Our Lady of Perpetual Agitation vs. Social Media

Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption, San Francisco, CA

Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption, San Francisco, CA     Some think it looks like a Maytag washing machine

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a big fan of the Catholic church, but if I am going to be fair I am forced to admit that the Catholic church usually makes a moderate to good effort in giving aid to the houseless.  In most cities, Catholic social services are some of the most accessible to marginalized populations with in a community.  Sometimes this aid is given asking nothing in return and sometimes it requires sitting through a church service or sermon, but most of the time at least some sort of aid can be had if the proper hoops are jumped through.  That’s one of the reasons that I was so surprised to see a headline reading “SF cathedral dousing homeless with water to keep them from sleeping in doorways” on Patheos this morning.

To summarize, for the past two years the Cathedral has been using a system of hoses from the roof of the building to spray water on members of the houseless community in order to deter them from seeking shelter in the doorways of the Cathedral.  The hoses were timed to go off every 30 to 60 minutes for about 75 seconds, from sunset to sunrise, effectively soaking whoever had made the mistake of trying to sleep there and all of their belongings.  The Archdiocese’s reasoning for this is that they wanted to prevent people from urinating and defecating in the doorways, and keep the area clean and safe for everyone, and I completely understand the need for that.  I also am aware that the Archdiocese of San Francisco does make an effort to aid people in distress, and that the houseless problem is extreme in San Francisco for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with the houseless themselves.  What I find interesting about this case is both the strange and misguided choices that a Christian institution has taken to arrive at a solution as inhumane and cruel as this one, and how quickly the media, aided by social media, forced the Archdiocese to make amends for this and change their policy.

I first read about this story on Facebook this morning.  I immediately reposted it and started researching the history behind it.  After learning a little about it and the history of the Archdiocese and the Archbishop’s shaky relationship with the people of San Francisco, it quickly became clear that I was not dealing with a particularly progressive branch of Peter’s church.  Ten days ago, hundreds of people stood outside the cathedral protesting a morality clause in their teacher’s contract.  The clause, pushed by Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone,  includes language against homosexuality, same-sex marriage, abortion and contraception.  On top of this, Archbishop Cordileone recently helped push the drive for the canonization of Junipero Serra, a Spanish missionary that founded the first mission in California, helped establish the mission system, tortured and murdered the native population, and helped create the conditions that decimated the native population in California.

So after reading all of that,  I decided that I was going to head down there today and try to talk to someone about their choice to drive the houseless away from their cathedral with hoses.  I grabbed my things, hopped on the train, and headed to San Francisco with another Coru priest.  As we hiked up the hill to the cathedral, I thought about what I wanted to say to a representative of the church.  I was hoping to get a chance to talk to the Archbishop, but as a pagan priest I realized that it was unlikely to be an option, but I wanted to express to them the danger in and cruelty of soaking peoples belongings and clothes in an environment like San Francisco, where it is almost always cold and damp.  I wanted to ask them find another way to prevent people from sleeping in these alcoves that doesn’t put them at risk of pneumonia or destroys what little bit of property that they own.  To point out to them that as religious leaders in this community, people look to them for moral guidance and by taking an action as callous and heartless as this one, they are being a bad examples for others.  By the time we got to the cathedral, there were already 3 news vans there and reporters.  Because of the pressure that was put on them by the media and social media, the Archdiocese was forced to face this and take action.  When we arrived, the church had issued a statement apologizing for the action and were already removing the hoses.

Now I could easily go through their statement and point out some pretty messed up aspects of the whole incident, like the fact that the Archdiocese made the decision to do this system “was installed approximately two years ago, after learning from city resources that this kind of system was being commonly used in the Financial District” meaning that the Catholic church was getting advice on how to deal with the homeless and poor by looking to the Financial District, or that they had violated permitting requirements to install this, or that California is in the middle of a serious drought and this is a huge waste of water.  But I will also give them credit for helping the homeless in many other ways and for taking actions to address this issue as soon as they were confronted with it.

