What does “political” mean?
There’s been a lot of argument on the Pagan internet lately about whether Paganism and Polytheism are political, per se, or whether we need to have political-free zones in Paganism.
Some of the confusion has to do with definitions. When people hear “politics”, they tend to think of political candidates, elections, and voting. And they think about people arguing about political candidates, elections, and voting. And, really, who wants to have that at your next Lughnasadh ritual or in your devotional ritual to Lugh?
But politics is a lot more than elections and voting. It’s even more than signing petitions, boycotting products, and marching in the streets. Politics is about power: who gets to use it and when and how. Politics is how we decide who has power … and who doesn’t. Carl von Clausewitz famously wrote that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” If we flip that around, we see that politics is how we peacefully (more or less) resolve the question of who gets to exercise power over whom.
When politics is understood in this way, then it’s easier to see that there is really no place or zone that is free of politics. Not the marketplace. Not school. Not church. And not your Pagan and Polytheist circles.
Why? Because all of these places are permeated my complex power relationships, and in all of these places, we are either working to reform these power relationships or we are reinforcing the status quo by our passivity. You’re either doing one or the other. There’s no escaping it. And if you’re not doing it consciously, then it’s happening implicitly, in the background of all you words and actions.
Privilege makes politics invisible
And this is why statements like “Gods before politics” reinforce white, male, hetero-, and cis- privilege. And this is why the notion that there should be non-political spaces in Paganism is so insidious. The idea can sound very reasonable — especially when it is delivered in a calm and equanimous fashion to others similarly situated. So much of privileged talk is like this. While those who are less privileged seem to be railing about invisible powers.
It’s easy to say there should be non-political spaces when your existence is not perpetually under threat by virtue of your difference, by virtue of your conformity to white, male, hetero-, cis-normativity. But if you are female, if you are a person of color, if you are queer, or gay, or lesbian, or if you are trans, or if you are disabled, then there is no such thing as a non-political space for you. Because almost everywhere you go, you are being told implicitly, if not explicitly, that you do not belong, that you do not have the same rights as others, that the exercise of power over you by privileged others is right and justified and deity-sanctioned.
Ginger Drekisdottir explained this well in an article entitled, “Paganism is Personal, and that’s what makes it Political”:
“There are groups in Western society which are systematically oppressed: women, people of colour, LGBT people, disabled people, the list sadly goes on and on. These groups are […] oppressed through the very structures which make up our society […]
“For members of these oppressed groups, our daily lives can often be a struggle just to survive, a struggle to carve out a space to live, a constant fight to demand that our lives have just as much value as others. We live these fights just through carrying on with our normal lives, every time we go out to the shops or to see friends, through carrying on breathing; as well as through our activism.
“[…] for oppressed people it is these continued struggles in the face of systems of oppression which make our personal lives political. Yes many of us do activism, engage in demonstrations, engage in direct actions or even the dreaded party politics I mentioned above; but continuing to exist in the light of a system saying that you are lesser, that your life is worth less than others simply because of who you are is just as political. We can’t just shed these aspects of our identities when we step into a space, even a Pagan space.”
In a recent post, entitled “Why the Gods Come Before Politics”, John Beckett tries to make the case for non-political spaces in Pagan and Polytheist circles. Interestingly, in the process of trying to make his point, Beckett actually disproves it when he says that “there are limits”. He writes:
“There is no place for racism in Paganism and polytheism – Stephen McNallen is not welcome at any circle I lead. There is no place for transphobia in Paganism and polytheism – Ruth Barrett is not welcome at any circle I lead.”
That is a political position, an explicit one. And every time Beckett holds a circle and explicitly or implicitly communicates that racism and transphobia are not welcome in his circle, he is being political.
Consider another recent example, when the Pagan Federation of Ireland was recently asked by a couple of Odinists for help finding a Pagan clergy member to marry them “who only performs heterosexual ceremonies and refrains from marrying those of mixed races,” and the Pagan Federation responded:
“We are most happy to report that none of our clergy subscribe to your views on mixed race or gay marriage, and so we cannot assist you in your upcoming visit to Ireland.
