Archives For Shinto

Shinto and Politics

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  February 5, 2014 — 14 Comments

Back in November I pointed to an article in the Japan Times on the recent ascent of a politically oriented brand of Shinto, the indigenous faith of that island nation. Because of the role Shinto played in Japan during World War II, this has made some people very nervous, despite protestations from organizations like the Shinto Association of Spiritual Leadership that their mission is merely “renewing spiritual values” in their homeland.

“In the past, Ise Jingu (shrine) was the fountainhead for unifying politics and religion and national polity fundamentalism,” author Hisashi Yamanaka recently told the Asahi newspaper. “Abe’s act is clearly a return to the ways before World War II.”

After I linked to that article,  P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, a polytheist who has participated in many Shinto ceremonies at a local temple in Washington state, warned against engaging in “Shinto-y slope arguments.” 

“I don’t think that a better understanding of Japan’s Shinto cultural and religious heritage being given to students in modern Japan is a bad thing at all–in fact, they would greatly benefit from knowing more about the symbols and phenomena which their parents revere but are often at a loss to explain, particularly in the post-World War II period for the reasons described above. There is no “Shinto-y slope” involved in knowing more about this religion, which could provide an important corrective to corporate greed and environmental degradation not only worldwide, but also within Japan specifically (especially in the aftermath of the earthquake/tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear disaster), which is sorely needed in the world today. The people who advocate such a return to their indigenous values do so in a context in which the questions of religious and cultural separation are not as clear as they are in Western contexts, nor are they as relevant. And, I really don’t think that the people involved, no matter how stern and formal they may be, are foolish enough to suggest some of the excesses that occurred in earlier State Shinto contexts be replicated today–or, at least, let’s hope they aren’t thinking in those directions, and attempt to assume the best of intentions meanwhile until proven otherwise rather than resorting to the fallacious “slippery slope” arguments, no matter how tempting and popular they may be.”

So, with the qualification that we shouldn’t rush to judgment, it’s time to revisit the issue of politics and Shinto, this time involving our own Vice President, and the issue of diplomatic relations between Japan and other Asian powers like South Korea and China. It all revolves around a visit to the politically volatile (even in Japan) Yasukuni Shrine.

Yasukuni Shrine

Yasukuni Shrine

“U.S. Vice President Joe Biden spent nearly an hour trying to persuade Prime Minister Shinzo Abe not to visit the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine, two weeks before a trip there sparked a furor in Asia, diplomatic sources said. Abe visited the Shinto shrine, where convicted wartime leaders are honored along with war dead, on Dec. 26, triggering fierce criticism from China and South Korea, and leading Washington to express disappointment at his decision in an unusually explicit manner. With U.S. President Barack Obama expected to visit in April for talks with Abe, the rising tensions between Japan and the two neighboring nations will likely be high on the agenda. The turmoil, which undermines American interests in the region, could dash Abe’s hopes of boosting Japan’s U.S. security alliance.”

As noted in the Japan Times piece, Prime Minister Abe is deeply invested in the revitalization of Shinto within Japan, and sees Shinto as a way of restoring an essential “Japanese-ness.”

“This group is dedicated to “restoring Japanese-ness” by promoting Shinto values. They oppose female imperial succession, promote official visits by prime ministers to Yasukuni Shrine, and oppose the construction of a non-religious site of war commemoration and the ‘removal’ of the spirits of  war criminals from Yasukuni, push for constitutional revision and patriotic and moral education, oppose free trade of agricultural products because of what they describe as traditional ties between rice cultivation and Shinto, oppose giving permanent residents the right to vote in local elections and the sale of forest land, water resources, or ‘important property’ to foreigners, and oppose separate family names for married couples and “gender free education” which they see as examples of support for equality between the sexes gone too far.” - Matthew Penney, Assistant Professor in the Department of History, Concordia University, Montreal

In short, they’re the rough Shinto equivalent of culturally conservative Christians here in America. But why is Joe Biden interfering? Why would the American embassy in Japan make plain their disappointment in Abe’s visit to this controversial shrine? Because it is destabilizing relations with other Asian powers, who see these moves as overtly political, a return to a Japan that once invaded their territory. The Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s leading newspapers, issued an editorial advocating for a secular war shrine, noting the ramifications of having political leaders visit Yasukuni Shrine.