What I really want to point out here is that there is an immense power in social media and social media activism.  Because regardless of  complaints about hashtag activism and the criticisms of the “cause du jour” phenomena, social media is one of the most powerful tools that activists have to make change.  In this case, within 6 hours after hitting the internet,  this deplorable practice that has been going on for two years was ended.  Since the mainstream media does such a poor job of giving us an unbiased version of the news, it’s up to us to learn to filter the lies from the facts and that’s not always an easy job.  The benefit of having sites like Twitter and Facebook, as well as a seemingly infinite number of independent news sources, is that the amount of unfiltered, but completely biased information we receive is much greater than ever before in history.  With a little work, one can get enough perspectives of an event to have a better idea of what actually happened, and with critical thinking, and taking into account one’s own biases, we are able to understand events better and make better decisions for our lives and the world around us.  Social media also allows us to bring an issue to the public eye almost instantly, bringing public scrutiny to misdeeds and misconduct and forcing rapid change when needed.  Without social media, this issue would have taken months to resolve, with social media, 6 hours.

So don’t criticize activist’s use of social media to bring awareness to issues, and stop complaining about the “cause du jour”.  Social media is proving itself to be one of our most effective tools and one person’s “cause du jour” is another person’s lifetime struggle.  Instead of turning away from an issue because it’s too “popular”,  “trendy”,  or you don’t want to “jump on a bandwagon”, take the time to use the tools that we have in social media and the internet and learn what the issues are.  Learn the facts and listen to other people’s opinions about it, especially people’s opinions that have been involved with, or are directly affected by the issue.  Take the time to share information with people who you know and help educate them about the issues.  Take the time, educate yourself, and then make an informed decision about what you want to do about something, if anything at all.  Become involved, and either help or get out-of-the-way of the people who are helping.  Because changes are possible if we try,  and fixing some problems just require people to know what is happening for the problems to improve.

Unpacking Our Monotheistic Baggage

God-by-Monty-Python

The intolerance of narrow monotheism is written in letters of blood across the history of man from the time when first the tribes of Israel burst into the land of Canaan. The worshipers of the one jealous God are egged on to aggressive wars against people of alien cults. They invoke divine sanction for the cruelties inflicted on the conquered. The spirit of old Israel is inherited by Christianity and Islam, and it might not be unreasonable to suggest that it would have been better for Western civilization if Greece had molded it on this question rather than Palestine.    – Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

We are a new movement.  Despite claims of ancient lineages and unbroken traditions, the Pagan movement is in its infancy.   Most of us that fall under the problematic umbrella of Pagan are first generation pagans, coming to this collection of paths from a variety of faiths and beliefs, mostly monotheistic.  Yes, we are starting to see the first group of second generation pagans take their place in leadership roles within their various traditions, and there are a few third generation pagans running around under our feet, but the majority of us have had to come into this carrying the baggage of monotheism on our backs.  This burden of monotheistic thought is so ingrained in our psyche that we are often unaware of the effects that it has on our thought processes.

There are a number of ways that monotheistic thought and polytheistic thought clash.  At the heart of this clash is  monotheism’s basic and often unexamined assertion that monotheism is the more “advanced” philosophy of the two.  This little holdout of colonialism has, over the centuries, created a mindset that encourages people who are infected by monotheistic thought to dismiss any polytheist individual or culture as ‘backwards” or “primitive”.   This dismissal and disregard of the basic intelligence and perceptions of polytheist culture has had horrifying and lasting effects on those cultures.  Monotheistic thinking, no matter what form it takes, can be seen as less pluralistic and therefore less tolerant of others beliefs.  The monotheist’s belief in a single path to God lends itself to the arrogant cultural attitude that the monotheist practices the “correct” religion and therefore everyone else is practicing the “wrong” religion.  Whereas the polytheist worldview, by its very nature, accepts that everyone’s relationship with the unseen is different, accepts that there are many paths to many gods, and encourages and celebrates diversity.  By its very nature, polytheism is inclusive, whereas  monotheism is divisive.  This is where the danger of unexamined monotheistic thought becomes a detriment to cultural diversity.  If we look at our global history, it is soaked in the blood of monotheistic thinking.

