By Sun and Earth: Theologies of Justice


Four Hammers by Kat Lunoe

This is long, folks, and likely needs to be longer. Hopefully it is the start of a larger conversation:

I’ve been circling around to this topic for the last couple of months, and am writing today on the anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, killed for living his religious convictions.

A fair amount of my social justice and activist work has been done around radical Catholics. Strange, isn’t it, for a public Pagan to have at times so thoroughly thrown in her lot with Christians? Not really. These few walk something akin to my theology daily - that of sacred connection - even though we differ on many points. There are Pagan activists - Reclaiming Tradition, for example, is famous for civil disobedience - but we don’t always have a lot of examples to look to for inspiration from among our own ranks. I’ve written in the past about Pagans and magick workers acting in service to the larger community, and truly honor their contributions. I also wonder whether they are acting as Pagans, from a theological base, or just happen to be Pagans, serving for other reasons. I don’t yet know the answer to that question.

A few weeks ago, I went to a talk by Frida Berrigan - daughter of anarchist Phil Berrigan of Catonsville Nine fame - about the nuclear arms race and nuclear power. As I sat in the chapel listening to nuclear facts, I was struck by the fact that US commitment to nuclear development is far worse than even I, who try to keep up, thought, with an increase of the National Nuclear Security budget from 8 billion to 180 billion. I also noticed that I was probably one of two Pagans in attendance, and among the younger people there. Most of the people there were Catholic, with a smattering of Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists. Most had been activists for a very long time, some of them longer than I have been alive.

I was partially there as a chance to see my compatriot Fr. Steve Kelly before sentencing which will likely send him back to prison for several years. So I was struck by this, too: all of the activists I have known who’ve done years in prison - not just a few days in jail - for peace and social justice work are Catholics. Not that I haven’t met others, such as Katya Komisaruk, but radical Catholics seem to cheerfully go to prison for hard time when it is needed. They are willing to play a high stakes game.

Why? I think a large part of it has to do with theology. Not only are they humanists on some basic level - believing in human dignity and rights - but this humanism is bolstered by a theology that tells them that their God came to help the poor, to make peace, and to act against the forces of corrupt power and oppression. So, for my friends like Fr. Steve Kelly, Fr. Louis Vitale, and the late Sr. Patricia Mahoney, doing actions that might lead to prison time is just a matter of course. When not in prison they work in soup kitchens, or with drug addicts, for water rights, or peace, or any number of causes. Their lives are not separate from religion and religion is not separate from action. Of course, not all Catholics or other Christians walk their talk in this way, just as not all Pagans walk our talk by organize recycling in our towns, or treating our bodies with honor, or even remembering to do ritual if it is not a major holiday. But then again, some of us do. I'm not advocating Pagans all of a sudden take on a theology of martyrdom - that is not our way - but what is our way?

At the soup kitchen, I work side by side with Catholics, Jews, Atheists, Buddhists, and Muslims. This feeds me. We are each there because we like it, and because it is right to offer food to those who need it, for whatever the reason. So, primarily, I am there for humanist reasons. But I am also there as a Pagan.

I write about this all the time, but bear with me once more, because I think it is important to talk about in this context of religion and eco-justice and human-justice:
Theologically, I hold two realities: that of a non-dualist and that of a polytheist. To me, these are not mutually exclusive, but rather, are mutually inclusive. We live in a web of connection. We are Gaia and Gaia is us. As Gaia, we are also part of the larger cosmos, of the body of what one of my teachers called God Herself. This body is made up of individual cells, each with its own function. The Gods are part of this. The rocks are part of this. The Ancestors are part of this. The trees and soil and stars are part of this. We are part of this. We co-create the unfolding process of reality with the Gods, with the stars, with the sand. Therefore, it behooves us to take care of one another.

If everything is holy - imbued with divine power - how do we relate to that holiness? We pay attention. We find connection. We give back. One definition of sacred is “set apart and dedicated to a deity.” How do Heathens act in ways that are dedicated to Thor or Ing? How do Thelemites act in concert with the energy of Nuit? How do Celtic Reconstructionists honor the ever abundant cauldron of the Dagda? I could go on, but the implications of these questions should be clear: we bring everything in our lives into alignment with our worship and our practice. We can give food to the hungry as an act of devotion to the Dagda. We can offer protection to the weak, in Thor’s honor. And we can remember: Nuit is everywhere, the circumference of all that lives.

Many Pagans connect - or say we do, or try - with the earth. Other magick workers connect - or say we do, or try - with the sun and stars and limitless divine. My personal call is to bring these two visions and ways of being together again. I want to repair my shattered thinking and fragmented action into as seamless a whole as possible. I want to be like Isis, repairing Osiris. I want to be like Freyja, standing boldly for what I love. I want to remember that the Glastonbury Thorn, having been brutally decimated, is once again sprouting green shoots this Spring.

Life is a generous thing, and generosity is a key ingredient to magick and the manifestation of desire. Without it, energy becomes constricted, scarce, and we retreat more and more into fear and isolation, our separate clans take precedence over the whole, and we devolve into clannishness and fear, rather than coming together from our divergent places, offering the gifts unique to our separate cultures, practices, and to each individual. Generosity brings us back into the flow of love and justice, back toward health, and the formation of alliances of mutual aid, in all the worlds seen and unseen.