Prime Minister Abe

Prime Minister Abe

“The world is feeling uneasy as Cabinet members and other senior government officials of Japan and China trade barbs at international conferences over Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s views about history-related issues. Abe has stressed his willingness to hold talks with his Chinese and South Korean counterparts, repeating, “The door is always open for dialogue.” But such overtures alone cannot make a difference. It is time for the Japanese leader to start taking concrete action to treat the festering sores in Japan’s relations with these countries. [...]  We also ask people who support the prime minister’s visits to the shrine, especially young generations, to listen to our thoughts about the matter. The feeling of mourning over the deaths of war victims should be respected. But Yasukuni Shrine cannot be described as a simple place for praying for the spirits of the war dead. It is a religious facility burdened by its past links with Japan’s wartime militarism. If the prime minister or other Japanese political leaders visit the shrine, their acts hurt the feelings of many people in Japan as well. Yasukuni is fundamentally different in nature from the Arlington National Cemetery in the United States. Those who don’t learn from history will suffer reprisals from history. And young people with hopes for a bright future will suffer the most from such reprisals. We hope this will not be forgotten.”

Meanwhile, the United State’s involvement in this issue has not gone unnoticed here at home. Tez M. Clark at The Harvard Crimson advocates a “hands-off” diplomatic strategy, saying the government went too far in publicly chiding the Prime Minister for his visit to the shrine.

“What makes Abe’s most recent visit unique is the fact that the Ambassador Caroline B. Kennedy ’80, newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Japan, issued a statement condemning the visit, stressing that “the United States is disappointed.” Personally, I agree with the U.S.—and with the 69 percent of Japanese who said Abe should have considered diplomatic relations—that Abe’s decision to visit Yasukuni shrine was rash and insensitive, given the current political climate in East Asia. Unlike Germany, the other major Axis power, Japan has not sincerely made an effort to apologize for its brutality during the war. Despite numerous apologies by the central government over the decades, Japanese politicians have been consistently insensitive to the countries harmed by the Japanese Imperial Army—one of the more recent examples being a Japanese mayor who referred to the wartime rapes of thousands of East Asian women as “necessary.” But while Abe’s actions were not optimal, the U.S. overstepped its bounds by issuing a reprimand for his conduct. Kennedy’s statement was especially impolitic in tone, treating a head of state as though he were a petulant child.”

The intersection of religion and politics will never be simple, especially when something as seemingly simple as a temple visit can ripple out into damaging international relations. This story about the politics of Shinto in Japan should be sign that we all need to understand religions that fall outside the monotheistic norm far better, especially for those who engage in religious journalism. Most of the time, Shinto is presented an entertaining cultural sideline for foreign reporters in Japan. Focusing on the dances, movements, music, and spectacle, with very little understanding of the context. This needs to change. Shinto is as important a topic in Japan as Christianity is here in America. It is a faith that helps define the nation, and is key to understanding motivations that can seem baffling to an outsider.

“A survey by the Asahi Shimbun last week showed that 46 per cent of Japanese thought that he should not go there, while 40 per cent said it was not a big deal. What mattered most for Abe was quite simple — 56 per cent of those who voted for the Abe administration supported the visit, while for 35 per cent it was a no-no. For Japan’s domestic consumption, Abe’s visit has given him a much-needed boost as he continues to struggle to beef up the country’s economic growth. He has added a new arrow — the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games stimulus — to the three-arrows package of fiscal incentives, monetary loosening and structural reforms. Unsettling mood However, the mood is unsettling within the region. The further deterioration in Japan’s relations with China and South Korea could have far-reaching economic repercussions for economic integration in Asean and East Asia.”

For modern Pagans, a deeper understanding of Shinto is also beneficial, not just as a study of a non-Christian indigenous faith that has survived into the post-Christian modern era, but in understanding what a revival of modern Paganisms (and polytheisms) could mean. What will the beliefs and religious structures we endorse translate into once we have a taste of real power? Are we ready not just for infrastructure, but for the way shifting beliefs shifts a culture? Japan is a nation wrestling with how best to engage with Shinto in the modern world, and different factions have different ideas of how that should happen. This diplomatic incident gives us an opportunity for deeper thought and study, calling us to pay closer attention to faith outside our own borders.

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.

Akhenaten's daughter (Tutankhamun's sister). from Mallawi Museum in Mallawi town.

Akhenaten’s daughter (Tutankhamun’s sister). from Mallawi Museum in Mallawi town.

