So the #ThatsNotLove campaign has been on my mind a lot lately. It’s “a student-led movement to activate, educate, and empower others to change the statistics around relationship violence” through videos demonstrating how what seems like love can escalate into abuse. Here’s a video they made called “Because I Love You:”
In case you can’t watch the video, here’s a quick summary from The Mary Sue:
It begins with phrases that seem innocent, like “Because I love you, I waited for you after chem lab” and “I just want to be with you” and moves to sentences like “Because I love you, I smashed your phone.”
In an interesting bit of cosmic timing, I learned about the campaign right around the time this news story broke about a 4-year-old girl who was punched so hard by a boy in her class that she went to the ER for stitches. A hospital worker’s response? “I bet he likes you.”
We’ve become conditioned, in our culture, to mistake violence for love. He punched you? He likes you! He raped you? He thinks you’re pretty! She’s stalking you? It’s a compliment!
We’ve got a lot of work to do to reverse this mindset in our relationships with humans–and our relationships with gods. I think at this point many of us have seen sentiments like these floating around the blogosphere:
“I dedicated myself to such-and-such god, and he immediately broke my arm and made me lose my job. It’s because he chose me to do his work.”
“I got into a car accident as soon as I stopped tending my altar to the Goddess. She teaches me a lesson when I go astray.”
“I don’t particularly like my spiritual practice–in fact, it’s actively fucking up every other area of my life–but I have to keep doing it or my patron god will be angry. What’s that? No, I never chose this practice–my patron claimed me. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I’m not a fluffy bunny like some other Pagans.”
These statements are condensed versions of what people say, of course; in reality, such a sentiment might unfold over the course of one or many conversations. The common thread, though, is the idea that if your relationship with a god is making you suffer, then it’s a just and natural part of your relationship. You can read about one practitioner’s experience with this kind of attitude here, and some commentary on it here.
Now, a couple of caveats. First off, we tend to think of hard polytheism when we see abusive gods–and, well, yeah, that’s where I usually see it manifesting. But I think these dynamics can crop up no matter what you believe. When we see gods as amorphous powers, we view injury and abuse as something we signed up for by being magic practitioners. Even when gods are products of our own minds, we’re perfectly capable of abusing ourselves.
Secondly, abuse isn’t the same thing as growing pains and natural consequences. When a parent needs to take their child in for a painful surgery, the child doesn’t understand that they’ll be healthier afterwards. Sometimes I have to let my daughter bang herself up on the climbing structure so that she can become a better climber. These instances of temporary pain and discomfort lead to better outcomes for the child–just as spiritual ordeals (which, yes, can include bodily injury) can be transformative for the practitioner. Abuse, on the other hand, doesn’t make you better off. It doesn’t matter if a god tells you you’re serving the greater good or doing very special work or furthering some cryptic agenda. If you’re not given a choice about doing something that injures you, or if you’re suffering and not growing, then it’s abuse.
It amazes me that few of us would be okay with our boss at work ordering us to hurt ourselves on the job–yet we fervently defend the same order if it’s given by a god.
Of course, the only one who can decide whether pain in your spiritual work is transformative or abusive is you. Sometimes, what might look abusive to outsiders can serve a deeper purpose. Sometimes, the thing everyone’s telling you is good and right is abusive. The same action can be abusive in one context and healthy in another. Every relationship is different. Just as in human relationships, informed consent is key.
So if a god you’re working with–whether you’re a hard polytheist or a Jungian or anything in between–is abusing you, what do you do?
Let me start with the most extreme advice: Walk away. I’m serious. Just walk away. Take down that altar, stop saying those prayers. Hold a formal exorcism if you have to. Yes, it’s possible! Yes, you have agency! We’ve absorbed the Abrahamic idea that any entity with the title of “god” is all-powerful and not to be questioned, but the evidence on that is, I must say, shaky at best. I’ve written before about Jews and Christians leaving fundamentalism, but the example I quoted is worth repeating:
The first time Lynn Davidman bit into a cheeseburger, she was worried for her life. “I was afraid some punishment by God might be imminent,” she recalls. She wasn’t sure what form his retribution for eating a non-kosher burger would take; she probably wouldn’t be hit by lighting [sic] in a restaurant, she figured, but perhaps she would be struck to the ground.
This person walked away from Yahweh, my friends. Yahweh! We’re talking about a god who claims to be the creator and master of the universe! But when it comes to all that smiting he’s promised? Turns out the dude doesn’t deliver.
Like I said, though, that’s the most extreme advice. That’s what you do if your relationship with a god has become utterly toxic.
There are times when a god might simply overstep their bounds (and again, we’re not just talking about the hard polytheist idea of gods). After I formally accepted the Morrigan as my matron goddess, she and I went through a lengthy period of calibrating our relationship. How hard could she push me before it stopped being healthy? How gentle could I expect a war goddess to be? How closely did I want to work with her, and in which contexts? What was the best way to make our relationship symbiotic, to make us conduits for healing and justice? (Not only do I think warriors can be healers, I think healing lies at the heart of being a spiritual warrior.) Your relationship with a god can be continually negotiated and adjusted. It doesn’t have to begin fully-formed.
It’s tempting to believe that the trick is to draw up a contract when you begin working with a god, but as someone who’s been in an abusive relationship that began with a formal contract (it was with a literary agent who, it turned out, had a reputation for screwing over her clients), I can tell you from experience that while contracts can be useful, they’re far from foolproof. Workers enter into exploitative jobs through contracts every day. Abusive Jewish marriages begin with ketubot (marriage contracts). Even if your contract is a thousand pages long, an abuser will always find a loophole.
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Of course, you could argue that relationships with deities aren’t always based on love. You could argue that a god doesn’t have to like or even respect you in order to claim you.
Well, I’d respond that if love isn’t a priority in your spiritual practice–indeed, if love isn’t at the heart of your spiritual practice–then you and I are on very different wavelengths and I don’t think what I’ve written above will be of much use to you. I wish you all the best in your journey.
I feel like a bit too much of modern Pagan discourse about the gods focuses on how dangerous they are, and I don’t like contributing to that pervasive mindset in this post. So let me end with a couple of stories that illustrate why I work with them.
About a year ago, during a trance journey, I expressed my worries about money to Cernunnos and he gave me a gift of three coins. I put them in my astral pocket and, for awhile, pulled them out whenever I needed them, but I gradually stopped thinking about them very often.
Many months later, I was having an absolutely shitty day. My husband and I were in the grocery store and I told him I needed to sit outside for a bit. I’d lost interest in the novel in my purse, so instead of reading I decided to meditate–something I hadn’t done in far too long. I work with Cernunnos primarily as a god of meditation and shamanism, but I was so frazzled and blue that I didn’t think to ask for his blessing before I started. When I sat on a ledge outside the store and took a breath, I looked down and saw three pennies in a neat stack beside me. I’m here, was the message. I’m thinking of you.
Another time, I went to my garden to make an offering to the Morrigan. I poured out a jar of milk and sang the niggun I’d composed for her. When I looked up, I saw a huge meteorite flash and drip from the sky.
And what can I say about Shekhinah? She who comes to me as Isis, Asherah, El Shaddai, the Great Mother? She’s beyond words.
Please, take care of yourself, and strive to be well.
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