured in a recent video, will be forever dedicated to Flint. He explained that this song has an “historic New Orleans voodoo rhythm [that they] were entrusted with” and that honors one’s ancestors. Flint is now considered an ancestor of “their tribe.” What is remembered, lives.

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Pagan Freedom DayIn South Africa, April 27 marks Pagan Freedom Day. The movement began twelve years ago, in 2003, when a number of local Pagans began discussing the need to openly declare their religious freedom. Damon Leff explained, “At the time, even prominent (public) Pagans were questioning whether or not Witches in South Africa were really free. It was important to show them that we were, that we could gather publicly.” The first gatherings happened in 2004 in “Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and the Wilderness” with no negative backlash.

Over the years, the annual celebration has become larger, spreading to other communities throughout South Africa. Mja Principe, convener of the Pagan Freedom Day Movement and Pagan Council, said, “Freedom Day is the annual celebration of every South African’s right to human dignity, freedom of expression, freedom of association, as well as the celebration of religious freedom, irrespective of the individual’s alternative or mainstream religious background.”  Penton Independent Media has published several posters advertising local celebrations and scheduled activities. Photos of the day’s events will be uploaded to the Pagan Freedom Day Movement Facebook page.

*   *   *

[Courtesy Photo]

[Courtesy Photo]

This past weekend, Rev. Patrick McCollum, together with friends, celebrated his 50 years of service to the Pagan community. In 1965, McCollum began the work that eventually led to his position today as a global ambassador of peace, a respected spiritual counselor and interfaith chaplain. Over those 50 years, he has been involved with a number of Pagan organizations, including Our Lady of the Wells, Cherry Hill Seminary Covenant of the Goddess, Circle Sanctuary, Lady Liberty League, and more.

In 2010, McCollum won the Mahatma Gandhi Award for the Advancement of Religious Pluralism and, through his foundation, he continues his commitment, as a Pagan voice, to global peace work. Most recently, the foundation announced that it is reaching out to communities in Nepal to assist in the aftermath of Saturday’s earthquake. We will have more on that developing story tomorrow.

In Other News

That’s it for now. Have a nice day!

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[Editor’s Note: Before continuing with our regularly scheduled story, we would like to take a moment to acknowledge the many victims of the Saturday’s Earthquake in Nepal. The Wild Hunt has reached out to Pagans in South East Asia and to first responders. In the coming days, we will be sharing what we learn and the various ways to assist those victims.]

OAKLAND, California – On April 23, Mills Pagan Alliance of Mills College was presented with the Student Organization of the Year Award. The annual recognition honors an “organization that has demonstrated through their events and activities, outstanding collaboration and dedication to educating the Mills and broader community.” This marks the first time that the Pagan organization has won the award, and been publicly recognized by the college.

[Courtesy K. Oliver]

[Courtesy K. Oliver]

On hand to accept the award were co-founders Kristin Oliver, Rose Quartz and Sasha Reed and member Nikka Tahan. Oliver said:

This award says that the Mills community is a place where Pagans can practice and thrive openly, a place where Pagans at Mills are respected and admired, and where Pagans are known as community leaders. For us, it means that what we do matters. What we say matters.

She added, “We won because of the leadership we demonstrated in the aftermath of losing the campus chaplain. In her absence (and we still don’t have a school chaplain) we played a huge role in keeping spirituality alive and present for all faiths for this entire year.”

Before this school year, the Alliance founders had already been demonstrating strong community leadership. Oliver said that in past years Mills College only had dormant or “defunct” Pagan club. Like at many schools, the viability of the student club is wholly dependent on the eagerness of its members. Often, when the founders and other invested members graduate, the club falters or completely dissolves.

In 2013, one of the college chaplains approached Oliver, asking if she would like to help lead the club with Quartz and Reed. She agreed, as did the others. So, in an attempt to breathe life back into the old organization, they changed the club’s name to the Mills Pagan Alliance and immediately began working to connect with the community.

At the first meeting, they asked attendees “What do you want out of this club?” The answer was unanimously, “We want to learn.” Since 2013, the Alliance has built a small Pagan library with donations from many in the Bay Area. It regularly brings in local speakers, such as Rev. Patrick McCollum, Sharon Knight, Timotha Doane, Violet Fortuna, Moonwater SilverClaw, Thorn Coyle, Crystal Blanton and Granny Greenleaf. And, the club hosts a number of campus events throughout the year. One of the first was a Samhain ritual that was held right in college’s chapel.

In 2014, Rev. Patrick McCollum turned to the Mills Pagan Alliance to find a student interested in accompanying him to the United Nations International Peace Day events in New York City. Then junior Rowan Weir was selected and became a U.N. Pagan youth delegate. As a regular guest of the club, Rev. McCollum also has brought his World Peace violin to meetings and even allowed Reed to play it.

