An author and editor looks at how we use language to communicate with other Pagans and those outside our community.
Beyond a Theology of Intimidation
A video making the rounds on the social media circuit got me thinking. It showed a couple of Christian protesters, armed with signs, who showed up at a gay pride parade in Seattle … where they were confronted by several people involved in the parade.
The confrontation wasn’t pretty. In fact, it turned violent. One woman on the video can be seen pushing a street preacher with a Bible in his hand; later, several other people rip a sign from the second preacher’s hands and proceed to tearmit apart. Then another person barrels into the crowd and proceeds to start punching the man with the sign before police arrive to restore order.
As a supporter of LGBT rights, I was disheartened to see the aggression and violence on the part of the parade-goers. Violence is seldom appropriate, and it certainly wasn’t in this case.
But what interested me more about the interaction was the behavior of the street preachers. To my way of thinking, their presence - and the message they brought with them - were designed to be provocative. They probably weren’t trying to provoke violence, but they were trying to insinuate themselves into a setting where they not only weren’t wanted, but where their views were only likely to elicit disgust and disdain.
Yes, they had a right to be there. In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a group of Nazis had the right to march through the predominantly Jewish community of Skokie, Ill., based on the constitutional rights of free assembly and free speech. More recently, the court upheld the rights of Wesboro Baptist Church members to picket funerals.
But having a right to do something isn’t the same thing as behaving responsibly. I was intrigued that a number of people defended the street preachers because they were exercising their right of free speech. The fact that they were attacked earned them sympathy, and it became an either/or question in the minds of some - either you support the actions of the preachers or you support those of the parade-goers who attacked them.
I support neither, and here’s why: respecting one’s right to free speech is not the same as approving of that speech. One of the preachers carried a sign with the heading, in large red letters, “Idolatry.” Underneath this was a list of activities - materialism, drug use, rock music, drunkeness (misspelled with only one “N”) and TV worship - followed by the phase “Jesus saves from sin.” As a fan of Nightwish, Yes and a host of other rock bands, I found that somewhat offensive. But hey, that's just a matter of taste. But what really bothered me was the message printed on the other side: “Repent or else,” over a drawing of flames.
I found this to be an implicit threat. These protesters believe wholeheartedly that those who disagree with them are destined for eternal torture, torment and suffering. Think of an eternity as a POW in an enemy prison camp or enduring the most excruciating, chronic pain imaginable. That's what they're talking about. And they're not just talking about it. In fact, they’re invoking that idea with the sign they’re carrying. And, historically speaking, they’ve followed through on such threats: witch burnings, the rack, thumbscrews, hangings. When people who believe in hell are in power, they have a history of making hell very real for those who oppose them. It’s our societal constraints, not their restraint, that keep them from using it.
The point here is not to bash Christians. (In fact, many Christians don’t even believe in hell, and among these, a good number think it’s only for the most heinous criminals and sociopaths.) The point is that those who adopt a philosophy that tolerates - or even encourages - the use of threats, spiritual coercion or intimidation are prone to carry out such threats when their gods won’t do it for them.
Muslims who believe in the idea of waging holy war when they’re offended by depictions of the prophet Muhammad are one example, but don’t imagine for a moment that Pagans are above this sort of thing. I’ve seen Pagans threaten others with the wrath of Odin or Morrigan or Hecate if they (the Pagans, not the deities in question) don’t get their way. I’ve seen witch wars started because people resorted to such threats. Not only do they believe in the power of their declarations, they seek to invoke it in the name of their deities or via spellwork.
No, the problem isn’t Christianity or Islam or Paganism or the Craft. It’s the tendency of people who have a right to speak out not exercising the responsibility to speak out with respect and restraint. Just because someone has a right to freedom of speech doesn’t for a moment mean that he or she is going to exercise that right responsibly.
People who voice threats often do so because they want a reaction. They want their targets to cower in a corner so they can exercise power over them; or they want them to lash back … so they can play the victim. That’s what the people in Seattle did, and it cost them dignity and respect. They took the bait, and the people making the threats won by becoming victims.
Sometimes it’s hard not to take the bait, and sometimes, one has to stand up to people who feed off intimidation. This isn’t about simply turning the other cheek. But we must stand with dignity and assurance, not fear and retribution. Only by doing so can we hope to replace a culture of threat and coercion with an atmosphere of peace and mutual respect.
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