I am a Conscientious Objector in the Spiritual War

I am deeply troubled by the noise and rancor being stirred up in the Pagan community right now. My heart will not let me rest. I see good people who are normally perceptive and insightful being caught up in a “spiritual war” with an eagerness that makes me sick to my stomach. I have tried here to articulate why this bothers me so much.

In part it is because I am not, by inclination and philosophy, eager for war. I despise war. I resist it with every fiber of my being. I seek relationship and engagement, and war is in many ways the opposite of these, the twisted distortion of these. Violence is the rejection of relationship, the diminishment of the enemy into the faceless Other. That is not what I want. So it troubles me to see us so ready to go to war, even a “spiritual war”… almost as though we have been just waiting for an enemy to come along and justify our anger and our power.

I am also troubled because, despite my skepticism that such a thing is ever really possible (or perhaps because of my skepticism), I hold to the idea that it is important to preserve “the wall of separation between church and state” — as much as we are able to, at least. This is not an easy task or one we can take for granted. As human animals, we are inclined to idolize and elevate those in power, to invest religious significance in ritual and tradition, to seek patterns of spiritual meaning in social and political activities and events. This is natural. The task of preserving a secular government is one that requires constant vigilance, a careful and critical eye turned not only on those who seek overt religious hegemony, but on ourselves and our own motives as well. My understanding of the “separation of church and state” is that it applies to Pagans as well as Christians.

And yet we have Pagans advocating worship of Columbia as patron goddess of the nation — while denouncing Christianis who would rather see Christ as patron god.

There are Pagans claiming that the Constitution is a holy text — while deriding Christians who would rather base government on the Bible.

There are Pagans even going so far as to say that political figures of the past should be elevated through worship and reverence to the place of gods, and political figures of today should be seen as priests — while decrying Christians who want to claim that the country’s founders intended a Christian nation and demand politicians to pass a religious litmus test.

Some Pagans call on gods of vengeance, war and nationalism alongside those of liberty to support their cause — while condemning Christians who see Christ as the “Commander in Chief” of an army of righteous Christian soldiers.

These Pagans are doing this in the name of the “religious tolerance and freedom” of Columbia (who was an early propaganda device named after a man who helped to perpetuate the enslavement and genocide of the native people of this land) — their Christian counterparts claim what they are doing is based on the love and mercy of Jesus (who even in their own holy text is depicted as being explicitly against religious empire).

Both groups justify their actions with a claim that basically boils down to “we are not like you, and our god is better than yours.” Make no mistake — when you make offerings of corn and tobacco to Columbia in the name of “religious tolerance” in the same breath as you address her as “patron goddess of our government,” when you insist that it’s okay for her to be a patron goddess because she is a goddess of freedom and tolerance — the message you are advocating is that “separation of church and state” only applies to “dangerous” religions and intolerant gods, not to your own. Is this the message you want to send?

The parallels continue.

Both groups are using prayer and magic to “bring light and understanding” to those who disagree with them, but make no qualms about utilizing images and metaphors of war to do so.

Both groups are seeking to protect what they see as their threatened existence by what they imagine is a shadowy enemy whose presence is hard to pin down, whose numbers may be much bigger (but are likely much smaller) than they suspect and who are secretly influencing people in power through occult and other means.

Both groups insist that the threat is real and imminent, that the evidence of such a threat is everywhere — even in events and the actions of people who have no direct or obvious connection to the feared enemy.

Both groups insist that a grounded spiritual life of integrity that guides practical political and community action is not enough to stop this shadowy threat, and both groups equate less drastic responses than outright spiritual warfare with “passivity,” ignorance and denial.

Both groups use prayer and protest – both perfectly legal and constitutionally-protected activities – to exert their influence and promote their interests, while trying to suggest that when the other group does the same what they are doing is illegal, unethical and dangerous.

This is an ugly, fear-driven side of the Pagan community that gives me as much cause to worry as the right-wing Christian fundamentalists do.

Draw a line in the sand.

What kind of line will you draw in the sand?

We have a rare chance to shape the future of Pagan/polytheist culture with an awareness of the mistakes made in the past. Isn’t this, after all, why we honor our ancestors and respect the lessons of history? We have seen how seemingly innocuous influences in the early stages of the development and evolution of a New Religious Movement can quickly grow to become entrenched prejudices and twisted justifications for violence against those who are different. We have the chance to remember and learn from how those mistakes were made, to recognize those same potentials in ourselves, and to do our best to avoid them. Instead, I worry that we are too eager to make those same mistakes again, to invite a mythology of victimization and on-going spiritual warfare into the foundations of our Pagan traditions, to perpetuate a story that subscribes to the same tired “us versus them” duality that many of us were trying to escape when we left Christianity behind.

Believe me, I am the first to advocate for interfaith outreach and to support the cause of social justice, as well as both the freedoms and the responsibilities that go along with it. But of all people, magic-workers ought to know that intentions matter. What will be the result if we make our interfaith work part of a campaign in the spiritual war against “certain kinds of Christians”? What will be the result if we make our social justice work contingent upon our fears, anxieties or righteous rage against an enemy? We have seen where this path leads.

And if we are too eager to stir up hype and heat, and to dismiss a strong, centered presence and a broad, dispassionate perspective as mere “passivity,” we risk forfeiting the very context, knowledge and spiritual grounding that will help us choose rightly and work effectively.


UPDATE: In response to criticisms from some readers, I’ve compiled a list of references and citations. It can be found in the Meadowsweet Commons, here.

Alison Leigh Lilly
Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

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