I have trouble watching Cabaret, the 1966 musical that choreographer Bob Fosse would direct in an Academy Award-winning film 1972. It’s a scary work of art. Cabaret is set in the Berlin of the Weimar Republic in 1931, a city and time at the height of a joie d’vivre during a wave of liberal attitudes; resplendent with what we might think of as libertine or even Pagan approach to life and sex. The film opens with the catchy song Wilkommen by the carnivalesque master of ceremonies singing:
Willkommen! Bienvenue! Welcome!
Fremde, étranger, stranger
Glücklich zu sehen,
Je suis enchanté,
Happy to see you,
Bleibe, reste, stay.
The words are hallmarks of hospitality, but the moment is pregnant with a tremendous dread that would culminate in the Holocaust. No matter how I use the film in class or workshops, no matter how much I enjoy the music, that gravid terror always looms for me. Some of my ancestors fled Nazi Germany; and if I had been alive then and there, there’s little chance I would have seen the end of World War II.
I recognize the fiction of Cabaret, and yet that ominous backdrop of a changing world that is inexorably shifting to the right echoes in our present moment. Now to be clear, this is not an opinion essay about President Trump and what his administration will unleash, might unleash or is unleashing. I lived through the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, and through ACT-UP, I learned what we are capable of in resisting callous administrations. We overcame, for example, the Reagan administration’s convenient blindness from regressive fervor while they witnessed hundreds of thousands — later millions — literally die around us. This essay is not about the current cabal of White House stooges and their myopic and hypocritical allies in Congress.
This essay — I hope — is about a shift away from the Enlightenment values that undergird the modern civil and secular society in which most of us live. It is important to us because all modern Neopaganism is rooted in the Enlightenment. I am certainly aware that many of our traditions invoke a lineage that predates the 17th century, but the Enlightenment is itself a culmination of political backlash against conservative forces that dictated not just social order but also the dominance of religion in controlling action as well as thought.
One major accomplishment of the Enlightenment is that it marginalized fanaticism. The period ushered in the elements of deism, the religious perspective that the universe is knowable through reason but also in concert with the presence of deity. This weakened institutions that demanded subservience and obedience. With that, the period also piloted in a worldview that personal discernment was a powerful force for learning about our world and ourselves.As the Enlightenment raged the values of dissent, self-expression, personal enterprise and thoughtful criticism were enshrined as modern ideals. The Declaration of Independence, for example, is imbued with Enlightenment ideals. These views and ideals tore at the dominance of the religious establishment in the West and validated other ways of understanding the universe as well as living an ethical life. The Enlightenment opened the well that made — in my opinion — modern Paganism possible: it heralded our Risorgimento.
But now, a backlash has begun. We are witnessing something more complicated than a retaliation against intellectualism and reason. The de-funding of the National Endowment of the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts are the first projected casualties of that war. The NEH and NEA are the modern homes of Calliope, Clio, Euterpe, Melpomene, Terpsichore and Thalia, six of the nine inspirational goddesses of Hellenic religion. Solon, the Athenian poet and statesman, saw them as necessary for a good life and a good society. Clearly, destroying the muses leads to ignorance and a people easily controlled by aristocrats.
Other Pagan values are being assaulted. We are witnessing revulsion toward hospitality, consensus and inclusion, and a dismantling of the institutions charged with protecting the Earth. In a way, I feel that we are witnessing the manifestations of spiritual warfare against that Pagan resurgence.
“Spiritual warfare” is a precise term of art. It is a Christian concept referring to resisting and rebelling through prayer, anointing, exorcism and other techniques against preternatural evil forces that embolden and underpin Satanic control of the world. It is the use of techniques like exorcism that validate Christian authority over evil, as well as serve as badges of righteousness. Ephesians 6:10-18 describes the components of the armor of God — belief, righteousness truth, etc. — in preparation for spiritual battle to promote faith salvation and, ironically, peace. Fundamentalist and evangelical Christians underscore their responsibility to dominate evil by pointing to Matthew 12:27-29: “And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if I drive out demons by the spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. How can anyone enter a strong man’s house and steal his possessions, unless he first ties up the strong man?”
You, dear reader, are that strong man.
The logic of spiritual warfare has been used to subdue idolatry from ouija boards to Native American art to awens; and, of course, more famously, in the hunt and murder of women accused of witchcraft. The arsenal of spiritual warfare was invoked in the 1980s during the Satanic panic episodes of unsubstantiated ritual abuse. It use has a single objective: power.