In addition to events and guests, the Pagan Alliance has also begun reaching out beyond the college campus. For example, the group was actively in attendance at PantheaCon 2015 in San Jose. Members assisted Rev. Selena Fox with her Brigid Healing Ritual and were vocal during the Turning the Wheel: Nurturing Young Leaders and Embracing Change panel. During that session, they asked questions on how younger generations can be effective and integral parts of the movement, the important conversations and the evolving structures at both a local and larger community level.

The 2014-2015 Student Organization of the Year Award demonstrates that the college itself noticed all of the Alliance’s work and the rising spirit of leadership within its ranks. However, it was the club’s perseverance after losing its chaplain, which ultimately earned it the recognition.

Oliver explained that the circumstances of the chaplain’s dismissal were “mysterious.” She had played an instrumental role in the rebuilding of the Pagan Alliance and bringing together the three student leaders. Oliver described the chaplain, who preferred to be anonymous, as “a wonderful person and … extremely supportive of the club.” Her dismissal came as a surprise.

Even after the hearbreaking news, the Alliance continued on with its work in support of its mission, and that perseverance won it the award. Member Blue Anderson said:

I think that this award represents an acknowledgement of this club as not only unique, but important. We all knew that the student body knows that we’re here. We have a presence on campus. People see us around. But receiving this award seems to say not only, “We see you,” but, “We value you, too.” 

Co-founder Sasha Reed added:

In today’s predominantly Christian society, pagan groups are so frequently either blatantly discriminated against or simply brushed under the rug. By awarding Mills Pagan Alliance the Club of the Year award, to me this sends a clear message that our school both respects us and recognizes the work we’ve done. When Kristen, Rose, and I first sat together and discussed the prospect of starting a pagan club, I never thought that it would expand to be the community of strong, supportive students it has become today. Winning this award means so much to me; a recognition of my faith as a legitimate, respected practice in my school community, and a recognition of all this club has achieved. Going forward, I hope this award will allow Mills Pagan Alliance to serve a wider community within our school and the surrounding city and also help our club to receive additional funding to host more events, and also solidify this club as a permanent, prominent force on Mills campus. 

Oliver noted that the award also has a very personal meaning for two of its members. Reed and Quartz are graduating. For them, this is the proverbial “icing on the cake” of their time at Mills College and a mark of job well-done.

Kristen Oliver, Rose Quartz, Sasha Reed, Nikka Tahan. (left to right) [Courtesy K. Oliver]

Kristen Oliver, Rose Quartz, Sasha Reed, Nikka Tahan. (left to right) [Courtesy K. Oliver]

The club’s next event will be a Beltane ritual held May 1 at the college’s Botanical Gardens. The event is open to all students, faculty and staff. Then, May 9, the Alliance will be taking part in the 12th annual Berkeley Pagan Festival, during which members will be assisting with the main ritual. Next year the group hopes to host a hospitality suite at PantheaCon that caters to college-age Pagans and addresses issues specifically facing young Pagans. Oliver said:

Going forward, we are still committed to being at the forefront of keeping spiritual and religious life a permanent feature on campus for all until a permanent multi-faith chaplain is hired. But we are also interested in how we can be of service to the greater Pagan community, particularly for those of college age. We will certainly be engaging in the conversation regarding race, gender, and privilege within the Pagan community. 

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sexuality and NRMReview: Sexuality and New Religious Movements. (Part of the Palgrave Studies in New Religions and Alternative Spiritualities series) Edited by Henrik Bogdan and James R. Lewis. (Palgrave Macmillan, 252 Pages)

Few topics can stir us as quickly as sex or sexuality, particularly when it is different from what is assumed to be “right.” Perhaps this is one reason that Sexuality and New Religious Movements is such an engaging read. According to the editors, Henrik Bogdan and James R. Lewis:

Sexuality is intimately connected to questions of identity: who we are as individuals and also our role in society. Human sexuality is thus inextricably linked to cultural, political, and philosophical aspects of life, which are regulated through legal systems based on morality and ethics. Morality and ethics, even in our secularized and late-modern society, are to a large extent based on traditional religious doctrines and teachings (which of course differ in time and place), and it is thus perhaps only natural that new forms of religion often challenge the moral codes and deeply rooted views on sexuality prevalent in the dominant forms of religion and, by extension, in society at large.

Anyone familiar with the marriage equality movement understands the strong role that religion plays in the arguments against gay marriage. In fact, it is difficult to make a case against gay marriage that does not involve religious beliefs that condemn same-sex intimacy. One such slippery slope argument is often framed as a “non-religious” position for “traditional marriage,” though it still takes us back to taboos rooted in religious beliefs. When it comes to our thoughts, our customs, and our laws regarding sexuality and sexual practice, religious beliefs often takes center stage. Not that they have to, but they often do.

Bogdan and Lewis take on the topics of sex and gender in this anthology to give us a peek into beliefs and practices that are less common than the standard-issue Abrahamic ideals. Specifically, they introduce us to sex and gender within western New Religious Movements (NRMs), some of which have received more attention than others.

