I wasn’t expecting to write the present, and in fact doing so is actively taking away time from things that are technically far more important in many respects…but, it’s my choice to try and address this, because it seems that a lot of people still don’t seem to get the underlying problems involved.
On Gus DiZerega’s blog at Patheos.com’s Pagan Channel, Don Frew has written a guest piece, “On Saving Pagan Lives, ‘Wiccan Privilege,’ and Interfaith.” I’d suggest everyone read it. Other colleagues of mine have made their own posts on this matter, and there will be an event (a discussion, in fact) at PantheaCon this weekend in the Covenant of the Goddess/etc. hospitality suite addressing the matter of Wiccan Privilege. I’m looking forward to the event, and I think it might end up being quite useful in a variety of ways; if it isn’t, that will also be useful in its own way (though perhaps not in any ways envisioned by those who are organizing or hosting it).
I have written a bit in the comments on that post by Don at Gus’ blog, but I’ll reprint some of that here, and likewise elaborate a bit further.
To quote from the beginning of Don’s piece directly:
The Parliament of World’s Religions and the United Religions Initiative have been the central interfaith organizations where I served as a representative from CoG and at times as an officer within their own bodies. In so doing I was privileged to be an active participant in events of great importance to our community’s relations with the rest of the world.
I don’t think the general formality of saying “It’s a privilege to be speaking with you” in this case is a mere formality: it has been a real privilege for Don to be able to do the work he has done, because he hasn’t had to devote that time to other things. No matter how much he has done to build Wicca in America, the sole fate of Wicca in America has not rested on his shoulders, thus he has time to do things that–no matter how helpful and laudable and necessary and useful they are–do not require his full attention and energy simply to have something exist at all.
Let’s say a theoretical modern Pagan who is from a Gardnerian Wiccan background has been doing something similar to what Don Frew has been doing since 1985. That would mean that at this stage, this theoretical modern pagan has been doing interfaith activism for nearly thirty years. But, whether they were doing it for thirty years or only for three years, the fact is, all of that time spent on interfaith work (whether it is one night a week for three hours, or every night of the week for three hours) is not “time lost” in the slightest, because they are doing so from the position of being in a religious group that already exists.
For the last twelve years, I’ve been doing something every day to help to build the tradition of devotion to Antinous and a variety of other divine beings (including but not limited to Cú Chulainn, the Divine Hadrian, the Divine Sabina, the hero Polydeukion and his Trophimoi brothers, etc.). If even half of the time I’ve spent on that in the last twelve years was spent on interfaith activism, there would certainly be some rewarding results from it, but at very least, the Trophimoi would not be on that list, because I’ve been doing research into them since about 2006, and it is cumbersome, difficult, and not always as fruitful as I’d like it to be…but, it needs to be done, and I’m the only one that has done it. (There are some others who have done work on and for Antinous, but I’m still one of the main ones, and one of the only ones who is publishing.)
Gardnerian Wicca exists on a level viable enough that someone spending 30 years on something that doesn’t directly build the tradition won’t be a loss to the tradition.
Antinous and the devotional spirituality associated with him and those related to him, without me spending from as little as an hour up to as much as fifteen hours a day on it for the last twelve years, doesn’t exist at all.
And, because Wiccan religions and Wiccan religious groups will still exist if someone is not doing something about it and for it on a regular basis, that is one of those advantages in the invisible knapsack, so to speak, which is privilege. That’s what we’re talking about as devotional polytheists when we say that Wiccans have privilege that we don’t.
I have had a variety of interfaith experiences over the years, and the ones that have been the most useful to me have been ones that have not been called “interfaith” at all. It’s been when I’ve gone and studied Hinduism in order to understand Hanuman, and thereby to understand *what devotion is and how to do it* better; it’s been when I’ve gone to the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America to see how seasonal ritual within the Shinto tradition works, and what their spiritual technologies are, in order to understand *nature spirituality* and *spiritual purification* (outside of concepts of “sin”). I think these are good and important experiences, and when I am at them, I try to be as good a guest as possible, as respectful and appreciative and employing of good conduct as it is possible for me to be. I don’t get asked what my own religion is most of the time, because it isn’t relevant; but if it did become relevant, and I were asked about it, I certainly wouldn’t (and have not had to) lie about it, and I think this is likewise appropriate. When I go to these events, it isn’t because I feel the need to tell everyone there that I’m a visitor from another religion and that I think inter-religious understanding is a good thing (though I am and I do).
