Archives For privilege

“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.  

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.

Photo: Earl Wilson/The New York Times

Photo: Earl Wilson/The New York Times

  • It’s always worth a mention when the New York Times takes an interest in modern Paganism. Their New York-focused City Room blog highlights the Wiccan Family Temple Academy of Pagan Studies in Manhattan, interviewing two of the program’s students. Quote: “People go to school to study the things that interest them most; some people go to law school, others to medical school,” [Shantel Collins] said. “I want to be a religious leader in my community, so the path I chose is to become a high priestess. I am learning how to counsel people in my community. No one is born a pastor or a reverend or a rabbi — you have to work at it, and that’s what I’m doing. So for me, these classes are worth every minute and every penny.” I suspect this piece came about because the New York City Wiccan Family Temple is not afraid to promote themselves to the media. I know I’ve received a fair share of press releases from them, and it’s a tactic that does succeed in breaking through to the mainstream media from time to time. 
  • Virginia Lt. Governor candidate E.W. Jackson, who I profiled recently here at The Wild Hunt, was (unsurprisingly) a big hit at the recent Faith and Freedom Coalition Conference. Quote: “Audience members clapped most intensely when Jackson focused on the rights of parents to lay down rules for their children and on the need to preserve belief in Christianity as the foundation of the United States. “Freedom is the ability to worship God as we see fit and not be persecuted for it,” he said.” Jackson, while revving up the conservative Christian base, has also been walking back past statements he made that implied yoga can lead to Satanism. In his 2008 book “Ten Commandments To An Extraordinary Life” Jackson called tarot reading and Witchcraft “wrong and dangerous.”
  • At Sojourners Magazine, Rabbi Seth Goren discusses Christian privilege and “how the dominance of Christianity affects interfaith relations.” Quote: “Even in interreligious settings intended to be neutral, Christianity retains primacy. Exchanges emphasize concepts in Christianity, such as belief and faith, and downplay the Jewish stress on action, behavior, and ritual […] In clergy gatherings, I feel the expectation that I should know Augustine and Aquinas without a corresponding expectation that Christian counterparts have heard of Rabbis Akiva or Eliezer […] Even on a relatively level playing field, I start from a defensive posture and find myself envious of what Christians take for granted that I can’t and don’t.” Go read this, and share it. I’m hoping the relatively high-profile nature of the venue will prompt some reflection. 
  • Chas Clifton reports that the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals has cleared the way for a suit against Oklahoma’s license plate design to move forward. Why is the license plate being challenged? Because it allegedly endorses “Indian religion.” Quote: “Cressman, who says he “adheres to historic Christian beliefs,” objects to the image of a Native American shooting an arrow toward the sky. He claims the image unconstitutionally contradicts his Christian beliefs by depicting Indian religious beliefs, and that he shouldn’t have to display the image.” The plate is based off of a famous statue depicting a sacred act, but does it really endorse a religion? It seems rather tenuous, considering the arguments we hear consistently about “secular” Christian crosses. You can’t have church-state separation absolutism without it cutting both ways. A “win” for this Christian could create ripples he may not enjoy.
  • Advocacy organization Amnesty International has condemned the rise of blasphemy cases in Egypt, saying it uses defamation of religion as a way to silence critics. Here’s more on the issue from Daily News Egypt: “Slapping criminal charges with steep fines and, in most cases, prison sentences against people for simply speaking their mind or holding different religious beliefs is simply outrageous,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa director, in the report. Luther added that defamation of religion charges should not be used to “trample over people’s right to freedom of expression and conscience” 
The "Other Religions" section of the Urbana Free Library (post-culling).

The “Other Religions” section of the Urbana Free Library (post-culling).