In what ways do our lives not reflect our spiritual tenets? In what ways do our rituals not touch the day to day? How are we still compartmentalizing aspects of our lives? How do we separate our communities from larger human society, from Gaia, and from the great, primordial process of creation?

Can we commit to asking ourselves these questions and to bringing our lives and communities back toward wholeness?

As magick workers and Pagans, we come from spiritual and religious convictions that will give rise to actions that look different from those of my Catholic compatriots, but we can act nonetheless. In his recent campaign to raise money for Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières, Peter Dybing showed that we can also work together. I pray that we will continue to do so. We can live from (poly)theologies of justice and connection. Therein lies hope.

41 Responses to “By Sun and Earth: Theologies of Justice”

  1. Helen/Hawk

    Thorn? Links don’t seem to be working. (or at least didn’t for me)

  2. Thorn

    Thanks, Hawk! Not sure why WordPress did that, but I went in and figured out how to fix it! Should all be up now.

  3. Rory

    As a Pagan who was drawn hard and early to liberation theology, I am suspicious of folks whose theology requires every moral equation to balance with the sermon on the mount. I personally believe that a serious embrace of Christianity inevitably leads to martyrdom or hypocrisy, and I would be neither. The sermon on the mount is a beautiful vision, but it is not a Pagan one.

    Heroes such as Socrates and Antigone exist within the Pagan canon, but they are not religious martyrs in the Christian sense. And why would one want Pagans who behave like Christian martyrs? It seems irrational. If anything the lore calls for a sword and to die bravely in battle. Throwing oneself into the maw of a beast to no good purpose is not particularly Pagan. How do such deaths serve the health of the people, the honor of gods or the health of the earth?

    I’m sorry, but I cannot imagine romanticizing such behavior had I not been over-socialized into Christianity. What in the Pagan lore or ethics supports Christian-style martyrdom? Honorable death in battle, I see. Honorable death for truth or piety I see. Death in battle for the forest or the animals, perhaps, but senseless death to make a point about poverty or militarism? That I do not see.

    Why would the Star Goddess or any other want me to languish in prison? It seems mad.

  4. P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    Lots of interesting matters here, Thorn…and, in case you didn’t know, you’re a total mind-reader, as some things you’ve mentioned here have been possible topics for upcoming posts on my blog. 😉

    Thank you for reminding us of Archbishop Romero, who really ought to be a saint. If it weren’t for liberation theology, of which I think Romero was a fantastic exemplar, queer theology certainly wouldn’t exist.

  5. CrowsFoxes

    ..Dear Thorn, thank you. Your words inspire me — thank you for being the lamp in the darkness. Namaste.

  6. David Salisbury

    Thank you Thorn, I feel so motivated this morning. I’m in the middle of week-long actions against RIngling Bros. Circus in DC and its nice to have words that fuel my work.

    Ive also done anti-war work with the Catholic Worker Movement in Norfolk, VA in years past. They always knew I was Pagan and it didn’t matter to them in the slightest. We shared the connection of knowing that all of this good work fuels our desire for justice, brought forth from the love of the limitless divine.


  7. Thorn

    Thanks to all for your comments so far.

    Rory, thanks for your points. I had a feeling I should have been more clear on that, but was trying to keep this long post short. My post was not meant to say that Pagans should do long prison terms. My point was to say we can do acts of environmental or social justice guided by our theologies and relationships with the earth and Gods.

    I agree that a history of martyrdom leads to things like long jail sentences for some. That is their Christian theology. I have no desire to spend time in prison, but I am trying to use a theological base for my actions. So many “earth based” Pagans don’t even do something as simple as recycling or eating well – two examples I used in the post. Where does our purported theology end and our lives begin? Can we bring them closer together.

    My Catholic compatriots who’ve done prison time, the forest activists I know who sometimes risk bodily harm have made commitments based on their convictions. Our convictions and commitments will be different.

    (now I have to decide where in my post I can edit to make this more clear!)


  8. Thorn


    I made a few edits to help clarify my position. Thanks so much for your comment that helped me realize where the essay was not clear.

  9. America Stewart

    A Pagan theology of engagement might need the “poly” bit… which affirms both diversity and choice within an “ecology” that is complex and (at least when healthy) self-regulating… Pagan theology of resistance needs the recognition that social struggle success, in actuality and despite who gets credit, is a multi-pronged thing… Gandhi and King, for example, both existed within climates where militancy was a factor conditioning both their construction of nonviolence and their reception by oligarchs and neutrals. There is not, of course, a battle of good verses evil in any singular sense… there are many goods and many evils, some good productive of evil and some evil productive of good.

    The danger of the poly bit is that it licenses choosing the preferable over the necessary.

    I personally feel that Pagan theology is deficient on theodicy… that it needs a way of affirming historical process and seeing the truly *unavoidable* suffering as part of the material and spiritual evolutionary process. I don’t believe, for example, that the advance of Christianity and Islam was some travesty against cosmic order, but rather something comparable (en masse) to sometimes destructive natural forces.

    They may look very much alike, but there are at least two ways to use a scourge. 😉

  10. Gwydion B. Rose

    Hey there!