“Yours very sincerely, Everyone at Pagan Federation Ireland.”
That was a political action. If the Pagan Federation had helped the Odinists find a racist, homophobic clergy-person to conduct their wedding, that would have been a political action too. And (pay attention now) if the Pagan Federation had just ignored the request, that would have been a political action too.
The next time someone tells you their Paganism is not political (or the next time you think it yourself), ask whether they would welcome a Neo-Nazi to their ritual or place a swastika on their altar. If the the answer is “no”, then ask them why. Their answer will inevitably be political — because it has to do with who has power and who does not. If they say “yes”, then ask how they think a Black person would feel at their ritual or standing before their altar, and whether they care, and why or why not. That answer will inevitably be political too. We are being political whether we are conscious of it or not.
Is your Pagan circle explicitly open to LGBTs? Is so, congratulations, your circle is political. If not, shame on you, but your circle is political too — it’s implicitly political. Has your Polytheist group declared that Black Lives Matter? If so, good job, your group is political. If not, you need to wake up, but your group is still political.
The luxury of being “non-political”
Only a white, male, heterosexual, cis-gendered, able-bodied person like me, or like John Beckett, could really believe that such non-political spaces exist. As Kiya Nicoll wrote in the comments to Drekisdottir’s essay:
Only people like Becket and me have the privilege or the luxury of being (or seeming to be) non-political. We have that luxury because every aspect of society is structured so as to make us feel empowered and diminish our discomfort. We have that privilege because the people who exercise power in our society look like us, and act like us, and love like us. And because of that, we can believe in the myth of non-political spaces. Other people don’t have that privilege. What I perceive as politically neutral spaces are in fact highly adversarial spaces for people who do not look like me or love like me.
Not to mention, we have the luxury of being “non-political” only because two generations of Pagans have fought for our political right to be Pagan and openly so. We still have a lot of work to do to secure our rights as Pagans, but we’ve come a long way. If we we couldn’t hold open Pagan circles or if Christianity were the national religion, I wonder how “non-political” Pagans would be then!
If you’re not being consciously and intentionally political, then you being unconsciously and non-intentionally political. And I think there are good reason, good Pagan reasons, for favoring the former over the latter, for favoring conscious activism over unconscious conformity to the status quo. In fact, I think the definition of an “activist” is simply someone who performs their politics actively and explicitly, rather than passively and implicitly.
Beckett writes “Good religion has both an internal focus (becoming better people) and an external focus (building a better world).” He’s right about that. Where he’s wrong is thinking that one of these is political and the other isn’t. Both inner work and external activism are political. Being political isn’t just about working to change the world; it’s also about working to change ourselves too. And some of that work has to do with recognizing our privilege and learning how to use it for good, rather than perpetuating the status quo.
The politics of the gods
Beckett is right that we all need to do spiritual work, to stay connected to our source. If activists don’t engage in self-care, if we don’t stay connected to the source of our inspiration and energy, then we burn out. But it’s not a question of whether to perform devotions to our gods or get out in the street and march. We need both, obviously. But if you think you’re not being political when your praying to your gods, then you’re deluding yourself. Think about it … What are you praying for? Are you asking for help to make the world a more just and peaceful place? Or are you only praying for more divine favors for yourself, to keep what you have, and get more for yourself? If it’s the former, then you’re being political. If it’s the latter, you’re being political, too — just in a bad way.
And what about our gods? Do yours gods bear an uncanny resemblance to you? If your gods are Black or queer, then your choice of gods is political, because it is a challenge to the status quo. And if you’re white, male, heterosexual, cis-gendered, and able-bodied, and your gods are too, well then, your choice of gods is also political. If it’s because you’re avoiding cultural appropriation, that’s political. But if it’s because it’s what you were drawn to, then that’s political too, implicitly. And if you tell me your gods chose you, not the other way around, and that their resemblance to you is purely coincidental … well, I would invite you to look more closely at that.
Consider these images, which were among the first that came up when I Googled “Pagan god” …