So how do we recognize the monotheistic baggage that we are toting around with us and how do we look past our indoctrination with it?  The same way that strive to face and overcome white privilege in our modern culture, by learning to spot it in our own thinking and recognizing how it affects our relationships within our communities.  For there are similarities in the way that monotheistic privilege and white privilege saturate our collective consciousness and both come from a place of arrogance and a false sense of superiority.  Because the future of our species is in diversity not uniformity, and monotheistic thinking encourages division and hierarchical social structures.  Breaking the dominance of monotheistic thought is one of the first steps we must take in order to create a diverse and just society and we have to start with ourselves.  So here are a number of ways that we are saddled with this theological holdout.

  • An over reliance on the written word or liturgy.  This is the theory that the lore and mythological traditions of a particular religion is the “word of god or the gods”  In Christianity, this concept shows up most clearly as the belief that the bible is to be taken literally, that is the direct revelation of “God”.  In the Pagan world, this shows up most often in the reconstructionist  debate on the Lore vs. UPG (unverified personal gnosis… basically encounters with the unseen).  There has been much written on the subject recently and instead of rehashing all of their points, let me just point you in the direction of their work so you can read it for yourselves.  There’s John F. Beckett’s piece “The Lore vs. UPG – A False Dichotomy” ,  Rev. Tamara L. Siuda’s piece “Reconstruction, Revival, and the Styrofoam Cake Syndrome”, and Morpheus Ravenna’s “The Morrigan Built My Hot Rod: On Scholarship and Devotion”.  All of which are insightful viewpoints on learning to incorporate lore and practice together in a cohesive and functional religious practice.  What it comes down to is that lore, no matter what religion it’s from, was written by human hands, with human concerns, human agendas, and human fallibility.  So to rely on the lore, without taking into account the culture, time period, and political viewpoints of the author, is not only foolish, but it’s an attitude that has been used throughout history to justify a laundry list of atrocities.  The Christian belief in the bible being the literal truth of God is one of the most damaging weapons used by fundamentalists against people that they disagree with.  Because the bible was written and rewritten by humans, not the divine, there is an extraordinary amount of conflicting and contradictory bullshit scattered throughout it.  The bible can be used to justify almost any action and can also be used to oppose that same action if one digs deep enough.  When I have a Heathen waving the Havamal in my face telling me that the words in it trump experience and practice, or a Celtic Reconstructionist makes a claim that they know the “truth” about any subject because “It says it in the lore,  I see the monotheistic baggage heaped on their shoulders that they seem to be unaware of.   Lore and liturgy is a part of the puzzle that we are piecing together to create a living religious practice.  Putting it in the right context is essential to avoiding the philosophical pitfalls of the dominant monotheistic culture we live in.
  • The idea that mediation between humanity and the divine is necessary .  This is the theory that in order to experience the divine, we need a priest to provide that mediation for us.  This is wrong for a number of reasons.  At its core, this attitude creates a hierarchical social structure that places priests and clergy at the top and everyone else relegated to a lower social class, reliant on the priestly class for the most important aspects of their existence.  This attitude was emphasized  most heavily during the middle ages in order to give the Church political power over kings and is one of the main reason that modern thought is struggling with the concept of separating the Church and the State.  In 1906, in an encyclical written to the government of France after France passed a revolutionary law defining the separation of Church and State, Pope Pius X lays out a view of what the Churches idea of a just society would look like. The Church is essentially an unequal society, that is, a society comprising two categories of persons, the Pastors  and the flock, those who occupy a rank in the different degrees of the hierarchy and the multitude of the faithful. … the one duty of the multitude is to allow themselves to be led, and, like a docile flock, to follow the Pastors.”  This puts into words what many have been pointing out all along, that one of the primary functions of monotheistic religions are to accustom people to unquestioningly follow an autocratic elite.  Individuality and free thought is discouraged and conformity is valued and stressed.  In polytheism, not only is diversity and individuality encouraged, the role of priest is not one of a mediator between oneself and the gods, but one who helps to facilitate one’s own relationship between the unseen world and this one.
  •   Proselytizing.    Proselytizing is the act of trying to convert another from their religion or beliefs to the proselytizer’s religion or belief,  and it is arrogant, self-righteous and extremely annoying.  I’ve written on this subject before in my post  “Not That Kind of Priest: or Why I Don’t Proselytize for the Morrigan”,  so I have a definite bias about proselytizing and consider it an act of ego and arrogance.  This practice is becoming more and more common within the Pagan community, and can been seen most commonly coming from individuals that rarely recognize it for what it is.
    These individuals think that they are the smartest kids in the class and have the correct way at looking at religious thought, whether they  be monists, dualists, or atheists, they are “right” and everyone else is “doing it wrong” or lack their exalted “intelligence”.  We are tired of this elitist and unexamined bullshit and look forward to a time when these individuals step down from their soap boxes and actually join the community as equals, rather than perpetually attempting to undermine and discount other people’s intelligence and experiences.  This attitude alienates the community that they desperately want to have relevance in and is a direct by-product of monotheistic thinking.  As a community, we don’t want or need missionaries.
  • The “One True” Religion Concept.  This is the most obvious and the most prevalent bit of monotheistic nonsense that we carry along with us from our upbringings and it is one of the most historically damaging attitudes that a religion can have.  The attitude of “one true” faith or “one true” god (or lack of gods), unavoidably leads one to the correlation of that,  which is that other religions or faiths are “wrong”, that the practitioner of the monotheistic religion or belief system holds the “Truth”.   This is a very unhealthy attitude in a diverse and pluralistic community such as the pagan community.  It’s a colonial and imperialistic holdout, a worldview that places monotheism and monotheistic thought as more culturally and philosophically “advanced” than all other philosophies.  This attitude is the beating heart of colonialism, a justification to treat others poorly because of their “ignorance” and lack of “virtue”.  This attitude spawned inquisitions, slavery, manifest destiny, and massacres.  It seeks to put man above nature, and white, christian men above all.  If we are to advance as a functional community, as a viable alternative to the monotheistic paradigm, we need to face this reality, address it, and work on overcoming it, and like facing our own white privilege, it will require hard work, self-reflection, and honesty.

