On March 15, an Australian white nationalist committed terrorist attacks during Friday prayer at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Fifty people between the ages of two and 71 were killed in the attacks, and 50 more were injured. The shooter’s rambling 73-page manifesto contained a confused mess of talking points from the white nationalist online milieu. He was arrested within minutes of the first emergency call and prevented from committing a planned attack at a third location.
How should individuals and organizations of positive intent respond to disgusting hate crimes such as these? Is it enough to post online statements denouncing the attacks, or are such declarations simply the equivalent of “sending thoughts and prayers”? Is there a way to move from being reactive to being proactive regarding the reality of white nationalist terrorism today?
“See you in Valhalla”
In his manifesto, the shooter claims that he contacted the “reborn Knights Templar” and received their blessing for his attacks. He references Urban II, the pope who began the Crusades in which the original Knights Templar were notorious participants. He writes that his relationship to Christianity is “complicated.”
It was another line in the manifesto, though, that caused a groundswell of reaction from Heathen communities: “Goodbye, god bless you all and I will see you in Valhalla.” As reported in The Wild Hunt, the final words of this sentence are the only mention of Norse mythology or Heathen religions in the shooter’s text.
Heathen organizations were quick to post statements that brush aside the Christian elements of the manifesto, assert a connection between the shooter and modern Heathenry, then deny the connection of the shooter to their own organizations and iterations of Heathenry.
Is this the right way to go about things? Like parental posts about the supposed “Momo scare” leading to an actual Momo scare, are Heathens creating a connection to Heathenry that the shooter himself did not?
In an era of multimillion-dollar Thor films, popular viking-themed television shows, the Norse-themed God of War game topping sales charts, and viking metal bands headlining international festivals, it’s strange for American Heathens to assert ownership of the mythological Valhalla. It’s likewise strange for Heathens in the United States to accuse white nationalists with runes on their materials of “appropriating Heathen symbols”; do modern American Pagans really own an alphabet developed in Europe two thousand years ago?
Indeed, the arrival in the United States of Else Christensen’s overtly racist Odinism predates the founding of national universalist Heathen organizations by nearly twenty years. Aside from the weirdness of Americans claiming ownership of medieval Icelandic literature and ancient Germanic writing systems, racist Heathenry was up and running long before inclusive Heathenry. Maybe the “appropriation” argument isn’t the best way to combat white nationalism.
In any case, this is the question at hand: are declarations after hate crimes really the best response to rising white nationalist violence?
“No longer associate”
Within hours of the Christchurch attacks, an online statement appeared that condemns the violence. It now lists nearly fifty Heathen and Pagan organization as signatories. This is good. This is right. These groups should be saluted for making this statement.
We have been here before, though. We have seen long lists of Heathen organizations denouncing violence, hate, and racism. We have seen strongly worded posts on Facebook and hashtags on Twitter. Yet here we are, standing among the ruins.
In 2016 – decades after the publication of Stephen McNallen’s “Metagenetics,” which outlined the racist foundations of folkish Ásatrú (“an expression of the soul of our race”), and very shortly after an Ásatrú Folk Assembly (AFA) Facebook post about “beautiful white children” – Declaration 127 was posted online to denounce the AFA, an organization McNallen founded.
To date, nearly two hundred Ásatrú, Heathen, Pagan, and associated other organizations, businesses, and websites have signed on. My website, The Norse Mythology Blog, is listed. The key statement of the declaration is this (italics in the original): “We will not promote, associate, or do business with the AFA as an organization so long as they maintain these discriminatory policies.” The declaration also states, “We hereby declare that we do not condone hatred or discrimination carried out in the name of our religion, and will no longer associate with those who do.”
What have the results of Declaration 127 been? Maybe adoption of the first line quoted above means there has been a reduction in Heathen groups “do[ing] business with the AFA as an organization” at official, public, and publicized levels of cooperation. But what about the second line, and what about the individual level? In the past three years, have the members of the signatory organizations lived up to their public declaration to “no longer associate” with Heathens who “condone hatred or discrimination carried out in the name of our religion?”
I have repeatedly heard members and leaders of signatory groups insist that “folkish doesn’t mean racist,” that they have good friends in the AFA, that inclusive Heathens should welcome AFA members to join their organizations, that it is better to include racist Heathens (in order to convert them to a less hateful ideology) than it is to denounce them as racist (which would break the peace of the community), and that even asking if their organization’s members are also in hate groups or associate with those who are is the same as calling for a “witch hunt.”
If public statements like Declaration 127 and those after the Christchurch shootings don’t actually result in real change on the ground, within our communities, in our individual lives, and in the relationships we have (or don’t), what are they really for?
I worry that they are more about disassociating the signees from racism and white nationalism than they are about actually combating racists and white nationalists. I worry that they are more about insisting “I’m not racist!” than they are about driving racists out of our communities and our lives. I worry that they are more about protecting the signatories from the consequences of public association with white nationalism than they are about truly fighting the white nationalists who pledge allegiance to the same gods.
If the word Valhalla had not been included in the Christchurch terrorist’s manifesto, would the many Heathen groups who have denounced the attack have stepped forward and started petitions? Is this really about standing against anti-Muslim rhetoric, Islamophobic violence, and incitement against immigrants as “invaders?” Or is it really about convincing the wider public that racism and white nationalism aren’t deeply interwoven into the past and present of modern Heathenry?
I’ve been thinking a lot about declarations versus deeds, and about community statements versus concrete steps. Instead of reacting after the fact to the violent result of white nationalism on the international stage, what can we do to truly fight its cancerous presence in our own communities?
