In an interview Tuesday night, 15th September 2009, on NBC news, former President Jimmy Carter gave a courageous political analysis in which he asserted that racism lay at the root of some of the most vociferous opposition to President Obama that has been erupting in recent months in strange,furious and feverish forms, like the notion of some that he is not really an American, has a phony birth certificate, is actually an African, or is actually a Muslim, etc. etc. I have long believed President Carter to be one of the most sincere, intelligent and far-sighted leaders America has ever had, as evidenced by his ability to guide peace negotiations between Israel and Egypt to a successful conclusion back in 1978, and his declaration of the need for America to radically rethink its approach to energy consumption in light of the energy crises of the 1970s. He put in place all manner of programs to promote alternative energy, wind power, solar power, and so forth, charting a course that could have led us to energy independence if such forward-looking programs had not been discontinued by Ronald Reagan and never fully revived by any subsequent president.
To come back to the present time, I think Carter has once again spoken out with characteristic intelligence and insight about a very troubling social problem that continues to plague America: the legacy of racism that never seems to completely disappear, only to go underground and mutate into new forms. Back when many white liberals like myself were jumping for joy that a black American could finally be accepted as a serious candidate for the presidency, many of my African-American friends and colleagues were concerned about what might happen if Obama were to actually succeed in becoming president. Their concerns ranged from fear that he would be assassinated to less clearly defined worries that there would be some kind of backlash against Barack Obama coming from angry white Americans experiencing "fear of a black planet." In the exhilaration of Obama's successful campaign and the afterglow that followed his election, I tended to dismiss their anxieties. Now I understand better what their antennae were picking up on.
As a Pagan, I want no part of this. My anger at these recent eruptions of racism puts steel in my spine to call for any and all Pagans who have an ounce of conscience and any capacity for empathy and self-reflection to take very seriously the dangerous potential for forms of Paganism derived from native European religious traditions to take on racist overtones and become vehicles for racism, even if--ESPECIALLY BECAUSE--this may happen unintentionally and unconsciously.
I am confident that the vast majority of Pagans I have known either in Norse or Baltic Pagan groups or other forms as well are not racists and bear no ill will toward people with non-European ethnic backgrounds. However, the problem of unintentional and unconscious racism arises when Pagan religious groups formally or informally define their religious communities in ways that exclude or discourage people from other ethnic backgrounds from joining in as full and equal members, even if the exclusion is unintentional or unconscious. I would argue that such exclusion includes NOT INVITING people of other backgrounds. In an often racially polarized world, some effort to reach out is necessary if you actually want to form relations across racial barriers and boundaries.
To my thinking, Asatru/Heathenry/Norse Paganism has a special responsibility in this area because the Norse Pagan tradition was--it cannot be denied--used by the Nazis in the past to support their cruel and vicious racial policies. It is true that this was a horrible twisting of Scandinavian and Germanic folklore and mythology, and I am working on a project to specifically denounce this kind of falsification and manipulation, but the fact is, the legacy was established, and now needs to be fully deconstructed and rejected at every opportunity. Assuming the Norse gods have any need at all for anything from humans, I think they would appreciate having their reputation defended more than almost any kind of offering that might be presented to them. This remains an urgent matter today because modern-day far right and neo-Nazi groups continue to make allusions to Norse gods and traditions, and to not fight back against that kind of appropriation could be perceived by the wider public as a tacit or indirect endorsement. I know some Heathens or Asatruar get sick of hearing about this issue, but I think this is truly a sacred duty, which we shirk at our peril.
Furthermore, I would argue that the idea among many Pagans, particularly though not only Heathens, that their project of reconstructing ancient, pre-Christian religious traditions should include some attempt at recreating the tribal society of ancient times, is a misguided and dangerous idea that plays right into the hands of hard right racism and neo-Nazism, like it or not. This passion for tribalism seems to be particularly strong in the USA, and I have been less aware of it in my discussions with Northern European Pagans, but I imagine it exists in other places as well. The argument is, the old religion was followed by people living in tribal communities, so we should do the same. Well, I would say, hold on a minute. The old religion was practiced by people who practiced human sacrifice, by people who had slaves, by people who followed a medieval lifestyle without electricity, without plumbing, without computers, electronic entertainment, or pizza, without any number of things that we take for granted, including the English language, and I do not see that it is necessary for us to completely recreate all of that lifestyle in order to participate in spiritual traditions laid out in ancient myths and other sources.
We no longer live in a closed, tribal world, and I believe that most people, including most Pagans, would agree that we are far the better off for it. Our range of social and cultural opportunities is infinitely rich and stimulating, and why would we want to purposely reject that and seek a more insular and limited way of life? What is the great attraction of tribalism? I fear that in some cases, it is....racism. Perhaps unconscious racism based simply on a discomfort with "different" people, but racism nonetheless. The desire to shut out diversity, to be only with "one's own kind," to conceive of and believe in gods that supposedly only care about people of "our" ethnic background.
As I understand old European myths, they are not racially oriented. They speak of cosmic realities, not tribal boundaries. In the Norse tradition, Yggdrasil is the "world tree," not the Norwegian or German tree. It shelters ALL beings, not just certain fair-skinned people with blond hair, blue eyes and a limitless hunger for herring. Odin is called the "All-father;" what is the "all" about? These are just two examples of how there are strands in Norse tradition, as in other European traditions, that suggest a movement toward very broad thinking and universalism even in ancient times.
However, I will acknowledge that it is certainly possible to interpret the old gods and religious traditions in a narrow, tribal way, with respect to the undeniable fact that these old traditions were often only followed within certain regions, among certain groups of people who shared a common language, who had often lived in the same villages for many generations. My feeling, though, is that an originally tribal, medieval religion transplanted to modern times need not remain tribal and medieval, but can and should be adapted to the conditions of modern society, which are globalized and multiethnic.
I know that some of my old Pagan friends and acquaintances may disagree with my desire for a multiethnic Paganism, and I accept their right to have that point of view, and to be as medieval and tribal as they please, but I hope they will listen to the more basic point that unless they are able to intelligently, convincingly and consistently reject racism and explain why their ethnically exclusive Paganism is not a form of racism, the more will they earn a reputation as either actual or at least unconscious racists. Again, I am NOT saying that these people are racists. I am saying that appearances are important, and that when we are called to account, we all need to be able to explain ourselves, and to act in ways that match our proclamations. Simply saying "We are not racists!" means little if it is not matched by actions that counter racism, or if it is obviously contradicted by actions that suggest racism.
I am however determined to develop a different Pagan path, and I am grateful that on this blog, I am meeting up with people who share a similar perspective. I pledge myself to the effort to move Beyond Tribalism and Toward Universalism. Can this be done with an originally European-based Paganism? Yes, I think so, and future entries will explore this, hopefully with the active input of blog readers.