Archives For solidarity

Kinship and community

Stacey Lawless —  March 22, 2013 — 31 Comments

Although I came back from Pantheacon with lots of anecdotes and experiences (most of which were extremely positive and fun), I find that the only story I have to tell you right now is one I didn’t want to tell. It won’t leave me alone, however. It’s just this: I had a dreadful time with the Morrígan devotional ritual, “The Heart is the Only Nation.” I know many people who attended absolutely loved it. Teo Bishop, in particular, seems to have been deeply affected by it, and I envy him. I went to the devotional hoping to be moved by it. I guess I was, although not in the way I wanted.

It’s a quirk of my personality that I react badly to being asked to identify with a group. Damned if I know why. If I voluntarily align myself with said group, that’s okay, but being confronted with any sort of team-building, identity-merging activity irrationally unnerves me. It feels like an attack. When I was a kid, I had recurring nightmares about being infected by zombies or assimilated up by Borg-like collectives. I don’t have that kind of a strong reaction anymore. But, unfortunately for me, the Morrígan ritual pushed my fear-of-loss-of-self button, hard. Maybe if I’d been expecting it, it wouldn’t have thrown me, but I wasn’t. So, suddenly, I went from opening up to the ritual to slamming closed, feeling threatened, depressed, angry, bitter, alienated. And I was much too far from the door to make a discrete exit.

So, I breathed and tried to work with the emotions, and went through with the ritual. It was a rite about deepening the bonds of kinship and community. I value these, so by gods I was going to grit my teeth and be in community. To try to be gracious and as open to the experience as I could be, even though what I really wanted to do was crawl away into a dark corner. It never occurred to me that I could have just stepped back from the circle into the darkness at the edge of the ballroom. I didn’t want to distract anyone around me from the work they were doing, so I worked too.

I spent the rest of Pantheacon, and a good part of the following month, mulling this experience over and thinking about religion and kinship, so I suppose the Morrígan devotional did its job even on my cranky self.

Anyway, this story really is not all that important. It wanted to be told, but I think the real reason to tell it is because it gives me space to say that sometimes, being in community is the worst. Doing anything with other humans is too often a real drag, and sometimes you can’t escape. You have to grit your teeth and go through with whatever it is you’re doing with all these people just because it has to be done. The reason I’m stating the beyond-obvious here is that I’ve been thinking about the post yesterday about Yana, and kinship, and solidarity with other Pagans. The costs of being in community, and the effort it can take to return to the work of building and maintaining those bonds again, and again, and again.

As Jason said, Paganism is international now. And I hope it’s not speaking too strongly to say that now modern, international, post-Drawing Down the Moon Paganism has a martyr.

After I post this, I’m going to light a candle on my boveda for Yana in her journey to her gods. Then I’m going to meditate on what I bring to this community, to “Pagandom,” as I like to call it in lighter moments. What I can do to contribute to the ties of kinship and affection and religious experience that strengthen this community. What work needs to be done for our safety and well-being. I haven’t done a lot of interfaith or intrafaith or outreach work before, so this is all going to be new. Will you walk with me?

In ways the various founders, visionaries, and clergy could never have anticipated, modern Pagan faiths have thrived and become world religions. In many instances our faiths have entered the mainstream. Sometimes, embedded within the interconnected Pagan communities, dealing with the day-to-day controversies and obstacles, it’s hard to see just how far we’ve come. This isn’t to say that no challenges remain, or that we enjoy complete parity with other, more dominant, faiths, but we have reached a place that few could have initially hoped for. Further, larger shifts in Western culture towards a post-Christian social and political reality, along with important advances in interfaith initiatives, create a fertile soil for a number of religious minorities to grow at impressive rates in relative peace.

Pagans at Stonehenge.

Pagans at Stonehenge.

This relative safety, this freedom to venture outside the dominant monotheistic paradigm, has seen our community grow and change faster than its already established leaders and clergy have prepared for. Changes that in other contexts could have taken decades, even generations, are now happening in a matter of years. This has caused increasing tensions among different generations, religious groups, and schools of thought. It has caused many to critique, and in some cases completely abandon, the label “Pagan,” finding the term too limiting, too burdened with preconceptions as to what one might find under the Pagan “umbrella.” These debates over the term “Paganism” are not new. You could argue they began with the emergence of modern Heathenry in the 1970s, and grew only more heated as the second wave of modern polytheistic reconstructionism coalesced in the 1990s. A compelling argument could be made, looking at Chas Clifton’s “Her Hidden Children,” that the limitations of creating a “Pagan” community were apparent from the very beginning.

