My joy and pride in observing the rise of the Occupy-99% movement continues to bring a smile to my face. For this unexpected ray of hope in a time of such darkness and despair I do give heartfelt thanks! It has been sometime since I commented on anything distinctly Pagan, as I have been preoccupied with the cruel, brain-dead forces dominating our political life in recent months, but today I want to again speak of things Pagan and attempt to suggest some links to the Occupy movement.
Something I have observed and reflected on with growing concern for many years is a tendency in certain forms of modern-day Paganism to not merely value and seek to revive and revision religious traditions of the pre-Christian past, but to also idealize the social forms and norms of those past times. I am very comfortable with the religious motivation, but quite uncomfortable with the social agenda. Specifically, there is the idea, detectable in some forms of Asatru-Heathenry but also elsewhere, that the best thing for Pagans today is to return, to whatever degree possible, to the kind of tribal society of the medieval past or earlier. This society is romanticized as more heroic and more honorable than that of today, but is also valued, implicitly if not explicitly, for its more narrowly circumscribed ethnic horizons: "the good old days when we could be with people of our own kind." This often ties in with a sense of ethnic or ethno-national identity: "the religion (and society) of the Germans, the Swedes, the Russians, the _____ "(fill in the blank with ethnic or national group identity of your choice.)
What concerns me about this retro-tribalism is how well it lends itself to racial and ethnic exclusiveness, and ultimately, racial animosity. I know a good number of Astruar and other Pagans who do not see themselves as racist, who bear no particular grudge against people of other racial or ethnic backgrounds, who may be kind and warm with people of such backgrounds, but who fail, in my view, to grasp that despite their own good hearts and good intentions, their concern with ethnic identity and the tribal life of times past has a dangerous potential to function as a building block for the most hateful forms of racism, including such ugly developments as Nazism and neo-Nazism.
I have had repeated arguments with people from Asatru and other groups about this, and this posting will undoubtedly generate a few more, but I stand my ground. Anyone who reads late nineteenth century or early twentieth century texts like Vilhelm Gronbech's "Culture of the Teutons" which recount, and often romanticize, the myths and folklore of the Northmen/the Germans/the Scandinavians should be aware that certain lines of ethno-nationalistic thinking contained in such texts ultimately fed into Nazi beliefs about the master race and Nordic superiority. The extreme hatred for Jews, Roma, Slavs and others that fueled the Nazi death machine was predicated upon a sense that people of Germanic descent were fundamentally different from these others, fundamentally superior, and fundamentally in need of "lebensraum" or living space that would be cleansed of these unwanted others.
I have studied Old Norse. I have enjoyed and been inspired by the closest thing to sacred texts for Norse-Germanic Pagan traditions, the Eddas and the Sagas of Iceland. I have spent substantial time in Iceland, in fact, as well as other parts of Northern Europe, all of which are very dear to me. I have no problem with anyone wanting to rework the old religious traditions alluded to in those texts. I have made my own experiments in this area. Thus far I am on the same page as many other enthusiasts for recreating Germanic Paganism.
So what is my problem? It is my acute awareness that in today's multicultural, postcolonial, post-Holocaust, post-Hiroshima society, our heritage can never just be that of some chosen or assumed mono-ethnic identity from the distant past. As much as we may love having ancestors from this or that part of Europe or any other region of the world, our heritage did not stop developing in the year 1200 or whatever convenient cut-off point one may want to use to distinguish the imagined world of his/her Pagan ancestors from the world we live in today. Our heritage as modern people also includes slavery, colonialism, genocide, mass hatred, mass killing, mass ecological destruction, and a mixing of peoples, traditions, races, identities that would have been unimaginable 800 or 1000 years ago. To idealize that past society, to yearn to again be in an ethnically defined, ethnically exclusionary tribe, is at best a kind of escapism from modern social complexity, at worst an implicit, even if unacknowledged and unintentional endorsement of the same kind of ethnic and racial separatism that drove the Nazis.
My problem is I don't want to be a Nazi, nor a neo-Nazi, nor a supporter of nor a participant in anything remotely related or conducive to such hateful ideologies. As a child of the 20th century now living in the 21st, I see it as my heritage and responsibility to seek a positive way forward in the ethnically mixed, socially diverse, globalized world I live in. Retreating into an imagined past of ethnic purity that ignores the current day strikes me as silly at best, repulsive at worst.
Do I deserve then to call myself a Pagan or participate in Paganism? I have pretty much parted ways with American Asatru, because I encountered great hostility and experienced precious little satisfaction in attempting to discuss the above issues. I still struggle with how to take inspiration from religious traditions of the past without falling into the potential racism of retro-tribal agendas. I believe the only solution is through dialogue with a wide variety of religious traditions, in keeping with the ethnically and religiously pluralistic character of our world today. We may prefer the gods, the poems, the folklore of this or that tradition from this or that part of the world, but let us never forget that the world has opened and mixed many times since those traditions were first developed. Let us celebrate whatever god or gods or goddesses we find most meaningful, but also strive to see the meaning others find in theirs. Perhaps in time we can develop shared ritual forms that celebrate more than one tradition, that reach across the ghostly barriers of tribal, ethnic and national identity and animosity to embrace common humanity. I do believe that this is what the highest spirituality of any and all traditions, Pagan or not, calls us to.
I am inspired on this account by the Occupy Wall Street movement, with its coming together of many people from different backgrounds to seek the common good. Perhaps in time the day will come to occupy Paganism with a similar spirit.
Modern-day Paganism or Neo-Paganism means working with traditions remaining from the past. It should not mean being limited by them. A realization of common humanity is something from contemporary human experience, something nicely highlighted by the Occupy protests and encampments, that should be factored into that reworking. I say, make all humanity your tribe, and celebrate the day you did this!