  • One ongoing issue relating to the political tumult within Egypt (which is ongoing) has been the fate of art and antiquities looted during these times of crisis. So, it’s a small ray of light that French officials are returning five pieces that were spotted by Egyptian officials at auction. Quote: “Five antiquities looted and removed from Egypt after the Arab Spring uprising in 2011 have been returned by the French government to the Egyptian authorities. “Egyptian officials in charge of monitoring antiquities sales abroad spotted five Ptolemaic dynasty objects [323BC-30BC] for sale online, including two that were posted by a Toulouse-based auction house,” Ali Ahmed, an official at the Egyptian Antiquities Ministry, told the French newspaper Le Figaro. A head, torso and arm, which were part of a glass sculpture of a man, were among the stolen items.” Egypt’s vast and rich archeological heritage has been an engine of it’s once-booming tourism industry (currently hobbled by the chaos), and the preservation of this legacy a key component of recovery. For now, it’s a hunt to restore priceless treasures of one of the ancient world’s greatest civilizations.
  • If you wanted to know more about the painting of famous Voodoo/Vodou Queen Marie Laveau’s tomb in New Orleans being painting pink, The Art of Conjure has a very good round-up of the story. Quote: “Whether it is vandalism or devotion is not the issue here, however. Rather, according to Morrison, it is the fact that it was apparently done without Mam’zelle’s consent. At least, that’s what Morrison expressed after being there in person and informing Mam’zelle that her tomb had been painted pink. Traditionally in New Orleans Voudou, Marie Laveaux is associated with the color blue, perhaps because of her association with water.” On Thursday I featured Lilith Dorsey’s views on this incident.
  • NPR has a deeper look at the recent controversy over the auction of Hopi sacred artifacts, and the struggles in general of preserving Native/indigenous sacred lands, places, and objects. Quote: “‘Indians in Arizona and elsewhere continue to be guided by religious traditions that have been handed down by the Creator,’ said James Riding In, a member of the Pawnee Nation and Indian Studies professor at Arizona State University. He adds it’s difficult for those who are not Indian to understand the spiritual connection many tribes have with their land and with items such as the Hopi sacred objects.” A nice summary of several stories that I’ve touch on over the years here at The Wild Hunt.
  • The New York Times profiles Kumar Natarajanaidu, a Hindu priest who set up a temple in the back of a retail space in Queens. Quote: “To pay the rent, Mr. Natarajanaidu uses the front portion of his temple to frame pictures and sell videos, flowers and religious apparel. But beyond the DVD counter, the temple begins, pieced together by his untrained hand. It is a hodgepodge of cleverly rigged curtains and shrines made from stray planks, tape, string and ornate wall coverings. The carpet segments are duct-taped together, and overhead is a water-stained drop ceiling. But as if by divine intervention, it all comes together as a glowing, opulent holy place, with a seductive mélange of colors and a flood of fragrant incense.”
  • Here’s BBC coverage of the Druid leader Arthur Pendragon-led protest against the display of human remains at the new Stonehenge visitor center. Quote: “Mr Pendragon said that until the bones were taken off display and reburied, he would continue a campaign that will cost English Heritage money and turn the public against them. He has claimed the bones discovered in 2008 are the remains of members of the royal line and wants them reinterred. ‘Today was just a shot across the bows – it was just a taster,’ he said.” For another perspective, I spotlighted a review of the new center, here. Here’s an excerpt from his announcement to protest.
The reality television family at the center of the Utah polygamy decision.

The reality television family at the center of the Utah polygamy decision.

  • The (much-reported) decision in Brown v. Buhman may not have legalized polygamy, but it is a victory for polyamory (and privacy). Quote: “The problems with this statutory language under the right to privacy most recently re-established in Lawrence v. Texas should be obvious. On its face, the law would prohibit not only informal consensual polyamorous relationships—problematic in itself—but any kind of intimate cohabitation between unmarried partners. Based onLawrence’s recognition of the fundamental right consenting adults have to engage in same-sex relations, it is very hard to argue that this section of the Utah statute doesn’t violate the right to privacy guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.” Is this the beginning of the end of morality laws?
  • Would you like to know what author Dan “The Da Vinci Code” Brown’s superpowers are? Quote: “Given the powers of ‘Inferno’, showing a glimpse of hell with every three line poem he writes, that reflects the future in 33 minutes.”
  • You know you’ve arrived as a minority religion when conservative Christians call you out. Yes, it’s from the Duck Dynasty dude. Quote: “All you have to do is look at any society where there is no Jesus. I’ll give you four: Nazis, no Jesus. Look at their record. Uh, Shintos? They started this thing in Pearl Harbor. Any Jesus among them? None. Communists? None. Islamists? Zero,” Robertson explained. “That’s eighty years of ideologies that have popped up where no Jesus was allowed among those four groups. Just look at the records as far as murder goes among those four groups.” Charming, isn’t he? He should get his own TV show! Oh… wait…
  • Here’s the backstory on how the Annenberg Foundation saved those Hopi and Apache sacred items at a French auction.
  • Here’s the complete “American Gods” soundtrack, if you’re into that sort of thing.
  • Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt and “The Dark Knight” screenwriter David S. Goyer are producing an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman” at Warner Bros. What could possibly go wrong? For the record, Gordon-Levitt was brilliant in “Brick.”

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.

