Over the past year, and especially since the Frith Forge conference in Germany, I’ve noticed increasing use and discussion of the term “inclusive Heathenry.”
It often seems more of a rebranding than a revolutionary concept. Practitioners of Ásatrú and Heathenry have long taken sides over issues of inclusion, with some taking hard stances on either end of the spectrum and many situating themselves in a complicated middle ground.
The battles that have raged for so long have been between positions that were often defined by the other side. The universalist position supposedly said that anyone could be Heathen – no questions asked. The folkish position supposedly said that only straight white people could be Heathen – with many questions asked.
Whether these two poles were really so clearly defined for all who identified with or were identified with them in past decades can be debated. What seems to be happening now is a real hardening of positions that parallels the current hardening of sociopolitical positions more generally.
On one hand, members of multiple marginalized groups have become much more vocal in their demands for visibility, self-determination, and voice in the larger national and international discussion. Members of the LGBTQ+ community, of religious minorities, and of refugee populations have used social media to force traditional media to cover their stories. Populations most affected by police brutality have used the omnipresence of mobile phones to document their abuse and make it public. Those who have traditionally been the subject of political debates have taken political action to force politicians to address their own concerns, and they have themselves run for political office across the United States. From Colin Kaepernick to Laverne Cox to Rana Abdelhamid, younger people are resolutely fighting for positive change.
On the other hand, followers of white nationalist and other extreme right ideologies have also become much more vocal in their demands for power, enforcement of “traditional” social structures, and silencing of voices in the wider discussion through threats of violence. Overtly white supremacist and neo-Nazi individuals and organizations have staged protest marches throughout the western world and used social media to terrorize those who speak out against hate and to manipulate major media into magnifying their voices. In California, Illinois, North Carolina, Virginia, and Wisconsin, self-proclaimed anti-Semites and white supremacists have campaigned for public office this year and, in some cases, won Republican primaries.
Words, not deeds
As often happens, trends in religion reflect trends in the larger society. It has become commonplace for Heathen organizations large and small to include formal inclusive statements on their social media pages and websites. Thor’s Oak Kindred, the group I lead in Chicago, uses typical verbiage:
Our members are kindred by choice and have chosen to embrace each other as family. We are proud of our diversity, and we stand against all discrimination on the basis of race, sex, orientation, identity, origin, ancestry, age, or ability.
Truth be told, such public statements are often disclaimers designed to distance the organization from white nationalist and overtly racist elements in the wider Heathen world. Much of the increased discussion of inclusiveness among Heathens is in reaction to the fact that the far right end of the Heathen spectrum has been following the far right end of the political spectrum in its move to increased stridency and dropping of dog whistles in favor of openly racist rhetoric.Stephen McNallen, founder and longtime leader of the Asatru Folk Assembly, is a case in point. After decades of distancing himself from white supremacists in interviews and using euphemistic language in his essays, he has openly aligned himself with white supremacist figures such as Richard Spencer and dropped the use of terms such as “European-descended peoples” and “people descended from the European tribes” in favor of declaring “white people” to be an embattled minority in threat of imminent extinction. The turn towards undeniably white nationalist rhetoric by McNallen and the younger leaders of his organization finally led the Southern Poverty Law Center to add the Asatru Folk Assembly to its list of hate groups in 2017.
The obvious overlap between right-wing Heathenry and far-right hate groups and its coverage by mainstream media has understandably driven declarations of inclusiveness by centrist and liberal Heathens. Especially for those of us who use our real names online when posting about Heathenry – as opposed to having accounts anonymized with Viking pseudonyms – and those of us who are openly Ásatrú in our professional lives, there are real consequences for being put in the same box as racist Heathens by a general populace that has no interest in parsing internal arguments in what they usually see as a fringe religion.
A university dean once told me to my face that my religion “has no validity.” The head of a national interfaith organization barred me from working with his organization after he found anti-Semitic rhetoric on a folkish Heathen website. Two professors of medieval studies told me that my critique of racism within their field was invalid because anyone studying Norse mythology must be doing so to promote white nationalism. The list goes on.
Now, I’m doing fine, but it’s undeniable that even those who should know better are happy to lump all Heathens in with the worst elements who associate themselves with Heathenry. It’s completely understandable that Heathens of positive intent would feel the need to make public declarations against bigotry.
Yet the question must be asked: what do these announcements, pronouncements, and denouncements accomplish? What is actually changed in the world by all of these declarations, exclamations, and proclamations?
Yes, we should make these public statements. We need to be sure that those declaring that straight whiteness is a prerequisite for participating in these religions aren’t allowed to dominate the discourse about them. This is good and necessary work, but will it change the minds of non-Heathens who tar us all with the same brush? Will writing blog posts about how awful racist Heathenry is really make a meaningful difference in offline life?