  • The picture you see above is the “Other Religions” section at the Urbana Free Library in Illinois after a hugely controversial culling that has gained national attention from library observers. In essence, any book acquired more than ten years ago was culled from several non-fiction sections before local outcry halted the process. This has left books on Pagan religions decimated, with only 3 or 4 left visible on the shelf. Libraries are in important first step for many people exploring our faiths, and for those looking to understand us, and decimating collections like this does more harm than I think people realize. Not everyone has consistent and reliable access to the Internet, and even if they do, it doesn’t replace reading seminal books like “Drawing Down the Moon” or “The Spiral Dance.” I’m hoping to have more on this story soon, as Urbana is my old home-town, and I know several library workers there. Stay tuned. 
  • The United Nations World Conference of Indigenous Peoples is taking place in New York, September 2014. A recent gathering in Alta, Norway, home of the Sami People, resulted in an adopted outcome document for the conference. Quote: “Our purpose was to exchange views and proposals and develop collective recommendations on the UN High Level Plenary Meeting of the General Assembly to be known as the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples (hereinafter referred to as HLPM/WCIP), which will convene in New York, 22 – 23 September 2014. This document sets forth our recommendations along with the historical and current context of Indigenous Peoples.” I think the document is important and thought-provoking reading for anyone interested in indigenous and Native American issues. 
  • Sufi mystic Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee writes about the holiness of the Earth for the Washington Post’s On Faith section. Quote: “I deeply feel that we need to reclaim our spiritual relationship with this beautiful and suffering planet, feel it within our hearts and souls. We need to develop an awareness that the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the energy we use, are not just commodities to be consumed, but part of the living fabric of a sacred Earth. Then we are making a real relationship with our environment, respecting the land on which we live, the air we breathe. We still carry the seed of this primal relationship to the Earth within our consciousness, even if we have long forgotten it. It is a recognition of the wonder, beauty, and divine nature of the Earth.”
  • Move over Beltane, because Summer Solstice is all about sex! Quote: “In the Northern Hemisphere, the summer solstice has a history of stirring libidos, and it’s no wonder. The longest day of the year tends to kick off the start of the summer season and with it, the harvest. So it should come as no surprise that the solstice is linked to fertility — both of the vegetal and human variety. ‘A lot of children are born nine months after Midsummer in Sweden,’ says Jan-Öjvind Swahn, a Swedish ethnologist and the author of several books on the subject.” 
  • There are some places in Scotland where being transgendered will get you accused of being a witch. Quote: “Walking down the street I’d get a lot of abuse sometimes. They’d shout at me a lot, call me gay and even accuse me of witchcraft. I feel like I’ve lost a lot of my friends because I had to leave Johnstone. My past was almost completely wiped away.” The ugly strain within humanity that persecutes “the witch,” the “other,” is still very much a part of us I’m sad to say. 
  • The commemorative blue plaque for Doreen Valiente at her home in Brighton has gained the notice of the BBC. Quote: “Doreen Valiente, who was known as the “mother of modern witchcraft”, lived in Tyson Place until her death in 1999 and is to be honoured with a blue plaque on the side of the block of flats where she lived. Ralph Harvey who read the eulogy at her funeral, described her as ‘a very gentle lady’. ‘Witchcraft was always shrouded in mystery and medieval superstition,’ he said. ‘Doreen and Gerald Gardner brought it into the 20th century, they blew away the cobwebs and this was the renaissance of witchcraft as it truly is.'” You can read all of my previous coverage of the plaque, here

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.

Earlier this week I reported on how the Supreme Court of the United States will be hearing a case about sectarian prayers before government meetings. Defenders of various inclusive sectarian models say that it promotes a healthy discourse in which all citizens are able to fully represent themselves. The truth is that when pluralistic-on-paper invocation models are tested, the results are usually far from ideal.

Rep. Steve Smith. Photo: Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services

Rep. Steve Smith. Photo: Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services

“An atheist lawmaker’s decision to give the daily prayer at the Arizona House of Representatives triggered a do-over from a Christian lawmaker who said the previous day’s prayer didn’t pass muster. Republican Rep. Steve Smith on Wednesday said the prayer offered by Democratic Rep. Juan Mendez of Tempe at the beginning of the previous day’s floor session wasn’t a prayer at all. So he asked other members to join him in a second daily prayer in “repentance,” and about half the 60-member body did so. Both the Arizona House and Senate begin their sessions with a prayer and a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.

