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Our treatment of Pagan prisoners and ex-cons is a litmus test of a sustainable Pagan culture.
This was supposed to have been the “Law & Chaos” issue of Witches & Pagans but it turned out more like the “Law & Order” issue. I always imagined that — like the dual-themed PanGaia #37 (“Good and Evil”) which turned out to simply be the “Evil” issue — that one side of this topic would overwhelm the other, but I never imagined that the forces of Law would prevail.
Once upon a Full Moon, not so very long ago, Paganism2 (at least on the West Coast) was all about “running nekkid through the woo-ids/drinking fermented fluids,”3 but everywhere I look today I see attempts to bring order to that juicy-but-hard-to-sustain chaotic culture. Whatever happened to Hippy-Dippy Paganism?
The simple answer is that our movement is in the throes of massive cultural realignment. To explain further, I’m going to use a bit of “value mode theory” a model based on the work of psychologist Abraham Maslow.4
According to this system, every new movement begins with the Prospectors, whom I prefer to call Visionaries. Visionaries enjoy “boldly going where no one has gone before” and feel no sense of loyalty to systems they regard as outdated (cf Christianity, capitalism, and monogamy). Visionaries “think big,” act like the normal rules don’t apply to them, and leave personal and organizational chaos in their wakes. However, if a Visionary is successful, everyone will know his/her name. Recognize any Pagan trad founders?
Pioneers (whom I call Romantics) make up the Second Wave. They prefer to make incremental advances into new territory while putting down roots and building community. Romantics prefer situational ethics to predefined rules, and will often deny any negativity in their chosen group, preferring to “see the good in everyone.”
In Pagan circles White-Light Witches, inter-faith activists, and sparkly Faeries exemplify this group.
Settlers (whom I term Survivors) are the last to arrive on the New Frontier. Their values center on consolidating tribal (and/or familial) identity and on preserving/resurrecting the ways of the past. Survivors often have the attitude that “the best defense is a good offense,” prefer hierarchial leadership (or, conversely pure Randian individualism), and gravitate towards values like “simplicity” and “tradition.” Sound like any Heathens/ Reconstructionists you know?
Maslow believed that Visionaries were the (literal) peak achievement of humanity (after all, he was one) but I contend that all three perspectives are necessary to a healthy community. (Spoken like a true Romantic.)
Once one starts using the values-group matrix, examples pop up everywhere, but nowhere is the relevance of this model more obvious than in the case of how to treat incarcerated (or ex-con) Pagans. In issue #22, Ashleen O’Gaea wrote:
It is high time we recognize that no one is perfect, and open at least some of our meetings, festivals, and our hearts to sincere ex-prisoner seekers who wish to be part of our communities.
Her comments prompted a flood of letters, the most notable of which was a humdinger by the appropriately-named “Eric Tyrsson.” It read (in part):
I was reading my copy of Witches & Pagans and one of the articles really got under my skin. Ashleen O’Gaea chastised people that don’t follow her view about coddling the useless societal waste that ends up in our various prison systems.…As far as I am concerned the rapists and child molesters should be rounded up and executed [emphasis added] because they don’t deserve to live on our planet. These (criminals) are useless pimples on the back side of our society, they deserve our contempt, not our compassion.
My initial reaction to this letter was outrage, but eventually I realized that it represented a classic case of conflicting values between a Survivor and a Romantic. Mr. Tyrsson (whose name references the unyielding Æsir god of law) values security and family above all else; his full letter (which I’ll be happy to send to anyone who asks at firstname.lastname@example.org) gives his concern for the safety of his wife as the primary reason for his animosity towards ex-cons. Ms. O’Gaea, on the other hand, is motivated by her desire to nurture community among all Pagans, even those deemed outcasts by society.