    I’m likely to be over-sensitive when it comes to the concept of martyrdom, since I have suffered from that concept for a long time, but I want to make very clear that in my very personal opinion there is no place for martyrdom within Paganism. If the Self is part of the Divine, it deserves as much care and worship as every other part of Creation. Martyrdom – which I learned to be a noble term for Self-sacrifice – just makes no sense in a theology where everything is connected and reflects each other. In the moment when I sacrifice my Self or deny my natural Needs in order to “serve others”, I’m denying my own sacredness and harming (in my understanding) the big web of connection I’m part of. If I’m not taking care of my Self first, who will care about others or the world after my burn-out? Who will deliver the Gifts only I can bring when I’m engaging in Self-sacrifice or an unhealthy life-style? No one.
    Therefore not martyrdom but Self-Love is what inspires all my magickal-political-spiritual actions. Wether I’m marching in a demonstration against nuclear power or buying organic food to keep my personal and the Earth body healthy – it’s all an act of Self-Love. Like Starhawk writes in her Spiral Dance (paraphrased): “Love yourself and you will see your Self is everywhere.” This Self-Love is, for me, the essence of my ethics.


  11. Thorn

    America, can you unpack this for us?: “The danger of the poly bit is that it licenses choosing the preferable over the necessary.”

    Gwydion, your comment brings to mind Jonathan Kirsch who, in “God Against the Gods” writes that only in monotheism is martyrdom really possible. I agree with you, also, that we need to act from our principles, which include *not* becoming martyrs. That said, there might be some things I find worth dying for, but on the whole, I think my life is more useful being fully lived.

  12. Sarah

    Brava. This is on my mind a lot too!

    Some unfinished thoughts:
    One thing I see in my communities is a tension between the universalism of social justice and the value many Paganisms place on individual understandings of the sacred. If I find recycling to be an expression of my relationship with the sacred earth, and you say you have that relationship but don’t recycle, then what? Am I betraying my values more if I say “hey, what’s up with that?”, possibly invoking the scepters of guilt and shame, or if I let it slide because I respect your personal understanding of the sacred? What’s the path of integrity? I personally find speaking out to be part of my work, and that helps me find a place where I can do that while respecting if it isn’t your work, but it’s a tricky balance!

    My understandings of social justice are also deeply rooted in intellectual traditions, like critical race theory. Because one of the things I love about Paganism and magic is that they call so strongly to the body and heart, there’s a conflict for me about not wanting to intellectualize my experience of magic. For me, there’s also a clear answer, which is to embody my experience of justice, but I wonder if this isn’t another strand in the difficulties around creating a theology of social justice for Pagans.

    Finally — and this is touchy! — I feel like I would be doing this topic a disservice if I didn’t acknowledge that the vast majority of people who call themselves Pagans are in possession of a significant amount of socio-economic privilege. The best demographic data I know of (Helen Berger’s) indicates that Paganism is overwhelmingly white and largely middle-class — I’m both — and I can’t imagine that this doesn’t influence our understandings of social justice. Which, I suppose, puts us right back where we started, with doing magic on our selves and doing our own work first.

  13. John Beckett

    As a UU Pagan, I’m continually reminded “we need not thing alike to love alike”. Those who share our values and who work toward common goals are our allies, even if their view of the Divine and their thoughts on martyrdom are different.

    The people who are going to jail for standing for their beliefs can do this because they’ve ordered their lives in such a way that going to jail doesn’t “ruin” their lives. Their sacrifices for their beliefs began long before they allowed themselves to be dragged away.

    Who do we serve? What do we serve? What is important enough that we’ll make sacrifices for it?

    As Thorn says, these are questions we need to ask… and answer.

  14. Rory

    I don’t remember enough of the previous version to know why but thank you, Thorn, for clarifying this. I know see it as a call for “right action” and not martyrdom. In my own practice I find that an emphasis on particular virtues (Aristotelian, Asatru, ADF or otherwise) or principles is very useful, particularly the mindfulness to ask myself if I am in accord with those virtues or values in daily acts. I see it as being about mindfulness and integrity: are my beliefs, words, thoughts and actions in the world all in accord? Wearing silver jewelry is easier.

    Oh, how I wish that hypocrisy was limited only to other faiths, cults and traditions! Thanks for taking the time to modify this, making it clearer and more useful and more interesting.

  15. Thorn

    Sarah, I think you could write a lot more on any of your points!

    Part of the issue with our diversity is that, while it can be a very good thing and lead toward autonomy and vast forms of expression, it can also give rise to cultural relativism: “oh, just do whatever you/I/we want because that is just how we do it.”

    That is a slippery slope that can lead to such statements in the extreme as: “It is just my way to own slaves”.

    Yes, we all will find ways to act, but I think we *can* raise the questions you do. We at least need to ask each other, “When you say ‘thou Art Goddess’ what are the ramifications?” or “When you say you honor the earth, it makes me wonder why you don’t recycle. Can you explain how your actions are congruent with your belief system?”

    We have to find a way to have the hard conversations with each other, elsewise our communities remain in some wishy-washy state, and our theologies remain untested and therefore shallow.

    And yes, I too am white and middle class, though my childhood was firmly working class and working poor. I was once interviewed by an anthropology student and she was startled that I came from a working class family. No one else she interviewed had. This doesn’t mean that my blood family shares my interest in social or economic justice, however!