“Much of the credit for the popularization of Pagan and Neo-Pagan goes to Church of All Worlds (CAW). In a tract published in the 1970s, “Neo-Paganism: An Old Religion for a New Age,” Tim Zell, who was chief CAW spokesman, makes all the popular, if sometimes historically inaccurate, arguments that characterized the movement at the time […] by the early 1970s, with Green Egg serving as the official journal of the Council of Earth Religions – a brief successor to an earlier pan-Pagan group, the Council of Themis – the utility of Pagan and Neo-Pagan as umbrella terms has become well established […] the word Pagan, with its overtones of nature religion, was a good fit for these groups, and it rapidly shouldered aside its only competition, Aquarian (as in “Age of Aquarius”), which has been chiefly used in the title of the Aquarian Anti-Defamation League (AADL).”

Those early “councils” faced the problems of how big (or small) to make one’s umbrella, and often suffered for it, usually imploding over personal conflicts and arguments over who could and couldn’t be included in their ranks. Meanwhile, the very groups that would challenge the effectiveness of Pagan as a political label were already emerging, as a growing number of Witchcraft Traditions, Druid groups, and organizations like CAW, were settling on Pagan as a descriptor for the larger religious movement that they all saw themselves as a part of. For twenty years or so this accord largely held, as Heathens at that time had their own internal issues to sort out, and the second wave of polytheistic reconstructionism was still largely pre-formative. Long enough for Paganism (with and without the “Neo”) to be adopted by religious scholars (instead of “New Age”), and for the movement to establish a number of important wins in the realm of equal treatment under the law. To seep its way into our pop-cultural consciousness, and in some ways, to become something out of the control of the groups that adopted it as an umbrella term.

Which brings us to the present day. As I mentioned earlier, the climate today is very different than what it was in the 1970s. Wiccans and Pagans in the United States number anywhere from 700,000 to over a million, depending on how you crunch the available data. In England and Wales, official numbers for Pagan faiths jumped from around 40,000 to around 80,000, with many thinking the true number is larger still. Likewise, Australia also saw census counts rise, though more modestly than in the UK. This is all good news for us, but perhaps more importantly the number of religiously unaffiliated individuals, the “spiritual but not religious,” has exploded in the West, and non-Christian religions like Hinduism and Buddhism have seen ongoing strong growth. The unaffiliated and “other” non-Christian religions made up 32% of Barack Obama’s winning coalition in his recent re-election to the presidency. The unaffiliated are now on statistical parity with evangelical Christianity in America, creating new paths to victory that don’t depend on courting Christian culturally conservative issue stances. It’s natural in such a climate to perhaps reevaluate the Pagan label, and for groups dissatisfied to voice displeasures that were before muted due to more pressing political considerations.

Erynn Rowan Laurie and some anonymous blogger.

A Wiccan and a Celtic Reconstructionist.

This brings us to the issue of solidarity. When we say “the Pagan community,” that is a form of solidarity in action: several discrete groups (Wiccans, Druids, etc), with their own identities, banding together for a common purpose. Similarly, the initialism “LGBT” is another term of solidarity, showing the political alliance of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered individuals (expanded in various permutations, like “QUILTBAG”). While there are a growing number of people who identify their religion simply as “Pagan,” we must remember that this term started as an umbrella that could be used for shorthand when encountering groups outside the established (albeit permeable) boundaries. It was a way to say, We are allies in a common struggle, and an injustice against one is an injustice against all of us. However, solidarity is not unity. Too many battles have been fought over well-meaning but wrong-headed initiatives to get us all singing from the same choir book (so to speak).