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.

maetreum sign large

  • As I reported this past weekend, the Maetreum of Cybele has finally won their property tax fight against the Town of Catskill in New York. So far, the only mainstream media (non-Pagan) outlet to report on this has been The New York Law Journal (registration needed to read the article), who note that town officials are “disappointed” with the ruling, and are weighing whether to appeal the ruling to a higher court. “[Attorney Daniel] Vincelette said town officials believe the primary use of the property is as a ‘residential cooperative,’ not for religious purposes. He denied that the nature of the group’s pagan beliefs has been a factor in the town’s opposition to the property tax exemption. ‘It was never ever a consideration or an issue at all,’ he said.” That statement seems rather laughable, considering the lengths the town has gone to fighting their exemption.
  • So, anybody read the New York Times lately? In an article about Teo Bishop re-embracing Jesus, reporter Mark Oppenheimer interviews T. Thorn Coyle, Amy Hale, and myself, about the story (and the meta-story, I suppose). I thought that, all told, it was a fair and balanced snapshot of the situation, and I’m pleased that we weren’t subjected to a Christian counter-point for the sake of “balance.” This being a New York Times piece, it has gotten a lot of commentary and links, including from a local Portland paper, and our “friends” at Get Religion. For those dismayed at the amount of attention this is getting, I encourage you to help build our community’s journalistic apparatus so we can have a bigger influence on mainstream journalism. Journalism isn’t something that just happens to us, it is something we can do.
  • Religion Clause points to a Japan Times article on the growing influence of Shinto in Japanese politics. Quote: “‘They’re trying to restore what was removed by the U.S. Occupation reforms,’ explains Mark Mullins, director of the Japan Studies Center at the University of Auckland. If it succeeds, the project amounts to the overturning of much of the existing order in Japan — a return to the past, with one eye on the future. [...] Many of the nation’s top elected officials, including Abe and Shimomura are members of the organization’s political wing, Shinto Seiji Renmei (officially, the Shinto Association of Spiritual Leadership — eschewing the word ‘political’ from the title) [...] Seiji Renmei sees its mission as renewing the national emphasis on ‘Japanese spiritual values.’ [...] Since its birth in 1969, Shinto Seiji Renmei has notched several victories in its quest to restore much of the nation’s prewar political and social architecture.” This is a story I’ll be paying close attention to in the future, and one that Pagans who are interested in Shinto should also note.
  • Religion in American History looks at Vodou in the early American republic, and finds more questions than answers. Quote: “Finding the place of Vodou in the early republic presents problems of definition and problems of sources and evidence relating to the practice of Vodou and the experiences of Dominguan migrants. In considering these issues, I stand by my interpretation of the evidence for Philadelphia, and now agree that Vodou may have been practiced in Dominguan communities elsewhere in the United States; however, there is much that remains unclear.” 
  •  Last week major environmental advocacy groups walked out of the climate talks in Poland, stating that there’s been a lack of progress on achieving a sustainable future. Quote: “This is the first time environmental groups have walked out of a UNFCCC conference. In astatement, the groups said they had grown tired of the conference’s gridlock over issues such as aid to help poor countries adapt to and mitigate climate change, as well as the apparent disconnect between Poland’s commitment to coal and its job as host of this year’s conference.” News post-talks described this round of talks as “uneventful.” 
Sylvia Browne and Montel Williams.

Sylvia Browne and Montel Williams.

  • Famous psychic and author Sylvia Browne died last week at the age of 77. A Gnostic Christian, Browne emerged as a popular figure in the 1990s and oversaw a vast media empire that included talk-show appearances, bestselling books, and luxury cruise ship experiences for fans. During her life, Browne came under fire from many who saw her off-the-cuff style as irresponsible, especially when it concerned life-or-death matters. Quote: “Although Ms. Browne often appeared on shows like ‘Larry King Live’ and was a regular guest on ‘The Montel Williams Show,’ much of her income came from customers who paid $700 to ask her questions over the telephone for 30 minutes. She was frequently taken to task by skeptics, most notably the professional psychic debunker James Randi. But the questions raised about her abilities did not damage her appeal as an author. She published more than 40 books, and many were mainstays on The New York Times’s best-seller list.” No doubt Browne’s legacy will continue to be debated, and depending on your beliefs, perhaps she’ll still want a say on what that legacy was.
  • An Egyptian statue that had been rotating, seemingly of its own accord, has been explained. Quote: “An engineer, called in to look at the statue, found that that vibrations from a busy nearby road were causing the 3,800-year-old stone figure to rotate. The convex base of the figure made it ‘more susceptible’ to spin around than the cabinet’s other artefacts.” Sorry, folks, maybe next time.
  • Indian newspaper The Hindu has agreed to stop using the word “primitives” to refer to tribal groups. Quote: “The ‘Proud Not Primitive’ movement to challenge prejudice towards tribal peoples in India is celebrating a major success after ‘The Hindu’, one of the world’s largest English language newspapers, pledged to no longer describe tribal peoples as ‘primitive’. Several journalists from renowned Indian publications have also endorsed the movement, including Kumkum Dasgupta of the Hindustan Times, Nikhil Agarwal of the Press Trust of India, and V Raghunathan of the Times of India.” Congratulations on this step forward in respect for tribal and indigenous peoples.
  • Should artists form their own political party? Maybe? Quote: “In the main hall, a Salvador Dali impersonator acted as the compere as figures from the arts world mounted a kind of pulpit to deliver short sermons on the state of the arts.” Just so long as they don’t elect Koons as party chair, I’m down.
  • The American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting just happened, and I know a bunch of Pagan stuff happened. I’m hoping to get some of the inside scoop soon. Stay tuned!

