Pagans and Money

Pagans and Money February 25, 2014

Pantheacon, a sort of ‘gathering of the tribes,’ is a place where one can get a sense of the modern, American, neo-Pagan zeitgeist. Yes, the blogosphere also helps with this, but it’s the conversations that go on after the panels are over, the ones occurring in hospitality suites and hallways, that alert careful listeners to the conversations we’re not having as a community. This year there were two panels that aimed to address some of this: Pagans & Privilege, moderated by T Thorn Coyle, and Pagans & Wiccanate Privilege. I did not attend either. It wasn’t for lack of interest, but my pregnant self needed to nap quite frequently.

I would like to wade into the discussions and encourage us, as interlinked communities (which is how I view Large Tent Paganism), to start having the difficult conversations. Ultimately, I don’t think we’re really debating who (or what) is a Pagan or who is a true polytheist. I think we’re debating what and where our communities are headed. To do this we need to start talking about various aspects of privilege.

We can debate what privilege is, who has it and why until we’re blue in the face. I am writing from the assumption that various aspects of self – some we choose, some we don’t – provide us with more or less status and power within the overculture. -Isms are real.

Let me fling disclaimers left and right: I do not think I am the best person or the most well-equipped person to write about these topics. I do not think there are any ‘right’ answers. I think that without facing our own assumptions, personally and communally, I will continue to hear hospitality suite confessions – I mean, discussions – on these topics. And, boy, do people feel passionate, conflicted and confused about these topics!

To start with, I’d like to face what I see as the most difficult topic first: Money.

In my experience, much of the Pagan world is middle to working class. Many are living at or near the poverty-level. But the 1% is not, to my knowledge, represented in our community – and if they are, they ain’t slumming it at the DoubleTree. There are a lot of heavy critiques that can be laid against the class system and the, in my mind, absurd way we break incomes into various categories. Like the nuclear family, I find ‘the middle class’ to be a convenient and misleading lie. And yet, some of us are more financially secure than others.

We need to dig deep and explore our own biases around money, poverty, and wealth. Do our gods care? My opinion is that our gods don’t care how much money we have, they want to know what we’re doing with it. Why is it that the only time money is discussed at Pagan gatherings it is usually in the form of ’10 Spells for Prosperity’? I have a sneaking suspicion that we all want more money, more of the access to forms of power and ease that it can bring, yet as a community and as individuals we’re conflicted. We don’t want to compromise our values and ‘give in’ to corrupt, over-culture values to get it.

However, conflict has been occurring when those values run up against wider expressions of those same values – for example, trans* acceptance in women’s or men’s mysteries. When we are free to be women, what does that mean? Who gets to be a woman? What is appropriate for public ritual space vs private practice? These are also questions of privilege, inclusion vs exclusion.

Exclusion is sometimes appropriate. At a Feri initiation it would be inappropriate to have anyone other than other Feri present. I’m guessing other traditions have similar boundaries and times of exclusion. But public forms of exclusion are usually a form of ‘Othering.’

Not until a sunny day in the forests of the Santa Cruz area, during a weekend Feri training, did I realize these questions of inclusion and exclusion were also occurring around the issue of money. We were working on the earth element. Stability, material wealth, security, money – these are some of the things often associated with the earth element. For part of our discussion series our fearless leader had us address the topic of money. We were going around in a circle talking about what money meant to us, our feelings, fears, and desires. Most people talked about how hard it is makes ends meet in the San Francisco Bay Area, their struggles, their debt, etc. But the conversation began to make a turn – from personal experience to one about ‘those people.’ ‘Those people’ being the wealthy. ‘Those people’ who hired housekeepers, who drove fancy cars, who had no problem paying their taxes or traveling abroad for birthday trips or whatever it is upper middle class and wealthy people do. ‘Those people’ were spoken of as if they were – gasp – on the same plane as Republicans (oh, may the heavens help you if you are a Republican in Berkeley!). Eventually one member of our class, a kind gentleman who flew in from another state for our classes, a man who worked as a highly trained scientist or engineer (I can’t remember which) spoke up.

