Archives For Hawaii

This past week Hawaii’s New Hope Churches agreed to settle a lawsuit originally filed in March 2013 by citizen activists Mitchell Kahle and Holly Huber. The “qui tam whistle-blower” lawsuit argues that these New Hope churches misrepresented time spent renting public school facilities costing the school millions in lost revenue. In an August press release, the plaintiffs claim that there has in fact been “widespread abuse and outright fraud perpetrated by churches often with the explicit approval or knowledge of school principals and/or their designees.”

Honolulu

Honolulu

The New Hope Churches make up only 3 of the 5 original defendants. Along with New Hope, the Calvary Chapel of Central Oahu and One Love Ministries were also accused of falsifying records to avoid paying rental and utility fees. The plaintiffs estimate that New Hope Oahu alone owes 3.2 million for the rental of Farrington High School. In their press release, Kahle and Huber claim:

There is long‐standing and widespread abuse in the DOE’s “Community Use of School Facilities Program.” The abuse has cost taxpayers millions of dollars in lost revenue, and million‐dollar losses are continuing every year because of unpaid rental fees and utilities charges by literally hundreds of churches operating out of nearly as many public schools.  [We] have called for the entire program to be audited, reformed and for all monies owing to be collected.

Following the August hearings, two of the churches fired back asking for the case to be dismissed. In October, the Alliance Defending Freedom on behalf of the Calvary Chapel of Oahu and One Love Ministries filed such a request arguing that “[The school system] was fully aware of the terms and conditions of use … That’s not fraud.” In December the court granted that request but also has allowed the plaintiffs 45 days to re-file their complaints. In response attorney Jim Bickerton said, “If you think about it, what has been the result here? We are just going to put more detail into the public record. How that advances the churches cause I’m not sure.”

Then Wednesday, Feb. 12, the Hope Churches announced that they would settle rather than undergo a costly legal battle. Through their parent company, the three churches will pay $775,000 of which $200,000 will go to plaintiffs Kahle and Huber for bringing the case to the courts. Despite the settlement, the churches never admitted to any fraudulent behavior.

Mitch Kahle

Mitch Kahle

As an atheist activist, Kahle is no stranger to this type of legislative action. In 2010 he and a friend, Kevin Hughes, publicly protested the Hawaii State Senate’s practice of opening their session with religious prayer. Kahle’s short vocal protest, captured on video, led to his arrest. He was discharged but later filed a successful lawsuit against the state for abusive action. The state awarded him $100,000 in damages. Bickerton was his attorney in the case.

Because of his protest and a follow-up by the American Civil Liberties Union, Hawaii became the first state to ban prayer in its legislative body. Kahle went on to file several other related lawsuits; the results of which are unclear.

As suggested by past activities, Kahle’s interest in the current church situation is not the protection of children, the funding of education or the recuperation of tax payer dollars. He is solely interested in ejecting religion from the public sphere. Kahle said, “The state was subsidizing the churches for many, many years.” That amounts to church-sponsored religion.

The churches’ failure to pay the appropriate rental fees does not truly equate to a loss of taxpayer funds or subsidizing. The school buildings would sit empty otherwise costing money to maintain either way. Whether the churches committed fraud and whether the school board knew is an entirely different issue and up to the courts.

However Kahle raised a valid question. Is any of this legal?  If so, should it be? Should churches or any religious institution be allowed to conduct services, collect money and preach their gospel on government school property? Does this practice violate the Constitution? If religious groups can rent public parks and other similar community facilities, why not schools? Are schools different?

Photo Courtesy of "Beyond My Ken" (Wikipedia CC License)

Photo Courtesy of “Beyond My Ken” (Wikipedia CC License)

In 2012 the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) refused to hear a case that asked this very question. In Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Education of the City of New York, a US Federal Appeals Court upheld a newly instated New York City School Board policy  banning the rental of public school buildings to groups that “discriminate on the basis of race or religion.” The NYC School Board believes that this practice “improperly advances religion.” SCOTUS’ refused to hear the case leaving all regulation up to the municipalities. In 2013 over 60 New York City churches had to find new accommodations for their Sunday services.

Does a Sunday sermon in an empty school building “advance religion?” If the buildings are unused and only costing taxpayer money, why not rent them out to anyone willing to pay the fees? Often renting a school is cheaper and more convenient than renting a private facility. USA Today highlighted this topic in a 2010 article entitled, “Instant churches convert public schools to worship spaces.” The article points out that these “instant” churches rent the low cost space temporarily while collecting donations to be used toward the tax-free purchase of their own space. Is that simple economics or problematic loop-hole?

School Gymnasium Photo Courtesy of David Shankbone

School Gymnasium Photo Courtesy of David Shankbone

Of course, there is one line that has yet to be crossed. What if the renting church was not Christian? Consider the words of Lifeway vice president Ed Stetzer,

So if a Wiccan coven wanted a use permit, you would have to be as neutral as you would with an evangelical church. … You would have no way to stop them.