In specifically interfaith events, on the other hand, I’ve had some experiences that have not been as good. I started trying to do more interfaith work when I was a late undergraduate, and was excited about the existence of interfaith seminaries and so forth. The first interfaith panel discussion I held at my undergraduate college (which wasn’t very well attended) had two of my college faculty and one staff member on the panel: the (white) Buddhism professor (who was also a practitioner), the New Testament teacher (who was an American Catholic, but whose father was an Iranian Muslim and whose mother was a white evangelical), and the staff member who was an African-American ordained interfaith minister. And, the opening question of the whole event, by the Buddhist, was “Why are we doing this? What is the motivation for thinking that ‘interfaith’ is a good or useful thing at all?” The New Testament prof went on to say that once the Ottoman Empire was established and comfortable, and didn’t fear being opposed or converted by non-Muslim religions or that large sections of their population would convert simply by the presence of non-Muslims amongst them, then they started to host interfaith events, so to speak, and would invite Christians and Jews to tell them about their beliefs because they were no longer a threat to them and it was interesting and diverting conversation. This sort of made me realize how something as apparently self-evidently useful as interfaith might not always be so in the minds of those who are doing it, or who are supporting or hosting it. My thought at the time was that it is useful for everyone to understand each other in order to live more peacefully and harmoniously together, and that is still the main motivator that many who do interfaith work cite.
What I then wonder about is, why is it that interfaith activists ask me to come along to events to hear these other viewpoints, but they don’t ever bother to get to know what my viewpoint is, and don’t attempt to try to understand mine better (and all the resources are here–I’ve written six books, I’ve done daily blog posts for most of the last three and a half years here, etc.), because they don’t have the time to do so…and, I believe them, but then what makes them think I have the time to come to interfaith events when the actual fate of my fledgling religion (or, as Christine Hoff Kraemer called in in a comment on Don’s post, “new and small” religion–and both “new” and “small” are used as pejoratives by religions that are *older* and *larger* and, yes, indeed, privileged!) depends on whether or not I do the work I’ve been given and have chosen to do?
When I go to interfaith activities, I don’t tend to hear “Come and talk to us about your religion,” I hear “Come and do what we’re doing.” Unitarians tell me, when they tell me they’ve never heard of my religion and ask me about it, “Oh, you sound like a Unitarian!” And that tells me they haven’t listened to a word I’ve said! While it’s pretty hard to disagree with some of the generalized statements that many Unitarians uphold, at the same time, I’m not really much of a Unitarian, I think most of you would agree. And whether that’s a bad thing or a good thing is in the eye of the beholder.
Don’s narrative in his piece includes an important incident from the 2004 World Parliament of Religions in Spain (and events taking place shortly before that), which involved him and some of his comments essentially making it possible for what would be considered by some “Pagans” to be other “Pagans” (who are actually indigenous religio-magical practitioners) to no longer be persecuted in their own culture. I think that’s a great and laudable thing, and you should all go and read it.
I was considering being at the World Parliament of Religions in 2004, because Spain isn’t far from Ireland, and it would have been relatively easy schedule-and-travel-wise to get there (though not necessarily money-wise). But, under the direction of my spiritual “superior” at the time, I was told not to apply, not to waste time with that, and not to put any importance or priority on it. Why? Because Antinoan spirituality was very new at that time–it would have been barely two years old in any organized and definite fashion in the modern world in 2004–and why would anyone there care about or even consider this religion, which at the time had three definite practitioners and a handful of others on our Yahoo!Groups list, even be considered a “religion” or a “group” or a “tradition” at all, considering its small size and short existence at that point? It would seem more like someone coming to tell about their own personal religion rather than being a representative of a religious tradition, even though we did have an organization and a small group of people. Why would anyone there notice us, want to get to know us, or respect us given how lacking in credibility, numbers, historical weight, and influence we were? And, I think my spiritual “superior” at the time was right.
Nearly ten years later, is the Ekklesía Antínoou any better off? If I was to attend the next World Parliament of Religions, would I be better placed to be considered anything but someone following an idiosyncratic and personal religion rather than being a tradition-builder (no matter how small or marginal that tradition might be)? I don’t know, you’d have to decide that for yourself depending on your own thoughts on these amtters.