That has set the stage for the present. The rise in liberal and secular values has been framed as an assault on the spiritual welfare of a Christian majority. While this is certainly not the philosophical position of many Christians, especially the many from liberal denominations and orders within Christianity, a vocal minority of Christian evangelicals from nondenominational traditions are decrying what they perceive is a conspiracy to suppress their beliefs, and that capitulating to that conspiracy is nothing less than rebellion against the divine. Just as there is no such thing as persecution of Christians in the West, there is no conspiracy to subvert Christianity, but the utility of that myth is not lost to evangelical leaders.
Like in Lord of the Flies, paranoia and the belief in demonic council have led to a societal retreat from reason through the fabrication of a mythic “beast” that is lurking on the island. The fictional beast is slowly adopted as reality and used to establish control and obliterate anti-authoritarian opposition, ultimately with violent consequences. That cautionary tale of tribalism is slowly becoming a documentary of reality.
You, dear reader, are also that beast.
The spiritual warfare must not relent. I have heard “I’ll pray for you” far too many times this year. It’s not a sentiment of concern, it’s an aggression, and it must be clearly and unquestionably labeled as such. Aggressive prayer is not intended as a compassionate action but rather a violent one; an action where who I am is obliterated and replaced with a “believer” who champions a specific brand of Christianity. It may be something between Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Stepford Wives. “I’ll pray for you” is as much code for “we’re watching” as it is for a spiritual militaristic operation. It underscores our otherness and a deep distrust of our non-conformity. It says nothing less than “you are targets.”
I’ve also witnessed a rise in propaganda. Driving to a festival this past weekend, every billboard for almost 100 miles was reinforcing that submission to Christianity is the only choice for a constructive society and eternal life. One cautioned that being anti-God is a form of treason. Another one showed Jesus’ return that is prophesied in the Revelation, only this time with Marines, tanks and weapons of war. To Pagan eyes, they also said, “You are a danger.”
These are far cries from the central ministry of peace that Jesus taught, yet they now pervade the consciousness of many fundamentalist strands of Christianity, especially those with little to no history in managing diverse populations in their communion. These are far cries from the central ministry of peace that Jesus taught, yet, they now pervade the consciousness of many a Christian.
Most disturbingly, there has been a rise in anti-Semitism hallmarked by violence. These are attacks on all communities of faith, including ours. They are nothing short of abomination.
Now, while the memories bound in my DNA from my ancestors are whispering that these are becoming dangerous times, they are also whispering that fundamentalism — in any religion — is an illness worthy of compassion. Solutions to fundamentalism like satire, education, shaming, pity and reason have been consistently failing, but I do remain resolute that Enlightenment values will guide us to solutions.Principal in manifesting those values is our interfaith work. I am convinced that we must bring our interfaith work more solidly to our forefront. The challenge of any religion is to avoid looking inwardly to the point of blindness.
Now, I should say, that I’m personally terrible at interfaith work, but I try. I am far too quick to have my eyes glaze over when Abrahamic dogma is presented as singular, universal truth. I’m no good at prayer breakfasts, trust me, yet I also know so many nuns and sisters eager for dialogue. Not for conversion, but for conversation. They want to better understand the complexity of faith and the human experience. They are both a blessing as well as a counter pole to the religious fundamentalism pervading American evangelicalism.
These women highlight that our dialogue is not just worthwhile, but that in these times, it is critical. They recognize that interfaith does not mean just talking among different strands of Abrahamic religions and denominations; they strive for inter-religious dialogue. We might do well — on a personal level — to consider all invitations for such dialogue, accepting every opportunity as a gift from our muses. They are powerful allies, and we can add our own powerful resources. We can support and honor our Pagan elders who engage in interfaith dialogue by learning from their tremendous experience in the conducting such complicated yet essential work. They not only possess astounding experience and commitment but they also carry tremendous wisdom. Their knowledge, skill and work are forging stronger, more diverse communities of faith that are both wiser and safer.
I’m not disheartened, but I am concerned. The social climate feels like it has turned more severely against us, but we have the tools and wisdom in our community to turn that tide. It is an act of bravery to reveal oneself as Pagan, and an added act of courage to go further into interfaith work. I also think that bravery and courage are blessings we have in abundance.
Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome
Im Cabaret, au Cabaret, to Cabaret.
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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.