Lifeway, a Christian resource company, is a supporter of school rentals. However as Stetzer points out, what’s good for Christian churches is good for everyone else. If schools do choose to rent the facility to religious organizations, they must rent uniformly. This Constitutional caveat clearly scares Lifeway’s Vice President.

Hawaii’s Department of Education, like many other school districts, makes it very clear that the possibility is real. Chapter 39 of its Administrate Rules states:

All public school buildings, facilities, and grounds shall be available for general recreational purposes and for public and community use whenever these activities do not interfere with the normal and usual activities of the school and its pupils as provided by law.  This general rule shall be carried out within the policy of the department of education that no available public school building, facility or grounds shall be denied for use by the public and community on the grounds of race, color, religion, sex, age, national origin or disability.

Stetzer is correct. There would be no way to stop a Pagan or Heathen group from renting a school facility in order to host a religious ritual or class over a weekend.

In general these rental practices are supported legally through Board policy across the country. Money earned defers the cost of maintaining a large, expensive facility. Regardless we must return to the original question posed by Kahle’s activism and the NYC case. Does this activity amount to the government sponsorship of religion, whether that religion is Pagan, Heathen, Jewish, Hindu or Christian?  Does renting the school grounds to churches of any faith “advance religion?” If not, where and how should the lines be drawn and who should be monitoring the practice?

 

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

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  • Climate Progress reports on efforts by an alliance of Native American nations, activists, and environmental groups, to stop the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline through Lakota land. Quote: “In the wake of the State Department’s Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statementfor the Keystone XL pipeline which sparked nearly 300 protest vigils across the country, a group of Native American communities have added their voices to the calls to reject Keystone XL. In a joint statement — No Keystone XL pipeline will cross Lakota lands — Honor the Earth, the Oglala Sioux Nation, Owe Aku, and Protect the Sacred announced their intention to peacefully resist the construction of the pipeline slated to cut through Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska.” You can read the full statement, here.
  • Amnesty International has released a statement saying “after 38 years time to release indigenous leader Leonard Peltier.” Quote: “It is time for the USA authorities to release Leonard Peltier, an Anishinabe-Lakota Native American and leading member of the American Indian Movement (AIM), who has been imprisoned for 38 years despite serious concerns about the fairness of proceedings leading to his conviction. Leonard Peltier was arrested 38 years ago today in connection with the murders of two FBI agents, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, during a confrontation involving AIM members on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in June 1975. While he admits to having been present during the incident, Leonard Peltier, who in 1977 was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for the murders, has always denied killing the agents as alleged by the prosecution at his trial.”
  • A woman charged with the sexual abuse of children allegedly tried to silence victims by saying she was a witch, and that she would utilize spells against them if they talked. Quote: “Shocking is perhaps the best word to describe the allegations against Jessica Smith. But perhaps it also best describes her self-proclaimed job title. “Ms. Smith led the children to believe that she was a witch, a practicing witch. [She]would place hexes or spells on the children if they revealed any of the facts that had happened,” Richmond said. “Of course, these children are young and they believed her. As if what [the victims] witnessed at that point wasn’t enough, now they think someone is going to cast a spell on them.” There’s no confirmation of whether she actually adhered to some form of religious witchcraft, or if it was merely a ruse.
  • “Conscience” laws are redundant, and largely politically motivated, and even lawmakers in South Dakota realize that. Quote: “As Americans United has pointed out several times, the First Amendment already protects members of clergy from being compelled to officiate at marriage ceremonies. Why can’t a same-sex couple demand a church wedding? For the same reason that a Protestant couple can’t just walk into a Roman Catholic church and demand that the priest marry them. Members of the clergy have an absolute right to determine the parameters for the sacraments they offer. If a couple doesn’t meet those criteria, the pastor is free to show them the door.”
  • Religion Clause reports that a Hawaii Supreme Court ruling in State v. Armitage says Native Hawaiians are not infringed on by making them obtain a permit to enter an island reserve. Quote: “The Hawaii Supreme Court held that the rights of Native Hawaiians are not infringed by a statute limiting entry into the Kaho’olawe Island Reserve only to those who obtain authorization to do so through a written application process.  Defendants claim they were traveling to the island to proclaim the right of the “Reinstated Kingdom of Hawaii” to the island. The court rejected defendants’ arguments that their entry was protected by the Art. XII, Sec. 7 of the Hawaii Constitution which protects the right to engage in traditional and customary Native Hawaiian subsistence, cultural and religious practices.”
A young man wears a blindfold in an initiation ritual. (Jan Sochor – GlobalPost)

A young man wears a blindfold in an initiation ritual. (Jan Sochor – GlobalPost)