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.

Welcome to the latest installment of Unleash the Hounds, in which I round up articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans. Before we get started I wanted to give an update on the Pagan journalism crowdfunding experiment I launched on March 21st. The very excellent news is that not only have I reached my fundraising goal of $1850 dollars to send The Wild Hunt to Chicago in November so that I can cover the American Academy of Religion’s 2012 Annual Meeting, but I’ve surpassed that goal by hundreds of dollars. All in less than a week! Thank you! Your enthusiastic response not only means I’ll be covering the AAR’s Annual Meeting, but that we have a head start on the next crowdfunding assignment (all monies raised beyond the goal will be rolled over into the next campaign).

http://www.indiegogo.com/thewildhunt-AAR

http://www.indiegogo.com/thewildhunt-AAR

Once the month-long campaign officially ends I’ll update my affiliates page with all those who chose to become underwriters, and update all who’ve donated on other promised perks. Considering the success of this initial go, I think it’s fair to say that I’ll be using this model to fund other assignments. The big question now is, where would you like me to go, and how often do you think I should hold a crowdfunding assignment campaign? I welcome your feedback, and once we have some solid ideas for events you’d like to see me at, we can even hold a poll to gauge reader interest. Some initial ideas for future assignments include the Esoteric Book Conference in Seattle, and Paganicon in Minnesota. Make your voices heard, and if there’s enough demand, we’ll try to fund them one at a time. Ultimately, I would like to build this up and work towards funding a trip to the 2014 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Belgium.

So again, thank you to my generous supporters. You made this happen. Now then, let’s unleash the hounds, shall we?

PNC Managing Editor, Cara Schulz with Presidential candidate Gov. Gary Johnson

PNC Managing Editor, Cara Schulz with Presidential candidate Gov. Gary Johnson

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.

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.

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.

This Sunday, March 11th, will be the one year anniversary of a massive earthquake and tsunami that brought death, destruction, and nuclear chaos to Japan. A tragedy that the island nation is still trying to recover from. A few days after the disaster began, I explored the religious angle to stories of Japanese citizens dealing with tragedy, and how Western journalists seemed uncertain of how to talk about the spiritual dimensions outside of a Christian context.

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

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

“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 my article, I criticized the Religion News Service’s coverage for being disproportionately focused on Christian reactions to the tragedy in a land where Christianity is a tiny minority, while religions like Shinto and Buddhism dominate. So I’m pleased to see RNS covering Shinto plans to commemorate this anniversary.

“Shinto priests throughout Japan are preparing to hold commemoration ceremonies on March 11 to mark the one-year anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that killed an estimated 20,000 people. The Association of Shinto Shrines has issued a suggested prayer to be read during the ceremonies. That prayer, according to the Rev. Masafumi Nakanishi, a Shinto priest, describes the calamity, pleads that there be no more disasters and asks that people live peacefully. [...]  Nakanishi said many of the shrines that were spared last year were built just beyond the tsunami’s reach, crediting Shinto ancestors with their safe placement. Many of the surviving shrines were used for disaster relief efforts, with some serving as shelters following the earthquake and tsunami and others serving as collection sites for donations to assist the victims.”

CNN did a feature on one of the shrines that survived in April of last year, I’ve embedded it below.

The RNS piece also quotes Georgetown professor Kevin M. Doak, who says that “the Japanese have a kind of innate, intuitive empathy” which “may be due to Shinto as much as to anything else.” Another insight into the minds of those who’ve been shaped by Shinto, and this recent tragedy, comes from MSNBC.com. In that piece, Kuni Takahashi reports on rebuilding plans and interviews Masanori Sato, the son of a Shinto priest.

“At first I didn’t have a clue where to start, but I slowly began to see things clearly after moving out of the evacuation center into temporary housing,” Sato said recently. “I felt myself settling down a bit. I want to put our village together again. The land has changed but the people are not all gone. We are talking about reviving our community just like it used to be – including both good things and bad things [...] Being a tsunami survivor changed my way of thinking. I guess I learned from it. I realized how important the community is to help each other. I was too selfish before.”

