Over the past few months I have been a silent observer of troubling waters within the Pagan community. I was saddened to read many eulogies of Pagan leaders and authors. I watched firestorms of disagreement rage through the community, kindling arguments, sometimes productive, sometimes ugly. I listened as leaders discussed toxic influences of racism, cases of cultural appropriation, and issues of privilege. I met burnt out leaders and frustrated elders and saw dysfunctional group dynamics. And now I am following the blogosphere's reactions to the latest news of Pagan author Kenny Klein
This is a hard time for the Pagan community and I am deeply saddened by all of the losses, conflicts, and problems. But rather than wanting to distance myself from the community I feel more at home in the Pagan community than ever, and here's why.
For over a decade I traveled the US and Europe, visiting communities as far right as Christian reconstructionism, as far left as radical anarchism, and plenty in between. Conflict, discrimination, in-fighting, leader-bashing, and scandals were found in all of them, no exceptions. Since coming out as a Pagan, several Christians confided in me regarding their "secret lives" and I learned just how deeply communities are plagued by secrets and hypocrisy.
When I was a Christian I responded first with denial, then disgust, despair, and finally bitterness. I struggled through jadedness and finally found renewed hope in humanity. I have seen too much in too many communities to feel shocked by the recent allegations, but my heart aches for all of those whose trust was betrayed, whose voices were not heard, and those now left to sort out conflicting emotions.
While much of this feels familiar, the reaction of the wider community is taking me by surprise. There is the typical denial, flight from the community, the "I-told-you-so" attitude, the "no true Scotsman" argument, etc. But there is also an outpouring of thoughtful responses by Pagan leaders and writers from all over the country.
The openness and courage with which Pagans are facing this news is different from anything I have ever experienced. Likewise, despite heated and sometimes ugly arguments, the overall tone of controversies in the Pagan community is significantly more friendly than what I am used to. I have tried to explain this to some leaders in the Pagan community. I understand their frustration and astonishment at my claim that it could be much worse, so much worse. Despite all of the difficulties, there is so much depth and beauty in how this community deals with it.
I don't know why the Pagan community is so different. My best guess is the different basis for ethics between Paganism and Christianity. In our Christian communities, we expected to be transformed by our faith and through the influence of the Holy Spirit. We expected to be spiritually healthier than the rest of the world. We expected our communities to be more ethical, more "Christ-like". Non-Christians were supposed to be able to tell we were Christians by the sincerity of our love for one another.
In Paganism we don't have this expectation. Several writers have pointed out that as our community grows, we will have the same problems as society. Jason Pitzl-Waters, among others, anticipated we would be faced with a story like the arrest of Kenny Klein sooner or later. This willingness to face reality is incredibly refreshing and valuable to me. Expectations of moral superiority or even perfection leave communities blind to dysfunction and ill equipped for dealing with scandals. Abuse gets covered up, predators are moved around within the community while victims are blamed and cast out.
As Pagans we have no rules handed down to us from a holy book, catechism, or priest. Each Pagan has to wrestle with their own ethical framework. Maybe it is this struggle that causes Pagans to respond with such a level of honesty, integrity and humility. Our Pagan community is far from perfect and the problems we are facing are real and serious. But after all I have seen in other communities, I can't help but also feel grateful for what we have. We have people speaking out with courage. We have leaders sacrificing much for a community that often shows little gratitude. And we have the freedom to acknowledge the complexity of our problems with honesty, depth, and integrity.
When I first became a Pagan, I was terrified of spiritual communities and took refuge in the option of becoming a solitary practitioner. Shortly afterwards I received a calling to serve the Pagan community. I often felt inadequate and frightened but made the choice to commit. I am glad I did. For someone coming from a culture of victim blaming, cover up, and shame, the responses of the Pagan community have been deeply moving. I thank everyone who found the courage to tell their story and all of the leaders who have offered thoughtful responses on how to make our community safe.