    And, as I ask America to do earlier, can you unpack this sentence for us? “Which, I suppose, puts us right back where we started, with doing magic on our selves and doing our own work first.” Not sure if you are saying that is all we do, or that is what we need to do, or…

  16. Thorn

    Rory, thanks for making me laugh with this: “I see it as being about mindfulness and integrity: are my beliefs, words, thoughts and actions in the world all in accord? Wearing silver jewelry is easier.”

    All I did was add two sentences to the post. No big changes were needed.

  17. Michael York

    Wonderful blog, Thorn. Thanks. And I think you hit it directly on the head with generosity. That alone is the essential virtue-value we want to cultivate. Whether we contemporary Western pagans are white and middle class or not, and especially if we are, the ability to give and share is the centre of our spirituality. Martyrdom is understandably something that we do not seek, but if our generosity ultimately calls for that in a way that we can truly contribute and make a difference, and if that opportunity is given to us, then even jail time or martyrdom are offerings that are commensurate with the pagan *ethos*. For the rest, there are many, many ways that we can all be generous or what the Dutch call ‘noble’. For me, paganism offers a pragmatic and refreshingly dynamic framework within which to grasp and exercise that spirit of generosity. The beauty of religion in general as I see it is that each spiritual framework offers something similar. Not, of course, that we all take advantage of it and live generous lives, but that element is there all the same. Thanks again.

  18. America Stewart


    Just that humans have lots of choices but often choose the short-term pleasure over the long-term good, particularly if long-term good is murky or harder or requires sacrifice or suffering. Just that with greater choice comes a more pressing need for discrimination, at least if we want particular results. It used to irk me that Gandhi listed “religion without sacrifice” as one of his 7 deadly sins, but now I am sympathetic to that thought (and less sympathetic to his absolutism on ahimsa).

    Maybe a good parallel is the God-choosing process among new polytheists. Everyone wants one. Many choose quickly and based on what seems pleasant or rational. It seems typical to me that many find their first choice displaced by a more demanding or rigorous and much more “real” relationship later. (I may be in stark relief on that, as an early choice was Inanna but the real taskmaster/bond was Ereshkigal…).

    I guess part of what I reach for in these thoughts is a reconcilation of absolutism and relativism. My “Absolute” cannot be expressed, though, except through the relative; My Absolute is the manifest whole, not a concept; it has within it all potentials already actualized. *Whatever* is is That. It is therefore not a guide to action as any action or potential is within It already, but my desire in relation to it is a potential guide to action–there are wholistic thoughts, and if I want to move toward The Unity I will choose the wholistic over the separative. (Which brings up the fact that why we do these things depends on objective… Pagans aknowledge multiple possibilities for objective in both social role and metaphysical telos, so I think that must also affect the way theologies of engagement get constructed).

    Meher Baba defined evil as the relic of earlier good–that is one of a short-list of memes he gave me that keep surfacing in my Work in different ways. It seems to have relevance to what I’m writing here, but at the moment I can’t articulate it. I think it is tied to emulation (a tradition of martyrs instead of martyrdom that might be efficacious in a particular situation) and to effectiveness (as Rory said, why do it if it’s not productive? Catholic martyrdom is more likely to be habit/meme/received narrative, though I wouldn’t say that about folks like Dorothy Day and Berrigans!)

    It may make a difference that the Catholic classically believes in one world and a prophetically assured end. It became much harder for me to theorize these sorts of things once I came to think that there are multiple worlds and that my every choice generates a new one that has its own real existence (though in fact I do serve freedom much more than before). I do “stay with this world” in practical terms, but it seems to me the world exists in the kind of context I allude to and that the one I’m in sometimes shifts tracks.

  19. America Stewart

    I would like to add something that is simpler and clarifying for me: if there are to be martyrs in fact (rather than as a matter of “should”), what is important is that they are Awake, not acting from habit or received narrative.

    Also, there are non-Catholic martyrs who merit careful consideration and broaden the concept –folks like Mansur al Hallaj and Noor Inayat Khan.

  20. Adam

    some wonderful thoughts thorn, thanks.

    I was first attracted to paganism through reclaiming, because it did have that commitment to service as part of its core. the three legs of the cauldron balancing our lives, the spiritual/magickal work, the inner, personal work/care, and the outer work, action/service in the community.

    For me at one stage service was everything, even to the detriment to myself. paganism teaches us that care and focus on inner work. what I hope is that we all do not forget that there is more.

    service can be integrated with our spiritual work, it can be the form of a beautiful offering to god herself, to the earth, our human community and to ourselves.

  21. Rory

    A *major* issue I had with some of the “nine-virtue-style” ethics of Asatru and ADF were about the apparent absence of something analogous to the Hellenic concept of justice or diké as “what is fitting.” After a year or so of thought and meditation, it occurred to me that the concepts of hospitality and reciprocity fulfilled that role in many historical societies. Hospitality and reciprocity are human cultural universals or darn close, at a tribal level. Notions of legalistic justice seem to come later, and are more prone to manipulation by the powerful. I’ve only had a couple years since this insight, but it seems to me a strong one.

    IF we accept that we have non-human kindred and
    IF we accept that our lives are enriched by them
    THEN we must accord them courtesy and consideration
    AND we must treat them well if we expect the same.