Both of these looks into how Shinto adherents deal with immense tragedy are welcome, though I still wish more time was spent unpacking how Japanese culture, and traditional Japanese religion, shapes views of the earthquake and tsunami. For example, a recent AFP report mentions how this tragedy has created scores of “ghosts,” and notes that “Shinto priests have been called upon to console the souls of the dead and ease their passage into the next world before they purify the places their bodies were found.” Yet no further detail is given into how this process happens, or how the role of Shinto priests have changed in the wake of the tsunami. So much more is here to be said, and heard. I hope those who cover the religion beat rise to the occasion and continually move beyond their comfort zones to hear the voices of religious men and women who may operate outside a context they understand.

For many modern Pagans, we feel a natural affinity with our Shinto cousins. Last year we saw Peter Dybing lead an initiative that raised $30,000 dollars for Japan earthquake assistance, a new landmark in our ability to collectively give. I hope that our community will also observe March 11th as a day of prayer and commemoration. That we ask our gods, the spirits, the land itself, to spare Japan from further disasters, and people live peacefully.

Top Story: The Maetreum of Cybele, Magna Mater, who recently scored a major judicial win in their ongoing tax battle with the Town of Catskill, New York, is seeing the fight extended further as Catskill appeals the decision to let the case go forward.

As we reported in February, Judge Pulver’s decision was a big victory for the self-described witches of the Maetreum, who argue that the town treated them differently from other religious groups when it placed their Palenville property on the tax rolls [...] Despite the appeal, Judge Pulver, who held a preliminary conference in the case yesterday, has set a date for a bench trial. Pulver will hear evidence in the case and rule on it himself on July 20.”

Here’s a statement from the Maetreum of Cybele on the town’s appeal.

“We learned this past weekend that the Town of Catskill appealed the Judge’s decision to the New York Appellate Court. We believe this is their last ditch effort to avoid having to legally grant our exemption for 2011 as the deadline for them to decide on that is fast approaching and the decision left no grounds for denial since the Board of Assessment Review refused the invitation to tour our property last year meaning they have no direct knowledge of how we use our property, literally the only wiggle room they had.”

This is an issue that Catskill is going to fight to the bitter end, and is breaking their budget in the process. While they continue to fight for pennies from the Maetreum, mega-retailer Wal-Mart seems to have no trouble getting a big tax break. I guess it’s about priorities.

Heathens Gather Near Paganistan: PNC-Minnesota interviews Brody Derks of  Volkshof  Kindred about Heathenry and the upcoming Northern Folk Gathering near the Twin Cities in June.

“June 10-12, we have this event, the Northern Folk Gathering, it used to be called the Midwest Thing, but we have changed the name. Registration includes three days and two nights of cabin camping. We have open activities, and a Saturday night feast. It is at St Croix State Park at the boot camp. This is just outside the Twin Cities. We having folk coming in from Kansas, Michigan, and other parts of the country.

It has a few different aspects. It is a gathering of tribes. The Chieftains do gather and and have meetings. We are part of an alliance of people, tribes, of the Midwest. We come together and make decisions that influence the road that Heathenry takes in the Midwest. There is also a lot of workshops, information about Anglo-Saxon cultureKari Tauring will be presenting song and Stav. There will also be events for the children. We have plenty of children centered events, and we very much welcome children.”

Derks also talks about why they don’t use the term “Pagan,” and his time as president of the University of Minnesota Pagan Society.

Analyzing Satanism’s (Alleged) Rise: TheoFantastique interviews Jesper Aagaard Peterson, a Research Fellow at the Dept. of Archaeology and Religious Studies, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, who studies modern Satanism, about the recent rise in exorcisms and claims of explosive growth among Satanic groups.

“Regarding the rise of Satanism, that depends on how you define it. The article you mention calls it a “surge” and a “revival”. It is true that the 1990s and early 2000s saw an increase of interest in Satanism alongside Witchcraft, Neopaganism, and other religious currents with roots in esotericism and occultism. This has to do with the general re-enchantment of the West in the past 50 years (an enchantment that never really went away, actually, but that is another story), which has developed in dialogue with popular media. It is also true that Satanism is more visible and more accessible because of the Internet, and that it flourishes on the de-regulated arenas the Internet provides. On the other hand, membership figures are hard to come by, and should be seen in relation to degrees of affiliation – a majority of witches or Satanists are tourists or dabblers, and only a small minority affiliate with a group and/or develop a long-term engagement. It is likely that more people are attracted to Satanism than before, and they are more visible today, but actual members still amount to thousands and not millions. In any case, where I differ from the article’s conclusion is in the effect of mediated religion on susceptible youth. Watching a movie, accessing a website or participating in a discussion forum does not automatically make you a Satanist, and it certainly does not make you possessed.”

The conversation here was sparked by a Daily Telegraph article about a six-day conference being held at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome. According to organizers and exorcists there’s been a “revival” of Satanism and that “the rise of Satanism has been dangerously underestimated in recent years.” For all my exorcism-revival coverage, click here.

The Shrine That Survived: CNN reports on Buddhist/Shinto shrine at Otsuchi that survived the tsunami and a fire.