We can parse names, oaths, phrasing, slogans, manifestos, and hashtags until our fingers cramp from furious typing, yet both racist Heathens and non-Heathens who consider us all crypto-racists will still attack us on principle.
The determined insistence that “we are not Nazis” can also, at times, paste over the racism and bigotry within ourselves and our communities – prejudice that doesn’t openly fly the swastika, but permeates so much of society with a more shadowy and subtle presence. When reduced to “we are not that,” the resolute insistence that we are already inclusive can be used to shut down discussion of diversity that addresses the white elephant in rooms full of white people. The whiteness of inclusive Heathenry can sometimes be blinding.
Deeds, not words
I believe that we are our deeds, and I believe that our actions matter more than our intentions.
There is great value in crafting well-written and thoughtful statements to share with the wider public in print and online, but the words should be backed up with deliberate action. If we want to really send a strong message about inclusiveness in Heathenry and about the inclusive nature of Heathenry, we must take real steps to truly realize and reify inclusivity itself.
Rather than defining inclusive Heathenry in negative terms as “not racist and not Nazi,” let’s define it in positive terms to mean “celebrating the inclusion of diverse peoples in our communities both religious and secular.” Let’s show the world that we not only oppose exclusion in principle, but that we actively promote inclusion through our actions.
In 1913, Mohandas K. Gandhi wrote:
We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.
We should keep telling the world that we are inclusive, but we should also embrace inclusivity and live lives based upon it. Only by doing so and by taking the actions that logically follow can we truly change ourselves and the societies in which we live.I should clarify what I mean by taking action. I specifically mean setting aside the urge to write sternly worded online posts, to add virtual badges to profile pictures, to wear safety pins as markers of liberality, and to continue to situate ourselves in the world of symbolic gestures. I mean to take actual action, to do definite deeds, and to make our presence felt in the wider world in a way that promotes real inclusiveness.
Do you believe that hospitality for the guest is a value at the core of Heathenry? If so, let’s make that value manifest outside of our insular and tribal Heathen communities and truly live the ancient ideal in the modern world. Step up and support refugees by backing politicians who forward beneficial programs for them and by standing against government officials who harass, imprison, and abuse them. Provide financial support for refugee networks and centers that help those in need. Volunteer to teach, to provide child care, or to use whatever skill set is at your disposal. Our everyday world is bigger and more diverse than the Viking hall of old. Our sense of hospitality needs to be likewise larger and more inclusive.
Do you believe that wyrd weaves its way through generations? If so, let’s do the work to address the wrongs of the past, stand against the wrongs of the present, and take action for the benefit of the future. Ask the nearest Jewish community center for events and materials about the Holocaust, then invite other Heathens to attend and to study the materials. Volunteer to work for political candidates running against the self-avowed anti-Semites now running for political office. Show up to remove Nazi graffiti and to repair damage done to Jewish cemeteries and synagogues by far right extremists. The tired excuse that “I should not be held responsible for things that happened before I was born” is incompatible with belief in the workings of wyrd across generations.
Do you believe that Ásatrú and Heathenry are world-affirming religions? If so, let’s acknowledge that bigotry, injustice, and suffering are real forces of darkness in this world that can’t be prayed away. Let’s volunteer our help in whatever capacity we are able – legal work, office work, janitorial work, donations of funds earned through our own work – for the groups that are on the front lines fighting for equality, justice, and peace: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Indian College Fund, and all the other organizations that seek to raise peoples who have been pushed down by institutionalized racism throughout the centuries, who continue to be held down by the very institutions that so many of us continue to benefit from in some fashion. To truly affirm the world means to take action that affirms positive change in this world.
Do you believe that Ásatrú and Heathenry should be inclusive? If so, let’s put in the hard work to truly make them so. If your Heathen community, organization, or event is made up entirely of white people, contact the Heathen groups that include practitioners who come from Jewish, African, Hispanic, Latin American, and all other backgrounds, and ask them for advice on building a more inclusive religious community of your own. If you truly believe that the Old Gods do indeed call to good people of all backgrounds all around the world, ask yourself what is intrinsic to your own community that only attracts white people. I’m not talking about missionary work, despite the fact that many Heathen individuals and organizations actually do missionary work while calling it something else, like “public pub moots” or “inviting interested friends to blót.” I’m talking about real inclusion, about putting your belief that the gods can be heard by all open persons into practice, about actually including individuals from diverse backgrounds in your community. (If you ask, “Why would a black person, or a Latinx person, or a Jewish person be interested in Heathenry?” – you just might be folkish, after all.)
So there it is. I believe that inclusive Heathenry should be something centered on actively promoting and embracing inclusion. I believe that actions matter and that we live in an era when right action is needful. Do I myself need to do better at all the things discussed above? As a former vice presidential candidate famously declared, you betcha! We all do. Let’s lift each other up and do good in this world. Let’s stand for something positive, not just against something negative. Let’s work towards making inclusive Heathenry a truly diverse force that can change the world for the better.