In the last twenty years a growing number of Pagans have allied themselves with, and sometimes even joined, a variety of faiths outside the Pagan umbrella as it was understood in the 1970s, including African Diasporic and African Traditional Religions, Dharmic faiths like Hindusim and Buddhism, and, to a lesser degree, Native American and other indigenous religious expressions. This tendency finds its perfect expression at a convention like PantheaCon in San Jose, which while a “Pagan” event, also draws polytheistic reconstructionists, practitioners and initiates of Palo, Vodou, Hoodoo, and Santeria, Hindu converts along with representatives from Hindu groups, and a good number of Pagans who have embraced or converted to Buddhism over the years. In short, it’s a place where new ideas of solidarity are being negotiated in real time, and the utility of the Pagan label is both strengthened and regularly questioned. PantheaCon isn’t necessarily unique in this, but its size and proximity to large urban areas facilitate more diversity than at some of the outdoor festivals or smaller conventions.

Zan Fraser (Second row, far left) at NYC's Pride Parade.

Zan Fraser (Second row, far left) at NYC’s Pride Parade.

So should the Pagan label be scrapped for something better? Something more inclusive and flexible? I’m certainly open to the notion, and perhaps it could even come to pass as the next generation who embraced, or were raised in, Paganism comes into their full power and leadership. Until then, perhaps we can acknowledge that we are doing solidarity differently in 2013 than we are in 1970. That “Paganism” and the “Pagan Community” may still work for a large number of individuals, but feels stifling to some who would be our allies and friends. We should encompass an expanding Venn diagram of coalitions that have overlapping goals and features, but are still distinct in identity. There can still be a “Pagan Community,” but it will exist in a constellation with the “Polytheistic Reconstructionist Community” and the “Hindu Community” and the “African Diasporic Community.” There will be a growing number of individuals who have a foot in more than one of these communities, and we can attend each other’s open events without the expectation that we will also be forced to adopt the labels of those gatherings. More importantly, we can work on the many issues that still face non-Christian religious minorities in the West (and elsewhere) without re-litigating who is and isn’t a Pagan.

Finally, speaking personally, I think that the act of leaving the Pagan label behind casts a new light for those who want to keep being “Pagan.” It should inspire us to think, to reevaluate, to constantly question our goals. The debates over terminology and theology within the Pagan umbrella have led me to view my membership within the Covenant of the Goddess very differently than when I first started the process, over a year ago. I now see that COG needs to revitalize and strengthen its place as an explicitly Wiccan voice and advocacy organization. While I may be comfortable being called a Pagan, I need to spend more time existing within a Wiccan frame of reference. By enriching Wicca, I better prepare it collectively for what the future may bring.

Our models of solidarity are only as strong and vital as those who use them, and the component parts need to be strong enough to shift and reform should we change, or our needs change. None of us has clairvoyance enough to fully anticipate what our culture will be like in another twenty years, but I can guess that we will still have political and cultural goals to rally around, and that our movement’s name will shape itself to the times. Who can say if Paganism will be that name?

I am happy for my Polytheist brothers and sisters for emerging into and finding their preferred collective identity, just as I am happy for any group or individual that realizes itself and acts to claim the power in naming. This time does not need to be rancorous, and we all need to rise above the fear and anger that can come so easily when these shifts happen. There is still much we can share, can have in common, and can work together to achieve; we just have to do so differently, with greater mutual respect and consideration — with more outreach, and more listening. If these developments result in the Pagan umbrella shrinking, I find solace in the fact that my faith is still there, my conception of the sacred is still there, and my friends are still there.

I have much more to say on this issue, but I will save the rest for a talk I’ll be giving at PantheaCon this February entitled “Preserving our past, Preparing for our Future.” There I will lay out some suggestions, and some thoughts as to how we, how Pagans, how our friends and allies, should confront our successes and the challenges ahead of us. I’ll make sure to have an audio recording for those of you unable to come, and hopefully will have even more to share once I’ve given the talk. If you are attending, I hope you’ll come and share your own thoughts.

This is a follow-up piece to the two-part series on solidarity written by Heather Greene for The Wild Hunt. There is a great deal of conversation taking place around A Question of Pagan Solidarity: Part 1 and A Question of Pagan Solidarity: Part 2, and this post offers a practical example of how solidarity can be experienced by solitaries, and how that experience of “solitary solidarity” can inspire those in the broader community to approach solidarity as a meaningful practice.

Solitary Tree

Solitary tree at Sunset (CC)

Some have asked, “How can we have a conversation about solidarity if we can’t even agree on how we define ourselves?” I’d suggest that having a conversation about solidarity might help us have the conversation about identity, especially if we engage with one another with the intent to experience solidarity, rather than simply define it.