“Do you realize that you’re speaking about me? I make a lot of money for what I do. My wife and I have a housekeeper, so that we can have more time together and have more time for community events. I give to charity. I support my community.”

Our circle had just Othered one of our own. By finding solidarity through Othering among friends who also struggle, we had just alienated our classmate, our friend. There was a sort of glorification of near-poverty level living and a bitterness at how hard it was to make ends meet. So if it’s bitter work, why do we glorify it and why do we tear down people who aren’t struggling in this way? There is nothing glorious about being poor. Who likes not being able to pay their bills?

Nature is calming. Here, have a picture of a fire road in the Santa Cruz mountains. By Grey3k (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Nice things are nice. Eating good food, exploring this amazing world of ours, hearing and seeing live shows, buying exquisite books, wearing clothes that fit, access to quality health care – I would like to do more of these things! I would like to support the work of artists and writers in our communities. Among us are metal workers, healers, medicine makers, jewelry makers, tattoo artists, visual artists, musicians, writers, wood workers, weavers, farmers, bee keepers: I want to support your work! I want to support local, independent, and community causes. But I need money to do so.Money itself is not the problem. Money is a tool. Yes, there are many ways we can support each other that aren’t monetary: we can barter, we can cross-promote, we can provide tangible forms of support in times of crisis or need. But mostly? We need to pay our rents, buy our food and gas, and pay off our student loans with money.

My own family walks a fine line financially. We’re self-employed, which means we have a lot of flexibility in how we organize the hours of our day – perfect for raising a family. Being self-employed also means that finding and affording health insurance has been especially hellish. Our children qualify for medicaid, but my husband and I don’t. Trying to find a pediatrician that will accept medicaid has been difficult, time consuming, and rather insulting. Most places won’t take new patients on this form of insurance. My knee-jerk reaction is “But we’re not poor! How dare you reject me!” Hello privilege check. While my husband and I face certain obstacles by doing our best to opt out of certain accepted middle-class practices, we are privileged in that we can opt out at all. Our skills, education, and yes, family safety net, allow us to pursue a life on the margins (in spite of looking very mainstream), one that I call radical homemaking.

Some people don’t see how all of our choices are intertwined and the various levels of sacrifice that may or may not be required. I lost a friend over my inability to afford health insurance. She insisted that with children it was irresponsible not to have insurance (even though we’d only moved back to the US only 6 months before) and we just needed to suck it up and find a job outside our home. But do so would require us to have a second car (expensive and not in line with our environmental values), possibly put the children in child care (extra expenses), spend less time together (a choice that we value), and incur commuting costs and stress for one, if not both, of us, among other consequences. We would actually both need to work, compromising our spiritual practices, family life, health and environmental values – all for one bureaucratic benefit: health insurance.

A month after this friend and I agreed to part ways, my family found mediocre insurance we could (barely) afford. The conversation with this friend highlighted for me the privileges my family had in opting out of several middle class assumptions of how life should be lived, and the sacrifices and hits we had to take live lives aligned as a greater whole.

It is HARD WORK for a person to find a way to pay bills that is in alignment with our values. It is HARD WORK and damn near impossible to walk the talk in every single arena of life. There is a level of privilege in assuming that all of us can even do so. As I said in my Maxim Monday post on acquiring goods justly, if we’re worried about even affording shoes for our children, seeking out the most fair-trade, environmentally sound shoe isn’t an option.

My own experiences and the conversations I had at PCon lead me to a very specific question: How can we as a community stop Othering each other? Either rich or poor? Pagans joke about how cheap we are. Yet many of us are donating to a vast array of charities and causes. Many people don’t have the money, but have the time to give. Can we support one another in our various struggles? Can we encourage each other to find solutions, jobs, networking, whatever it may be that are in alignment with our values? Can we do these things without judging each other?