But, there was a larger and more important matter also in operation during my thinking on this in 2003 and 2004. It wasn’t so much that we were a “small” or “new” tradition that made us less likely to be respected (even though, again, older and larger religions always have that bias), it’s that our own practices weren’t established, our own beliefs weren’t solidified, our own scant numbers weren’t as dedicated or devoted as we should have been to merit being taken seriously by other traditions. What I can definitely say between 2004 and 2014, though, is that things have become considerably more clear, solid, practicable, and in every way respectable by the effort I and several others have put into modern Antinoan spirituality, and that is something to be proud of and to be considered an accomplishment. That wouldn’t have happened if I spent any less money or time on this than I have to the present, and thus a trip for a week to Spain in 2004 that would have cost in the neighborhood of $1000+ altogether wouldn’t have been as useful as spending that same amount of time and money on making my religion one that is respectable, practicable, and (most importantly) clearly identifiable.
I attend intrafaith modern pagan events as often as I can. I’ve been asked to speak to a Wiccan discussion group in early March of this year, so that should be interesting; that occasion ultimately follows on from last year, when I was able to attend the final class of OLOTEAS’ “Skiing the Magical Bunny Slope” course where various pagan groups shared about their traditions and work. Likewise, I attended and presentated at OLOTEAS’ “Concentric Circles” event this last year, too, on behalf of the Ekklesía Antínoou. About four people attended my session, and the one who seemed really enthusiastic and wanted to get in further touch and be notified about future events never e-mailed or got in contact (though I gave her all the information to do so). None followed from the earlier event either.
While our group may simply not appeal to everyone, and I have always emphasized that while we are for anyone (as in there are no barriers to anyone possible joining or doing what we do), we won’t be for everyone (as in this won’t appeal to absolutely everyone, can’t be all things to all people, and furthermore DOESN’T HAVE TO BE and to assume that it SHOULD or CAN BE is deluded!), this brings up the question of whether the time and travel and money spent on attending those events is worthwhile at this point or not, when I could be spending it writing the next book, doing a devotional art project, or actually praying and doing ritual!
And, what is playing out in reality here is that it’s a lot easier to join a tradition that already exists, as Wicca certainly does (even though it’s by no means “finished–no religion really is!), rather than joining one that is still in its infancy and has a lot of work remaining to do. All of the basics are laid out, certainly, but an immense amount remains to be determined. I’ve also never shied away from admitting that “building it as we fly it” is a part of the Ekklesía Antínoou, which makes the flying of it often unstable and precarious, but also rather exciting (if that is how you get your thrills–and, admittedly, I do, and I enjoy that such is the case, even though it is also frustrating!). It would be better if the flight were more stable, and it would become more stable if more people were helping to build it as well as helping to fly it.
It is an honor and a pleasure to do this work, as well as a truly humbling experience. And I am never far from the knowledge that if I were not doing this work, at the moment, no one else will. Others certainly “can,” but for various (often very good) reasons they aren’t, and until they do, if I don’t then the Ekklesía Antínoou and the modern Antinoan cultus and Antinoan spiritual practice does not exist. If the same is not true of the religious tradition you practice, then you enjoy a great deal more freedom, you are under a great deal less responsibility, and you have, whether you want to admit it or not, a great deal more privilege.
There may be some out there who might say “Well, why not just give it up and become Wiccan, then?” And, further, “why wouldn’t you take advantage of enjoying a privilege you can choose to have rather than doing all of this hard work for nothing?” The same thing gets asked of queer people who choose to be out rather than be closeted; the same thing could be said about my gender identity–why not either go “full-on” trans* or just be (apparently) cisgender, because wouldn’t that be easier? It might seem easier, but it would be a lie and completely inauthentic to my personhood to live like that.
Privilege assumes that, given a choice, everyone would want to be the way the ones who have privilege are–wouldn’t it be better for all of us if we could hit the magic button and be a white, cisgendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, upper-class male? But, I’m actually only one of those things (white), and I’m also a polytheist, and I’m fine with that, even though huge portions of society and the majorities of certain subcultures aren’t and give me constant reminders that they’re not.
While I don’t have an air-tight view on fate and destiny and so forth, I do think that each person has a unique thing that they contribute to their world and the cosmos that only they can do. What I am hearing in some cases where people are arguing for the necessity of interfaith work is, in essence, an argument that everyone should be doing exactly what they are doing. Yes, interfaith work is good and important and widely beneficial, and those who can do it should do it, and those who are good at it should continue to do it to the best of their abilities. But, some of us are good at other things, and some of us need to do other things, because no one else will. No, my efforts at building the Ekklesía Antínoou might not save the lives of indigenous people on another continent, but will it save the life of one genderqueer pagan-leaning twenty-something who is thinking about committing suicide because no one else understands them religiously or gender- and sexuality-wise? It might…and isn’t that also important?