I’m going to offer up an example of solidarity in practice, particularly solidarity for solitaries. “Solitary solidarity” may technically be an oxymoron, but so is “deafening silence,” and who doesn’t love the poetry of that term? An oxymoron can be useful, beautiful, and relevant, and I think this example of “solitary solidarity” might even help us discern a new way of engaging with one another in community.

I’ve committed myself in service to the Solitary Druid Fellowship, which is built on the concept of solidarity for solitaries (or as I often call it, congregation in solitude). Our solidarity is not one of a strict agreement of identities, or even an agreement about an identical practice. Ours is a solidarity build around the awareness of each other’s existence, of each other’s mutual needs, and of our commonalities. Our differences are respected and supported, and they do not threaten the life of the Fellowship, because the Fellowship is not built to institute uniformity.

SDF LogoOur solidarity is the grounds of our shared spiritual practice. We join each other in a shared observance of the High Holidays, the Sabbats, using a shared liturgy. But even in that framework, there is room for individuation. Some will be observing Imbolc, and others Charming of the Plough. Some will make libations to Roman gods, and others to no gods at all. Some will take the liturgy and completely re-write it, using it only as an inspiration for their religious observance. And yet, though all of this, there is solidarity among us. We are aware of each other, we are holding each other in a state of respect, and we are, if in this way only, united.

Our consent to this solidarity allows for us to step into an experiential reality of interconnectedness. We are doing something together, even as we are apart. Our togetherness is not synchronous. We are not coordinating a “shared ritual” at a specific time on a specific day. Our asynchronous observance is more of an agreement we make to honor what is meaningful to us, to celebrating in the way that is most resonant for us, and to steering clear of the impulse to fence one other into specific ways of being, thinking, acting, or identifying.

From the outside, this solidarity we experience may seem trivial. It may appear insubstantial enough to constitute “solidarity.” But for those who consent to being part of this Fellowship, which is but one model of how “solitary solidarity” might be experienced, we open ourselves to a different understanding. Through the doing, there is a new experience of knowing.

If I were to attempt to make this solidarity into a “Pagan solidarity”, or an “ADF solidarity,” I would be missing the point, and I’d be shutting certain people out. There are ADF members who are participating in the shared practice and observance of the Solitary Druid Fellowship, of course. The Fellowship is a service extension of ADF, so this is only natural. But there are also non-ADF members who are taking part. There are people who don’t identify as Druids, polytheists or Pagans, and some who don’t have a clear take on what the gods are at all. There are theists, atheists, polytheists and agnostics taking part. They are approaching reverence, albeit for different things. They are sharing language, even as they’re engaging with it differently. They are suspending the need to be the same, and in doing so they are opening themselves up to something harmonious.

I would like to see other experiments in solidarity. I would like to see it on a micro and macro scale. I’d like individual traditions to see how they can foster solidarity among themselves, and then see if there are ways to extend that experience of solidarity outside their boundaries. Approaching solidarity with other solitaries is an opportunity to experience solidarity on the scale of the individual, and if we allow ourselves that, perhaps we might begin to allow if for larger groups who identify differently than we do.

We might experience solidarity with humans who don’t look, think, dress, love or act like us. We might begin to foster a deeper respect for one another, and come to honor the ways in which we are unique, and the same. In time, this newfound respect might extend to those non-human beings who share our land, our water, our food, our resources. In time, we might find more ways to experience solidarity than we do discord.

Solidarity can become a discipline, like meditation. Seeking to know the feeling and experience of solidarity, to understand how it can be felt among a seemingly disparate, disconnected people, makes possible new awarenesses, new understandings.

How do we have a conversation about solidarity when we aren’t in agreement about identity and terminology? We answer that question by devising new ways to experience solidarity. We find the new way by making a new practice.

Then, we come to understand solidarity.

This, at least, has been my experience.

So I ask you —

How have you sought to create an experience of solidarity? Or, could you conceive of a way to do it? 

Can you imagine a way to foster an experience of solidarity with those in your tradition? If so, what would that look like? Then, could you imagine a way of expanding that experience of solidarity to those outside your tradition?

How would you do that? Through liturgy? Through a shared calendar? Though a shared language? A common practice?

How can you make solidarity happen?