Things we can do
1. If we are going to make declarations, we should declare that “folkish does mean racist.” For any who still believe that folkish Heathenry isn’t inherently grounded in white nationalism, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s discussion of what they call neo-völkisch ideology is a good place to begin learning about the long history of the movement.
2. We should stop using folkish terminology. Using the term the folk in rituals and publications (“Hail the folk!”), whether defining the term as “our Heathen ancestors” or “the people of northern Europe,” forwards the core doctrine of racist Heathenry – the idea that DNA and religion are inherently connected – as does waxing poetic about “our glorious Heathen forebears of the North.” If a given group defines the folk as “practitioners of modern Heathenry” or “members of this particular Heathen group,” there are plenty of other terms to use that didn’t enter Heathenry via the folkish promotion of völkisch ideology.
3. We should rethink our approaches to ancestor veneration. If the results of a mail-away ancestry test convince someone that they have a deep spiritual connection to the five percent of their DNA that is supposedly Norwegian, that person is subscribing to the foundational bloodline-religion conceit of “Metagenetics.” For example, in my group, Thor’s Oak Kindred, we practice a form of the round to the ancestors that isn’t based on blood; we define ancestor to mean anyone who is no longer alive and whom we want to thank or salute – no shared DNA needed.
4. We should live up to the spirit of Declaration 127. We should take the list of neo-völkisch hate groups to heart and ban members of these associations from attending our events and joining our organizations. We should enact zero tolerance policies for racist comments, anti-immigrant rhetoric, and Islamophobic “jokes.” One strike and out. No more overlooking this nonsense in the interest of peace.
5. We should embrace affirmative action to build diversity. Declaring that our organizations are inclusive is not the same as being part of diverse religious communities. Many American Heathens believe in prison ministries that interface with overtly racist incarcerated Heathens, ostensibly in the hope of converting them to a less racist form of the religion. If Heathens are okay with missionaries seeking to recruit racists or save souls in prison, it’s difficult to understand why they would be opposed to actively seeking out non-white Heathens and bringing them into their practicing groups. This isn’t about recruiting one person of color and featuring their photo on an organization’s social media accounts. If Heathenry isn’t a religion for white people, our religious communities should naturally reflect the diversity of the United States. If our organizations and events are full of white people exclusively, we need to ask what we’re doing that has built a de facto exclusive religious community.
6. We should diversify Heathen presence at wider Pagan and interfaith events. We should refuse to be part of or attend all-white panel discussions on Heathen issues. We should let organizers know that such presentations are no longer acceptable. I encourage any who feel that this is calling for tokenism to embrace that feeling and follow it to its logical conclusion. If the idea of including, for example, African-American or Latinx Heathens on a panel discussing Heathen issues is offensively tokenist, take steps to fight tokenism. Pledge to only support Heathen workshops, presentations, and panels featuring exclusively non-white practitioners for the next decade. To very loosely paraphrase Ruth Bader Ginsburg, if Heathens weren’t offended by the past fifty years of exclusively white Heathen presenters, why would they be shocked by ten years of exclusively non-white presenters?
7. We should end the emphasis on Valhalla and fixation on warriors and weapons. Whether valorizing members of modern militaries as “vikings” headed to Valhalla, or celebrating the violent raids of the Viking Age as intrinsically connected to Heathenry, we are engaging in a celebration of violence that does, in fact, align us with the white nationalists. I understand the positive intent behind post-Christchurch statements that “there is no hate in Valhalla,” but we shouldn’t pretend that the lore presents playing tiddlywinks as the entrance exam for entering Odin’s hall. Valhalla was a place for violent men who died violent deaths and practiced violence daily in the afterlife to prepare for further future violence. It’s difficult to claim this isn’t a religion that celebrates violence if we are, in fact, celebrating violence.
8. We should support the reform of gun laws. Within a week of the Christchurch terrorist attacks, New Zealand’s prime minister announced strengthened gun laws and a ban on “military-style semi-automatic weapons, assault rifles and high-capacity magazines.” The change invalidates existing gun licenses, and the country’s Cabinet has announced amnesty for those who hand in their weapons as part of a buyback program. Is the strain of libertarianism so strong in American Heathenry that we can’t back even the most widely supported common sense reforms in order to decrease the number of people who die each year at the hands of white nationalist terrorists?
9. We should cooperate with news media and law enforcement agencies investigating white nationalists in our communities. If our goal is not to simply protect our public image as “not racist,” but is instead to actually combat this pernicious scourge, we should be ready to both shine a light on the problem and take steps to fix it. There are readily available resources on both preventing and reporting hate crimes in our communities.
10. We should oppose Heathen rants about Abrahamic religions. Maybe someone had horrible experiences growing up Christian; maybe someone is still mad about Charlemagne’s holy war against the pagan Saxons. But attacking any Heathen who holds a different view by calling them a crypto-Christian, denouncing the Abrahamic faiths as “stranger creeds” or “desert religions,” and saying that Muslim refugees “refuse to accept our values,” makes fellow-travelers of Heathens and some of the grossest groups discussed in Mattias Gardell’s Gods of the Blood: The Pagan Revival and White Separatism. We have to stand against this rhetoric before it leads to yet more violence.
I understand that many may see these suggestions as extreme, empty, or both. These are simply suggestions of how we can avoid being sucked into an endless cycle of violence and denunciation. We can pick one or many of these suggestions and try to implement them. We can throw these all out and come up with completely different ways forward.
The only necessary thing is that we do something beyond denying that we have any connection to or responsibility for the violence that is increasingly part of our everyday lives.
We can act to make a real difference – or we can wait for another terrorist attack, then send thoughts and prayers.