“Polytheist religion is a type of religion, first and foremost. While that does not mean that all Polytheists do the same thing or feel the same way on all of the same issues — quite the contrary, ‘many gods, many people, many paths’ is sort of a thing! — and so it stands to reason that its leaders, visionaries, writers, moderate thinkers and radical advocates would be attentive to examining RELIGION in the pursuit of, developments in, and protections for their religious identities, freedoms, and expressions. This is not an act of “devolution”, but an act of radically progressed differentiation and lawfully protected identification.” – Anomolous Thracian “The Polytheist Movement is a Human Rights Movement

Can You Really Keep Your Religion Out of Your Politics?

religion_politics

Doing any sort of activism work will inevitably lead to some criticism by members of your community, at least it will if you are doing it right.  Demanding relevant change in the world makes people who are complacently comfortable in their lives, positions, and viewpoints profoundly uncomfortable.  This comfortable complacency is often one of the most persistent barriers to making lasting changes to equity and justice within our society.  One quickly finds that being perceived as a threat to that comfort will incur criticism, attacks, and vitriol from the most invested.  This can be tiring, but it’s to be expected.  It’s part of the process, and while responses of personal attacks and malevolence tend to harm everyone involved, respectful and civil disagreements and debate furthers the dialogue and can lead to solutions to problems.  So a big part of remaining effective in your activism is to learn when to ignore criticism and when to engage in dialogue with your critic.

One of the most common criticisms that an activist that comes from a spiritual background will receive is to tell us that we shouldn’t mix our religion or spirituality with our politics.  The people who level this complaint at activists and take a stance on not mixing their religion and politics tend to be people who can afford to separate these two aspects of their lives, people whose human rights aren’t being threatened and whose lives and finances are well protected by a system that tends to favor white male rights over all others.  But what does this look like, this separation of spirituality and politics?  How does one untangle these ideas in our minds and make choices without one influencing the other?