“When there’s a time set aside to pray and to pledge, if you are a non-believer, don’t ask for time to pray,” said Smith, of Maricopa. “If you don’t love this nation and want to pledge to it, don’t say I want to lead this body in the pledge, and stand up there and say, ‘you know what, instead of pledging, I love England’ and (sit) down. That’s not a pledge, and that wasn’t a prayer, it’s that simple,” Smith said.”

I’d say that this was an isolated incident, but it isn’t. Time and again, when a non-Christian dares to speak in a space some Christians believe is theirs alone, the result is outrage and protest. What did Rep. Juan Mendez say that was so offensive that it required a Christian do-over the next day?

“This is a room in which there are many challenging debates, many moments of tension, of ideological division, of frustration, but this is also a room where, as my secular humanist tradition stresses, by the very fact of being human, we have much more in common than we have differences. We share the same spectrum of potential for care, for compassion, for fear, for joy, for love. Carl Sagan once wrote, ‘For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.'” 

Shocking, right? The fact is that any deviation too far from the (theologically conservative) Christian default setting provokes these reactions. We can comfort ourselves by saying this is a symptom of changing demographics, that we are becoming more pluralistic and these are the last gasps of a increasingly reactionary rump, but that’s a cold comfort when such changes happen slowly over the course of generations. The simple fact, the message sent to religious minorities and non-Christians is: it’s different when you do it. That’s true whether you’re talking about prayers in America, or even legally binding Pagan wedding ceremonies in the UK.

Sir Tony Baldry doesn't like Pagan weddings.

Sir Tony Baldry doesn’t like Pagan weddings.

“If we can just go to the Scottish example … we have seen in Scotland pagan weddings celebrated, spiritualist weddings celebrated and weddings celebrated by the White Eagle Lodge. I think this is a question that ought to have been properly consulted on with our constituents. I can’t speak for other MPs, but I have had enough problems in my constituency with same-sex marriage. If I go back to the shires of Oxfordshire and tell them that Parliament’s now about to endorse in England pagan marriage they’ll think that we’ll have lost the plot completely. If they think then that Labour is supporting pagan marriage and masonic marriage then they really will think that we’ve lost the plot.”

In a culture that has been dominated by a distinct form of monotheism for hundreds of years, real pluralism is radical. Real pluralism acknowledges the vast imbalances in privilege and power and acts accordingly. If you pretend that power and privilege is not there, you end up with the legal case now heading to the Supreme Court where pluralism-on-paper resulted in an overwhelming affirmation of Christian power.

“The town’s process for selecting prayer-givers virtually ensured a Christian viewpoint. Christian clergy delivered each and every one of the prayers for the first nine years of the town’s prayer practice, and nearly all of the prayers thereafter. In the town’s view, the preponderance of Christian clergy was the result of a random selection process. The randomness of the process, however, was limited by the town’s practice of inviting clergy almost exclusively from places of worship located within the town’s borders. The town fails to recognize that its residents may hold religious beliefs that are not represented by a place of worship within the town. Such residents may be members of congregations in nearby towns or, indeed, may not be affiliated with any congregation. The town is not a community of religious institutions, but of individual residents, and, at the least, it must serve those residents without favor or disfavor to any creed or belief.”

Real change is hard, because it effects real changes. Cosmetic changes are easy, because they ultimately change nothing. You cannot simply declare a space pluralistic and fair and then expect it to be so. If Christians want the public square to be a multi-religious space, it has to come with real concessions, or else it’s simply another tool to enforce the majority’s power, because it’s always different when the “other” does it.

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.

Indonesian politician Permadi, photo by Edi Wiyono.

Indonesian politician Permadi, photo by Edi Wiyono.

