The Ink Well: Exploring the Depths of Communication

An author and editor looks at how we use language to communicate with other Pagans and those outside our community.

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Beyond a Theology of Intimidation

A video making the rounds on the social media circuit got me thinking. It showed a couple of Christian protesters, armed with signs, who showed up at a gay pride parade in Seattle … where they were confronted by several people involved in the parade.

The confrontation wasn’t pretty. In fact, it turned violent. One woman on the video can be seen pushing a street preacher with a Bible in his hand; later, several other people rip a sign from the second preacher’s hands and proceed to tearmit apart. Then another person barrels into the crowd and proceeds to start punching the man with the sign before police arrive to restore order.

As a supporter of LGBT rights, I was disheartened to see the aggression and violence on the part of the parade-goers. Violence is seldom appropriate, and it certainly wasn’t in this case.

But what interested me more about the interaction was the behavior of the street preachers. To my way of thinking, their presence - and the message they brought with them - were designed to be provocative. They probably weren’t trying to provoke violence, but they were trying to insinuate themselves into a setting where they not only weren’t wanted, but where their views were only likely to elicit disgust and disdain. 

Yes, they had a right to be there. In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a group of Nazis had the right to march through the predominantly Jewish community of Skokie, Ill., based on the constitutional rights of free assembly and free speech. More recently, the court upheld the rights of Wesboro Baptist Church members to picket funerals.

But having a right to do something isn’t the same thing as behaving responsibly. I was intrigued that a number of people defended the street preachers because they were exercising their right of free speech. The fact that they were attacked earned them sympathy, and it became an either/or question in the minds of some - either you support the actions of the preachers or you support those of the parade-goers who attacked them.

I support neither, and here’s why: respecting one’s right to free speech is not the same as approving of that speech. One of the preachers carried a sign with the heading, in large red letters, “Idolatry.” Underneath this was a list of activities - materialism, drug use, rock music, drunkeness (misspelled with only one “N”) and TV worship - followed by the phase “Jesus saves from sin.” As a fan of Nightwish, Yes and a host of other rock bands, I found that somewhat offensive. But hey, that's just a matter of taste. But what really bothered me was the message printed on the other side: “Repent or else,” over a drawing of flames.

I found this to be an implicit threat. These protesters believe wholeheartedly that those who disagree with them are destined for eternal torture, torment and suffering. Think of an eternity as a POW in an enemy prison camp or enduring the most excruciating, chronic pain imaginable. That's what they're talking about. And they're not just talking about it. In fact, they’re invoking that idea with the sign they’re carrying. And, historically speaking, they’ve followed through on such threats: witch burnings, the rack, thumbscrews, hangings. When people who believe in hell are in power, they have a history of making hell very real for those who oppose them. It’s our societal constraints, not their restraint, that keep them from using it.

The point here is not to bash Christians. (In fact, many Christians don’t even believe in hell, and among these, a good number think it’s only for the most heinous criminals and sociopaths.) The point is that those who adopt a philosophy that tolerates - or even encourages - the use of threats, spiritual coercion or intimidation are prone to carry out such threats when their gods won’t do it for them.

Muslims who believe in the idea of waging holy war when they’re offended by depictions of the prophet Muhammad are one example, but don’t imagine for a moment that Pagans are above this sort of thing. I’ve seen Pagans threaten others with the wrath of Odin or Morrigan or Hecate if they (the Pagans, not the deities in question) don’t get their way. I’ve seen witch wars started because people resorted to such threats. Not only do they believe in the power of their declarations, they seek to invoke it in the name of their deities or via spellwork.

No, the problem isn’t Christianity or Islam or Paganism or the Craft. It’s the tendency of people who have a right to speak out not exercising the responsibility to speak out with respect and restraint. Just because someone has a right to freedom of speech doesn’t for a moment mean that he or she is going to exercise that right responsibly.

People who voice threats often do so because they want a reaction. They want their targets to cower in a corner so they can exercise power over them; or they want them to lash back … so they can play the victim. That’s what the people in Seattle did, and it cost them dignity and respect. They took the bait, and the people making the threats won by becoming victims.

Sometimes it’s hard not to take the bait, and sometimes, one has to stand up to people who feed off intimidation. This isn’t about simply turning the other cheek. But we must stand with dignity and assurance, not fear and retribution. Only by doing so can we hope to replace a culture of threat and coercion with an atmosphere of peace and mutual respect. 