  • Global Post has a photoset up focusing on Palo in Cuba. Quote: “The cultures of Cuba’s many African descendants run deep across the island. They blend with the country’s traditional Roman Catholic practices to create vibrant mixtures. Photographer Jan Sochor captures the ritual scenes here in Santiago de Cuba and Havana, in particular capturing Palo rituals. A religious practice often confused with Yoruba religion (Santeria), but distinguished by more underground practices and initiations.”
  • Is cultural Christianity dead? That’s what  R. Albert Mohler Jr., President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary asserts. Quote: “There was in the center of the country — and I don’t mean that geographically, but culturally — a cultural religiosity that was, in the main, a cultural Christianity that trended in one direction for the better part of 60 to 70 years, and it had a kind of moral authority that is disappearing before our eyes.” 
  • Don’t be a jerk, don’t deface ancient rock formations. Quote: “Prosecutors have filed charges against two former Boy Scout leaders accused of toppling one of the ancient rock formations at Utah’s Goblin Valley State Park. State Parks officials say Glenn Taylor is charged with criminal mischief. David Hall is charged with aiding criminal mischief, another felony.”
  • Early Americans really didn’t like the Quakers much. Quote: “Known today for their pacifist and quietist ways, Quakers had an altogether different reputation in the seventeenth century: belligerent and boisterous rabble-rousers. Fueled by evangelical zeal, and asserting radical ideas for the time, the Quakers were aggressive proselytizers. As a result, they faced violent persecution in England and, to a lesser extent, in the Netherlands, where many migrated. News of their beliefs (e.g. equality for women, refusal to swear oaths, etc.) and their tactics (e.g. preaching loudly and publicly, disrupting worship services, etc.) reached the colonies before the Quakers did. Connecticut, in fact, banned Quakers in October 1656—prior to any Quakers having ever reached the colony.”
  • What’s it like being a Pagan at Penn? Pretty lonely, it seems. Quote: “Deidre Marsh, a College senior, founded Penn Wheel a semester ago in order to build a community for earth-based religions and paganism. But even in a school of over 10,000 undergraduates, Marsh has been unable to find anyone else who shares her religious beliefs.”

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

This week my column comes to you from the sandy shores of the Florida coast. For the last ten years, I’ve celebrated the Summer Solstice in the sunshine state with many other visiting “sun worshippers.”  As I’m taking a break from (sub)urban life, I figured that I’d take The Wild Hunt with me on vacation.

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No. I’m not going to make you sit through a slide show of vacation photos.  I would like to take you on a journey to explore one of paradise’s most iconic symbols – the Hula.

I have always loved dance – the sacred, the ethnic, the purely artistic and even the raise-the-roof, pump-up-the-jam variety.  Movement is powerful and magical in all forms.  But up until this week, I never really stopped to consider the Hula – the traditional dance of Polynesian culture.  It is very hard to take a dance seriously whose imagery has found a comfortable home in the plastic form of a bobbling dashboard ornament.  For many people, the traditional Hawaiian dance is never really explored outside of a tourist setting, at luau parties, or on TV.  I speculate that my own introduction to Hula was through reruns of The Brady Bunch Hawaii Bound (1972).

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Despite its place in pop culture, the Hula has a serious and sacred history that tells the story of a culture and a people.  While its precise origin can’t be historically pinpointed, the Hula is indeed a cultural product of the ancient Polynesian societies that thrived on the islands in the Southern Pacific Ocean. By some mythical accounts, Laka, the forest Goddess, gave birth to the celebratory Hula dance.  She is still considered the patron Goddess of the dance.  In other stories, Hula was a gift given to the Goddess Pele by her sister Hi’aka.  And other stories abound…

In all cases, Hula was a dance of the Goddess and of nature. Traditional motions and movements mirrored natural rhythms such as the fluid, hypnotic flow of the ocean or tumultuous, stormy skies. The dance expressed and told the stories of the surrounding island worlds.

As a sacred and respected dance Hula was used for a multitude of purposes.  It was a way by which these ancient people could pass down their traditions, their history, and their religion to the coming generations. It was used to honor deity, local chiefs and important community members.  Hula was performed in religious ceremonies, festivals, funerals, births, and weddings. In 1778, Captain Cook wrote:

Their dances are prefaced with a slow, solemn song, in which all the party join, moving their legs, and gently striking their breasts in a manner and with attitudes that are perfectly easy and graceful.  (From Hawaiian History)

By the 1800s Protestant missionaries began to settle in the Hawaiian Islands.  Their reaction to the traditional dance was quite different from Captain Cook’s.  They considered it sinful – a “heathen” dance of a “pagan” culture.* One missionary wrote:

The whole arrangement and process of their old hulas were designed to promote lasciviousnous [sic], and of course the practice of them could not flourish in modest communities. They had been interwoven too with their superstitions, and made subservient to the honor of their gods, and then rulers, either living or departed or deified. (From Hawaiian History)

In 1830 Ka‘ahumanu, the Queen Regent, adopted Christianity and formally banned Hula. Some scholars believe this had as much to do with economics as religion. The Protestant religious morality and its famous work ethic were exploited in order to maintain control of the local working population. The burgeoning colonial agricultural enterprises needed cheap labor to be lucrative.  Hula (as a marker of traditional Hawaiian culture) was considered to be “adversely affecting the willingness of the [Hawaiian people] to work.”   According to an 1866 local editorial: “Hula … is only for pagans and the …. Hawaiian people are no longer pagan.” (The Hawaiian Journal of History, pg 43)