    The ancient idea of exchange and that “a gift demands a gift” seems a sure touchstone for significant pagan ethics. A lack of action matching such a belief also seems to me a sure sign of their absence. If you believe that others are kindred worthy of respect they will be treated that way. If you don’t then they won’t. Your actions are the surest and best proof of your beliefs. How I act is how I am, across all spheres.

  22. Sarenth

    I will have to disagree with you on the position of self-sacrifice that you hold, Gwydion. There are many cases in which sacrificing oneself so other may live is as noble a thing as defending another or feeding the hungry. I will turn to mythology for my point here.

    Odin hung on Yggdrasil, the World Tree, and without that sacrifice, He, and eventually we, would not have learned of the Runes. His sacrifice “of Himself to Himself” when He took up the Runes enabled us to learn a wholly powerful way of interacting with the Worlds, and of magic. It would have been easier to not hang on the Tree. It would have been easier, perhaps, to just forego taking up the Runes, or sacrificing His eye for Wisdom. Yet, in my experience, few things in this world worth having are done without some sacrifice involved.

    I have sacrificed years of my life to a college in the hopes that when I am finished I have the education necessary to shape that life with the career that education enables or qualifies me to have. As for me, serving others is largely what my path in the Northern Tradition is about; I am a shaman and a priest, and if that is not done in service to others, then the words are rather pointless. I sacrifice a lot of my personal time, energy, and the use of my body in God/dess and spirit possession for the use of ceremonies for healing, celebration and other reasons. In my path, everything is connected by the strands of fate, energy, and creation: Wyrd.

    As to your question “Who will deliver the gifts only I can bring when I’m engaging in Self-sacrifice?” Sometimes the only way to get those gifts in the very first place is through sacrifice.

    Martin Luther King Jr. served time in prison, sacrificing his time and wellbeing for something he believed fervently in. He would eventually sacrifice his life. He held back his fist, his anger, his pain, so that the Civil Rights Movement could go on. He did this because it was something he believed in, something that was bigger than himself, something that he felt needed to succeed. If he had held himself in so high a regard as to not risk himself, the Civil Rights Movement may have not succeeded. Every time a person marched for Civil Rights they knew they could be the next person battered or dead, a sacrifice if you will, to make sure that their kids, family, neighbors, or they themselves had a better future. Sometimes it takes deep love to take such a risk, or make such a sacrifice. It really depends on the person, I suppose.

  23. Sarenth

    Looking at what you’ve written a few more times, as well as that of other posters, perhaps I am talking past your points and using sacrifice in a way you’re simply not speaking to, Gwydion.

  24. Thorn

    Making Sacred is something I think of often. We all do make sacrifices for our Greater Work, our Greater Will, and sometimes for Causes. But do we give up ourselves? Not in my case. In my case, I am becoming more fully mySelf when I sacrifice – make sacred.

    I like what America speaks to regarding being Awake. That is a place of full presence, not of denial. Powerful.

    And yes, America, Hallaj is one of my ancestor Teachers. Thanks for mentioning him.

  25. Circe

    Well I realized that even I read the blog, I falled into a “foreign language trap” so to speak hahaha. I’m sorry. Now I understand: you meant physical action, either individual (like helping in a “soup kitchen” (like you do) or collective (like political activism); and above all the reasons why. Then my answer is: I do both at once…I work as a judge, and in my decisions I try to make the best full service of the God/Goddes I can. It’s individual, it’s also feeding me, and it’s also collective because it does have an impact in society, somehow. What are my reasons to do it? As a pagan, my reasons are to produce through me and my decisions the love of the Divine (All Gods/Goddesses- by the way, like Thorn, I do believe in both sides of the Divine: the Oneness and the Multiple, like 2 sides of the same coin; the Oneness- the Absolute- Atma or the Atmic Sacred Fire- All that is- Existence itself- for me is the Masculine and Feminin energy “mixed” all together, and the Multiple is the separated Masculine and Feminin dancing and interacting, which is a exact translation of the Oneness; the Masculine Energy is the God in abstract (the involving energy, the energy that comes from outside to inside, from Above, the Father Sky; sometimes I see it as the Spirit part of All that is) and the many gods in the concrete pantheon and the Feminin Energy is the Goddess in abstract (the evolving energy, the energy that comes from inside to outside, from Below, the Great Mother Earth, sometimes I see it as the Matter part of All that is, Mother Nature herself) and the many goddesses of every concrete pantheon; they also, somehow “split” in to all other beings or parts of beings: like spirits, humans, animals, etc…that’s my core belief system) feels for these people. Of course I do this for humanist reasons…but I (pretty strongly) believe that the humanist reasons are the divine reasons themselves, you can make that distinction on an intellectual level (because many atheists do act out of humanist reasons) but you can’t make this distinction on a spiritual level, in fact, I think it is the bridge (the exact translation between planes and dimensions) between the intellectual level and the spiritual level; like thought is the vehicle for the spirit (that was somehow revealed to me when trying to learn from the act of casting the magic circle or the sacred sphere of blue fire). But, I’m facing my Goddess challenge so I may be not so far evolved to have a full view of this matter.
    What is our way, as pagans? I am still woking on that too!!! My own path led me to the “Shipwrecked dilemma”. I would like to save both at the same time (me, because I love me, and the other, because I love the other). It’s like the autocare of the keeper (I hope it’s a good translation). So, I am still waiting for more clarity to come.
    But yes, to sum up, I think the pagan way is to try to integrate all levels (spiritual- that is in sync with our believes in our gods/goddesses; mental, emotinal and physical) in all we think, feel, speak and do. For instance: when I do my bed I say a little spell that reminds me of some meanings that this day to day act is showing me. When I wash my teeth, I do it with the passive hand on purpose in order to stimulate the other hemisphere of my mind. When I stir my coffe, I decide every time whether to do it clockwise or counterclockwise in relation to what’s happening in my life, right now and what forces I wish to infuse the subject with.
    Sorry to be so long, a good article deserves a good answer!!! Congratulations on the article!! I loved it!!! And it made me move!!