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Stifyn Emrys is an editor and author of eight books. He has worked as a columnist, blogger and educator. He has written both fiction and non-fiction works, including "Identity Break," "Feathercap," "Requiem for a Phantom God" and "The Gospel of the Phoenix."

Comments

  • Jamie
    Jamie Tuesday, 09 July 2013

    Yeah, ultimately we're all flawed and human.

    What's worse is, the dominant monotheisms thrive on persecution. If that gay guy who punched the Christian actually believed that he was furthering the cause of GLBT rights, he was delusional. Now that Christian will wear the black eye to church on Sunday, and be the big hero. The violent queer pushback will only justify homophobia, at least in the eyes of the Christian's fellow parishioners.

  • Joseph Bloch
    Joseph Bloch Tuesday, 09 July 2013

    Bear in mind that pro-gay marriage advocates have a history of staging protests where "their presence - and the message they brought with them - were designed to be provocative. They probably weren’t trying to provoke violence, but they were trying to insinuate themselves into a setting where they not only weren’t wanted, but where their views were only likely to elicit disgust and disdain."

    Standing up and shouting in the middle of a Catholic Mass, shouting at and verbally abusing a nursing mother at a pro-family rally, protesting at Christian events, etc. are all things that the gay rights community has been doing for years. If you condemn the behavior on one side, it's only right to condemn it on the other.

  • Stifyn Emrys
    Stifyn Emrys Tuesday, 09 July 2013

    I wouldn't condone shouting in the middle of a Catholic Mass or verbally abusing a nursing mother, either - and not just because I'm in favor of a woman's right to nurse her child. I favor protests at neutral or clearly political sites (city halls, state capitols, etc.) precisely because I do advocate for the concept of mutual respect.

    The main point of the piece wasn't the idea of insinuating one's self into another's personal space, but rather the idea of making threats against others. I doubt anyone in the LGBT movement comes from a tradition that advocates eternal torment for those who don't agree with them. That doesn't justify rude actions, by any means; to me, rude actions are bad and actions that carry implicit spiritual threats are worse.

  • Amarfa
    Amarfa Tuesday, 09 July 2013

    I would completely condone standing up and shouting at a Catholic Mass. I know a gay fellow who has a rather visceral phobia of breasts. and I know there are gay people who come from traditions that believe there is eternal torment for people who do bad things in the world, just like there are Pagan people, like me, who come from traditions (I was raised Catholic) that believe there is eternal torment for people who do bad things in the world.

    Broad generalizations about populations that represent "the Other" (as it is put in Anthropology), are being made here about GLBT and Anti-GLBT people, and neither side wants to admit that their statements are just too all-encompassing to be true. Why do we do this? Why do we accept the words of a few to describe the many? It gets us into fights, every time, because we all know several examples of how a statement like "...the dominant monotheisms thrive on persecution" or "gay rights community abusing nursing mothers" (a paraphrase) can be proven untrue. We also know that as long as we refuse to admit someone else may be telling the truth, we can also refuse to admit we are wrong, and defend our positions with willful ignorance.

    The fight happens because no one wants to be invalidated, and we all have choice. We can choose to study a situation before we jump in, or we could choose to "take the bait," let our immediate reactions govern our behaviors, and walk into a trap.

  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Wednesday, 10 July 2013

    This is an excellent article, Stifyn; thank you for posting it. But the issues are a bit more complicted than even you have delineated. For example, take your statement "The point is that those who adopt a philosophy that tolerates - or even encourages - the use of threats, spiritual coercion or intimidation are prone to carry out such threats when their gods won’t do it for them." This is true enough, but it doesn't address the phenomenon of Hippie Flower Children who threw stones at young PTSD soldiers returning from the Viet Nam conflict. My Flower Children friends were the last people on earth to believe in threats, spiritual coercion or intimidation - yet it took them 20 years to understand that their protest actions had been wrongly directed against the naive and confused, who had only tried to serve their country.

    Another detail is that, in a twisted way, the Medieval Inquisitors believed that purifying a confessed witches' soul by fire would SAVE her from suffering even worse torment in the afterlife! People's minds are even more devious and convoluted than your thesis states.

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