How can we build structures of support that will allow and encourage us to grow financially in ways that are nourishing personally and communally? We all have various forms of privilege. How can we use our privileges to support one another, rather than to exclude or alienate?

I don’t have the answers. But I do know that it isn’t found in calling anyone ‘those people.’


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  • I’ve been poor and I’ve been reasonably comfortable. I’m wary of judgment based on money; I’ve heard the harsh criticisms of the rich, and also some New Agey judgment about money problems being a sign of “issues” or not having your life in order.

    How can we stop Othering each other, indeed? Every time I leave the South, I brace myself for people hearing my accent and making judgments, or sometimes going out of their way to make me uncomfortable. It has happened to me several times at Pagan events. It *didn’t* happen last time I was in Washington, because y’all are awesome like that.

    • Sara-We should connect. I’m from the south (Atlanta) and live in Washington now. Hugs, I hear ya. I’m judged on my accent probably more than I know 😉

      • Heh. I’m about to be in Seattle for AWP. Flying out tonight. LOCK UP YOUR BOOZE, THE WRITERS ARE COMING!

    • There is no inherent moral value in being either rich or poor. I wish we’d stop assuming that one set of resources was more blessed than the other.

  • This series is SO exciting!
    One of the complications of the matter of money, methinks, is that we are not generally well-versed in critiques of Capitalism except as they filter down to us through the media or other people, in the same way that many people who speak about privilege may only have a “popular” understanding of the post-colonial thought from which such notions derive.
    From a Marxist and Anarchist perspective, your co-religionist isn’t actually an “other,” only one who benefits more from the system than the rest of you may have. From your description, he wasn’t a Capitalist (that is, someone who hires other people to make money on his behalf), so he is not actually oppressing anyone or contributing to the continuation of an unfair system. That he is rewarded more in this system than a social worker or a janitor is a symptom of the inequality of the system, not an inherent inequality he himself enacts. Because he is compensated more than others who might do more physically taxing work (science is mentally difficult but will rarely break your knees or back like housekeeping), he may have an interest in maintaining the inequalities of the system (the “buy-out” of the bourgeoisie), but that doesn’t mean he does wish to sustain those inequalities!
    Forgetting those aspects is what leads us, I suspect, to see others as potential enemies before we’ve even met them. However, ignoring the very real inequality which serves to maintain the state of poverty amongst people (and I’m willing to assert that many of us Pagans, because we do not fit into “productive society” and so many of us come from epic poverty qualify as the oppressed) is no answer either.
    You’ve just given me another reason to start work on the book I vowed I’d write this year–A Pagan’s Guide to Capitalism. : )

    • Ohmygoodness, YES. Please, oh please, write that book!

      But there’s some assumption here that Pagans are actually interested in deconstructing the system, and not gaining comfortable acceptance within (a lefty corner of) it.

      I’m not convinced that capitalism (or at least, the exchange of money for goods and/or labor) has to be evil. We can’t all of us be self-producers, and even those who are self-employed often have to pay some one else for specific skill sets.

      The other thing that really galls me is the assumption that anyone who makes say $100,000 is soooooooo rich. Forgetting that the people who actually pull the strings in our society make so.very.much.more. Why are we pitting ourselves against others who are only marginally ‘higher up on the ladder’ rather than really critiquing the systems that pit us against one another to begin with? It’s a divide-and-conquer technique. I see it happen in feminism all the time.

      • Ah, yes! Another reason why I’d be writing that book, as “the exchange of money for goods and labor” isn’t Capitalism at all, but something we’ve done as humans long before the advent of Capitalism in the 1700’s.
        And you’re right, I think, though you’ll forgive my emotional reaction to the statement that anyone who makes 100k/year isn’t rich, as that person is at least 4 times wealthier than I’ve ever been at my most employed (40hrs/week as a social worker). But again, this comes down more to what our society places value on (tech-workers, financiers vs. social workers and physical laborers), not inherent malice on the part of those who are paid. And there’s unfortunately an aspect of that person which inadvertently contributes to the oppression of those beneath them in the form of price inflation, displacement and gentrification, but this isn’t their intention.
        I’ll add this, too–the “divide and conquer” technique is very real. One can see it best in Racism, where poor white folks blame immigrants and non-whites for their economic disadvantage rather than those creating the structures of their oppression–this was the sickening brilliance of the popular falsehood known as “welfare queens.” [fun fact–every western society has an equivalent to this…Canadians have the Chinese millionaire collecting welfare, the French have the Imam with 7 wives, the British have a Pakistani equivalent, the Germans have a Turk, etc. etc.]