  26. Sarah

    I’ve been thinking and thinking about how to clarify what I meant about doing our own work.

    In the immediate sense, I was thinking about privilege and how, in order to encounter people with less of it than I have, I need to choose to step out of my insulated suburban life. A significant piece of my work focuses on bringing my whole self into alignment, and for me, that means hearing the call to step out of my comfort zone more clearly and being more willing to heed it. It’s also made it more possible for me to retain some perspective in the face of my awareness of tremendous suffering, and of course, my work feeds me and that helps me feed others in various ways. So that’s one piece.

    There’s also an obvious piece about how practice brings us clarity about who we are, what our work is, and how we should manifest that in our worlds. It brings us the clarity and integrity to say “hey, if I’m saying I love the earth, maybe I should try biking to work,” or whatever it is for each of us.

    But I also believe that oppressive systems function not just around us, but also within us. When I talk to my smart, educated, white friends about race, for example, I frequently hear them pull out an argument that goes like this: “I’m a good person, and good people aren’t racist, so what I said couldn’t have been racist.” When challenged with an opportunity to change, they hold up their self-concept as a defense.

    Making different choices there — choosing to say “hey, that thing you said is a problem for me” or “oh, shit, you’re right, that was really offensive; I’m sorry” — is another kind of activism I highly value, and it’s one that I think needs all of us, all the time. My own ability to do that from both sides — to ask those hard questions you mention with compassion and answer them with a modicum of grace — comes directly out of my practice. Does this make sense?

    Of course, practice isn’t all we need, and there are plenty of ways one can help without needing to know why the help is needed: talking to kids, scrubbing pots, building homes. I could probably do with more hands-on activism myself, in fact, and so I’m grateful for this reminder!

  27. Peregrin

    Wonderful post, Thorn – thank you!

    I had similar observations re activist circles 25 years ago and not much has changed here (a very conservative pagan community in Perth, Western Australia).

    I think Sarah expresses the situation well. Christianity was born in the pre-modern eras, a time where piety and religious expression was far more tied up with collective and public action than now. Neo-Paganism is often the epitome of a modern era religion and partakes of modernity, valorizing individualism, personal connection, creativity, diversity etc. It is noteworthy that out of all the myriad of western Christian sects, it is the pre-modern one (Catholicism) that sprouts the most activists (with possible exception of the Quakers, depending on where you live).

    Since our traditions are borne of modernity we cannot easily expect pagans to act socially and collectively (except where individuals’ rights and freedoms are threatened). We need to unpack this in our theaology and consciously re-create our religious practice as service focused on the collective. Traditions such as Reclaiming do this, and this is great (and it is interesting again that lead spokesperson Starhawk has often mentioned how her Jewish (pre-modern) upbringing grounded here in social action). However, we can make it a core part of more neo-pagan theology and day-to-day group practice.

    THANKS 🙂

  28. kirsten

    i think a lot of what it comes down to is this:
    how far have you thought through your own beliefs?
    Have you neglected something? been willfully or accidentally blind to truths?
    what actions do you think you need to take to honor/live those beliefs?
    what will that cost you?

    most activists, serious activists.. know they will pay a price for LIVING their BELIEFS and VALUES. its not free. now no one wants to pay more than they need to, but in today’s society often the price of speaking up (or acting up) is public censure (which can include jail time).

    it isnt always.. often there are ways to lead by example, to live your beliefs, etc without drawing that much fire.. but sometimes it involves risk and consequences.

    When it comes down to that, many people do not have a foundation to support them when our society, our circle of friends, withdraws their support. “what will people say?” “i will lose my job!” etc…
    only the individual can decide what price is worth paying.
    many times i find that they feel the price is worth paying, but lack the support, discipline, and determination to continue on. The Catholic activists often feel that they HAVE support for their paying that price, either in their religious society (their peers) or in their religion and beliefs.

  29. Nahlah

    Very thought-provoking post! I think that giving a lot of thought to how our actions reflect our values is one of the most important things a Pagan (or anyone) should do. But I think we need to realize that the result of that work is going to take a different form for each person that does it, which may, or may not look familiar to us from the outside.

    Recently, I’ve heard of lot of judgment coming from various pagan folks regarding issues of activism and daily practice that have really rubbed my fur the wrong way. I think that many people have a very narrow definition of the term “activist.” Before judging someone for their lack of involvement I think we need to take a moment and reflect on the differing ways we are all doing the best we can.

