Prisons and Pagans

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  July 24, 2006 — Leave a comment

The Associated Press has a story out dealing with the growing influence of Asatru (aka Norse Paganism or Odinism) inside American prisons. With the upcoming execution of Asatruar Michael Lenz this Thursday for the killing a fellow inmate, the culture of the faith in and out of jail is examined.

“A pagan religion that some experts say can be interpreted as encouraging violence is gaining popularity among prison inmates, one of whom is scheduled to be executed this week for killing a fellow prisoner at the foot of an altar…Asatru has been gaining popularity among inmates, say religious leaders and prison experts who believe its roots in Viking mythology attract prisoners seeking power, protection and unity.”

AP writer Kristin Gelineau talks to Stephen McNallen of the Asatru Folk Assembly, Pagan author M. Macha NightMare, and Patrick McCollum, Wiccan chaplain of the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, Calif., and national religious adviser for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. McCollum and McNallen both insist that only a small percentage of incarcerated Asatru are violent or part of a white supremacist “warrior” mentality that lead to the killings in Lenz’s case.

“McNallen said most Asatruars are peaceful people who abhor the kind of violence seen in the case of Lenz, who was sentenced to death in 2000 for Parker’s murder. Lenz and another inmate, fellow Asatruar Jeffrey Remington, fatally stabbed the 41-year-old Parker a combined 68 times with makeshift knives during the prison ceremony. Remington also was sentenced to death, but committed suicide in 2004.”

Despite these assertions, many in the mainstream have a hard time separating the violent offenders and racists from the true believers. Groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center who report extensively on racist Heathen groups (and hate groups in general) seem to have trouble finding the non-racist elements of Asatru.

“That kind of warrior mentality can exacerbate an already tense environment behind bars, some experts say. “It’s a theology that celebrates raw physical power and domination — and that is why I think it is so popular among prison inmates,” said Mark Potok, director of the intelligence project at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., which monitors hate groups.”

The situation seem to be heading for a boiling point, with Asatru quickly gaining converts, a prison system that sees that growth as a threat to security, and a lack of qualified Pagan/Heathen prison chaplains to mediate between converts and prison staff. It seems like it is only a matter of time before something even uglier than a isolated ritual murder takes place. I wish this article had gone further, talked to more Asatru leaders, and made clearer the distinctions between the racist strains of Asatru and the much bigger peaceful mainstream of the faith.

Jason Pitzl-Waters