Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Young, the Rebellious, and Paganism

There is a lot of talk that goes around on Pagan chatrooms, forums, and mailing lists about what to do with people who come to our forms of spirituality because it's "the thing to do" if you're trying to be rebellious, strike out against society, or raise the hackles on people for the sake of tweaking them. There's a couple of fun names for said people, like Playgans and Fluffy Bunnies to name a couple. From discussions I've seen sadly quite a bit of this talk comes from Pagans who are usually much longer in tooth, wise, experienced, and well-learned who in many cases had little or no help for them to reach where they are now or were the first forging ahead into territory left largely spiritually unexplored since the dawn of the second millennium AD. Speaking as a younger Pagan who just finished college and started on the path I'm on now when I was 12 there seems to be a degree of condescension on the part of those who speak out against the Playgans, the ones who fell in love with Charmed or Buffy, and the rebellious kids who smoked behind the auto shop during lunch and are now crashing rituals and festivals.

I find this attitude distressing to say the least. As much as such voices may protest we are a serious spiritual movement, not a "fad" or an act of rebellion, we have to stop and look at the long view of things. Paganism is in the modern day, like Christianity was during the Roman Empire, as much a new form of spirituality as it is a rebellion against the current state of affairs spiritually speaking. Most Pagans come to our paths not just because of what makes our belief systems so elegant and inclusive but also because of dissatisfaction with what mainstream spirituality offers. In fact from what I've seen and heard in person I'd be willing to bet the vast majority come to Paganism first out of dissatisfaction with Christianity, not out of attraction to Pagan thought and Pagan beliefs. If that's not an act of rebellion as much as an act of fulfillment I don't know what is.

So why now should people be dismissing individuals or groups they view as "not serious" because of how they came to our faiths out of inspiration from something they saw in a movie, read about online, saw on TV, or overheard at lunch because they both are dissatisfied with their current belief system or out of an act of rebellion? I'm sure most established Pagan Elder regardless of what they believe now started in a similar place and on the way probably believed all kinds of things that now they would scoff as uninformed or dare I say part of a fad.

Why should we scoff at them now because they are uninformed or ignorant? They may not know much but what matters most is that their hearts are in the right place and that is the most important part of the whole exercise. It does not matter how well-educated, informed, or pedigreed someone is if they lack the desire to live by what they have been taught. We shouldn't be turning the uninformed or poorly instructed away just because they don't believe the "right" thing or haven't been properly taught. So what if they came because it's the "cool thing to do?" With the people who do we have the opportunity to determine who are genuinely interested and believe from those who are just along for the ride because it looks fun.

We shouldn't toss all aside just because of how they come to us. Why should we tell someone just because they came to Paganism out of a desire to be "rebellious" or because they "hate Christianity" they don't deserve to REALLY learn what we believe and have help in understanding what we believe? Why should we exclude them from our public events, from classes, and from events? By refusing to give them a way in they're more likely to go to people who may have unscrupulous or self-serving motives instead of those with their eyes lifted to the Gods.

We need to look beyond the trappings of how those new to our beliefs come to us and instead look to see if the faith that burns inside them is real. After all, that punk kid in biker leathers with two full sleeves of tattoos or the airy-fairy hippy high schooler with guidance could be the next great writer, leader, or artist for our community if we just lend them a helping hand.

After all, isn't judging someone's faith for how it came to be the kind of thing we're not supposed to be doing?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Sword Must Not Silence the Pen

I've been reading the news over the past week of increasing reports of violence acts taking place at the different health-care town halls going on across the country. For some recent highlights we have the man who was spotted in New Hampshire on Tuesday outside a town hall Obama attended yesterday carrying a gun and a sign that said, "The tree of liberty must be watered with the blood of patriots and tyrants", an individual arrested today at a town hall in Maryland with a sign saying, "Death to Obama", statements from one of the top Tea Party organizers urging their followers to bring guns and "hurt" any union activists present, and quite beautifully Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-KY) statement on Sunday that the Democratic unrest with what is going on now is a sign that the GOP is "winning" on health care.

Quite frankly what is going on disturbs me on a very deep level for a few reasons.

There have been incidents of organized violence and mass protest in American history before. This is nothing new. Everything ranging from the tactics used by the great urban machines of America to the KKK in the Deep South during Jim Crow and the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s up to the more extreme actions by pro-life activists in the 90s including bombing clinics are a dirty if real part of American history. In each of those instances you had organized mob violence taking place for a political end but, with the exception of incidents of political intimidation by urban machines in the 1800s, what all those incidents have in common is that none of them were implicitly endorsed or ignored by a major political party when they took place.