The editors point out that, often, NRMs are considered nothing more than cults that provide leaders the opportunity to sexually abuse members. They write:

What these critics often fail to take into account, however, is the way that sexuality is actually understood and used by the groups themselves, and to place these teachings and practices within the broader context of the history of religions. As this anthology aims to show, sexual practices that, at face value, seem bizarre or even dangerous might be understood differently when placed in their proper context.

The book continues on with the goal to provide a better understanding of NRMs and to challenge the misconceptions that exist regarding their beliefs and practices where sexuality is concerned.

The anthology presents a series of chapters that each cover one NRM, including one on contemporary Wicca written by writer and historian Chas Clifton. The Branch Davidians, Communes of Osho, and Satanists are all represented in the volume in addition to the views and teachings of Gurdjieff, Adi Da, and Raël. As with any anthology, each chapter varies in depth and breadth since they have different authors. However, the quality of writing is consistently good and, as an academic book, the information goes beyond the simple rehashing of facts, delving into conversation and analysis.

Of all the chapters, the one that I had the strongest reaction to was “Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Empowerment in Mormon Fundamentalist Communities.” After reading the entire book, I was surprised that this was the chapter that generated the most notes, considering all I learned about the fiancées of super-sensitive extraterrestrials within the International Raelian Movement, the ultimate receptivity of the Satanic female altar, and the denunciation of masturbation and same-sex coupling within the writings of Gurdjieff. No, it was the polygamy talk that caught my full attention.

Written by Jennifer Lara Fagen and Stuart A. Wright, this chapter addresses some of the criticisms that have been made against plural marriage and the often-assumed powerlessness of women within Mormon polygamous communities. The writers assert that critics see these women as victims of a patriarchal system, and that this view is “based on the contemporary devaluation of motherhood and conflation of domesticity with oppression that resulted from the deinstitutionalization of marriage and destabilization of gender roles.” They introduce the work of cultural anthropologist Janet Bennion, who argues that Mormon fundamentalist women have alternate ways to achieve power in their communities and that their solidarity is stronger because of the alienating patriarchal control.

They also offer an examination of ideas such as “subservience,” gender roles, and the feminist critique of the “cult of domesticity.” The primary argument presented is that, although these women “do not have the same access to religious or political power as their male counterparts,” it should not be assumed that  they “as a group, are without agency and without voice…”  There are many other problems associated with polygamy within these communities that were not addressed in the chapter, such as the victimization of “lower status males,” the increase in crime due to male competition, and the increase in child abuse and neglect.

The chapter that I was most interested in reading was Clifton’s “Sex Magic or Sacred Marriage: Sexuality in Contemporary Wicca.” His chapter starts with a description of a Beltane ritual then moves into a discussion of the historical roots of Wicca, an exploration of The Great Rite, then the influence of the southern Californian subculture on Paganism. It was all a very interesting read, but what stood out to me the most was the description of the Beltane ritual, where “both lesbian and gay onlookers cheered as the maypole entered the earth.” Clifton touches on the idea of LGBT individuals within Wicca, but I wish this was considered further.

Being a lesbian from the Deep South, I do not harbor any naïve beliefs about Wicca and views on same-sex coupling. Not that I have ever been told that being gay was wrong, but, at times, it has been made clear that I had no place at a Maypole or that I had no right to jump a fire because I did not have a male partner. In my experience, Wiccan metaphors easily lend themselves to heterosexism and this is something I find gets glossed over far too easily.

One of the most difficult tasks when reviewing books about religion is to separate my own religious beliefs from writing about it. There were times when, in reading this book, my jaw dropped in horror, and other times when my MacBook was in danger of becoming airborne. Some of the beliefs and practices described within the pages of this book are off-putting. That being said, editors Bogdan and Lewis set out to put into context views on sex and gender within various new religious movements. They, together with the other authors, succeed in doing just that.

As an academic publication, it is well-written and edited with plenty of footnotes to offer the reader more background material. Sexuality and New Religious Movements is part of Palgrave’s Studies in New Religious and Alternative Spiritualities series. Released in November 2014, it is available for purchase on Amazon and other online retailers.

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“Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed.” – Herman Melville

I. Perception and Ideology

Standing on one corner of an intersection on a main drag in Eugene, Oregon, a young man with earbuds dances around while waving and twirling a “Little Caesars” sign in the shape of an arrow that’s pointing toward the restaurant. He stands out there most days from 9 to 5, and most likely makes $9.10 an hour, minimum wage in this state. One only has to stand and observe the dancing sign guy on the corner for a few minutes to notice the reaction to his presence is mostly positive. People wave from cars driving by; others honk,and some give a thumbs-up. The dancing sign man returns the energy as well as the friendly hand signals. He not only receives praise but obvious showings of empathy, especially on a hot day like this one. “You must be sweating!” one woman yells. “Be careful out there!”