Part of the invisible knapsack of privilege is that those who possess privilege often don’t know it and don’t realize it, which is why it’s an “invisible knapsack.” Knapsacks are things that people carry, and that have further things in them; yes, they might be heavy, they might be burdensome, and they might even be what people refer to as “baggage,” but those who don’t have privilege also don’t have the knapsack and don’t have the special things in it that help them when they help those who are privileged. My religious tradition is just as respectable as anyone else’s, but because it is “new” and “small” and so forth, it doesn’t have the weight that others do in the minds of others.
No matter how often I’m quoted on The Wild Hunt (as I was today), I’m not often quoted because I’m an Antinoan and am representing an important issue for the Ekklesía Antínoou, it’s because I’ve said something about a current event or an issue that has wider applicability to other types of pagans. Many people who then talk about me or what I’ve said don’t know anything about what my actual religious tradition is, nor who I am–the number of times I get the wrong pronouns ascribed to me is beyond counting–because they don’t have to and don’t feel they need to. While I certainly have privileges in this regard that many do not enjoy (because I have, amongst other things, an internet connection and a computer and the time to write these things), the fact that my voice gets out there as often as it does is not because I’m speaking from a powerful or privileged position. I honestly don’t know why I get mentioned on there as much as I do, though I suspect part of it is because of the sheer volume of what I put out, and there has to be something useful in there at some point, and thus someone was bound to notice it sooner or later. This didn’t happen overnight, by any means, and it has taken some work to get here, but it doesn’t change the fact that what I’m doing is a minority voice within a niche area of a set of minority religions.
I don’t have the privilege of being able to ignore Wicca when I talk about my religion to the wider pagan communities, or to the more general populace (who have in many cases at least heard of Wicca). Wiccans, on the other hand, who have met me and discussed things with me, have the privilege of not needing to know anything about my religious tradition, up to and including if they come to my rituals.
Like many white people, I used to be very confused when I was doing diversity education and activism during my undergraduate years when my students-of-color friends would say “I’m not here to educate you” and would make evident their resentment at having to be cast in the role of the “wise person-of-color” for the benefit of the white people. With time and education and some missteps and mistakes and the exposure of my own biases and stupidity and blind-spots, I finally got what they were communicating. Nothing drove it home more to me than the Findhorn Sex and Spirit conference I attended in 2001, where I was told, in response to my objections to only having binary gender options on “Gender Day,” that rather than “people like you” being sectioned off on our own, it was our *responsibility* to EDUCATE everyone else. Having the ability to call up to the tribunal of Majority Opinion anyone who is a minority to justify their own existence is, well, privilege, and a privilege that those who are doing the “invitation” and the “inclusion” often don’t realize they have–to even suggest that “I’m here to include you” is to tacitly admit that it’s also possible for that person who has power and privilege to exclude someone as well, and whether they do their inclusion for reasons of wanting to be inclusive and accommodating, or because they subconsciously get something out of it and of exercising their power in that fashion, or anything else, nonetheless it quickly points up that the person who is doing the including has power and privilege, in no matter how great or small a way on the grander scale.
While I could go on and on about this for many more thousands of words, I think I should end on the following, which is an invitation as much as it is a challenge, and I hope it is accepted in the spirit of such.
At PantheaCon this weekend, I’m doing a total of six events that I’m putting on or organizing myself–a workshop, three rituals on the main program, and two shorter observances that aren’t on the program. While I’m no longer in one other event I was going to be in, I had been invited (and I am assuming the invitation still stands) to be a participant in the “Healing Ritual for Margot” on Saturday night as well, and I’m happy to do that. And, Don himself announced to me in comments on this blog that the Wiccan Privilege discussion will be going on Sunday afternoon, during a time slot where I was not scheduled to be doing anything (for which I am most grateful!). I’m planning on being there, and nothing short of a plane (or other vehicular) crash preventing me from getting to PantheaCon, or a major unexpectd bodily injury during the conference, is going to prevent me from attending that Wiccan Privilege discussion in the CoG/etc. hospitality suite. How many Covenant of the Goddess/etc. members are planning to attend our Lupercalia ritual this year, or any of the other events I’m presenting, and all of which are and always have been “open to everyone”?