CHESTERFIELD, Va — On Monday, two men were charged with “conspiracy to possess firearms after having been convicted of felonies,” and a third man was charged with the “conspiracy to commit robbery.” Through an undercover FBI operation, a detailed plan was uncovered to burn and bomb Black churches, Jewish synagogues and their occupants, to rob a jewelry store, stock pile weapons and more. After foiling the plot, the FBI filed an affidavit, which included a note that the men, to some unknown degree, were connected with the religion Asatru.
As written in the FBI report by Special Agent James Rudisill, “Doyle and Chaney … ascribe to a white supremacy extremist version of the Asatru faith.”
After news broke, the Asatru angle quickly went from a footnote in a long FBI report to a news maker and, in some cases, even a headline. A Richmond Times-Dispatch article, one of the first, clarified to its readers, “Asatru is a pagan religion.” And, the media cycle moved from there.
Some news agencies, such as CNN and ABC, did not ever mention the men’s religious affiliation, choosing to focus on the foiled crime. Others offered varying degrees of explanation from simply quoting the FBI document verbatim to inserting some limited facts about the religion. The Washington Post, for example, simply added “neo-pagan” into the FBI quote. Then, others went further exploring the white supremacy connection to Asatru. The Daily Beast went so far as to interview such a group with the added commentary, “Because pagans gonna pagan.”
Get Religion writer Jim Davis questioned the media’s reaction, asking whether journalists even care about implications surrounding the religious aspects of the case. The writer felt the media “missed the boat” by not better investigating the Asatru angle. He wrote:
Now, I’m not calling for some witch hunt, or Norse hunt in this case. If bigotry is not basic for most Asaturars and/or Odinists, fine. But so many media ask so little about a central question in this case. Here we have a story about members of a religion who are charged with wanting to shoot and blow up members of two other religions (and of another race). And journalists aren’t curious about that?
One Virginia-based NBC affiliate did reach out to a practicing Heathen family to talk about Asatru, rather than simply focusing on white supremacy. In that article, Asatruar Bryan Wilson told the reporter, “We’re not about destroying other religions or hurting people … Especially not because of the color of their skin. This is kind of ridiculous. It is very ridiculous.” He was later quoted as saying, “You can blame the religion all you want, but the religion doesn’t tell people to do things like that … That’s someone’s decision that they made on their own, and they just happen to be Asatru.”
As this was all happening, members of the national and even international Heathen communities watched in horror as the story fell like dominoes through the mainstream media. And, collectively, their immediate response was one of frustration and anger.
This is an all too familiar song and dance, so it is important for the Heathen community to be proactive in our response to it. These men are criminals with a violent history. According to the affidavit in support of the criminal complaint against Chaney, he and Doyle each are convicted felons. Some of the circumstances of this case are reminiscent of virulent forms of prison Odinism that bring stigma to the rest of Heathenry. What we see in these cases is Heathenry being co-opted to advance a political and social agenda that, at the core, has nothing to do with the religion. This perversion of our faith operates against the advancement of Heathenry. This is not a way to honor or to bring bright fame to our gods and goddesses.
And, Heathens United Against Racism wrote, in part:
Such an atmosphere of fear, distrust, and cowardice is the total opposite of everything Heathenry stands for. The would-be race warriors apprehended by the FBI, distinguished by their fearful mentalities and established histories of violence, are not alone in promoting and adhering to doctrines of ethnic violence coated in a veneer of piety. Robert Doyle and Ronald Chaney are two of the worst examples of a much larger problem.
In denouncing these two individuals we further denounce the mental atmosphere giving fuel to their ideas. We denounce those who promote ideologies of fear and terror. We denounce all those who claim Asatru and Heathenry justify a life of bigotry, violence, and prejudice.