On the other corner, a man also stands with a sign. He has earflaps instead of earbuds, however, and its pretty apparent that his physical condition doesn’t allow him to dance. His sign says, “Unemployed, Homeless, Anything Helps.”  And, one only has to observe him for a few minutes to notice the reaction to his presence is opposite to what the dancing sign man across the street receives. I watched drivers who refused to make eye contact; others who muttered ‘get a job’ under their breath; others who yelled ‘get a job’ quite loudly; one woman who honked at him, and a car full of frat boys who rolled down their window as though they were going to give him money only to then to roll up the window laughing and drive away quickly as the man walked towards their car. I watched for fifteen minutes or so and saw him take in one dollar and some change, which puts his hourly take-in at well under the $9.10 an hour that the dancing sign man across the street receives.

We live in a society where a person who stands on a street corner doing absolutely nothing other than waving a sign advertising for a business is not only perceived as legitimately ‘earning a living,’ but also receives empathy, praise, and positive reaction from passers-by.  And a person who stands on a nearly identical corner with a sign advertising their own personal state of misfortune is not treated kindly but treated as worthless, is yelled at to get a job, and is subjected to repeated public humiliation.

Not only is the panhandler mistreated and derided, but the very act of panhandling is considered to be so offensive that many municipalities have attempted to ban the practice outright; an attempt which often fails due to free speech protections. And in many cases, it’s the same kinds of businesses that hire folks to hold signs on the corner that are instrumental in pressuring local governments and police departments to remove those other folks with those other signs through legislative attempts or simply police harassment.

Call it tragic. Call it inhumane. Call it the sign of a crumbling civilization. Call it what you will. It’s the inevitable result of a society indoctrinated into an economic ideology which judges the literal worth of a human being by their ability to ‘produce,’ by their ability to ‘earn,’ by what they are ‘worth’ under the system of capitalism. The sign-waver for Little Caesars and the panhandler are engaged in the same physical activity, but it is the designation of one as a ‘worker’ who is earning a ‘wage’ in contrast to the other which results in empathy and praise toward one and judgment and mistreatment toward the other.

Actual worth is judged by perceived ‘worth’ under the arbitrary standards of a structure so pervasive and encompassing that few can see through its ideological fog, few question the legitimacy or humanity of such a system. And with this comes the acceptance and promotion of a flawed and arbitrary set of standards, determining how and why we assume some have ‘worth’ (or are the ‘worthy poor’), as opposed to those who are expendable, the throwaways–the ‘unworthy poor.’ Our acceptance of these standards is why we tolerate – even actively ignore – the millions of people, including women, children, and the disabled, sleeping on the streets of our towns and cities every night in America. Worse, we often blame them for their situation and believe that they are not deserving of even the most basic of dignities.

Bread line in New York City, circa 1910. [Public Domain]

Bread line in New York City, circa 1910. [Public Domain]

II. Five Hundred Years Of War

To the casual observer, it would seem that what was once a ‘war on poverty’ in America has turned into an outright war on the poor. From the criminalization of public feeding in at least 21 cities to the recent pushes from politicians to restrict food stamp use and drug-test welfare recipients, the oppression of an ever-expanding class of poor has increased, along with an increase in the poor themselves. The most recent census figures state that 45.3 million Americans currently live in poverty, up from 33.3 million in the year 2000. The American middle-class is quickly disappearing, and the current gap between rich and poor in this country is the highest on record.

While independent studies and government data both make it clear that most of the poor who are able to work are either already working or actively job-seeking, the overwhelming perception in America is that the poor are lazy; that they are ‘takers’ and that they don’t want to work, preferring to live off welfare. Such attitudes are most often stressed by conservative politicians who claim Christianity as the moral basis for their beliefs, which is often countered by liberal and/or progressive Christians who point to the words and teachings of Christ as contradictory to such a position. And while the liberal-minded Christians have a point regarding the words of Jesus, the conservatives are correct about the Christian origins of their ideological stance regarding the poor. For while this attitude generally manifests as an outgrowth of the ‘American Dream,’ (i.e. that hard work equals success), which implies that if one is not successful than they did not work hard, the attitudes concerning the poor – parroted by conservative politicians and citizens alike – are rooted in the days and ideas of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the Protestant Reformation. That is, the era in which the landless underclass was first created and identified.

History is too-often recited as specific events in isolation without their proper context. This reduction of historical upheavals makes it easy to ignore that neither the transition from feudalism to capitalism nor the Protestant Reformation happened in a vacuum. In fact, they were coterminous and codependent. Feudalism claimed its legitimacy based on the divine right of kings, with lord and peasant as a divinely decreed, unquestioned hierarchy. It wasn’t until the emergence and rise of the first ‘middle class’ of laborers and merchants in the years after the Black Death that such claims to legitimacy showed wear. The status and experiences of this emerging class during this economic upheaval, along with the creation of a class that ‘labored’ as the poor had yet enjoyed many of the luxuries of the upper-classes gave rise to a new ethic. The “Protestant work ethic” or the “Calvinist work ethic”, i.e. the belief that ‘hard work’ is not only divinely prescribed but will be divinely rewarded, perfectly matched this new class.

