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.

31 Days of Offerings – Day 15: Wise Justice and the Authentic Self

31 Days of Offerings(1)

The Ogham fid I’ve been pondering during this week’s offerings has been nGéadal, which I associate with wounded healers.

026D1D96862C41E5BEB85EEB200C3549

Something has clicked in my head between the concept of the wounded healer, and the idea of living as a more authentic version of myself. Brighid, as the goddess of wise justice, has started to become associated with this idea in my head.

The wounded healer is an interesting archetype in mythology, especially if you read the lame smith that way (hail Wayland Smith, hail Hephaestus). Other legendary healers are flawed. Healing (which is not the same as cure – it’s much more interesting than that) can come from deep knowledge of pain, from exploration of the darkest corners of the universe.

For quite a few years I tried to be quiet about my struggles, and about oppression and social justice, trying to keep those parts of my life separate from my Paganism (as though spirituality can ever be separate from other parts of our lives, and especially not from issues of justice). But that leads to an inauthenticity that can be suffocating.

I fight a lot of battles in my life. More than that, though, I choose my battles (and reject many more). I can’t fight them all… but I have to fight some, or I will let the darkness overcome me. And then I’ll be no good to anyone. The question is how to be wise with the choices of battles, and authentic and true to myself and my values in the process.

What is a wounded healer, and how can she be true to herself without drowning? And is this, too, an offering?

Honour in Speech: Speaking about Other Religions

It’s that time of year again. The time of year for ‘zombie Jesus’ jokes, entirely inaccurate memes about Ishtar, and dismissive comments about Christian cultural dominance. Even the relatively inoffensive Facebook posts that speak about Christianity and other Abrahamic religions in ‘we’re better than them’ terms, always seem to turn up annually during this season.

This year, it is an atheist who is teaching me most about honourable speech about other religions. SJ, my long-suffering, spiritually-curious atheist spouse, is shifting religious festivals so quickly that they’re practically becoming a chaos magician. And every single word out of their mouth about every one of these religions, including ones they’re not observing this year (like my own), is deeply honourable. I hear a lot of complaints about how atheists talk about our religious traditions – but I’ve not heard nearly so much respectful, honourable speech towards other religions from Pagans. I haven’t heard it from myself.

I understand why some Pagans react negatively to Christianity, and need to blow off steam. Gods know, I know what it’s like to grow up in an environment where your religion condemns you, constrains you, and even directs spiritual and emotional abuse at you. Yet, none of that gives me the right to condemn a whole religion. The only people responsible for that were the specific people in the specific churches I grew up in.

It helps that I also had wonderful, deeply spiritual experiences in Christian contexts, later on in my spiritual journey – to the extent that I haven’t *entirely* moved on from Christianity, and will probably always have some associations with it. (You could call that karma, if you like. I call it holding myself to my confirmation promises.) I’m aware that not everyone has had those experiences, and not everyone will be understand why I continue to find Christianity such a foundational, beautiful spiritual path, despite all its potential and actual issues. That’s OK… as long as others respect that I have a different perspective from them.

But whether we have good or bad experiences of religions, and whether we have any experiences of them at all, I personally feel that honour in speaking of them is important. I’m not convinced by the argument that they treated us badly first. If a few outliers did, they don’t speak for the whole religion. And even if every member of a religion you’ve ever encountered has treated us badly, does it mean we should retaliate with the same?

But I mostly think how tragic it is when we fail to learn from the great spiritual wealth that other religions have to offer us. SJ and I had a big argument recently about whether the major religions of the world have more in common, or more differences. But in the end, that debate doesn’t matter. What we can learn from each other, through both our similarities and differences – that’s what excites me. That’s why I still go to Christian events (under certain circumstances), even when my Pagan friends make cracks about how I’m going to be seen as a Christian again. It’s why I do interfaith work, even when my fellow interfaith activists and I confuse each other. And it’s why I stand up and demand that others respect Paganism – including colleagues and friends who clearly don’t understand where I’m coming from – and who don’t have to, but who I do expect to respect my position anyway. (I wear a pentacle at university sometimes – even though that is not my own symbol – in order to stand in solidarity with other Pagans.)

We all deserve to have our sacred truths spoken of respectfully. Every single one of us. Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Jains, Mormons, those who are ‘spiritual but not religious’, those who follow New Age traditions, Pagans, reconstructionist polytheists… All of us.

That doesn’t mean that those traditions are beyond criticism. I have no problem with satire, and I don’t personally believe we have any need for blasphemy laws. (Though I have Opinions on the failure of the European Court of Human Rights to protect people’s rights to manifest their religions. A secular society doesn’t need be a repressive society. Though that’s a bigger debate for another time.)

But it does mean, to me, that I am personally responsible for being mindful of what I say about other religions, how I say it, and what effect I can have on others in the process. I want to be known for honourable speech about the faiths of others. I’d like it if Paganism could be known for that… but I’m only responsible for myself. And I can only do my best.

SJ’s latest post, on Pesach/Passover, talks a bit about the magic behind some of its rituals. You might like it.

To Answer a Call

2389965725_4c165673b8_q

Photo by looking4poetry (CC).

It’s easy to follow the wave of emotion in a crowd. When I’m on a protest march, with the energy all stirred up by the hundreds or thousands of people speaking in one voice with me, then it’s easy to take a stand. No one’s going to push through the crowd to tell me that I’m wrong. I’m safe among allies.

But after the stirring demonstration, after I go home, when I’m all alone and faced with decisions… What do I do then?

What does it mean to change your life in response to the call of a deity? What does it mean to answer a call to change the world for her? Continue reading

Doorways

cauldron_blog_project

doorway

The door opens first in the Otherworld.

Through coincidences and not-coincidences, through thoughts and compulsions that you can’t shake, through a strong desire for justice, the gods show you the open door. But you have to choose to walk through – and it won’t stay open forever.

And once you’re through, it closes behind you. Continue reading

O is for… Objectivity and Ontology (Sociology of Religion In Focus)

Note: This post was slightly edited for clarity this afternoon (19th July 2013). I re-read it, and decided a few things needed rephrasing.

Shh – come close, for I am about to share a secret with you… Are you listening? OK. I often pick up a dictionary when PBP-writing day rolls around. (I’m just not that imaginative.) Well, today, when I went over to the area of my bookshelves where the dictionaries are, I found myself holding my sociological dictionary.

You see, I’d just been reading this piece, published yesterday over at The Wild Hunt. Now, don’t get me wrong. I think that The Wild Hunt does a good and important job. It takes current affairs and says ‘How does this affect Pagans?’, and that’s an important question, because we don’t want to end up living in a social bubble, ignorant of what goes on around us that could have an effect on our community (to the extent that we are a community). Continue reading