In the current situation not only do you have Sen. McConnell's statement on Sunday but you have repeated statements since then regarding non-existent "death panels" by other major members of the Republican Party including Sens. Grassley and Coburn, Newt Gingrich, and Sarah Palin that are being used as rhetorical fuel by the mobs. There is also the level of organization, proven by leaked memos, on the behalf of the demonstrators at the town halls and the close links between the groups organizing them, the GOP, and the health care industry that did not exist previously with the exception of the close ties between the Democrats and the KKK during the Reconstruction period following the Civil War.

Now I am a firm believer in the old statement that free speech means that while I may disagree with what you say with every bone in my body I will defend to the death your right to say it. Without free speech a free society is impossible. But like all rights free speech is both the freedom to speak freely and the duty to exercise that right responsibly. Free speech, when used to incite violence, anger, and fear through deliberate misinformation or when used to silence another person's right to speak freely is when you cross the line from responsible use of free speech to the use of speech as a tool of intimidation.

There is nothing wrong, in fact I welcome it, in a person challenging the current policies in debate in Congress on health care. But shouting loudly and refusing other people in the room to even get a word in is not an example of free expression no matter who does it. That is using speech to silence all opposition, to intimidate people into submission, and to prevent any real discussion from taking place. Those who would seek to use speech as a weapon as opposed to a means of expressing ideas and debating policy are not using their right in a responsible fashion but rather to keep others from exercising their right to do the same.

Now I would imagine anyone reading this is asking the question, "What about the right to protest the policies of a government? Isn't that a vital part of our democracy?" It is.

What is happening now is not protest. Protest does not involve making threats of violence against the opposition like one Congressman who canceled all his town halls for the month because of death threats delivered to his office. Protest is not bringing weapons with you to a peaceful forum and openly stating you are ready to start trouble. Protest is not coming to an open debate where all are welcome and then refusing to allow anyone you disagree with to speak. When a group deliberately engages in tactics of intimidation, harassment, and suppression of dissenting voices with the implicit promise of violence present that has crossed the line from civil discussion of policy into the politics of thuggery.

Now as I mentioned earlier this kind of thing has happened before. Groups attempting to use force in lieu of reasoned discussion are not new in American politics. The difference here is the implied endorsement by mainstream political figures and authorities by statements of leading Republicans, a refusal to condemn these actions, and the exposure of some of the demonstrators being ranking operatives of the Republican Party. That the GOP has failed to do so gives these demonstrators a sense of legitimacy and encourages the use of violence in the political process.

One might simply dismiss these mob actions as isolated events or overblown political theater with heated rhetoric. Some might simply dismiss this as part of Washington's kabuki theater of politics. Those who would do so must remember the last time a major political faction in the United States engaged in such violent rhetoric, refusal to cooperate or discuss the issues, and endorsed violent acts instead of peaceful protest and discussion the end result was the Civil War. This political brinksmanship is incredibly dangerous and, if not reigned in, could have disastrous impact on our nation.

So what should be done? I call on all who read this, regardless of your actual opinion on the matter of health care, to attend a local town hall and refuse to allow these people to silence debate. It does not matter if you are solidly opposed to the proposed health care out of fears of government expansion or working to get it passed into law, the use of violence in political discourse is an issue that all Americans should agree on in condemnation of it.

We all need to exercise our right to free speech and do our duty as citizens to ensure the health of our democracy. We, as Americans, must do everything we can to peacefully stop such radical tactics and radical activists from hijacking our democratic process. The moment that the mob takes over is the moment when the rights of all citizens of this nation are in grave danger. To allow the mob to control this or any debate by force, fear, and intimidation is to ensure a serious blow to the stability of our free society.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Thanks everyone!

Thanks for all the feedback and comments everyone!

I've gotten quite a bit of mail from Witchvox probably the most touching was from a woman in the Midwest who wrote that so far her whole life she has completely lived in the closet out of fear and what could happen if anyone found out she's a Witch. She said that last week's article inspired her to go to the next local Pagan Pride Day for the first time in her life.

I don't know about anyone else, but writing something that touches the life of even one person is worth it. It doesn't matter if what you say is only being read by five people or broadcast out to millions daily, what matters is that you inspire people to take action for the better.

Doing a deed that inspires even one person to do good deeds and dare great action, even if that action is private or personal, because it is right is the greatest glory. Asserting our rights as Americans and humans may seem daunting, ourselves and our ancestors have beaten greater odds. We have come in fifty years from being mocked as a fringe cult of crazies to winning victories like the recognition of the British Pagan Constables' right to take Pagan religious holidays or the US Army putting our faiths in the Chaplains' Manual.

The road ahead will not be easy, it will not be short, and it certainly will not be smooth. But it is a road we must walk, whether of our own volition or forced by circumstance. I would rather we do it by our own choice.