The peasant classes also looked to the ideas of the Reformation for their claim to freedom. The Peasants’ War in Germany, less than a decade after Martin Luther published his 95 Theses, was a direct result of the collision between the Enclosures and the Reformation. The peasant class in Germany was stripped of the right to the commons in the early 16th century, and were forbidden from freely hunting or gathering wood by the feudal lords who had taken control of the land. The loss of their economic freedom combined with the rhetoric of the Reformation ignited a series of revolts in 1524-1525, which spread throughout Germany like wildfire and were backed by many Reformation priests, although Luther himself opposed the revolts despite sympathizing with the peasants’ plight. The aristocracy met the peasants with a level of force that nowadays could only be wielded through the legitimacy of state power, and in the onslaught approximately 100,000 peasants were slaughtered to maintain the social order.

Peasants surround a knight during the Peasants' War. Illustration circa 1539. [Public Domain]

Peasants surround a knight during the Peasants’ War. Illustration circa 1539. [Public Domain]

The Protestant work ethic was essential in shaping a rapidly changing society in the midst of the Enclosures. Peasants were forced off the land into the cities and factories, which created an inevitable underclass of ‘paupers’ and ‘beggars.’ From the crisis of poverty that hit the cities came the Poor Laws, which first carved out the distinctions between the ‘impotent poor,’ the ‘able-bodied poor,’ and the ‘idle poor,’ distinctions which set the stage for the role of the State in the criminalization of poverty, a role still enacted to this day. The philosophy and implementation of the Poor Laws is the direct predecessor to both the modern welfare states in both the United States and Europe as well as to the ideological position regarding the poor that conservative politicians express.

Whether one solely focuses on medieval Europe, or expands their view in order to look at the horrors and ravages of colonialism from a global perspective, the scale of the continuous violence and oppression of those who lack economic power and/or a ‘work ethic’ is everywhere. In Western society, the welfare state and the criminalization and dehumanization of poverty are anything but mutually exclusive.

In reality, the war on the poor is nothing new, if anything it is a war that’s been continuously waged for over five hundred years.

III. Privilege, Disability, and the Exception

It took me well over a decade as an adult to recognize the extent of a significant superpower that I possess, a completely unearned and unacknowledged advantage that allows me to experience day-to-day life in a way and manner that I don’t “deserve” and I haven’t “earned.”

It’s a superpower best described as middle-class privilege.

For I am one of “those people,” one of the “dependent” poor, having lived in poverty for nearly a decade now without any real expectation that my situation might change anytime soon. But I am a poor person who was raised middle-class, poor due to what one would categorize as ‘circumstance’ as opposed to birth, and despite my poverty I retain all the advantages that a middle-class upbringing entails. This middle-class façade grants me an indescribable amount of entrances, exceptions, clearances, and privileges that those who appear as poor do not have. My everyday life experiences and ability to survive are hinged upon and rooted in the fact that the gatekeepers to the worlds I inhabit instinctively assume that I am one of them. I “pass” as middle-class and, therefore, I am largely exempt from most of the harsh words, cruel judgments, and discriminatory treatment that the average poor person faces; treatment that’s even worse if one is deemed ‘unworthy’ poor.

My appearance, my mannerisms, my speech, my cultural references and sense of humor act as signifiers, broadcasting a subconscious suggestion to those in my presence that I am other than poor. I appear to be a person of means, one who earns a wage, one who creates value through production, one who has worth within the context of the capitalist system. Yet, none of those things are true. I pass without effort based solely on factors that I had no part in and did not ‘choose’ or ‘earn’.

Class privilege is a matter of culture as much as a matter of economics, and it’s a misleading oversimplification to define class differences by wealth and wealth alone. Our society is deeply coded along class lines, lines that have existed for hundreds of years between rich and poor, lines which have become blurry due to the advent of the modern ‘middle-class’ and yet reveal themselves much more fixed in the face of a change of fortune. Similarly to white privilege, class privilege is hard to see while one is protected within its embrace; just as fish can’t see water, one often cannot see the boundaries of the bubble in which they live until they are unexpectedly yanked outside of it.

I grew up in a low-crime, affluent suburb, was raised by educated parents, went to top-rated public schools, always had access to quality medical and dental care, and was shielded from nearly all of the brute realities of poverty. It was always assumed that I would go to college and end up living a similar middle-class suburban life as that in which I was raised.

I rebelled against that expectation – I ran off to live in the city in my late teens, forgoing the idea of college with the idea that I could ‘make it’ on my own. I learned quickly what it meant to work for a living, that ‘making it’ meant forever selling one’s time in exchange for money, and that time/money equation varied greatly depending on the task. Selling my time to a retail store earned me $7 an hour. Dogwalking earned me $10. Cleaning houses; $12. Waiting tables; $15. Art modeling; $25. Bartending. I could pull in around $30 an hour on a decent night.