Photo Courtesy of Flickr's Tom Simpson

Photo Courtesy of Flickr’s Tom Simpson

Not long after, the “licentious” Hula became associated with prostitution and other forms of condemned sexual behavior.  Regardless, the Hula was still practiced in private settings.  There were clandestine schools that continued to pass down the traditions of the old ways.  Hula dancers were sought after for private parties and events.  The Hula dance was a sacred part of traditional Hawaiian culture and continued to thrive in any way that it could.  In 1858, the Pacific Commercial Advertiser published the following:

It seems that the practice of hulas, or native dances, is becoming more universal every day. To the countenance and support of the government, through the columns of the Polynesian … it is clearly due to this retrograde movement of the nation towards heathenism. (The Hawaiian Journal of History, pg 38)

Photo courtesy of arielmurphy.blogspot.com

Photo courtesy of arielmurphy.blogspot.com

In 1886 King Kalakaua, the “merry monarch” lifted the ban which instantly revived the ancient dance.  Although negative local press continued through the 1920s, Hula was once again being practiced publicly.

Over the next century, the Hawaiian Islands along with the rest of Polynesia became an increasingly popular vacation destination.  As a result, the Hula dance found its place in world culture as an icon of paradise.  A once sacred dance became a curiosity for waves of foreign tourists.  As Hawaiian cities modernized Hula evolved once again from a simple curiosity to a genuine commodity.

Today there are generally two types of Hula:  traditional and modern. Traditional “Kahiko” Hula is performed to chants and drums beats.  It still clings to the movements of the original spiritual dance and rhythms of nature. The more common Modern “Auana” Hula incorporates elements from other cultures and includes a variety of instruments including song.  Both forms are performed and celebrated at the yearly Hawaiian Merry Monarch Festival.

There is also something called “Hotel” Hula which is generally considered to be purely exploitative entertainment. Although it is a form of Auana, “hotel” hula is often criticized for its gratuitous emphasis on female sexuality in both movement and costuming. Interestingly, traditional Hula is also said to contain  “unabashed expressions of sexuality” such as in the procreation dance (hula ma’i.)  Moreover, in the pre-Missionary days the dance was performed by men and women who were scantily clad. However, unlike today’s “hotel” Hula, traditional Hula’s sexual elements are spiritual and sacred.  As Sarah Neal writes, “the traditional dances were not necessarily sexualized, they were very sensual.”

"Female dancers of the Sandwich Islands'' depicted by Louis Choris, the artist aboard the Russian ship ''Rurick'', which visited Hawai'i in 1816.

“Female dancers of the Sandwich Islands” depicted by Louis Choris, the artist aboard the Russian ship ”Rurick”, which visited Hawai’i in 1816.

The evolution of Hula was clearly the result of Hawaiian cultural and religious change, colonialism, and modernization. The victim was the sacred meaning that lived at the heart of the Hula. This is not an altogether uncommon occurrence.  When the sacred becomes a curiosity to outsiders it garners increased attention.  The sacred then becomes culturally iconic.  At some point, someone realizes that this icon can be monetized and turns it into a commodity.  At that moment the sacred ceases to be sacred. It becomes a product – for better or worse.

Hawaiian history suggests that Hula was always used for more than a religious purpose.  But at the same time it was always treated with reverence. Hula was more than a bobbling dancer on the dashboard of someone’s car or a pretty girl in a tourist poster for Honolulu.

There is a Hawaiian proverb that says, “Nana i ke kumu” (Translation: Pay attention to the source.)  While it is socially acceptable to enjoy Hula in all its evolved forms, it is equally as important to acknowledge its origins. The Hula dance is a connection to that ancient Polynesian culture and the natural rhythms of the islands.

For me, Hula will never be the same.

Photo Courtesy of Andy Beal Photography

Photo Courtesy of Andy Beal Photography

 

*As descriptors, the words “heathen” and “pagan”  in lower case are used within a variety historical texts on the subject.    

This week the 113th Congress of the United States of America convened, and while this is a routine part of our government’s normal functioning, both the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate saw some historic firsts that should appeal to those hoping for a more religiously diverse representative body. Perhaps the most high-profile is Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, the first Hindu to be elected to Congress, and the first person to swear their oath of office on the Bhagavad Gita.

Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard

Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard

“I chose to take the oath of office with my personal copy of the Bhagavad-Gita because its teachings have inspired me to strive to be a servant-leader, dedicating my life in the service of others and to my country.” – Rep. Tulsi Gabbard

In addition to Gabbard, Sen. Mazie Hirono, also of Hawaii, became the first Buddhist elected to the U.S. Senate (she had already served in the House), and the first Asian-American female senator.

Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii

Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii

“I don’t have a book [...] But I certainly believe in the precepts of Buddhism and that of tolerance of other religions and integrity and honesty [...] It’s about time that we have people of other backgrounds and faiths in Congress…”Sen. Mazie Hirono (in 2007)

A third first comes from Arizona where Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, the first openly bisexual member of Congress, also happens to be the first explicitly religious “none” elected to Congress.

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema

Democratic Arizona Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, who was raised a Mormon, is religiously unaffiliated but does not describe herself as an atheist. Her campaign was unavailable for comment to Whispers due to the swearing in, but spokesman Justin Unga told the Religion News Service in November that Sinema favors a “secular approach.” He told the New York Times the same month that Sinema “believes the terms ‘nontheist,’ ‘atheist’ or ‘nonbeliever’ are not befitting of her life’s work or personal character.”

There are other interesting religious facts about the 113th Congress, but I think these three women are representative of the shifts happening in the United States right now. Specifically the rise of “nones” who aren’t necessarily atheists, but also don’t claim a religious identity,  and the ongoing growth of non-Christian minority religions. We are fast approaching the day where hot-button moral issues in this country can no longer be discussed solely within a Judeo-Christian context, and we are already seeing the end of the “white Christian strategy” in national politics. It’s a new dawn, one that started with the November elections, and is now enacted with this new Congress.

It’s election day here in the United States, and most Americans are glued to their news sources of choice to see who will guide this nation for the next four years. In addition, control of our Senate, and the outcome of several local ballot initiatives will decided this day, making for an exciting evening for those invested in our democratic republic. Many American Pagans, like every other group in this country, also find themselves deeply invested in our political process if my Facebook wall is any indicator, and so they should, as the very notions of democracy, of a republic, originated in pagan thought, in pre-Christian societies.  Thomas Jefferson, a key architect of America’s religious freedoms, was proud that our country, in principle, encompassed “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.” 

So on this election day, as we wait for the results to roll in, let’s focus on some electoral/election stories of interest to, or involving, modern Pagans.

Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary, shortly after voting this morning in Wisconsin.

Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary, shortly after voting this morning in Wisconsin.

  • The ever-politically active Starhawk shares some final thoughts on the election, making her endorsements, but also stressing the importance of voting in general. Quote: “Still need inspiration?  Consider the sixty years women struggled to get the right to vote.  Think of those suffragists on hunger strike, force-fed through tubes, lying in rat-infested prisons—they want you to vote!  Think of the civil rights workers in the South, risking their lives to register voters, think of the three who were murdered in 1964, Shwerner, Chaney and Goodman.  They want you to vote!”
  • A Witch-Doctor from the Kenyan village where Barack Obama’s father is buried says his reading predicts our current president will win in a landslide. Quote: “Mr Dimo, who claims to be 105, says that the mystical items dispute news that the election will be a close call.  Pointing to a white shell, he declared: ‘Obama is very far ahead and is definitely going to win.’” I’m sure Nate Silver won’t argue too much with that prediction.
  • AlterNet digs up some rather embarrassing assertions from Republican Massachusetts State Senate candidate  Sandi Martinez, including how popular children’s shows of the 1980s will turn you towards Witchcraft. Quote: “On her cable access show in 2004, Martinez warned that trick-or-treating, Harry Potter books, and the “new age images” presented in 1980s-era programming such as “The Smurfs” and “The Care Bears” could destigmatize the occult and leave children vulnerable to the lure of witchcraft.” Awesome. Well, good thing there aren’t any Witches in Massachusetts … oh, wait.
  • An activist is trying to engage the Buddhist-derived mindfulness movement in politics, and voting. Quote: “If meditation can calm hyperactive kids, ease the pain of drug addicts and tame the egos of Fortune 500 CEOs, it can surely help a stressed-out and polarized country choose a president, says the Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams. An artist and veteran activist from Berkeley, Williams is the force behind MindfulVOTES, a nonpartisan campaign that she believes is the first attempt to mobilize mindfulness meditators.” Here’s the MindfulVOTES website.
  • It looks very likely that Tulsi Gabbard, the Democrat running for Congress in Hawaii’s 2nd district, will win her race and become the first Hindu to serve in the United States Congress. Quote: “It is clear that there needs to be a closer working relationship between the United States and India. How can we have a close relationship if decision-makers in Washington know very little, if anything, about the religious beliefs, values, and practices of India’s 800 million Hindus?” How exciting!
  • Meanwhile, you do know there’s a Heathen running for Congress this election, right? New York’s Dan Halloran, a conservative, Republican, Tea Party politician, is facing off against Grace Meng in the newly drawn 6th Congressional District. There hasn’t been too much non-partisan polling for this race, so each are holding up their internal polls to claim the race is will be won by their campaign. Odds are long for Halloran in this Democratic-leaning district, but who knows for sure? You can read my pretty extensive coverage of Dan Halloran here.
  • Let’s not forget the same sex marriage-related initiatives being voted on today, and the role “nones” might play in how those races turn out. However, Saumya Arya Haas, a Hindu and Vodou priestess, reminds us that nobodies vote on gay marriage should matter. Quote: “American is not a religion; it is a nation. We claim to hold certain truths to be self-evident. That means some truths should be a given — not debated, not voted on. Given. By virtue of being a citizen of this country, each American should have access to the same rights. Instead, we have created, in America, in the year 2012, a priestly caste of people who believe that their interpretation of certain Scriptures should be used to decide others’ fate.”
  • Americans United is fed up with the IRS not enforcing the ban on partisan endorsements from the pulpit, exclaiming “enforce the law already!” Quote: “This is a critically important issue for our democracy. We already have serious problems with vast amounts of money being dropped into campaigns. Imagine how much more devastating it would be if every house of worship jumped into elections, too.”
  • Finally, Jason Mankey over at Patheos reminds everyone that voting is “ours.” Quote: “Voting is one of the great legacies of ancient paganism. All democracies have a bit of classical paganism in their DNA, even when they don’t want to admit it. Want to make your Evangelical uncle’s head explode today? Remind him that democracy began in a town dedicated to the Goddess Athena! Democracy and the vote are our legacy as Pagans!”