William Blake, The Whore of Babylon, 1809, Pen and black ink and water colours, 266 x 223 mm, © The Trustees of the British Museum

William Blake, The Whore of Babylon, 1809, Pen and black ink and water colours, 266 x 223 mm, © The Trustees of the British Museum

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

I’ve been writing about Christians a lot lately. It seems largely unavoidable, as the influence of Christianity often haunts even the most Pagan of stories. We may be slowly moving into a post-Christian era, and some may question if the United States is really Christian at all nowadays, but the facts on the ground show that the vast majority of Americans (and Britons, Canadians, and Australians) identify as some flavor of Christian. Contrary to the fear-mongering of some about the evils of secularism, Christians still have massive influence on our culture, our economics, and our politics. The terms of debate on issues like same-sex marriage and abortion are framed by Christians. When people talk about a “Religious Right” or a “Religious Left” they are usually talking about the political positions of Christians, and it’s only prominent Christians who are defined as presidential “king-makers” in the United States. Yet, despite this wealth of influence and privilege, many Christians define themselves as part of a minority, a persecuted minority at that. One that is in constant danger of being eliminated by its numerous enemies. Conservative columnist George Will noted this persecution complex, finding it “unbecoming because it is unrealistic.”

Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” has become one of the 10 highest-grossing movies in history […] Christian book sales are booming […]  Religion is today banished from the public square? John Kennedy finished his first report to the nation on the Soviet missiles in Cuba with these words: “Thank you and good night.” It would be a rash president who today did not conclude a major address by saying, as President Ronald Reagan began the custom of doing, something very like “God bless America.”

To many Christians their immense privilege seems invisible. They don’t understand how much of our society panders to their unspoken power. The churches on every corner, the holidays and celebrations structured around Christian dates, the pandering of politicians, the ceremonial deism that acts as a placeholder for state-sponsored religion. Even our vernacular is colored by Christianity: “God bless you,” “we’ll pray for you,” “I’m in heaven,” or even “go to hell.”  Yet despite this, many Christians, particularly conservative Christians, have a major investment in seeing themselves as part of a persecuted minority. This was reinforced for me in the comments section of a recent post at the journalism commentary site Get Religion. There, I was informed that Michele Bachmann was part of a religious minority, and that due to mainstream media criticism “one has to speculate that perhaps Christians are a small minority in the United States.”

Where does this inaccurate perspective come from? How can a group see itself as a minority when it holds so much power? Through constant propaganda that tells them that this is so. Looking back to my Michele Bachmann piece a couple days ago, you can see the modern roots of this propaganda in Francis Schaeffer’s “How Should We Then Live” documentary series.

In that video you see the valorizing of the very early Christian period, heavy on references to persecution for their faith (and the glossing over of the era when the empire was Christianized). In countless Christian sermons and documentaries that period is returned to time and time again. Instead of being used as a reminder to not abuse power, and to not let any minority be persecuted, this narrative has instead mutated for some Christians into a paranoia about a returning “pagan” persecution that they must constantly battle and guard against. For Schaeffer it was the peril of secular humanism, but today it takes many forms. It is the “green dragon” of environmentalism, it is those who want to “take Christ out of Christmas” by saying “happy holidays,” or those who want to stop sectarianism at government meetings, and for a small but increasingly influential network of prayer warriors it is the “demonic” gods of non-Christians, returned again to bedevil and thwart Christ’s return. Whatever the foe, so long as the persecution narrative is sustained.

The persecution narrative, married with invisible (to them) privilege, creates monsters. It melds an “at any cost” mentality of survival and solidarity with vast economic and political power. It leads to bizarre juxtapositions, like a 30,000-plus prayer rally to help launch a politician’s ambitions featuring a fire-and-brimstone sermon talking about a “crisis of truth,” labeling all the world’s religions (except theirs) as false, and urging the crowd to “go public […] regardless of what it costs us” as if though the Christian voice was silenced. As if they were still a small minority hiding in the catacombs of ancient Rome.

If I could ask for only one concession from Christianity as a whole, it would be the acknowledgement that they are not a persecuted minority in the West. That they are, in fact, economically, politically, and culturally powerful. That claims to “minority” status by Christians in North America are constructed on flimsy technicalities or outright distortions of the privilege they currently enjoy. Christianity still dominates religion here, and the Pagans, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, and indigenous religions enjoy the freedoms we do only because a separation between church and state has been erected. Because in the United States our constitution forbids us becoming an official “Christian” nation.