Racism “involves an emotional dynamic that has disordered the heart both of society as a whole and of every person in the society… I want to know, as fully and exactly as I can, what the wound is and how much I am suffering from it. And I want to be cured; I want to be free of the wound myself, and I do not want to pass it on to my children.”
–Wendell Berry, quoted in Yes Magazine’s current special issue on racism.
This quote gave me a kind of shock of recognition when I came across it: this is exactly how I feel on the subject of racism.
A couple of weeks ago, I was meditating on the ways witnessing against racism was so obviously connected to my life as a Quaker, but I wondered how it connected to my life as a Pagan.
I’ve heard plenty of Pagans questioning it. What does a political movement have to do with our religion? Why do those of us writing about this have to go on and on about it?
As I thought about it, I found myself thinking things along the lines of that Wendell Berry quote. I want to know, “as fully and exactly as I can,” what the wounds–the broken places and the lies–in my society are.
My voice against racism is a new one. But my passion for embracing truth–that’s been a part of me for years. In fact, that’s the thread that runs through the entirety of my spiritual life. Long before I became a Quaker, I had become devoted to the god Herne.
It has been my experience that above all else, Herne is a god of truth, of facing and living up to truth.
He’s the god of facing hard choices: he is the hunted stag, the god who dies to feed the people, and he’s also the god who takes that life, the hunter with his bow.
This is how it is, to follow this god: we offer ourselves to truth. Sometimes, we bring food to the hungry; sometimes, we are the food, the sacrifice of life for the sake of life. The wheel turns…
That’s Herne, as I know him. And those were the thoughts that came to me that day.
Having made that connection between the parts of my spiritual life, I found myself wondering again.
What would a black Herne look like?
After all, the gods are not human; they’re primal forces, Spirits of the living world. They are not bound to any one race, any one physical appearance. We see Them the way we do because of our own limitations, our own understanding filtering what we see.
And in that moment, an image came to me, with that resonance I associate with my encounters with Herne. For just a moment, I saw him with my inner eyes:
There he stood, my lovely, wild god, wearing a form I’d seen in photographs: that of a young black man, box braids halfway down his back, facing down a phalanx of riot police, his hands and head held high.
Defiant surrender. Courageous witness to truth.
That’s him. That’s my god, my Herne.
I went looking for the photograph I saw so clearly in my mind’s eye the other day, and I could not find it.
I did, however, find this picture, and this story from the Ferguson protests last summer.
The man in the picture is named Django, and he and his horse, Shiloh, rode with the marchers to honor Michael Brown’s memory.
“Whenever teenagers lose their lives, I do a ride,” he explained to reporters, a practice he has had since his own nephew was killed in an accident.
The story and the image are compelling on their own, but for me, they held a particular resonance; one of the ways I most often “see” the god Herne is on horseback, riding out to meet the dead.
It is my hope that he will ride out for me, when it is time. It is my belief that he rode for Michael Brown, and for many thousands of others over the centuries, victims of injustice and of man’s inhumanity to man.
The gods are there for us, whether we see them, whether we understand them, or not.
And my clear sense is, my gods love justice.