“All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” – Leo Tolstoy
My Southern Baptist upbringing taught me that I was in the world but not of it. I was not to be concerned with worldly things, or to seek to engage with the world on it’s terms. I was to let that pass by and concern myself with the kingdom of God. My parents and some of my teachers at church had that old-school pre-politicized Evangelical worldview. There was a feeling that this world is run by Satan and thus only so much good can ever come of worldly things. My focus should be on God and my church family, because that is lasting and that is where true goodness lay.
Obviously, as I write to you from the Pantheon blog on the Pagan portal at Patheos.com, I no longer espouse that view. After years of being told I must disconnect with the world and with worldly things it was so refreshing, freeing and deeply satisfying to embrace Paganism. For Pagans, this world is sacred. It is both our present home and our home to come. To engage with this world is a very Pagan thing. The civic is sacred. The culture is sacred. I remember reading something once to the effect that it is the duty of Pagans to re-enchant and re-sacralize our world. I remember thinking what a wonderful and astounding thing to consider worldly things holy and to interact with them with that sort of mindfulness, without imposing our beliefs on them.
I’ve said before that I don’t think it’s appropriate to be a “political Pagan”. I leave my religion behind at the polls. I would not vote for a politician just because they are a “good Pagan” the way some people vote for candidates because they seem to be a “good Christian”. I hope there are more Pagan elected officials in the future, but I hope they are judged by their political record. I think that Dan Halloran is an incredible ice breaker. I hail his achievement. I am proud of his serving in political office as an “out” Pagan. That said, if he ran in my district I couldn’t say I’d vote for him. I leave my religion behind at the polls. That is a time for civic matters and in my opinion, civic matters are also sacred in their own right. But I digress.
So coming from old-school Evangelicalism to Paganism, imagine my surprise to find the same admonitions to disconnect from the world in the Pagan community. For every issue that comes up that affects, every news item that is of interest to our community and every instance of pop culture that portrays us, there is a minority of Pagans who consistently insist that it is not our place to speak on these matters. Don’t make a statement they say or claim this worldly thing as something that affects Pagans. It boggles my brain.
Where does this come from? This strain of thought echoing my mother’s and grandmother’s admonitions from the days before they thought it was acceptable to wear pants to church? Part of it comes from Wicca I think. The idea of being “Her Hidden Children” who worship under the dark cover of night, the Old Laws and the legends of the deep secrecy of Witches of yore all give some of us the impression that we are to be separate from the world. While for very basic safety reasons that was once true, today we seem to have our religious identity confused with our worship space. The Circle is a place that is no place and the time that is no time. The Circle is that separate realm where we engage with the elements, the Mighty Dead and the Gods. We are not the Circle. We are the lynch pin that brings and keeps the Circle in connection with this palpable earth for brief moments of time.
Yet some people act as if they are that sacred space. That they must remain separate and unsullied by anything base. They forget that they hop on the same commuter trains and get sick on the same week-old Chinese food that still smelled ok as the rest of us. Humans are base. Paradoxically, that’s what makes us amazing. We are lynch pins, we are bridges and we are the dynamic connection between the seen and unseen. With one hand we grasp the earth, the decomposing leaves, mud and rank weeds and with the other hand we reach out and grasp the stars. We are walking talking sacks of meat and water that flew through space and walked upon the moon.
We who have boogers and diarrhea and pimples and spider veins are not demeaned by engaging with the news, or pop culture or politics. I don’t think anyone should come out of the broom closet until they are ready to and I have no beef with mystery cults or Pagan monastics, but there is no virtue in disconnecting from the world. It flies in the face of the very basic underlying principles of almost every Pagan religion.
Another factor behind this disconnection is that I think people are afraid of looking silly. We don’t trust our fellow Pagans. We imagine that responding to issues that affect us will result in some blinged-out bohemian with an overwrought pseudonym wringing their hands and spouting ignorance on public tv. It’s happened before and it’s what the media look for when they want the “Pagan POV”. However this completely overlooks the incredibly smart, reasonable and articulate Pagans who are speaking out and representing us well. The Wild Hunt, The Witches’ Voice, Gus DiZerega, Circle Sanctuary, Covenant of the Goddess, the Pagan Newswire Collective and many others not only provide reasoned and timely Pagan perspectives, they do so in a way that is polished and admirable. I get a chuckle that after Jason at The Wild Hunt, Wren or Peg at The Witches Voice or Selena at Circle Sanctuary raise awareness of a news story or issue that people automatically begin debating whether we should respond or interact with the issue. People who were not aware of a story until Jason covered it begin to debate about whether he should cover it. It’s absurd.
