Colonialism, Pagan Spirituality, and Us

There’s been a discussion going on about colonialism, on a druid website I sometimes read and contribute to. I have newly developing but important thoughts on the subject, and I thought I should write about them here too – because colonialism and neocolonialism and druidry and Paganism are all mixed up together in complex ways that I believe we need to address.

Note: these are very challenging subjects and thoughts. When I first encountered them, my instinct was to dig in my heels and become defensive. Surely I’m not a coloniser or a racist. I’m a good person. But that kind of thinking is dangerous. We can be good people and be benefitting from colonialism, and even extending its power through our Pagan practice. We do these things unconsciously, because we are part of complex power structures. It’s so important that each of us challenges ourselves on these things… I’ll reflect a bit more on that at the end of the post.

As I’ve said before. I think everyone should read the work of Kavita Maya, who is researching racism and colonialism (and gender) in the Goddess movement in Glastonbury, although her conclusions relate to other Pagan movements too. Her academic work can be found here, and she recently wrote a short general summary of what she’s been doing, which can be found here. She is a colleague of mine and we have talked about this stuff a lot. She has really challenged me, in a way that I think all druids should be challenged, to think more about justice and oppression.

Colonialism is a tricky thing. It’s easy to ‘jump’ back to Roman times in our mind, and think, oh, ‘we’ lost ‘our’ traditions then. But it can be dangerous to identify solely with those pagans, who are not us and are not in our historical situation, when there is so much history in the middle that we need to know about and take responsibility for. As a result, we can too easily forget about things that we need to learn about and from – including Britain’s role in colonialism. We are colonisers, as much as we were colonised – we just did the colonising in other places, and received a huge amount of benefit back here. We continue to benefit from the oppression of other nations and peoples. That’s called neocolonialism.

We must be mindful of Paganism’s tendency to lean on concepts of nationalism that may be harmful to others. For example, are we using symbols and stories that Britain has used in domination of the rest of the world? This can be very harmful to people of colour, immigrants, and others who may want to join our movements. Pagans of colour are often excluded, told to find ‘their own’ traditions (as I wrote about before – an incredibly stupid and racist thing to say) and often do not feel welcome in our very white Pagan movement. But they should be welcome. And welcome is about a lot more than just being ‘friendly’.

In short, colonialism is not something we can just skip over and pretend didn’t happen. What ideologies are we using in our attempts to reclaim older traditions? Do these ideas and stories draw things that have been used to oppress other people? If so, I want nothing to do with them, as I am a druid focused on justice for all. This is difficult, challenging spiritual and emotional Work, rooting out our own relationship to colonialism and how we continue to benefit from it. I think it’s among the most important work we can do, in our work towards the healing of all people and our druidic concepts of healing the land.

I think that our relationship with the land is damaged when we oppress others, here and elsewhere. British colonialism, even though it mainly took place far from these shores, was incredibly harmful to the earth (and to communities of people) in other places. We have benefited and gained at a cost to others and their lands. That benefit on our part, and suffering on the part of others as a result, continues today. The land we live on knows, feels and remembers that, I believe. That’s a personal spiritual view… but one that I often ponder. What do we need to make right, that has gone wrong before? It’s easy to stand on the land and feel all spiritual and connected, and then go away and not act in a way that truly lives out our connection with all life. Is spirituality having any impact on our real life? If not, it’s worthless.

And this is not about feeling guilty for the actions of our ancestors, by the way. It’s about taking responsibility for how we benefit and continue colonialism today.

As a person of Irish origin, I find it difficult when British people try to overlook centuries of oppression of others, and forget it ever happened. Yet the Irish are also doing this today, as much as the British, and forgetting their own oppression as they oppress others. I have a mixed heritage, and I am both a child of colonisers and the colonised. My ancestry, body and life hold the results of both these things. We all do. We all have to live with these contradictions. We may not ‘feel’ like colonisers, but every time we lean on stories or ideas that oppress others, every time we benefit at a cost to other groups or nations, every time we encourage nationalism in any way, we are colonisers. It is possible to be both colonised and a coloniser.

Neocolonialism is alive and well right here and right now. We continue to oppress other, less powerful nations and gain benefit as a result of it. It affects how we behave towards others here in the UK too. Just look at the racism going on against immigrants and Muslims in this country today. It happens because of our inheritance of colonialist ideologies and what we have learned and believed from generations of thinking that ‘Britannia rules the waves’. I think the land holds all of this history, knowledge, experience and pain. My focus, as a druid, is on healing the land and contributing to the healing of all the people who live here, all the wonderful wealth of people who have been coming and going from these shores for countless generations. After all, we are an island nation, and we have never had one static ‘tradition’ or belief. No country has, but Britain has a particularly diverse history of influence of many groups and tribes and peoples. We need to celebrate that, rather than leaning on one interpretation of a history that is mostly made up by (white) Romantics and which is nostalgic for an era that may not even have existed.

I will be happier when I see a British druidry with many people of colour involved in it, and when I see real diversity in druidry, not just a sea of white faces (not to mention groves full of nothing but straight people and able-bodied people and binary-gendered people and neurotypical people and middle class people). Then I will feel less like I belong to a tradition that buys into ideologies related to colonialism and neocolonialism. I will feel like I am truly following the Virtues I identify with as part of my spiritual path(s): Hospitality, Integrity, Discernment, Justice.

This article, by Vibha Shetiya, gives another insight into the concept of what ‘our’ traditions are, and whether they can really be related to our ‘ancestry’, which is never from only one place. She says ‘I’m just me’. Britain is a complex, mixed place that holds many histories and much pain of many people. Can we not recognise that we have a very complex ancestry, and indeed that concepts of ancestry and ‘our’ traditions are extremely difficult things that come with a lot of baggage?

This is also giving me thoughts about ancestor work and colonialism and Paganism and history. I’ll share more of those in another post, I think.

As I said at the beginning of this post, this is very difficult stuff. It’s not easy to take it on board. But I believe it’s part of the Work of a modern druid, if we claim to be spiritual and aim to be awake and aware, to feel the pain of these realisations and confront them anyway. Let the darkness of colonialism and oppression in me be exposed and rooted out by the Light. Isn’t that the whole reason I’m a druid, working in a spiritual tradition of justice? I think it should be.

2 thoughts on “Colonialism, Pagan Spirituality, and Us

  1. This raises an interesting point for me. I’ve been in various groves and groups down the years and I’ve had the pleasure of working in some diverse groups. I know if anyone turns up to something I’m doing, based on my track record so far, it’s fair to assume I will successfully accommodate them. But, that’s not the same as getting out there and actively making this stuff available to people who might not otherwise feel safe or able or welcome to reach towards it. But to do that without proselyting, or accidentally patronising, or anything of that ilk… Yep, this needs thinking about.

    • I don’t personally think it’s about proselytising. It’s about changing the structures and ideologies in our movements so that people will want to come to us, if they choose. There’s an important difference.

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