An Era of Failed Leadership

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I was reminded the other day that it has been a year since I’ve written a blog post.  When I started writing this blog I had planned on at least writing a post once a month. I saw a great value in engaging with the community and with the larger world around me through this medium, a place to exchange ideas and information with a broad audience, and a modern community meeting hall.  And then 2016 happened.

By 2016 I had seen a trend in the pagan blogging community that I was having a difficult time accepting.  To those of us paying attention to the larger world, there was a shift occurring in the general global rhetoric and politics towards a true ugliness, a type of fear and hate mongering that inevitably leads to violence and bloodshed.  We saw the consolidation of power of far-right  hate groups and watched in horror as their armies of trolls and goons started to rekindle the fear and loathing and aim their barbs at marginalized communities, creating the targets for the scapegoating necessary for  authoritarian and xenophobic regimes to take hold of global politics again.

Any student of history has seen this before.  These people are trying nothing new.  Divide and conquer, fan the flames of fear and prejudice, control the message of the media or try to discredit those you can’t control. This is straight out of the fascist playbook, so clear that if you look hard enough you can see the margin notes of a host of dictators and would be dictators scribbled across their words and deeds.

During this moment of the rise of hate speech and violence in the world, I  watched as our community continued to tear and rend at each other over what amounted to differences of opinions over spiritual practices and how different people viewed the Gods.  I watched the great pagan Internet “wars” between atheists and polytheists, or wiccans and traditional witches, or sneeches that have stars on their bellies and those that don’t, finally ending with the “battle” between Marxists and fascists, the latter finally starting to get closer to the heart of the terrible maelstrom at our gates but unable to remove personal vendettas and attacks from their rhetoric and by failing to do that, divided our community at a time when we desperately needed unity and dialogue.

It was during 2016 that I also stepped into the role of Chief of the Coru Cathubodua and started to reflect of the role of leadership in our communities and more importantly what constitutes failed leadership and what constitutes successful leadership. Because our community needs leaders, but not the type of leaders that are commonly modeled right now.

Leadership is a word with a broad spectrum of meaning attached to it. To some, the word leadership is synonymous with authority, and authority, no matter what the form, is something to fight against.  To others, leadership signifies a person or group that will make all the decisions for you, to them a leader is someone to rule you, a parental figure that they hope has their best interests in mind.  This type of vision of leadership can be dangerous in a political climate where “strong men” and tinpot dictators claw for real world power.

This breed of top down leadership will ultimately fail us, preying on our fears and insecurities while binding us in lies and controversies.  Leaders that sit apart from the people pointing fingers and making demands from them always show their true natures eventually.  Leaders that demand authority and power over others but have no skill or talent for leadership fill our world today, and when the illusion of power fades and the reality and sacrifice of leadership becomes clear, they fail and flee and attempt to destroy the institutions they wanted to control.  But thankfully, there’s something else that happens in times like these, something hopeful.

2016 was an excruciating year for most of us.  We watched as tragedy after tragedy unfolded while our attention was demanded by an election that twisted the level of discourse to mudslinging and vitriol and more importantly emboldened and inspired the worst aspects of humanity and turned hatred into a virtue and a path to power.  By the end of the year our community could clearly see what many of us had been aware of for years, the true danger at our gates.  The specters of fascism and authoritarianism were no longer just philosophical differences that needed to be weeded out from within our small community, but real live monsters, stomping around our streets attacking the most vulnerable among us.  People who tried to lay claim to the pagan blogosphere quickly found that real world terrors were demanding their attention and those in our community that thought it wise to cozy up to the far right to make a public show of how much they disliked the left, discovered that no matter what they did, they would never be far right enough for their new friends and were attacked and abandoned by them.

As 2017 dawned on us we found that things were worse than we could have possibly imagined.  Gone was the pretense of an inclusive and just nation.  Hatred and targeted violence have become commonplace.  The failure of our elected officials and our crippled republic is abundantly clear now and the monsters are running the show.

But as our new reality sunk in, I saw a change in the leadership of our community.  I witnessed the leaders that had always relied on a top down style of leadership fall silent, either too frightened or too stunned to take the actions needed to protect or inspire those that looked to them for direction.  I watched many of the people the community looked at as leaders or elders because of some level of fame or popularity that they were attached to, fall into a state of “I can’t even….” and become paralyzed with their own fears and insecurities.  But most importantly I watched members of our community, some recognized leaders, some not, step up and start to help others in whatever way they were able to.

During times of great crisis one would expect the social order to fall to pieces and devolve into chaos.  But one of the beautiful things about humanity is that in most cases this is not true.  Studies show that during times of extreme societal trauma, wars , economic and natural disasters, that instead of societies falling apart, that communities almost always come together, forgetting previous divisions and prejudices and working together for the safety and benefit for all.   Contrary to what the apocalyptic films tell us, that when circumstances are at their worst, humanity is at its best.

In our community I witnessed an outpouring of action and support from great numbers of people.  Safety networks were created, individuals gave their time and energy to holding close those that needed it, people reached out and built connections and alliances designed to create a stronger and more resilient community and started creating safety nets to catch those of us that might fall through society’s cracks.

This is the type of leadership that is going to carry us through this troubled time.  Leaders that stand alongside the rest of us, shouldering as much work as the person next to them.  Leaders that inspire by their actions alongside their words, pulling people together to address tasks that are too great to handle alone.  Leaders that lead from the frontline not the safety of the back of the crowd.

These leaders are here now, doing the work, taking their share of the burden, and helping those that are struggling with theirs.  These leaders are often young , sometimes unlikely, they come from generations of powerful people, raised on stories of rebellion and resistance, their earliest memories rich with strength of character and the toppling of unjust empires and they have a message for the monsters.

Their message is, We are the children of the Rebel Alliance, the Fellowship of the Ring, and the Browncoats.  We are the inheritors of the Civil Rights Movement, the Indigenous Solidarity Movement, and of Stonewall   Our sense of justice comes from these modern myths and current struggles and encompasses rooting for the underdog, fighting the good fight, and doing the right damn thing.  As things get worse in the world around us we will come together despite our differences to fight to protect our communities.  We will stand side by side and do the work that must be done to create and maintain a safe and just world for everyone.

And in that is where I lay my hope.

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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.

Can You Really Keep Your Religion Out of Your Politics?

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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.