Pagan media is undergoing exciting changes right now. While the “old guard” of Pagan news is embracing new media (like Circle Sanctuary and The Witches’ Voice) new Pagan media outlets are springing up and they’re good. Some of the Pagan Newswire Collective Bureaus are fantastic with dedicated, smart and articulate volunteer staff that I’d match against many newspapers any day. Almost every religion editor at every major mainstream news outlet has a Pagan media resource that is outstanding. The Washington Post has both Jason Pitzl-Waters and Starhawk, NPR has Margot Adler, several news outfits rely on Selena Fox for the Pagan perspective and large religion sites have dedicated Pagan writers (Gus DiZerega at Beliefnet and myself and a group of dedicated contributors here at Patheos).
The last factor I think is straight-up paranoia. If it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease then it’s surely the tallest blade of grass that gets chopped down first. There are groups that are anti-Pagan, who would like nothing better than to revive the “Satanic Panic” of the 80’s and 90’s. They’d like to run us out of town on a rail, banish us from the public forums and remove any sign of government recognition from us. Rather than confronting this directly and openly, some Pagans think the best way to deal with this is to play into the stereotype. Remain hidden and secretive, without interacting with local clergy or government. If some issue affects a member of the wider Pagan community they are effectively happy to feed that person to the dogs by focusing on what makes that person different from themselves and being concerned with their own safety. There is a small minority who uses the disconnection rhetoric to cover up what I believe is no more or less than a moral defect.
Every Pagan I know who engages in those liminal places in our culture inspires me. Those who engage in interfaith work tell me it is the most challenging and satisfying service they can provide. Those who reach out and actively educate people about our faiths find people genuinely full of curious goodwill. Those who provide Pagan commentary and respond to issues that affect us are making strides I’d never have imagined for our communities. Those who endure the long slog of court battles to ensure our basic rights as Americans are my heros.
Engaging the world is a sacred and holy thing. It is a great responsibility. So many of the Pagans today who have become voices for our communities have done so not because they felt they were the most talented, beautiful or “awesomest” of us all, but because no one else would take a stand. I thank the Gods that Jason Pitzl-Waters never thought “I have no right to speak for the Pagan community” and decided to write a blog on darkwave music instead! Like so many Pagans, he saw a void in our community and in seeing this void he felt a responsibility to fill it the best way he could. The result of this is The Wild Hunt and the Pagan Newswire Collective. I’m sure Fritz and Wren had similar reasons for launching The Witches’ Voice (aka Witchvox) so many years ago. I know there are days when I feel strongly that someone needs to be writing about X, and find that I’m the only person interested in the subject. So I write, whether or not I feel I am qualified, because there is a void to fill.
Being a “Pagan pundit” or activist or interfaith educator is not a vainglorious thing. It places you in a position to catch a lot of criticism and a lot of negativity. Some days it can be pretty rough. It’s a burden and a responsibility, but the rewards are great. Seeing reasoned Pagan perspectives in The Washington Post, USA Today, and other mainstream news outlets is honestly something I never thought I would see in my lifetime, and I’m still a “young’un”.
Really this long-winded post is just a very long way to say how much I respect and admire the Pagans who engage with the world as it is and help create the world that could be. Their simple daily persistence, quiet courage and strong feeling of service and duty to the wider Pagan community has effects that will ripple through the world in positive ways for years.
I hail and give my gratitude and respect to the Pagans who didn’t believe that attacks on Satanists, Asatru and Santeria practitioners have nothing to do with us. I hail and give my gratitude and respect to those who didn’t think it was too silly to say that Nicholas Cage makes really horrible movies that reflect poorly on Pagan culture. I hail and give my gratitude and respect to the Pagans who didn’t say that military Pagans, gay Pagans and incarcerated Pagans aren’t any of our concern. I hail and give my gratitude and respect to all the Pagans who didn’t decide that working side-by-side with Christians, Muslims and Jews was a futile effort. I hail and give my gratitude and respect to all the Pagans who refused to be frightened into silence and now have become role models for the next generation of Pagans. I hail and give my gratitude and respect to those Pagans who spend hours every day in the holy pursuit of engaging with and fully inhabiting the world as a Pagan person, because they are making the world a better place.
I am grateful that these Pagans feel that in issues large and small it is inexcusable to do nothing. We are the bridge between the sacred and profane, and our engagement of the world is a holy act.