I knew from the very beginning that the game was rigged, and I learned pretty quickly the myth that ‘hard work equals success’ was greatly dependent on what kind of ‘work’ one could find. But it took me a bit longer to see my own advantages in the game; to figure out that I was able to score many jobs that others could not simply by virtue of my being white, able-bodied, and middle-class. Over time, it became more apparent to me that what I was “worth” was not being measured by what I actually knew or could accomplish, but by arbitrary standards that had more to do with perception and class signifiers than anything else. I also knew that I worked much harder cleaning houses for $12 an hour than I did sitting still in a room full of art students for $25, and that most of the women whom I cleaned houses with would never be considered for the art modeling gig.

I worked a varied assortment of those jobs throughout my late teens and early twenties, while painting on the side and making plans to attend college. Then, fate intervened without warning – an accidental event that left me with permanent physical and neurocognitive injuries. Practically overnight, I went from identifying as a self-sufficient ‘worker’ whose time had always been worth money on the open market to having to learn to navigate life as a person with various ‘invisible disabilities’ which largely precluded me from holding down even the most basic of jobs. As a person who had neither health insurance nor a safety net of any kind, I had to quickly accept that I was being relegated to a life of poverty from that point forward.

With that realization came a sudden torrent of denial, shame, and feelings of worthlessness. It also gave me a newly critical eye toward an economic system that arbitrarily determines the worth and value of a human being by their ability to earn money and/or create surplus value. Not until I found myself removed from the worker pool did I understand that disability in our society is defined by how much one can produce, by one’s worth as a worker under the capitalist system.

(This, by the way, is why any disability claim hinges on being able to ‘prove’ one’s worthlessness in terms of one’s ability to earn an income. It is also why those who cannot meet that burden of proof yet cannot earn an income to support themselves are simply left to suffer, discarded from our society, ‘othered’ as the ‘unworthy poor,’ and left on street corners holding signs.)

The loss of self-sufficiency, the loss of economic freedom that I suddenly faced, combined with the physical and cognitive challenges I had not yet accepted or learned to handle, sent me into a downward spiral that took several years to emerge from. It took a cross-country move, a fresh start from scratch, and an eventual confrontation with my own unseen privilege before I was able to come to terms with my feelings of worthlessness and recognize that I was actually in a limited position of power.

*   *   *

The aforementioned confrontation took place on a beautiful spring morning in downtown Eugene, Oregon, a day in which I was riding my bike from my house to the library as I had done nearly every day. I was riding on the sidewalk, as I always did. As I approached an intersection, I noticed that the officer who usually waved at me on my bike every morning was writing a ticket to a homeless-looking man also on a bicycle. I stopped and observed the interaction from a few feet away, and when it was obvious that the officer was finished I asked him what had happened.

He was riding his bike on the sidewalk,” the officer told me. “This is at least the third time I caught him doing that.”

“But I ride on that sidewalk every day,” I replied. “And you’ve seen me many more than three times.”

He looked me up and down, and paused before carefully replying. “I suppose that’s true, but you aren’t causing any problems. You’re just on your way to work. He’s just a bum who hangs out downtown all day.”

I repeated his words in my head, a knot forming in my stomach as I took in what he had said. You’re just on your way to work. He’s just a bum who hangs out downtown all day. Looking at myself up and down as the officer had just done, I realized I looked exactly like the type of person who was off to work, unlike the man on his bike. Thoughts raced through my head. He thinks I have a job. He thinks I’m one of them. He doesn’t realize that I hang out downtown all day as well. He thinks I have money, he thinks I ‘pay my way’. He thinks that I have ‘worth’ and the man he just ticketed does not. I get a ‘pass’ and he does not. He looks poor and I do not.

I stared at the officer, eventually nodding, trying as hard as I could not to show my anger and disgust at what I had just witnessed. It had been years since I’d ever considered myself to be middle-class, but I realized then and there that I still had middle-class privilege and that such privilege was a potential source of power. I learned at that moment what it truly meant to not look poor, and realized the only way I could reconcile the feelings of nausea and rage was to shine light on what I had just experienced. I would have to expose those biases, both for their inhumanity as well as their arbitrary nature. I suddenly realized my privilege was a shield, and my perceived lack of ‘worth’ under capitalism quickly faded once I discovered an entirely different kind of ‘worth’ and ‘value’: I would use my time to point out and fight the biases that both myself and the man on the bike just experienced.

I spent the next three years viewing the downtown as my ‘workplace,’ positioning myself as the proverbial thorn-in-the-side of local government – specifically the police department’s pattern of biased policing against the visibly poor and homeless. I didn’t do so out of guilt or charity, but rather out of obligation and empathy. I did so as someone who struggled as a member of the ‘other’ while regularly passing as one of the worthy ones. I was determined to use that assumption against those in power who arbitrated and enforced those standards.

