Witch at Large: Ruminations from a Grey Perspective

Seeing Paganism in terms of being a movement, explorations of our history, societal context, comparisons to other religious movements, and general Pagan culture.

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Claremont Pagan Studies Conference - II (2016)

This year's theme was Social Justice.

Saturday, January 24, late afternoon session:

Journalist Marsha Scarbrough, in a talk called “Calling on the Orishas to Heal Racial Injustice,” spoke of the African teachings she received and the ritual work they did with the Orishas. 

Herleena Hunt, “The Social Injustice of Mass Incarceration of People of Color: Can This Be Changed?”  Herleena, an employee of the Amity Foundation which serves in five California state prisons using the Therapeutic Community (TC) model, works directly with inmates within the prison system, assisting them with acquiring a GED, counseling, and reintegration into society as productive people.

Unlike Herleena, those of us who volunteer with religious communities within the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DOCR), as I do with the Witchen circle at San Quentin, are prohibited from having personal relationships with inmates, or in fact knowing anything about their personal lives or the convictions that resulted in their incarceration.  Nor are inmates permitted to know anything personal about us volunteers.  I tried to explain the opacity of prison administration in my talk called “Into the Labyrinth: Finding the Way as a Volunteer in Abstruse Prison Culture.”  For those who’d like more information, I’ve written six blogs about that work beginning here.

People tend to “find religion” after they been imprisoned, not necessarily before they entered.  Few are from Pagan backgrounds.  They explore Pagan paths in prison.  Now, due to recent federal court orders to alleviate overcrowding in the prisons, more people are being released.  The important thing to look at is how these people are integrated into Pagan society when they found a Pagan path on the inside.

I had prepared a decent PowerPoint and had notes about what I wanted to say, but in the event I just winged it and talked.  The entire late afternoon session of three presentations generated plenty of discussion, which I anticipate will continue online and at conferences and elsewhere in terraspace.

Sunday, January 25

Hannah Epstein opened with “Pagan Clergy and Unpaid Emotional Labor.”  I’m sure that all of those who run groups, circles, and covens, as well as those of us who volunteer in our communities on behalf of Pagans in interfaith and secular contexts, can sympathize.

Ayamanatara’s presentation was called “Synthesizing the Dark Goddess and the God of Light on the Internet to Effect Social Justice.”  She spoke about technical stuff that was beyond me; however, she did suggest some remedies for too much involvement in online communications and too much time screen-gazing. 

Lilith Nightsong’s talk was not listed in the program and I’ve forgotten the title.  However, she introduced those of who are older and/or technologically challenged to several terms and related internet phenomena which we’d be well advised to learn better.

Kimberly D. Kirner, who usually presents more scholarly offerings, this year spoke of her cross-identity as a Druid in service of justice in “Art, Study, and Service: Being a Druid and an Anthropologist Working for Justice.”  In particular, she offered a Druid prayer, evidently one commonly used, that I want to take to the San Quentin circle. 

Mark Cedar Love-Williamson, in his talk called “The Activist Witch; the Virtuous Witch,” spoke about moral foundations theory, citing a book called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt.  He claimed morality is not rational, but rather it is intuitive.  He referenced LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability), “a market segment focused on health and fitness, the environment, personal development, sustainable living, and social justice.”  Mark said that moral elevation is when you see a good deed.  He cited a website called YourMorals.org.  I surfed around this site and registered on it.  I found it interesting enough to plan to return and explore it further.  I suggest that you who read this might also find a visit to YourMorals.org a worthwhile investment of your time.

Mark continued with a list of Pagans whom he considered “virtuous activists.”  At least one person present who knows me well noticed that I had become agitated.  I will say a few things about that. 

One is that when you’ve been around a while, you develop histories and you know people for more than just their public persona.  Such is the case with me at some of the activists he sees as exemplary.  Some of our histories are personally painful to me, accounting for my discomfort. 

Another is that we all live in a society that emphasizes celebrity.  (See “BNPs, PPPs, & Leadership.”)  Paganism is no exception.  We do tend to look for ‘leaders.’  I’m not judging that tendency negatively or positively, simply noting its prevalence.  Annie Waters insisted that I “really oughta get it out.”  I did want to say something, but I wanted to be constructive.  I didn’t want to model a sulking person nursing her bruised ego; nothing is served by doing that.  So when the facilitator of the Q&A section called on me, I spoke to the issue of the culture of celebrity society-wide as well as in our Pagan communities, and cautioned people to keep in mind that everyone – you, me, celebrities – has feet of clay.  Just sayin’….  As it happened, I don’t think everyone was aware of the impetus of my comment.  No matter.  I felt okay about what I said and how I said it.  No direct criticisms, no accusations, no personal histories, and no ad hominen attacks.

[To be continued.] 

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Aline O’Brien (M. Macha NightMare), Witch at Large, has circled with people of diverse Pagan paths throughout the U.S., and in Canada and Brazil.  Author of Witchcraft and the Web (2001) and Pagan Pride (2004), and co-author, with Starhawk, of The Pagan Book of Living and Dying (1997), Macha has also contributed to anthologies, periodicals, textbooks, and encyclopedias.  A member of the American Academy of Religion, the Marin Interfaith Council, and the Nature Religion Scholars Network, Macha also serves as a national interfaith representative for the Covenant of the Goddess (CoG) and on the Advisory Board of the Sacred Dying Foundation.  Having spent the last eleven years developing and teaching at Cherry Hill Seminary, the first and only seminary serving the Neopagan community, Macha now serves on its Board of Directors. An all-round Pagan webweaver, she speaks on behalf of Paganism to news media and academic researchers, and lectures at colleges, universities and seminaries. www.machanightmare.com


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