Stories about indigenous faith traditions from Japan in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami have been somewhat rare, so I’m glad to see this story emerge. Strangely, this story was posted to CNN’s Belief Blog for a short time, but was then removed. I’m not saying there were any nefarious motives, but I do wonder why that happened. Internal turf battle? Editorial decision? As for whether this was divine intervention, I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

Reconstructed and Engaged: Over at Patheos.com, the PNC’s own Cara Schulz writes about Hellenismos and why a reconstructed ancient religion makes the most sense to her.

“But this is how we see it – why reinvent the wheel when you can put some air in the one you’re given and get back on the spiritual path? There were reasons why our ancestors interacted with deities in the way that they did. Because it worked. It’s spiritually fulfilling. It makes sense. It allows for a deeper connection with deities and the world around you. It has meaning and depth and beauty. It is timeless. It vibrates in our very souls. But the key is to regularly engage in rituals, observances and practices. To adhere as close to what the ancients did, in order to learn from their wisdom and experience, and then to translate that into a slightly more modern form that is still ‘true’ to its origins.”

Cara also links to a video of a wedding ceremony conducted by Hellenic Pagans in Greece. Showing how ancient traditions give a depth of meaning to these important milestones of life.

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

For some time now I’ve been writing and warning about the Christian Neo-Pentecostal movement known as the “Third Wave” or “New Apostolic Reformation”. Guided by World Prayer Center co-founder and “Convening Apostle” C. Peter Wagner, this small group of Christians helped nurture the career of Sarah Palin, and have been slowly climbing into positions of influence among the ranks of ultra-conservative politicians. So who cares if yet another iteration of the Religious Right supplants an older version? The problem with this version is that they have an almost singular obsession with spiritual warfare and destroying any faith they see as non-Christian. This includes bragging about giving a Wiccan cancer through group prayer and fighting all agents of the global-level demon they call the “Queen of Heaven”.

“Atop the hierarchy of demon spirits are the ‘territorial demons’, and squatting near the apex, over Mount Everest, is a purported global-level demon spirit called ‘The Queen of Heaven’ that prevents, according to Peter Wagner, prayers of Catholics, Muslims, and adherents to other supposedly illegitimate forms of religious belief, from reaching God.”

As you might imagine, a group so focused on cheering the destruction of non-Christian faiths may not be able to resist crowing about the current crisis and tragedy in Japan, a country where Christianity is a tiny minority. First, Ed Brayton of Dispatches From the Culture Wars points to NAR leader Chuck Pierce, who claims his “strategic prayer gathering” has sparked a course of prophetic actions that caused (through God) the earthquakes in Japan.

We declared, “Awake, O north wind! Awaken the north wind, and cause this garden that has been enclosed by the enemy to open up so that these seeds of harvest will come forth.”

We also shared that it will be heard on the news that the nation of Japan is surrounded by wind. This will be a sign that harvest will sweep that nation. At that time I also encouraged the leadership to establish schools of the prophets both on Hokkaido Island (the far north) and Okinawa (the far south) to keep the wind of God blowing and to neutralize the demonic forces that are influencing and holding Japan in captivity.

If you think what this group is doing sounds like malefic magic, I’d be hard-pressed to argue with you. At the end of his missive, one of Pierce’s followers shares the hope that Japan will become the “Land of the Risen Son”. They are ready and waiting to exploit this tragedy for all it’s worth.

Meanwhile, Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion zeros in on NAR prophet(ess) Cindy Jacobs, who previously gained our attention when she gloried in the destruction of Haiti, and is now blaming Shinto for the destruction and horror the citizens of Japan are now facing.

“However, of recent years, this link with Amaterasu and sun worship was reinstated in a ceremony in which the new Emperor once again participated and “spent the night with the goddess” after eating the sacred rice. I believe this is one major reason that Japan has gone downhill economically in such a drastic way. [...] this island, Hokkaido, looks like the head of a dragon with the body being the rest of Japan. The people of Asia have worshipped the dragon for 5,000 years. If one looks at the place where the earthquake took place, it looks like the soft underbelly of most vulnerable part of the dragon. Let’s pray that the deep idolatry and the worship of hundreds of idols under the guise of Shintoism, Buddhism, and allegiances to being “sons of the dragon” will be broken and thousands will turn to the Lord.”

Jacobs tries to couch her bizarre anti-Shinto and ultimately anti-Japan rant in concern for the Japanese people, but it’s clear what the priorities are here, the “breaking” of non-Christian religion and the successful “turning” of people to Christianity. When Jacobs isn’t busy finding the bright side in mass tragedy and death, she shares a stage with Virginia’s Republican attorney general, burns indigenous art, and casts out homosexual spirits. Oh, and did you know that the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was what killed on those birds recently?