Throughout that time I was regarded as an equal by middle and upper-class folks alike; few suspected or could even conceive that I was anything other than how I appeared. Nobody ever asked me if I went to college, they asked me where I went to college. Very few asked or even wondered why I was able to devote myself full-time to obviously unpaid volunteer work. It was simply assumed that I had money, and it was evident that it did not matter where that money came from, nor whether I had ‘earned’ it or not. I fit the image so well, in fact, that I often was party to discussions and debates in which “those people” were brought up, where the ‘unworthy poor’ were demonized and dehumanized to my face. Supposedly well-meaning businessmen would take me aside in confidence, first to thank me for my work but then to talk to me privately about ‘those people.’

I can remember several times where, in a moment of bravery, I interrupted the conversation to inform them that I was one of the very people they were talking about. Each time, the conversation went like this:

“Oh, please don’t take that personally. I’m not talking about you. I’m talking about real poor people, the ones that you look at and you just know they can get a job, but they choose not to work and they just want to live off the system.”

“The ones you look at and just know can get a job?” I countered. “You mean the ones who look like me?”

“Again, I’m not talking about you. I’m talking about those other people.”

They were so eager and insistent on distinguishing me as the exception to further elaborate their stereotype that they completely missed the point that I had attempted to make each time: “those other people” inscribed in their minds were manipulated abstractions, and despite being well-spoken and well-dressed I was not the exception at all.

*   *   *

It’s liberating and also an obligation to throw of my facade to illustrate this point. I am a poor, disabled, uneducated member of the American underclass, who was able to build a reputation for initiating a public discourse around the myths and realities of being poor and homeless in America. It was and is a reputation that relied on my audience believing they were listening to a middle-class, able-bodied, college-educated person. Very few ever figured out who they were actually interacting with: a member of that same ‘undeserving,’ ‘lazy,’ ‘entitled’ underclass that they demonized on a daily basis, a member of that underclass speaking from personal experience. Though I’m not trying to downplay my ability to speak truth to power, nor my skills in the public arena, I can say with confidence that I’d never have been able to do so based only on my own merits.

Alley Valkyrie speaking at the Eugene City Club, October 2013

I am no more “deserving” than the man on the street corner begging with a sign. I have done no more to “earn” the respect I am given nor the power that I wield than any of the folks who spend their days at the library and their nights sleeping on the riverbank. Yet, not only is it immediately assumed I’m a person deserving of respect and an audience, even when I fully disclose my situation I am distinguished as the exception. I am arbitrarily deemed ‘worthy’ rather than a throwaway, based only on aesthetic and cultural factors. Meanwhile those who cannot pass are thrown under the bus by the same people who have invited me to the table.

IV. The Tower and The Mirror

“Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime.” – Aristotle

Whether the American Dream is clinically dead or still technically gasping for air may be up for debate, but the belief that ‘anyone can make it’ and that ‘hard work equals success’ has a very tenuous grip as of late. The inability of much of the middle-class to recover from the last recession may be the final nail in the coffin of the belief that anyone can make it in America if they simply work hard enough.

If anything, it can be argued that the rise of the middle-class in medieval Europe shattered the façade of the ‘divine right of kings,’ similar to how the crumbling of the middle-class in America has shattered the façade of the American Dream. The ‘work ethic’ that serves as a bridge between these two moments in time still stands firm, the ideological ghosts of John Calvin and Martin Luther still hovering close, just as they have haunted Western society for half a millenia. Even as the masses become more aware that the game is rigged, those deeply ingrained attitudes around work, worth, and poverty are clung to more strongly than ever by politician and citizen alike.

The poor in America are invisible for many reasons. They are hidden away, shamed into submission, their existence is minimized, simply not talked about, and outright denied by so many. But they are also invisible to you because they are hiding amongst you, especially those who have experienced downward social mobility within their lifetimes, having found the ability through class-based signifiers to shapeshift between the world in which they were raised and the world in which they are forced to inhabit.

The poor as “other”, as stereotype, as abstraction, these are the methods and tools that the ruling class uses to manipulate us into erecting physical and psychological barriers between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ So much time and effort goes into demonizing an abstract stereotype, that most fail to recognize that many who are poor and struggle with little hope are not reflecting that stereotype but a striking similarity to themselves, their poverty hidden within the familiarity of that reflection.

And as the poor are invisible, their anger is invisible to most as well. But their anger and desperation is growing and nearing a breaking point. The welfare system, which has always acted in tandem with the criminalization and dehumanization of the poor, was never intended to truly ‘help’ the poor or pull them out of poverty. It is and has always been a stopgap measure, designed to prevent revolts like the Peasant Wars that spread throughout Germany in 1524. And now, with ever-rising socioeconomic inequality–combined with assaults on welfare benefits for the poor – it is only a matter of time before the oppressed classes once again are pushed to revolt.

