In our era of deep individualism which produces such horrors as the 1% oligarchy that rules our nation, we have a society that places individual benefit, greed, and self-centeredness at the acme of life. In ancient Athenian society, a person who behaved in this way was called an idiot.Individualism is a strong force within the Pagan community. If Helen Berger is correct, 70% of us are solitary, which is very unusual for a religion. Of course, we are all used to the chorus of, “I joined this religion to get away from religious authority!” This is an understandable sentiment given the authoritarian religions that surround us.
Even the defensive assertion of being a ‘small-group religion’ is another aspect of this individualism. In this case, it is slightly extended to the local crew. While I am a fan of the small group, individualism has a centrifugal force that isolates and disempowers us in our solitude and small circles. It makes it hard for Pagans to join in a coordinated action in response to opportunity or oppression.
One of the most important tasks of religious leadership is to critique, challenge, and deconstruct the religion or a spirituality’s beliefs, perspectives, and practices.Today you are invited to contemplate Pagan solidarity, or civitas, and what the ancient Athenians called the idiot. Reclaiming the word ‘idiot’ and contemplating the criticism it embodies is hereby commended to you for discussion. The ancient world provides us with insight.
In ancient Athens those who gave no thought to the public life, the needs of the Polis, the community, were called ‘idiots’ and considered deficient in honor. This was contrasted to ‘citizenship,’ or civitas in the Roman. This is a life which is dedicated to community and which had to be inculcated by education.If you read the Wikipedia listing for it, citizenship arose in opposition to slavery. The military defense of the City by citizens was to prevent enslavement by conquest, which was the normal outcome of war in the ancient world aside from death.
With so much to lose, the Athenians, like many other people in the world, banded together to defend and strengthen themselves against oppression, and for mutual prosperity. Those who did not participate, seeking only their own benefit, were called idiots. Citizenship was considered a virtue and accrued honor to those who gave up some personal benefit for the sake of the community. The respect of one’s fellows was considered ample compensation.
So, at times we should ask ourselves, are we a bunch of idiots? Do we Pagans see things that benefit our community as a whole and beyond our immediate circles (regional, state, national) as something worth our effort?
Admittedly we are in an era of speciation, spawning off new religious practices and traditions like Reconstructionism, [Hard/Soft-] Polytheism, Humanist Paganism, Heathenism and other culturally focused forms, and many more. We are in a centrifugal mode. Diversity is good for us overall; diverse ecologies are healthy and robust. This also pulls us apart into our many factions or sects, too often painfully at odds with each other. A necessary phase of development, but solidarity need not be ignored.
So, what of our civitas, our awareness of being a community? There are none like us in this world. We are a new, rising, vigorous, religious movement, only a few hundred years old. Contemporary Paganism is twined with the origins of modern science and liberal governance (freedom of speech, press, rule of law, etc.), but also with a revival of ancient forms of religiosity with their insights and Deities. Altogether a more wholesome form of religion, better suited to today, I warrant, than any other. But we are not a very powerful or effective one; the poster child for disorganized religion.
The Maetreum of Cybele is struggling to get tax relief for their monastery. The Seekers Temple in Beebe AR is being attacked for trying to operate its Pagan church by a Christian church across the road). And I’m sure there are more such oppressions in the U.S. and abroad. Our ability to come together to support each of these members of our community, or failure to, constitutes a measure of our civitas, our citizenship as Pagans.
Two positive examples of civitas are the Lady Liberty Headstone Project, which lobbied the Veterans Administration so that deceased Pagan Military could be buried with headstones marked with Pagan religious symbols, and the recent fundraiser for The Wild Hunt. This vital Pagan news outlet was able to reach its basic funding goal with two weeks to spare. We can, as a community, put it together at times.
But is it a virtue to us? Is civitas a value in our sub-culture? How do we embody our solidarity in action? Pitching in and helping out is especially necessary when we don’t have institutions and paid leadership to take on the skut work. It’s not glorious, but it is necessary. Will we honor and respect, and support, those who labor on behalf of our community? What of those who set up our spaces and clean them afterwards? What of those who handle the accounting and book the sites — those not out front and visible leading ritual? Civitas is that special unity that comes from finding ways of joining together to achieve our hopes and dreams. In it, there is honor, respect, and support, for those who shoulder the burden. The alternative is sheer idiocy.