        • I understand the emotions involved in the whole 100k (arbitrary number) vs poverty. But that’s the thing: wealth is relative. Trying to have a family on 100k is very different than one person on that same amount. Same as for one person on 25k vs a family on 25k (which I know many families have to do, and my hearts go out to them).

          Divide-and-conquer is a very effective strategy, and it’s one I’d like to see Big Tent Paganism/s avoid.

          I really do hope you’ll write that book. Because, yes, we’ve always needed to exchange forms of money and goods and services – it’s part of community living. Of course, modern society has taken it to gross extremes and we’re all suffering the consequences.

          • True, and 25k is relative to geographical location, too (thus my decision to move to Eugene instead of Seattle or Portland…)
            Yeah. I’ll write that book. Might just start today. : )

          • Being a parent is a great example of a social status that comes with a big bag of privilege in one hand and a big bag of discrimination (in the sense of being discriminated against) in the other.

          • No kidding! There’s lots of mainstream/Christian privilege for parents, yet there are so many obstacles stacked against it, especially if you’re not rolling in money (and then there’s the judgment of ‘why did you have kids if you can’t afford them’ – sheer nonsense). Our overculture goes on and on about family values but provides very few resources for actual families. But then, as far as I’m concerned, modern life is stacked against meaningful life in general.

        • epredota

          Actually, the British equivalent of this in media terms is usually the lumpenproletariat, regardless of ethnicity or skin colour, who are talked about like a different species. See “Benefits Street” by Channel 4 for the most egregious recent example of this.

          • I’ve heard a bit about this on BBC radio (which has gotten rather irritating the last few years after most of the lefties fled to Al Jazeera English). I -may- be able to stomach that, though I watched a French equivalent and found myself quite nauseous!

          • epredota

            Oh, sorry, I wasn’t actually suggesting you should watch it! *shudders*

  • Really like this piece!! It has some great questions I want to explore later…

    • Yay! This topic is not just one subject, but rather a mix of complex questions. I think I’m going to write another piece on it!

  • Alley Valkyrie

    Thank you for writing about this. Thank you thank you thank you. A thought on the following:

    “So if it’s bitter work, why do we glorify it and why do we tear down people who aren’t struggling in this way?”

    Because we’ve all been indoctrinated into the “American Dream” way of thinking – the idea that hard work brings one financial success and that the harder you work, the more successful you will be. So when the working poor and lower middle class does nothing but work and work and work, and they never get ahead and never have any time, and then they see people who seem to not work as hard as they do but who make more money and have easier lives, they become bitter and resentful. Glorifying their own position helps cushion the feelings of inadequacy that come with the realization that the American Dream isn’t working for you but does seem to be working for others.

    It took me YEARS to understand why it felt so good to engage in this behavior. It was only in really accepting and understanding that the link between hard work and success was pretty much a load of crap that I stopped resenting people with more money. I still often resent what people DO with that money, but my anger towards the “haves” died away once I accepted that my own situation was much more a matter of fate and circumstance than any “good” or “bad” choices I made.