The root of the separation of church and state in the United States comes from a combination of sources.  The First Amendment to the Constitution prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion and impeding the free exercise of religion.  On a side note, it also prohibits abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances. These are all aspects of the protest movement that the same people who advocate keeping spirituality out of  politics often have issues with as well.  This leads people to cherry pick the constitution for statements that support their agenda the same way  that an evangelist will cherry pick the bible to support their agenda.  Further, Article Six of the Constitution establishes that no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States, ensuring that the US Government remains secular and not directly influenced by the Church.  Later, in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut written in 1802, Thomas Jefferson wrote on the subject that the United States should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”

So what we have in regards to the separation of Church and State is a strict commitment, written into the Constitution and echoed by Jefferson and the Supreme Court, to not allow the government to be controlled in any way by the Church,  to not allow the state to establish a state religion, and to not require membership in a particular church in order to qualify for public office.  There are many reasons why this is a good policy.  There’s the fact that most Abrahamic faiths strongly encourage people to unquestionably follow an autocratic elite, an idea that clearly stands in opposition to the spirit of a truly democratic society, there’s the idea that we do not want another person’s religious beliefs impinging on our rights and freedoms, and there’s the fact that religion and government have different roles in society and should remain separate because mixing those role have historically been disastrous.  But while I strongly believe that the strict separation of the Church and State is necessary to maintain a just society, this is not the same issue as keeping one’s spirituality or religion out of their personal politics.

But how does one keep their personal politics and their spirituality separate?  For me, I can’t do it.  As a matter of fact I can’t even imagine how someone who critically thinks about the issues can keep spirituality and politics compartmentalized in their minds.  Because in my experience, most people’s spirituality and politics are influenced by their morals and ethics, not the other way around.  For example, I believe that everyone should have basic human rights.  I would not practice a religion that advocated denying others their human rights, and when I vote for a candidate their moral character and stance on human rights is a major factor on whether or not they will get my vote.  To separate your spirituality from your politics is to separate your morals from your politics and that is a dangerous thing.  For without consideration of morals, what are we using to make our political choices?  Our wallets?  Our party affiliation?  Our self-interest?  These motivations do not lead to a just and equitable society, they lead to inequality, power imbalance, and ultimately the decline of that society.

As a society, we must learn to be guided by our own morality and our own codes of ethics and not have them dictated to us by churches and politicians.  We need to have an active ongoing relationship with our moral codes and sets of values, a dialogue with ourselves and others to continually refine and update our opinions as we learn new information and hear other people’s viewpoints.  Morality cannot be written in stone, it should always be a work in progress.  There is danger in the inverse of this approach.  To allow your government or your church to define your moral and ethical code without critical reflection can be one of the most destructive impulses that a society can have,  Governments can tell you that they have to militarize and restrict your freedoms in order to keep you free, they can try to convince you that poisoning your water and land is necessary in order to maintain prosperity.  Churches can tell you who is righteous and who is pure and try to justify dehumanizing others for having differing faiths and they can try to convince you that your natural healthy impulses are impure and sinful and pit you against your self in a never-ending cycle of shame.  Spirituality and politics should never be top down institutions, they should be guided and led by the people in a continual process of refinement and education, striving for better understanding and a more equable and just society.

So to the demand that I keep my religion out of my politics, I will have to politely decline.  For both my religion and my politics come from the same place, my heart, guided by a moral code that I am in constant refinement of.  My religion and my politics can’t be separate because at the root of both of them is an uncontrollable impulse to stand for every person’s basic human rights, to help my community to grow and be prosperous and fair for everyone, to defend the most vulnerable and abused in our society, to create a culture of equity and a clean and healthy planet for the coming generations.   Our morality is not handed down to us from our churches and it’s not prescribed to us by our governments, it is ours,  a precious part of our humanity that must continually be nurtured and grown, educated and socialized, and refined and enlightened if we are to create a lasting society worthy of our vast potential.