No matter who you vote for, don’t forget to vote, and honor the struggles, and origins, of our political system. We’ll check in post-Election Day to what the results might mean for modern Pagans.

Oh, and yes, I already voted. Oregon has a mail-in system that’s quite convenient.

With the world’s focus turned to Japan as it deals with the aftermath of a cascade of earthquakes, a massive tsunami, and dangerously damaged nuclear reactors, press and commentators are starting to touch on the question of religion, and how belief is informing Japanese reaction to these events. However, this approach as been somewhat tentative so far, partly because we’ve been riveted by the immediate disaster response, and partly because Japan’s religious makeup is so very different from that of the United States and other Western nations. In Japan, Christianity is a tiny minority, while religions like Shinto and Buddhism dominate, and several smaller syncretic faiths thrive. In addition, Japan is highly secular, with few of the culture war issues that seem to constantly haunt us.

Rescue workers in front of a Shinto shrine. Photo: Reuters/Damir Sagolj

Rescue workers in front of Shinto shrine. Photo: Reuters/Damir Sagolj

CNN was one of the first mainstream news outlets to foray into how religion interacts with these current events, with Religion Editor Dan Gilgoff exploring how Japanese faiths confront tragedy.

“Japanese are not religious in the way that people in North America are religious,” says John Nelson, chair of theology and religious studies at the University of San Francisco. “They’ll move back and forth between two or more religious traditions, seeing them as tools that are appropriate for certain situations. For things connected to life-affirming events, they’ll turn to Shinto-style rituals or understandings,” Nelson says. “But in connection to tragedy or suffering, it’s Buddhism.”

Next to weigh in is USA Today, with religion reporter Cathy Lynn Grossman focusing on the role of tradition, and how Japanese Buddhism isn’t necessarily the Buddhism many Americans would be familiar with.

“Such talk of gods and hell kings doesn’t sound like the meditative Buddhism better known in the West, cultural anthropologist John Nelson said. He’s an expert on Shinto and Buddhist shrines and chairman of the department of theology and religious studies at University of San Francisco [...] “Japanese Buddhism is similar to Western religions with deities that can be petitioned and can intervene in worldly affairs, and there are many mechanisms to appeal to them, to pray for miracles,” he said.”

Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic points to a short essay by former Anglican priest and journalist Mark Vernon, who meditates on the difference between the Shinto and Christian responses to natural disasters.

“In Christianity, human beings are at the centre of nature: creation is for humanity, along with other creatures, and it’s humanity’s task to care for it. Hence, in part, the offence we feel when nature turns against us. In Shintoism, nature is recognised as infinitely more powerful than humankind – as in the wave – and that humankind is in nature with the permission of the gods but with no particular concern from the gods. Shinto rituals show respect for the gods of nature, befriending the enormity of the forces, if you like.”

From there we have many smaller nods and mentions, the Telegraph explores the “tradition of rebuilding the great Shinto shrines,” the Washington Post evokes the image of a woman praying at “a small Shinto-inspired shrine to her ancestors,” while ABC News noted that local funeral homes “volunteered to provide traditional Shinto rites to the dead, donating white shrouds and cremating the bodies,” before becoming overwhelmed by the demand. Disappointingly, the Religion News Service’s coverage has so far been disproportionately focused on Christian reactions to the tragedy. One hopes that more robust reports on Shinto and Buddhist perspectives are forthcoming.

As things progress, we can hope that a larger sense of the importance of ancestor worship, tradition, the divine within nature, and the multiplicity of spiritual beings within Japanese culture will shine through in future aftermath coverage. In this disaster there is a rare opportunity to understand how a culture outside the Christian context grapples with universal questions and problems. Religion journalists should rise to this occasion, and minority faiths in the West should ask for the true diversity of faith in our world be accurately and fairly covered.

In one final related note, I also want to point to an article up now at PNC-Minnesota, where Hawaiian Pagan Lamyka, a former resident of Japan, is interviewed about how Hawaii’s experience with the tsunami triggered by the Japanese earthquake was, in her opinion, ignored in favor of California by the media.