    • Henry Buchy

      I would say the link between hard work and success is a load of crap depending on how one measures success. Americans measure it in ‘status’, material wealth and possessions. Of course I live in a unique economic area, one that is predominantly rural, but also a very popular seasonal vacation spot. I get to see and interact with a wider range of the economic scale in regards to people, ranging from the fringes of the so called 1% and immigrant/naturalized workers. The latter comprised of Mexican, Asian, Middle Eastern and Eastern European. It works for them. I’ve known representatives of each group from the time they came here til now, and they’re doing well under the same conditions local Americans aren’t. Why do you suppose that is? (open question, not just to Alley)

      • Alley Valkyrie

        I did mean material success. If you work hard, you will be rich. As opposed to Europe, where its understood that the Monarchs didn’t “work hard” and “earn” their wealth but were simply born into it, in America we’ve mythologized (and lied about, and sanitized, etc…) the super-wealthy in this country, how they worked hard and made their fortunes. Studies have shown that Americans believe that hard work leads to wealth much more than our European counterparts do, and yet upward social mobility is actually much easier and more common in Europe than it is in the United States. Our misinformed beliefs are what breeds such resentment across socioeconomic lines.

        Its also worth pointing out, even though it doesn’t make it right, that the constant demonization of the poor by the middle-class and wealthy along these same lines… the idea that the poor are that way because they are lazy and don’t want to work and make bad choices, etc, adds to the resentment as well. Two wrongs obviously don’t make a right, but its easy to understand why the poor feel better when they tear down people with wealth and power when you look at how society and mass media, controlled by wealth and power, tear down the poor all the time.

        Henry – to answer your question, I do think its because they have different expectations and in many instances they do truly work harder. American-born white people often feel entitled, period, and society teaches them to feel that way. I used to watch these dynamics play out all the time when I live in NYC. I never experienced such segregated employment in my life. The jobs that Americans were embarrassed to take, the jobs they thought they were too good for, the jobs they thought their family would be ashamed of. And in the ultra-competitive, ultra-classist East Coast society that I grew up in, families are often ashamed when their kids do take those jobs. I’ll never forget having two friends who worked at the same fast-food restaurant.. one was white from an middle-class New Jersey family, the other was an immigrant from El Salvador. The first one’s family lied at Christmas dinner about where her daughter worked because they were so embarrassed. The second woman’s family bragged to all the relatives and congratulated her, as she became the primary breadwinner in the family. And so on and so forth. I spent a summer delivering food in Midtown Manhattan once… at least a dozen times the (rich, white) people at the other end of the transaction would look at me baffled when they answered the door, and while paying me they would quietly ask me “what happened?” What they really meant was, “what happened to a middle-class white girl like you that you have to be doing a job that Mexicans are supposed to be doing?”

    • Thank *you* for helping me formulate my thoughts on this – and for sharing more of your experiences in this comment. I think you’re right on about the justification people need and the pressures that come from faulty ‘theology’ around work and worth. I’m planning a follow up post on the Christian hang over in Pagan thinking around money, and money = worth is going to be a part of that.

  • Am I a bad Pagan because I dislike the term “privilege?”

    • No, because liberals beat each other over the head with this term. Yet, it is a very effective term to describe what is a real thing. It’s not as if many of us go out seeking this privilege, but it is usually conferred upon us by a dominant culture. If you accept that racism exists, then you must accept that white skin is privileged over skin of color. And all other -isms and what not.

      When I say (not here) that patriarchy is real and hates women, I don’t mean YOU personally. Privilege is often more about systems than individuals. But it’s up to me to recognize that as a feminist, my white educated voice gets more of a pass than a trans* woman of color’s. And so on. I assume you know these things.

      I do not mean to use privilege in a way that is finger pointing, but as the term is meant to be used. There is nothing wrong with reflection on the various privileges we have, how they help or hinder us. I do not want to devolve into pissing matches over who is more oppressed, or use the word and concept of privilege to actually avoid the bigger discussions.