    Some people’s way of connecting to immanent divinity in an inward personal experience, just as there are sects of Catholics that are cloistered, there are solitary practitioners who may never interact on the community level, yet still are contributing to the larger paradigm shift that this world needs. Other people may not have what looks like a daily practice to someone on the outside, but are in a constant conversation with the natural world around them. Making judgments about people’s practices or lack thereof is ridiculous when you have no real way of knowing what their internal process is.

    It is easy to recycle when all you have to do is toss everything into a bin that gets picked up at your curb. It’s a lot harder when you have to wash and sort it then drive for miles to drop it off somewhere. It’s also easy to eat organic when you have natural food stores and farmers markets walking distance from your house. Living consciously is a lot easier when the entire community you live in supports that value. For many people in this country, that is not the case.

    For some people, honoring their body may be as simple as realizing their body is their own, and that they no longer need to feel guilty for enjoying sex, or finally accepting and being grateful for the imperfectly beautiful body they have.

    Not everyone is called to be a social or environmental activist. Some people contribute to a more peaceful and compassionate world by creating a microcosm of it in their own lives and families. I think that work is also important. The blessings created by reversing generations of negative patterns can ripple out far beyond the walls of their own homes.

    Others are called to create art and music that touches and inspires others on a deep level. Some are healers, doctors, nurses, teachers, police officers, Girl Scout troop leaders, and serve their communities that way. Others have regular white collar jobs and may contribute to the world by giving desperately needed money to charities anonymously.

    Pagans who live in large urban areas have resources and a world-view that other parts of the country do not. Being able to be a public pagan activist is a privilege that many people don’t have. People vary on what stage of the Path they are on, and some may have limited opportunities for community involvement due to social, personal and economic issues. There are people for whom just admitting to themselves that they are pagan is an act of great courage, and communities where coming out publicly as a Pagan is social suicide. I have lived in parts of the country where it would not be possible to work in a soup kitchen alongside Christians if they knew you were Pagan.

    I think that we are in danger of laying a huge load of guilt onto people who can’t or are not called to serve the gods and the world in the same way some people think they should. Seems like many people think if people don’t care about the causes that they care about, they are not “good Pagans,” which I think reeks of a fundamentalist point of view that turns many people off. It’s a wonderful thing when pagans come together to get stuff done, but we have to remember that for every public Pagan out there protesting, there are many, many people doing their Work in unacknowledged and unappreciated ways.

  30. Thorn

    Just a few thoughts this Sunday:

    First off, I’m gladdened by the thoughtful and respectful responses here.

    Second: Sacrifice, as many have pointed out, often means doing that which is a push, that which does not come easily. And yes, we all must find ways to do that that are our own – diversity is important to the health of any biosphere.

    But I’m also thinking about the fact that many places now have recycling made easy because people agitated for it and organized around it. In San Francisco, my old housemates and I did have to wash, sort, and drive our recycling to a center. When I worked on the Pacific Stock Options Exchange (yeah, long story), I enlisted the help of a person with a car and put cardboard boxes around the trading floor and tried to train the traders into throwing their reams of fan-fold computer paper into the boxes instead of just on the floor. At day’s end, I would gather paper from the floor and put it into the boxes. My friend and I would then drive these boxes to a recycling center a couple of times a week.

    Now everyone in SF recycles because it is easy. It is easy, because people in the community decided it was important (and figured out how to make money from it, too).

    I’ve been to Pagan events where a group had taken on recycling for the entire event and had a truck to drive it all away. Many people *still* would not even use the bags provided and make the short walk from their camp to the recycling tent.

    All of this said, no, we can never judge someone’s insides, or see clearly into their lives. But I still want us to be able to challenge each other. We can challenge each other from a place of love, rather than harshness. I also want us to be able to bring our communities as in line with our values as is possible in any given moment, knowing there is give and take, and a range of possibility.

    Kristen’s list of questions feels valuable to me, so I quote:
    i think a lot of what it comes down to is this:
    how far have you thought through your own beliefs?
    Have you neglected something? been willfully or accidentally blind to truths?
    what actions do you think you need to take to honor/live those beliefs?
    what will that cost you?

    Everything in our lives is about relationship. Every relationship entail risk. There is a cost for every action and inaction.

  31. Nahlah

    I think it comes down to just trying to live a life without contradictions.

  32. Soli

    Thorn, I’ve been thinking about something since you first made this post. What of those Pagans whose personal thinking doesn’t include things like social justice or caring for the land around them? What of the ones who seem to ally themselves with politicians who would probably try to get them to convert to monotheism if they learned of their “heretic” ways? While I am not saying that Pagans cannot be conservative in their politics, something seems really off with putting yourself more in the ranks of Dominionist-style thinking and (un)wise use.