“Hawai’i is seen as ‘foreign’ by many Americans, as evident by people’s reactions to the President coming here for holidays.  We’re never included in national dialogue, probably because it’s incredibly obvious that we shouldn’t be part of the USA to begin with.  Hawaiians have been protesting since being illegally usurped, fighting for our rights since statehood, and continue to fight for sovereignty rights denied to us.  We’ve had protests here numbering from 50,000-60,000 but never once made national news like in Wisconsin.”

Yet another perspective that should likely get more attention by the mainstream media. Do check out the entire article, and share your perspective.

ADDENDUM: You can find resources for donations here, and here.

Top Story: The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Italy is holding a special two-day conference with the theme of “God today: with Him or without Him, that changes everything”. Normally I’m not overly interested in the day-to-day goings on of the Vatican, but a couple quotes reveal, I believe, the under-riding fear behind Benedict XVI’s ongoing smears of both classical and modern forms of Paganism. In short, they believe secularism will hasten the growth of modern Paganism(s).

“Pope Benedict XVI sent a message to CEI President Card Angelo Bagnasco for the occasion. In it, the Holy Father said, … “When God disappears from man’s horizon, humanity loses its sense of direction and could take steps towards its destruction.” … In his opening address, Cardinal Bagnasco said that the question of God is linked to that of truth, which “separates man from animals and machine.” For the cardinal, the more the ‘question of God’ is “marginalised and psychologically removed” from culture, the more it “reappears in disguise” and takes the form of today’s interest in the paranormal, the occult, and esoteric religiosity in which reason “is defeated”.”

The process they describe is known to scholars as “re-enchantment”, and far from being antithetical to reason, some see the current trend as one that embraces “secular rationalism” alongside  new-found “esoteric religiosity”.

“To Pagans, the “spiritual but not religious”, the scores of “no religion” agnostics who believe in God, and the many other groupings taking part in the West’s re-enchantment, it isn’t a choice of Dawkins or Pope Benedict. Instead, it is melding of the best aspects of rational and secular progress with the immanent and transcendent spiritual experiences provided by various religions and philosophies. While the old binary view of religion and rationalism continues to duke it out, Pagans are having their (secular re-enchantment) cake and eating it too.”

The Catholic fear, I believe, isn’t (primarily) of the death of reason, but of the birth of competition. Of a post-Christian Christianity that doesn’t mind dabbling in the supernatural now and then, of a coalition of non-Christian faiths who won’t sit quietly and allow the Vatican to continue “asserting the reasonableness of the Gospel” to the exclusion of any other point of view. Of a world that has no problem being religious and living in an age secular rationalism.

In Other News: Author and Pagan scholar Michael York, who attended and presented at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne (check out my audio interview with him), has added his two cents to the wide-ranging post-Parliament discussion over identity and terminology in Wednesday’s post.

“The Indigenous Peoples issued a Statement to the World in which the Inter Caetera papal bull of 1493 and the Doctrine of Christian Discovery were exposed for the evils that they were. Angie Buchanan’s argument is that we pagans who follow a European tradition are examples of an earlier and more complete eradication that the indigenous peoples of today are themselves facing. We are allies and not enemies. _Some_ were sympathetic to this reasoning; others less so. Andras’ classification of paganism into Neo-pagan, Reconstructionists and Indigenous I have trouble with – especially when he described the second as intellectual reconstructions as opposed to revivals of indigenous survivals. For me, Neo-pagan includes Wicca as well as much contemporary Druidry and comprises a specific alignment of elements and directions as well as the eight festival calendar. Reco-paganism is ethnic reconstructions _and_ revivals. Geo-pagan is something else that is more vernacular and often less self-conscious.”

I urge you to read the full comment, his follow-up statement, and the exchange between him and Celtic Reconstructionist Erynn Laurie (among others) for some thoughtful expansion on the hot-button issues brought up in the main post. I’d also like to recognize and thank all my commenters for their thoughtful, challenging and respectful discussion on these issues. I like to think that this blog’s reader-commenters present a unique cross-section of the diverse theological, political, and social backgrounds, to be found under modern Paganism’s wide umbrella. As a result of this we often generate more light than heat on controversial subject matters. So thank you.

An extremist Russian pagan group is being blamed for an explosion inside an Orthodox church in Vladimir.

“A suspect detained as part of the authorities’ investigation into an explosion inside an Orthodox church in Vladimir is believed to be a member of a pagan group that is in conflict with traditional faiths, a spokesman for the Russian Interior Ministry’s department for the fight against extremism told Interfax on Friday. An explosion occurred at the Sts Cyril and Methodius Church on the premises of the Vladimir State University on December 6, the spokesman said. A pamphlet that was written on behalf of the White Storm group and contained remarks “aimed at inciting ethnic and religious hatred” was found inside the church, he said. “A 28-year-old resident of Vladimir was detained for his suspected role in the crime. The information available to us suggests that he is an active member of a pagan group that is in conflict with traditional faiths,” the spokesman said.”