      The irony for me here is that over the last few days only white men have expressed that they dislike the term privilege. 😉

      • Henry Buchy

        “The irony for me here is that over the last few days only white men have expressed that they dislike the term privilege. ;)”
        maybe because we’re always getting beaten with it? maybe it’s due to the same idea I put forth above about the system. folks look at ‘white men’ as some anthropomorphic whole, when we’re individual people who are just as aware about privilege as anyone who’s privileged to see it 🙂

        • You know, I think the addition of emoticon smilies helps with conveying your tone immensely. 🙂

  • Henry Buchy

    ‘Tapa is innocent, study is harmless, the ordinance of the Vedas prescribed for all the tribes are harmless, the acquisition of wealth by exertion is harmless; but when they are abused in their practices it is then that they become sources of evil.’ “MahaBharata, Book 1, Adi Parva, section 1-Ganguli translation.

    it doesn’t matter what ‘economic system’, there will be inequalities and oppressions.

    All one has to do is study history to see that. Even in the above mentioned text, the same topics are discussed. “when they are abused in their practice, it is then they become sources of evil”.

    inequalities and oppressions boil down to ‘abuse in practice’.
    I think the thing about privilege is that folks tend to see it as a possession. People don’t ‘have’ privilege, unless it is extended to them by others, and for the most part extended to them due to superficial reasons. part of that is also seeing someone as ‘just like me.”
    lately it’s become a club to beat folks with, as a rhetorical device, as a dismissal of the results of hard work etc. That’s the other way it gets “extended” and again based on superficial reasons. “you’re not like me”
    It’s kinda like the emperor’s clothes, folks dress him up in invisible clothes so they don’t have to look at the real nakedness of his being another person. Seeing him as “just like me”. That’s the simple solution, begin to see people as people. The hard part is getting folks to do that, lol

    • I disagree in parts here, Henry. Yes, the use of the term gets used a bludgeon, but privilege is widely systematic, so that while I don’t accord more status to white men, the justice system arguably gives more privilege to white people and men than it does to women and people of color.

      • Henry Buchy

        I would say it isn’t the justice system that extends privilege. it’s the judge, juries or prosecutor or the other officers of the court. Hence it rests with people.
        Sure there’s inequalities within it, but even those rest with people. My point in this is it’s a lot easier to shift responsibilities over to a ‘system’ rather than accepting them upon one’s self and others. Thing about social/political/economic systems is they don’t work well if half the people don’t participate.

        • Henry, I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make. Yes, individuals have responsibilities. Yes, we all need to participate. Which ‘half’ are you suggesting don’t participate? Because those who are disenfranchised or systematically diminished don’t have the same abilities to participate as those whom the system privileges.

          You cannot separate the system from the people who are part of it. Saying the justice system is separate from the judges is a false dichotomy. Judges, lawyers, etc who work in the system every single day are part of that system.

          Not ‘all of us’ created the systems within which we now live. I’m really not sure what point you’re getting at. Honestly it sounds like you’re trying to obscure the realities of privilege altogether.

          • Henry Buchy

            well I’m not separating people from the system. maybe you could explain how you read that out of what I wrote? everyone is part of “the system”, but not everyone participates fully. You can see that by just looking at election returns, or go to your local city/town council meeting, or schoolboard meeting. Sure there are people, as you said who are disenfranchised, but there are others who are able too. People are the system and to change it people have to change. what I’m getting at is this type of anthropomorphizing the system hides the responsibility of everyone. That is what makes privilege less real. when one says the system extends privileges, folks opt out by denying they are ‘part of the system’. It’s the same idea along the lines of ‘trickle down’. Folks think by changing the system everything will get better, it has to work from the bottom up.

          • I think what Henry is saying is that no matter what kind of system you set up, if there are people in power whose interest is to undermine that system to help some people and harm others, there will be injustices.

            I don’t entirely agree — given a particular set of conditions, I think some ways of organizing a society will lead to more people thriving than other ways — but I think the idea that nearly all systems potentially benefit everyone, but are undermined by improper practice, is a fair observation. I think we tend to get a period of relief when we tear down one organizational system and replace it with another, but that’s because we’re able to rid ourselves of entrenched corruption in that system — ways in which people, over decades and centuries, have managed to “game” that system to work against the principles it was founded on.