Column: Social Justice IS my Spiritual Practice

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[Today we welcome guest writer Darcy Totten an activist and solitary practitioner living in Sacramento, CA. Totten holds an MA in Journalism and has worked in media and communications for over fifteen years. Her consulting group, Activism Articulated, serves the communications and strategy needs of non-profit organizations, activists and student groups across California. She is currently working in partnership with the Spirituality and Social Justice collective, led by her and her wife Jasper James, to codify and articulate ideas around social justice as a lived spiritual practice in the Pagan communityTo learn more about Totten’s work and the Spirituality and Social Justice workshops, contact her through ActivismArticulated or join Totten and James online at “Black Lives Matter: Allies Unite]

A few weeks ago, my fiancé Jasper and I gathered with our usual small but dedicated group at The Enchanted Tree in Sacramento, CA for a workshop on “Spirituality and Social Justice.” We run the workshop monthly, punctuated with frequent online discussions, phone calls and social gatherings. Based initially off of Tim Titus’ ‘Pentacle of Activism’ and expanded upon reworked into the following (click here for PDF) the workshops are organized around the elements, with the idea that the group will examine issues of social justice in the context of Pagan spiritual space and will share ideas about integrating our spiritual lives with our daily realities. We hope to present the fruits of this labor in the form of a loose framework that can be applied to any Pagan tradition – or even adapted outside of the Pagan community to address social justice and racial equity as an integral aspect of spirituality.

Somewhere, in the midst of a discussion on the element of fire and the often-unconscious systems of White supremacy, Jasper looked up and said simply, “Social justice is not just connected to my practice. Social justice IS my spiritual practice.” The whole room came to a full stop.

It really is that simple. And it’s that hard.

To be clear, White supremacy is defined here, and throughout, simply as a racial hierarchy in which Whiteness sits on top and from which White privilege flows. In this hierarchical system, the benefits bestowed upon White people can be found in the very organizing principles of many non-profit and collective spaces.

[Courtesy D. Totten]

[Courtesy D. Totten]

To date, our small collective has established a working definition of social justice, which has been adapted from other churches and collectives that have come before us. We feel it aligns perfectly with spiritual Pagan practice.

Social justice is defined by our coalition as a process, not an outcome, which challenges injustice and values diversity in all areas of life. It empowers all people to realize their full potential and exists when all people share a recognized common humanity and a right to equitable treatment, support for their human rights, and a fair allocation of community resources.

Lately, our group has been struggling to prove its value both in its home space and in the wider community of Pagans who primarily seek out a Pagan practice as a way to heal from their own trauma. They struggle with the idea that not all trauma may be created equal; not all privilege is earned and not all responsibility is shouldered equitably. Many of our collective’s members have been subjected to a level of pushback that calls into question much of what our communities say they stand for. There is nothing loving or healing about backlash against Pagans of Color and their allies trying to make space to discuss these issues.

If we as Pagans continue to build our spiritual circles exclusively around the endless healing of life’s daily traumas with no room to examine those in a macro way, through the lens of systems, community and accountability, then we operate from a place of endless brokenness. In always focusing our collective energy toward healing one individualized issue or another, we never operate from a place of collective strength and power. Weakness, the very essence of White fragility and occasionally, manipulation, become the heart of the spiritual spaces in which many of us operate.

I reject that, wholeheartedly.

My spiritual practice rejects this notion that the only way to heal is through intense focus on my own life and issues. This is the very height of privilege; to have the time, the energy and the resources to dwell exclusively on one’s own individual needs. Every ritual circle spent holding a fellow White traveler’s hand through a break-up or personal crisis is one not spent holding the hand of a mother who has lost a son or daughter to police violence or the arms of fellow protestors demanding that he or she be the last.

One life is not more important than another, but one life, in the above scenario, has much more room to breathe. It is up to us, as spiritual creatures, to recognize that gulf between us and to bridge it; not with platitudes and ignorance or vaguely appropriating daily memes but with acceptance, true understanding, education and yes… responsibility.

[Courtesy D. Totten]

[Courtesy D. Totten]

I do not believe that a person’s credibility rests on their particular level of privilege in society, nor do I believe that a privilege analysis is the end of any conversation about social justice. Rather, it is often a beginning. My spiritual practice dictates that with great privilege comes great responsibility. And, part of being a responsible Pagan is to look to my role in the larger whole, in the systems that keep the world spinning and that maintain status quo. If, we have the time and resources for navel-gazing then we certainly have the resources to take more responsibility for our collective state as well. If we accept that what we put out in the world is magnified, then we must not accept apathy around social justice in our spiritual practice.