Luckily, no one was hurt in the explosion. There have been serious ongoing tensions between modern Russian Pagan groups (both extremist and otherwise), and the state-approved Russian Orthodox Church. Extremist Pagans groups have been listed as suspects in the recent murder of an Orthodox priest, and one group was recently tried and convicted for the murder and harassment of non-Slavic immigrants. The various forms of Paganism in Russia are a complex matter for outsiders to grasp, especially when press coverage focuses almost solely on violent and racist gangs instead of the broader Pagan impulse in the country. I await a serious expose’ on this issue, one that separates the peaceful productive groups from the thuggish gangs who terrorize Orthodox priests and immigrants. Perhaps some Russian Pagans or Russian Pagan ex-pats can shed some light on the matter?

Lahaina News reports on a Goddess Movement conference coming to West Maui in January, organized by Dr. Apela Colorado, founder of the Worldwide Indigenous Science Network, and featuring Kathy Jones and Lydia Ruyle.

“Organizing gatherings is old hat to Colorado. “I’ve done hundreds of them. This is the first one I’ve done about the theme of the goddess, with the central focus on the goddess. Normally, I’m doing gatherings that pertain to indigenous wisdom and spirituality and bringing it together with western science,” she said. “What’s the same about this is that it’s bringing out the ancient ways of understanding life,” she added. Colorado reasoned why the conference is being held on the West Side. “All of West Maui is dedicated to the feminine powers of life. It’s all about the waters, the fresh waters. In the West Maui Mountains up there, it has a big lizard (mo‘o) in the landscape that’s at the headwaters of Kauaula, the red rain. The red water is an allusion to the menses, the blood flow of giving birth,” she explained.”

Oh, and Starhawk is also attending, though that strangely wasn’t mentioned in the article. I do find it somewhat curious that a Goddess Conference held in West Maui doesn’t feature any native Hawaiians on the speakers list (that I can ascertain, there are several names I don’t recognize), an oversight perhaps? Is there some sort of social/political tension that I’m not clued in on? Perhaps some of my Hawaiian readers can fill me in.

In a final note, I normally don’t plug individual business on my blog, but I think this is a good cause. Witchy Moon is teaming up with Operation Circle Care to make it super-easy to send a Pagan solider a care package this holiday season.

“WitchyMoon Magickal Pagan Superstore today announced that is supporting Circle Sanctuary’s “Operation Circle Care” program to collect Yule gifts for Pagan soldiers stationed overseas. As part of this sponsorship, WitchyMoon will be selling care packages on its web site, which can be sent to Pagan service members abroad. WitchyMoon will be offering a 25% discount on all care package items. “Through this Yule program, we are sending a very powerful message that we care about our Pagan troops, which are working hard to defend America,” says Lady Falcona, proprietor of Witchy Moon”

You can find out more about Operation Circle Care’s care package program, here. Perhaps Witchy Moon’s generosity of spirit will inspire other Pagan retailers to offer similar deals. If you have a business that is working with Operation Circle Care, please drop a line in the comments and let my readers know.

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

In a highly controversial move, the US military has shut off all visitation access to sacred sites within the Makua Valley on the Hawaiian island of O’ahu.

“Long-simmering differences between Native Hawaiians and the military over access to Makua Valley have flared anew, with the Army notifying two prominent groups that they will no longer be allowed access to four sacred sites they’ve visited in the past. Malama Makua and Hui Malama say the Army’s notice, contained in a June 12 letter, may violate a 2001 court order guaranteeing cultural access to many sites in the valley, including the four sites they can no longer enter.”

The military is alternately claiming safety issues (they use the valley for training purposes), objections by unnamed descendants, and (perhaps most ironically) the preservation of the sacred sites. This struggle over access between the military and the Native population is nothing new, in fact it has been going on since World War Two.

“The Makua Valley access debate dates to World War II “when the Army took over the valley in early 1943 and kicked out the residents,” Dodge said. “And there was an agreement that six months after the war was over, the valley would be returned in a condition satisfactory to the state. “And when that didn’t happen, the territory sued and it was in and out of the courts until statehood. It was a condition of statehood that the issue be resolved.” In 1964, for the sum of $1, America’s youngest state leased the lower third of Makua Valley to the Army for 65 years, Dodge said.”

Since these obstructionist tactics seem to violate a 2001 court decision granting Hawaiian Native groups visitation access to sacred sites, the matter will most likely end up in court again.

“Denying access to sacred sites denies Native Hawaiians the ability to honor their ancestral spirits within those locations, Aila said. He said the Native Hawaiian groups will continue to seek access to the restricted areas. If their requests continue to be denied, they’ll let a judge make the decision.”

This is just another example of the total disregard the military, the National Park Service, and other government agencies have for the remaining rights of Native peoples. The courts are often the only resort left to check the land-grabs done in the name of “progress” and “security”, and as seen here, even that isn’t always enough to guarantee justice.