The ultra-wealthy know this full well, and have already started planning their escape routes, and yet the upper-middle, middle, and working-classes are still blinded by the fog, the same ideological fog that has convinced them that they poor are lazy and worthless and that hard work leads to success.

It is only in seeing through that fog that one can catch a glimpse of the Tower that looms.

My own experiences thankfully lifted that fog for me long ago, and I survive on the periphery, ever vulnerable and yet blessed with clarity, haunted by the constant reminder that behind my façade I have very little to stand on. Regardless of what I may signify to the world, regardless of what people may assume based on my clothes or my mannerisms, that edge always looms, and no matter how much I may distract or deceive myself, I am at risk of slipping over at any moment. Which is why every single time I walk past someone on the street who has obviously been pegged as a throwaway by society, I remember that they are a mirror, reflecting my own possibilities and potentials. But for privilege, but for luck, but for perception, but for the grace of the Gods goes I.

Not a moment goes by where I am not sharply aware that I am only one life event away from having to stand on that street corner myself, and despite the assumptions that others may harbor regarding my abilities and worth, the harsh reality is that I would not be dancing with a sign for money on behalf of a corporation, I would be begging with one for my very survival.

And if you ever saw me out there, Gods forbid? You would not be staring at a familiar stereotype, you would be staring at a reflection of yourself, for none of us are exempt from the potential fate of the throwaway. No matter your level of privilege, no matter the strength of your denial or the firmness of your bubble, it only takes a single life event, a single moment in time, to suddenly find yourself on the other side.

A beggar's display in Santa Barbara, CA. Photo by Dori.

A beggar’s display in Santa Barbara, CA. [Photo by Dori]

This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.  

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JESOLO, ITALY — On April 15, a Pagan outdoor temple in Italy once again became the target of vandals. However, this time the act was caught on camera. As a result, five men were arrested when temple owners turned over the footage to police. It showed these men using temple chairs to smash a statue of Nike of Samothrace.

Screen capture from the video of the tape provided to police. [photo credit, Venice Today]

Screen capture from the video of the tape provided to police. [Photo Credit: Venice Today]

The Federazione Pagana, a Pagan polytheist group affiliated with the temple, noted that this was not the first time the outdoor temple had been vandalized. The group believes that the attacks may be motivated by ingrained religious bigotry. In a Venice Today article, one member was quoted as saying, “Is there any difference in the motivation of the person who did this from the motivation of [ISIL] to destroy Assyrian antiquities? If you ask [initiated] Pagans, there is terrorism evident from the hatred shown by the vandals. But I am convinced that if these are just random hoodlums, the actions are the result of Catholic education. What sense does it make to break Nike’s wing? Or what sense is there in taking out your rage on a public statue.” (April 17, 2015)

The land the temple sits on is privately owned by a member of the Federazione Pagana, which is headed by Claudio Simeoni. The Federazione Pagana is part of the European Congress of Ethnic Religions (ECER).

In a press release dated April 19, ECER member organization the Supreme Council of Ethnikoi Hellenes (YSEE) made “an appeal to the entire civilized world asking for the condemnation of the desecration of the open air sanctuary of the Italian Pagan Federation (Federazione Pagana) in the town of Jesolo near Venice, by five Christian fundamentalists on Wednesday April 15.”  The release continues on, saying:

The fact that the perpetrators were arrested, because the owners of the sanctuary managed to capture the attack on a video camera, should not placate us or lead us to believe that such an attack could not happen again anywhere in Europe, when people are still being indoctrinated by faiths that instill in them hatred for everything different.

According to the Unione Comunità Neopagane (UCN), the Federazione Pagana and its leader Claudio Simeoni are considered somewhat controversial. In a statement to The Wild Hunt, UCN Public Information Officer said, “I want to underline that, as Unione Comunità Neopagane, we strongly are against every form of violence (wherever it arrives or in every kind of form). But we have to underline that we have nothing to do with him and his group … We sadly note Claudio Simeoni and Federazione Pagana are, in their online pages, promoters of religious intolerance. Even if we understand the animosity against some religious groups, we are not Pagan because we are against someone or somewhat, but because we share common principles of freedom and inclusion.“ The UNC said that it is not yet clear if the vandalism was due to religious bigotry or retaliation for the comments Simeoni made against other religions and against homosexuality.

The UCN spokesman went on to say that generally Pagans don’t face legal problems in Italy. However, the group also said that the Catholic church still has a very strong influence in the country, and that the UCN was originally created to give protection to groups and associations. “We are nothing alone, but we are strong all together. And we live in a country where you must be strong, united and organized if you want to obtain something like civil rights.” UCN also has a Pagan temple, based in Milan, that is very accessible, and the UCN spokeman said that that they too have experienced vandalism or violence directed toward that space.

At this time, there is no mention of the motive for the recent vandalism. The five suspected vandals have been questioned and released, pending charges for trial.

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