Canadian Heathen Robert Rudachyk didn’t mince words. He told The Wild Hunt, “I am personally disgusted that these pathetic nithlings would deign to even call themselves Heathens. They tar all of us with their filth when they act in a manner like this, and I hope the justice system shows them no mercy. They are not warriors, but mindless half-witted savages who want nothing more than to blame people of other faiths for their shortcomings in life rather than taking responsibility for the bad choices they have made in their lives. May Nidhogg gnaw their bones for eternity.”
These Heathen groups and individuals do not deny that these men could possibly have identified or even formally practiced some form of the Asatru religion. Steven T. Abell, Steersman of The Troth, said, “The Troth cannot prevent idiots and creeps from saying they are Heathens, but we can say that idiots and creeps are idiots and creeps. These persons are idiots and creeps, and they are not welcome in our community.”
Two of the men’s online profiles do suggest that they had an interest in or a connection to Heathenry. For example, one of the men recently lost a friend to substance abuse and, in mourning wrote, “[He had the] strength of the Old Gods. Battle and struggle is our way of life. If we lose you Valholl with will improve its ranks.” At the same time, one of the men showed an interest in some Christian-based groups.
But these are all speculative details coming from social media. What does remain clear is that, regardless of spiritual interest, there are very clear signs of white supremacist beliefs. As pointed out in one news article, one of the men is reportedly a member of the KKK, a claim that is supported by his online profile, and he is also allegedly connected to the Aryan Brotherhood.
Writer Dr. Karl E. Seigfried of the Norse Mythology Blog told The Wild Hunt, “Something about Ásatrú seems to keep attracting this personality type. Maybe it’s incessant social media memes about defending the Folk and dying gloriously in battle. Maybe it’s endless essays proclaiming white victimhood and forwarding conspiracy theories about people of color. Maybe it’s organizations that constantly declare they’re not racist while actively promoting racist ideologies. Maybe it’s Heathens who support racist individuals and organizations in the name of neutrality. It’s probably all of these things. Together, they create a welcoming environment for the worst elements of society, and those elements are gleefully taking advantage.”
Frustration showed in his reaction to the recent incident. Seigfried went on to say, “If Heathens of positive intent are tired of their traditions being connected to racist extremists, they need to actively shut down all this nonsense and lock their doors against those who promote these ideologies.”
Rudachyk strongly agreed, saying, “It is long past time that we as a community stop coddling the racist factions of our faith and cut them out like the cancer they are before they kill our faith with their poisonous beliefs.”
While the media and cultural problems faced by Heathens are not entirely unlike the problems faced by Witches and Wiccans, the struggle appears to be more similar to that faced by Muslims. There are real factions of society who are claiming to be “true” practitioners of the religion, and who commit atrocities in the name of that religion. Overall, these factions are minorities, but they are loud, and they are aggressive, and they are violent. Like many in the Muslim community, Heathens are looking for ways to solve this problem, and protect their religious practice from the inevitable backlash, trauma and bad press.
Heathens Against Hate wrote:
The people in the churches and synagogues are not our enemies. The enemies are those who bring shame to our communities through reprehensible actions. Heathens Against Hate is thankful that the FBI thwarted the efforts of these men and that no one was injured. Issues such as this underscore the importance of In-Reach Heathen Prison Services.
Along with education and In-Reach prison services, Heathens have also been looking to become more active in the interfaith world. The Troth and the Alliance for Inclusive Heathenry had their own booth at the Parliament of the World’s Religions. There were Heathen-specific workshops, and one group, the Urglaawe, maintained a healing altar.In its statement, Heathens United Against Racism wrote:
We call on all Heathens who feel as we do to join us in solidarity. We must all stand together for a truly hospitable, courageous, and honorable community against those who would twist the beliefs and ideas we hold dear into a hateful mockery of everything we, as Heathens, stand for.
Back in Virginia, two of the arrested men had their preliminary hearing Thursday, Nov. 12. As reported by the Roanoke Times, the men are being held without bond due to “their ties to a white supremacist group and potential danger to the community.” According to the report, the judge felt there was very “strong evidence” in the case and would not grant the defense any special conditions. The third man is schedule for a hearing today.