Again, this would all be sad and laughable, a delusion rightly mocked and shunned by the civilized world, were it not for the political clout and influence this movement, and its allies, are currently trying to grasp. Many of us would like to believe that those who disagree with us on various issue are, at heart, decent people with different philosophies about the world. In most cases this is true, but any group that would welcome mass death and destruction as a method to changing minds is spiritually, emotionally, and mentally bankrupt. That this “Third Wave” and other anti-Pagan ideologues like David Barton are given unprecedented access to lawmakers and people of influence is frightening. Any politician who associates with them, who doesn’t condemn and distance themselves from them, are to be held as suspect by anyone who values pluralism and secular democracy.

While I’m on the subject of Japan, and its struggles, I would like to remind everyone that the Pagan Community is holding a fundraiser for the work Doctors Without Borders is doing there. There is a goal of $30,000 and we’ve almost hit $20,000! Let’s send a message of hope and solidarity to counteract the hatred and fear. Let’s send a message that the true spirit of Japan will never die, and will certainly not bend to these vultures who pretend to preach the word of Christ.

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.

I just have a few quick news notes for you this morning.

UUA Japan Relief Fund: Those still looking for locally-focused and Pagan-friendly options in their donations towards aiding Japan in the wake of Friday’s devastating earthquake and tsunami, the Unitarian Universalist Association has set up a fund that sounds very promising.

“Following Friday’s devastating earthquake and resulting tsunamis, the UUA has been in contact with our religious partners in Japan to express our concern and our willingness to partner with them in recovery efforts.  Our partners, including Rissho Kosei-kai, Tsubaki Grand Shrine, the Konko Church of Izuo, the Tokyo Dojin Church, and the Japan Chapter of the International Association for Religious Freedom are all in discernment about the specific efforts they will be taking to support recovery work, and the UUA will walk with them in the directions that are ultimately chosen.  Please join with UUs throughout the United States by contributing to the UUA’s Japan Relief Fund which will support the work that our Japanese partners pursue.”

A partnership of UUA, Buddhist, Shinto, and Japanese religious freedom organizations would seem to help avoid the allegations and scandals that some international aid organizations are encountering, and work towards immediate and locally directed assistance. For more ways to stand with Japan during this time, see my previous post on the subject.

Call For Submissions: Sarah Thompson and Gina Pond from Circle of Cerridwen, who initiated the protest and discussion over the exclusion of transgendered women at a public women-only ritual during this year’s PantheaCon, are hoping to take the ongoing discussions on the issue of gender and transgender within our interlocking communities to the next level with the publication of an open-submission freely available book.

“The recent events surrounding Pantheacon 2011 and the internet-wide debate that followed it have raised awareness publicly of the issues surrounding gender and transgender in the wider Pagan community. This book will comprise a number of chapters, some invited and most by open submission, which will give all sides of the debate an opportunity to clearly state their positions. In a sense, the book will serve as a written equivalent of a talking-stick debate, whilst also making it possible to capture the sense of this historic time, as accurately as possible, in the words of the people involved. Though space is limited in the print version of the book, we hope to make all submitted papers that meet the submission criteria available for download on the web. The publication will be on a not-for-profit basis, with proceeds (if any) donated to a suitable charity/nonprofit (to be determined). Invited chapters are being solicited from as many key people as possible.”

Chapters from all sides in the ongoing discussions and debate are welcome, details can be found at the Circle of Cerridwen’s page devoted to this project. Chapter submissions for “Gender and Transgender in Modern Paganism” are due by June 21st. I’m glad to see attempts to move these discussions forward in a responsible manner, and hope that many of the more vocal contributors to the discussion at The Wild Hunt will look into writing a chapter for this new work.

New Religious Climate Study at Air Force Academy: Word has come that retired Air Force general Patrick K. Gamble will be conducting an “independent, subjective look at the overall climate at USAFA relating to free exercise of religion.” The Air Force Academy has long come under fire for instances of religious intolerance, favortism, and aggressive proslytization from an entrenched culture of conservative evangelical Christianity. Problems that Mikey Weinstein, founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, says won’t be addressed in this new review.

“The problem at the school is not with any restriction on the free exercise of religion, but with unwanted proselytizing by fundamentalist Christians, a violation of the constitutional concept of the separation of church and state, he said. Gamble said he had not ruled out looking at the separation issue. He said his review team is still getting organized and its scope hasn’t been determined. “We’re going to take a blinders-off look, and nothing’s off the table, but nothing’s on the table, either,” he said.”

In recent years the Air Force Academy has tried to change its image as an aggressively Christian organization, and much was made in the press about their support for the installation of a Pagan worship area, though perhaps even more press was generated at the subsequent vandalism of said site. That circle was a response to a genuine need among Pagan cadets, one that has permeated all aspects of life there, and I can only hope that this nascent support for minority religions by the Air Force Academy can help counteract the larger culture of intolerance that many encounter.

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