Respectability politics demands that most White Pagans actively oppose the idea that they might, in fact, harbor any racist tendencies; yet our spaces abound with entrenched White supremacist attitudes of hierarchy and institutionalized approaches that favor the privileged. Personally, I do not draw strength from endless healing circles and hand holding around my many (potentially victimized) identities. I draw strength from a spiritual practice that encompasses survival, solidarity with warriors on all fronts, and the strength to look deep within our own shadows to see and to conquer that which makes us most uncomfortable and afraid. I want a spiritual practice that makes me strong, but more than that, I want a spiritual practice that strengthens those around me. I want to exist in a community of fierce, resilient, spiritual people who do not feel compelled to hide their anger, forgive their abusers, or stuff down their sense of injustice while clutching their crystals and gasping out gratitude’s just to have a place to worship in.

My spiritual practice and my work for justice are both grassroots, living room efforts, happening in small groups with like-minded folks all across the country — right now. Spiritual leadership training is, at its heart, similar to the things that I learned in activist trainings, and political discussion groups can look an awful lot like Pagan community circles when we let them.

Room for testimony is vital in both spaces; as is emotional support, care for the community as a whole, deep connection to balance and respect for the divine. The practice of lived solidarity, of coalition building among disparate groups who come together to make a greater whole…these things are straight from an activist’s playbook but they ALSO describe spiritual space…a church if you will.

[Courtesy D. Totten]

[Courtesy D. Totten]

In the modern world, spiritual space is also digital. Online activism ensures that we know the names of those who have lost their lives to state-sanctioned police violence. It ensures that we know their names and can say them. That may be an activist call, a twitter hashtag campaign for awareness, but it is also the very root of my practice of spirituality. I call on those who are no longer of this earth as a direct and regular part of my practice. They speak to me and through me.

To speak the names of the dead is, on it’s own, a spiritual act as much as it is a political one. It is how we honor their spirits and assure them they are not forgotten. My spiritual practice doesn’t just look like social justice work … it IS social justice work. They are one and the same. Both have the hands of my ancestors deep within, guiding and calling. Both require wisdom and help from the divine. Both require stillness, self-examination, self-reflection and accountability at levels that do not allow the ego to do the driving. Both demand a safe space to heal and to grieve and both demand that action be taken.

The call-t- action is a process, just as the call to spirit is. It is developed over a lifetime. One cannot become an ally in the fight for justice in a week, a month or in the course of a yearlong degree-training program. It is much simpler than that. It is an approach to social justice that is a lived practice of daily struggle and solidarity. Much like meditation or tarot card reading, the divinity, the spirit, is in the PROCESS.

White allyship in and of itself is also not an identity. It too is a process; one based in trust, accountability and relationships with marginalized individuals and/or groups of people. I call myself an ally. My allyship is based on a lot of complicated intersections and identities that include mixed-race heritage, white skin, class privilege, queerness, my status as a transracial adoptee and many more, and it is not up for group debate in circle or a matter of politics. It is part of my lived experience as a human being. It is a part of my spirit and how I speak with that which I consider divine.

Asking people not to speak about social justice in spiritual space isn’t about making the space safe and comfortable for everyone. Seating a Pagan of Color next to someone who, days earlier was spouting bigoted invectives online and telling them both not to talk politics within sacred space is not a way of making the space safe for everyone.  It is effectively silencing the person with less power in the situation, the Person of Color.

In addressing complicated issues around social justice and racial equity in this limiting and silencing way, many of our Pagan organizations, even those designed for solitary practice, are actually choosing a side while professing neutrality and love for all. They are choosing the side of the bigot. As nature path walkers we must reevaluate what we really mean when we ask everyone to just focus on the “light”.

In the Pagan community we rely a lot on ritual to engage with aspects of ourselves that we consider to be divine and to draw power from nature and each other. Many of us are experts in the art of ritual, the power of it and the pull. The idea that the emotionally taxing work we do as activists belongs in the same category as this ritual practice was initially a difficult one for many as we began these conversations, but we came to realize that the problem wasn’t about trying to fit two disparate ideas into one too-small space; the problem was in how we approached the puzzle.


Darcy Totten [Courtesy Photo]

At the heart of both our ritual practice and our work in the social justice arena sit our values, our Pagan understanding of life as an interconnected web in which we all play a role, either as conscious co-creators or as subjects to plans not fully constructed by us. In the political arena, White allies often focus on education. We try to teach other allies, to further the social justice work of the world in many ways, including educating other White people about racism as a systemic force as opposed to a personal attribute or failing. In spiritual space, many Pagans for whom social justice is also a spiritual practice, find themselves in similar situations, trying to explain how spirituality is not and cannot be divorced from one’s lived experience, that the political is not only personal, but that our work to restore balance is the same divine work that called us to our path of spirit.