A few years ago, I attended the concert of a local Pagan band which was heralded as the Pagan event of the season in our area. The music was OK, but then half-way through the concert, the band started making the Nazi salute and yelling "Hail!"
I grew up in one of those earth-centered families where we didn't call ourselves Pagan, but we read the stories of Norse, Greek and Native American gods, called the elements to start rituals, did Tarot and read the Runes... you know, all that good wholesome Pagan stuff. When I discovered the modern Pagan movement as an adult, I was delighted. There was suddenly so much more information and a whole world of potential community.
The days of avoiding the pesky "What's your religion?" question in public were forever behind me.
Or so I thought.
I moved to Central Europe twenty years ago, following my journalism career. And there are many positive things in my new country, but racism isn't one of them. To say that I was upset to find neo-fascism spreading its slimy tentacles through the local Pagan community is an understatement. I was devastated. My experience with the band was, unfortunately, not an isolated incident and I struggled to find Pagan friends.
I set out for an international Pagans and Witches conference with high hopes of finding a more open-minded atmosphere in an international group. My children were little more than toddlers at the time and I wanted them to grow up the same as me, except better. I wanted them to have all the comfort and wonder of earth-centered spirituality AND a vibrant and friendly community where that spirituality is wholeheartedly accepted.
I enjoyed being part of a large group ritual and found many of the discussions at the conference interesting. But several prominent persons at the conference made neo-nazi references and while some people seemed uncomfortable, no one said anything. As the only person there who didn't personally know anyone, I was hesitant to speak up, and when I did, I was harshly rebuffed and told to keep to my own business by one of the organizers.
I left the conference early. My mission had failed, since my children aren't white and I could see that even at an international gathering, they wouldn't always be truly welcome.
As a result, I was aware of the insidious creep of white supremacist groups encroaching on Pagan circles long before it became big news in the United States. Now with prominent white supremacist leaders claiming to be Pagan and alt-right demonstrators carrying Pagan symbols it is no longer so easy to admit to being Pagan in public.
I have written about this scourge before and urged fellow Pagans to stand up to the abuse of Pagan symbols and groups by supremacist ideology. But for a long time, I struggled to make peace with the issue within myself. Should I abandon the term "Pagan?" I grew up without it after all. I could live again with a nameless identity or find a different term that might fit better.
Should I try to promote understanding of the Runes and other symbols as Pagan spiritual symbols, risking being painted as a racist bigot myself, or cede them to the Neo-nazis, allowing them to become public symbols of hate without a fight? There are certainly enough internet discussions on these issues and I've heard passionate and thoughtful arguments on both sides of that dilemma.
I have heard Pagans of Jewish and Native American background say that we are obligated to stop using the Runes and other symbols stolen by racists. I have also heard people from the same backgrounds argue that white Pagans have no right to just gift these symbols to white supremacists and hide from the problem, that we are obligated to publicly denounce the racist use of these symbols and advocate for their true meanings.
It seems that whichever we choose, we can't just blackout the assholes and go on with our merry lives in peace. At first, this seemed terribly unjust, and in fact, free fodder for the alt right--you know, white people being denied the right to their own cultural symbols because they "offend" someone.
But then I got some perspective from a surprising source.
"Now you know how we feel," one Christian friend mentioned while I was in the middle of this lament.
I stopped. "What?"
But of course, progressive Christians have to deal with being associated with conservative Christians and fudnamentalists all the time. They've had a racist, sexist, homophobic, hard-right side of Christianity dominating their image in the United States for decades. They have cults, politicians, sexual predators and profiteers all leaching off their identity.
Many Pagans like the idea that because we have no central authority, we are fundamentally different from other identities. Paganism isn't even a religion, the say. We are just spiritual and we aren't going to say it in polite society but we believe we're more enlightened than Christians.
As it turns out, we aren't all that different. Our beliefs may differ and our relationship with the gods may be radically different, but in some ways it really is the same old story.
By the time my Muslim Palestinian friend chimed in, I got it. Yes, I can imagine how irritating it would be to have your identity associated with the likes of "the Islamic State."
As much as I would love to have an identity term that encapsulates only open-minded, diversity-loving, tree-hugging polytheists, I don't. All kinds of people on the Internet will tell you that they are Pagan and then drive a jacked-up truck with a bumper sticker that reads "F--- Mother Earth" without seeing any hypocrisy in that. There are Facebook-feed-loads of self-described Pagans who think one of the best things about their ancestral past was its mythical--and much overestimated--racial purity.
So I got a little more humble and decided to look at how other spiritual groups have handled this kind of honor bruising. Certainly, there are plenty of authoritarian religions who have taken to declaring who is out of their religion for various transgressions. But this didn't seem like an attractive option.
I took to reading blogs by progressive Christians protesting the hateful and harmful practices of fundamentalist Christians. I found some very passionate denunciations, tough questions and calls to reexamine both the scholarship and basic values behind bigoted words and actions by other Christians. But after about two months of research, I was surprised by one thing I did not find in the posts of progressive Christians.
I did not find any disowning, excommunicating or banning statements--no cries of "Those are not Christians!"
Not one of the dozens of articles I read, as critical as they were, tried to say that fundamentalist hate-mongers aren't Christians. It isn't so much that I want to follow their example, but that I am surprised to see it. Some fundamentalist Christian denominations do claim that they are the only true Christians and refer to anyone else, including all Catholics, as non-Christians in Sunday School materials. I would expect that eventually progressive Christians would reciprocate. But for some reason they don't.
And the other thing they don't do is bequeath their symbols and terminology to hate-mongers. These progressive Christians don't turn belly-up and cede public views of Christianity to fundamentalists. Similarly my Muslim friends and several well-known Muslim authors, despite being slandered and attacked worldwide, continue to calmly repeat that Islamic fundamentalists don't represent them.
I may not take my cues from other religions, but I am smart enough to learn from history. This is apparently the price of having that wide and inclusive community, full of new information and potential support which I was so delighted to discover. Soon enough someone hateful is going to claim that identity and abuse it for aims that appear to desecrate everything it stands for.
That does not mean that we are implicated automatically or that we cannot use our own symbols. It does mean, however, that we have to stand up and face this. We may not have caused it, but at the same time we have a responsibility to speak out against those uses of our identity which are abhorrent.
I, for one, believe we should still use the Runes, but we must also acknowledge that when we take them up, we take up the burden of fighting racism and xenophobia as well. We don't get to just have our identity and remain silent believing that the injustices perpetrated in the name of that identity don't reflect on us.
Like everyone else, this is part of our story.