Why is this issue coming to a boil now? Two words: Culture War. North American Paganism has long been dominated by anarchic Visionaries and liberal-leaning Romantics, but after decades of anti-defamation work (as well as often-unintentional Pagan evangelism through pop culture) we are now at least marginally “mainstream.” As a result, even cultural conservatives know who we are now, and an unprecedented number of Survivor seekers are arriving in our (virtual and in-person) communities. They soon encounter “standard-brand” Paganism’s unspoken norms such as eclecticism and radical tolerance, values which directly conflict with their emphasis on tradition and tribe. Look around and you’ll see these forces colliding in the “Paganism vs. polytheism” debates3 as well as arguments over the value of unverifiable personal gnosis (UPG) vs. received tradition.4
But what does this have to do with Pagan prisoners? I’m almost there, but first, a bit of history:
In the first decades of the rebirth of Paganism, the movement was by-invitation-only (often literally). The earliest groups were dominated by white men; later, white middle-class women created the Goddess movement, but LGBT Pagans, Pagans-of-Color, working-class people, and non-Wiccans in general were largely ignored. Pagan prisoners weren’t even on the radar.
During the Second Wave, Pagan civil rights campaigns, based on Romantic values of tolerance and multiculturalism, became popular. Spearheaded by courageous activists such as Rev. Patrick McCollum (whose work is detailed in this issue), such campaigns began by protecting the rights of “mainstream” Pagans, but eventually even the incarcerated were included. Such battles are gradually turning the tide towards equal protection under the law for all religious minorities.
But relying solely on the “civil rights” argument in the case of incarcerated Pagans doesn’t wash with the rising number of Survivor adherents whose values swing in an entirely different direction. Lawful Pagans (such as crusading knight and ex-cop Kerr Cuhulain, profiled in this issue) have the perfect right to ask: why we should spend our meager resources ministering to those who have been found wanting in a court of law?
To that question I respond simply, “incarcerated Pagans won’t be locked up forever.” It is an unimpeachable fact that with the exception of the true “lifer” (and even such a sentence can be commuted due to a variety of factors) every single incarcerated Pagan is going to rejoin society sooner or later. Providing spiritual support to a prisoner (or ex-con) who has found the gods/God/dess is, to my mind, an investment in a better Pagan culture. Of course there are losers (but those are hardly confined to the ranks of the incarcerated!) and the poseurs, but honestly, if one wanted to fake a conversion, wouldn’t it be easier to simply “find Jesus”and collect the far richer support available to culturally-dominant Christians?
I have one more argument in favor of a vigorous prisoner/ex-con ministry: do we or don’t we believe that we possess superior forms of spirituality? Let me clarify: do we believe that our paths are superior, at a minimum, to the forces of cultural nihilism, anomie, and materialism that have pretty much bulldozed the planet? If we do, then why in the name of the Mother wouldn’t we want more professing Pagans, Heathens, and polytheists — and therefore less Lost Souls — roaming the planet?
Of course, there’s a vast difference between compassion and trust; simple prudence dictates that each person, family, or group should put in place whatever barriers to entry (and ways to prove a seeker’s worthiness) it deems appropriate. Blacklisting individuals who pose genuine threats or have consciously abrogated the norms of a group is a legitimate and necessary method of nurturing genuine community. But to scapegoat an entire category of people based on the legal verdict of an avowedly non-Pagan culture seems both mean-spirited and incredibly short-sighted.
After all, it wasn’t that long ago that simply being Pagan was illegal; in some places around the world, it still is. Do we really want to let the government (who, after all, controls the courts and prison systems) to be the ultimate arbiter of who can — and cannot — join our ranks?
ANNE NEWKIRK NIVEN.
1“None of Us are Free,” sung by Solomon Burke on Don’t Give Up On Me (2002).
2I use this word (and Neo-Pagan) as admittedly incomplete umbrella terms for the myriad types of pre- and post-Christian paths and adherents because I’ll otherwise be forced to use some awkward neologism like “PanHeaTheist.”
4For more on value theory or to see which group you belong to see http://www.cultdyn.co.uk/
6 http://www.patheos.com/community/hammerand boar/2011/01/23/upg-– -good-bad-maybe-even-ugly/
Find out more in Witches&Pagans #23 - Law and Chaos