  33. Circe

    (for Soli…and the others, of course) That’s exactly my situation: I’m a judge (the youngest in my country…by pure magic, thanks to the Goddess and the God and the “Old ways”. thank you to all my “divine”, thank you). My tutor first asked me to hide my practices in facebook…now, that’s a “little” Goddess challenge, eh? (it is not the challenge that I said above that I am facing)…therefore, my service to the Godess here is to stand firmly. Not only I do not hide my witchy practices, but also explain them and share them and teach them, when asked to. I let everyone know that I am pagan, I am a witch…my service to freedom (for me that’s Gods and Goddesses all together) is to show me exactly as I am, to express myself exactly as I wish (being respectful to others), and if they don’t like it, I respect them enough to let them turn their head to another thing, just as I do if I don’t like what I see in/of/about them.
    Ok, I am not a good activist of any kind…I’m sorry…I don’t feel like this…although I start some “litle movements” like my spells to help the japanese and to calm the sea that I posted in facebook inviting all my “friends” to do it if they sensed they needed to do something and they had not their “own” way. But I am not the kind of pagan that goes to manifestations (like Starhawk or…I don’t know, but you pretty much seems to…Thorn).
    For me individual service and collective service are just modalities of the same “service”…life (the divine forces, Gods and Goddesses) will invite me to do one kind of service or the other, or both, every time, as it unfolds.
    I am not a professional witch, it’s my beliefs system, so to speak, because witchcraft it’s not just that (but I cannot find a right expression right now).
    Many blessings to all!!! And thank you for making me vibrate and be passionate so much!!!

  34. circe

    What I really wanted to say is that we don’t know their reasons to “bend to others”…so I cannot judge them as “traitors” or ” weaks”…it’s all learning and knowledge through experience and sometimes your love for what you have make you to do these “sacrifices”…I simply do not want to bend to others, that’s my service now, but them: or their service is to bend and sacrifice a bit their “practices” (not their inner heart and true “loyalties”)…or they simply do not believe so strongly and firmly in their pagan path, so their faith is still (I do not like the word weak for this) “forging” or “building” or “taking shape”, so they can just bend easily and even practice both religions if they have too…what really matters is what lies in our hearts (at least, to me). Yes, I finished hahaha. Many blessings to all, and thank you thank you thank you Thorn!!!

  35. Samara

    Wow, I am so very impressed with all the brilliant thinkers here. I’m not sure I have much to add but here are a few thoughts:

    The question of how to reach higher and higher levels of integrity is a lifelong one. How do I more fully align my actions and words with my beliefs? Our Western culture does not particularly value integrity. It often appears to be lacking in others. And yet it’s really only something we can feel and define for ourselves. If we’re paying attention, we can feel it when our integrity is missing. And we can lovingly question others and hope they will do the same for us.

    When everything is sacred and the divine says things like “All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals,” we are not confined to a narrow view of what it means to align our lives with our spirituality. We don’t have to be activists willing to go to prison; we can spread justice and love in smaller ways–a smile here, a little spare change there. But the challenge of this looseness is that we don’t have a rigid belief system to clarify and hold ourselves accountable to our paths. We are left to our own devices and can choose the easy path and still be in alignment with our theology. I find it very challenging sometimes to choose the necessary over the preferable, or the important over the pleasant, for this reason. The only thing to define this integrity for me is the deeply held beliefs that burn in my soul, and the commitment to keep checking in for the right answer. Sometimes the right answer is to do the fun thing that helps me recharge; other times it’s to do the difficult thing that helps me feel like I’m making a difference in the world.

    I think the questions you outlined above are great. I feel myself being made slightly uncomfortable by them, so I know you’re onto something!

    As for how to cultivate right action (and I say this in the Buddhist sense, not in the right vs. wrong sense) and to encourage integrity of creed and deed, the thing that comes to mind for me is (surprise!) a Hafiz poem (Ladinsky trans.)

    The Prettiest Mule

    Sometimes a mule does not know
    What is best for itself.

    When the mind is confused like that
    It secretly desires a master
    With a skilled whip

    To guide it to those playgrounds
    On the earth’s table
    Where the Sweet One’s light has
    Made life more tasty.

    Hafiz always carries such a whip
    But I rarely need to use it.

    I prefer just turning myself into
    The prettiest mule
    In Town

    And making my tail sing
    Knowing your heart will then

  36. John Carosella

    Hi Thorn, All,
    What a beautiful discussion. It moved me powerfully this morning as I began to contemplate my reasons for joining Jim Wallis (unmistakably Christian and author of the blog God’s Politics) on a fast to raise awareness of the morality (or lack thereof) of our federal budget.

    Why had I chosen to fast? What “good” would that do? Clearly, my fast is not going to in any way directly adjust a line item in the federal budget. So why did I feel so compelled to participate?

    Kirsten’s questions ring true: How far have I thought through my beliefs? What actions are required to honor/live my beliefs? Have I been willfully blind to truths?

    Attempting to be mindfully, persistently, present to an injustice (or even an imbalance) is not something we like to do as humans. This fast, even though “remote” from the front line, seems to provide a focus on a circumstance that would otherwise too easily fade from my mind.

    And I think, too, it’s about invigorating and revitalizing that sacred connection. Activism, however small, is an opportunity to plug oneself back into the whole, and feel more of it.

    Even if it hurts.

  37. Roger F

    Points, many, seen and acknowledged.

    These points, too:

    1. What I believe creates how I act.
    2. How I act shows what I believe.

    @kirsten – very good point. “How well have you thought down your own beliefs?”

    How well have I thought down my own beliefs?
    What do I believe in the core of my being?
    What kind of actions do those beliefs imply?
    And am I being true to them?


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