A Conversation on Power and Authority in Polytheism

This is taken from a Facebook conversation which I initiated on my wall. I have included only my comments, and summarized some of the questions that arose.

We (meaning western polytheists, and still I resist the idea that there is a big We – we are too small and too diverse) have an opportunity. If we really do want to bring polytheism back (the Gods never left), and grow the polytheist community, (which I take to actually mean grow the religious movement of polytheism in the West), we have the opportunity to do that from the roots.

Now is our chance to do our best to root out totalitarianism, Authority and power over, and oppression. To really examine what it is we want, who we want to be, and how we want to build the community.

Yes, we are steeped in monotheism. We are steeped in capitalism and patriarchy. It has infiltrated us and infected us whether we’ve diagnosed it or ignore it or not.

We look towards the world religions and easily pick apart what is wrong with them. But when we turn the same discerning eye to our own, we pick apart each other. This is not growth. This is the disease.

All of the world religions have issues with the power that is in the hands of the priests. That power corrupts. Some more than others, as there are individuals who resist. But at the top that power inevitably turns it’s gaze toward money, to how they can profit from religion. Look at the mega churches. Even the Hindu temples in India – one of the longest unbroken “polytheist” (our definition not theirs) traditions – often demand huge amounts of money from devotees.

At the top, that power turns it’s gaze to control. To determining religious experience, to deciding canon, and who is worthy of their religion and who is not. Again, look at the world religions. Look at the history. This is not conjecture or conspiracy. This what we see happen again and again and again.

We have an opportunity to do differently, to try. Yes it means hard conversations. It means it will take time. But if this is not the work, then what is? If this is not an act of devotion, of dedication, then what is? I am led to believe that this is why some particular powerful deities, and the Dead, are making Themselves so known right now.

This is the time. We have to change. We have to do the Work.

But what about creating structures to support the growth of polytheism? What about religious organizations? What about those who approach polytheism from a religious, as opposed to a Witchcraft perspective?

I’m not disparaging the creation of structures and religious organizations. That is good, hard work and I’ve done a lot of it myself. They aren’t for everyone, but they do serve a purpose for those who want/need them.

If that is one of the paths that people want to take, one of the directions polytheism is going, then it becomes essential to examine the power structures within them.

Whose responsibility is it then?

It is all of our (those that identify as a polytheist) responsibility. Organizations do not exist in a vacuum; structures rise from the ground upon which the foundation is built. What are we fertilizing that ground with? How are we remediating it?

I have a hard time separating it from the same responsibility that requires us to examine privilege, to call out bigotry, to say “this is wrong and I will not tolerate it in my community”. It is all a symptom of the same disease.

The tendency that I see within religious and spiritual circles to withdraw, to insulate, to isolate and say “this is my practice and my community and I don’t care what happens over there” is troubling to me. On the one hand, I get it – we are an individualistic bunch focused on claiming our own authority and power. But I don’t understand how we can advocate full community engagement with social justice issues, and not with our religious/spiritual communities. How is that behavior any different from the Christians that ignore and tolerate that awful Baptist Church (whose name is escaping me at the moment ironically)?

Yes the first line of responsibility rests with those who are directly involved in the organization. But we all know that that does not always work, and that being in the center of something often renders people blind to the dynamics at play. It requires outsiders to call attention to it.

And if we are, as I see, in a position to truly examine and improve these issues, it is going to require everyone’s involvement. We are not to blame for the influences at play, but we are going to have to be responsible for resisting and changing them. If not us, then who?

So yes, we can start with the ground upon which our feet rest (our immediate community and community relevant issues). But we can’t ignore that there are other patches of ground (communities) all around us, stretching as far as we can see and beyond. And that all that ground is a part of the same planet (global community) and is all being poisoned by the same things (power, greed, the -isms).

Are we excluding people?

I think we are, sometimes intentionally and sometimes inadvertently. People should feel comfortable claiming whatever identity and associating with the group that they are most comfortable with – and if something is keeping people out from what should rightly be their place, that needs to addressed and corrected.

What about the growth of Polytheism and making sure we only include polytheists?

This question echoes the questions that many groups ask around inclusiveness and identity. It is the same question asked of, for example, “women only” groups, which often receives huge amounts of rancor and pushback.

Self identification is my sticking point. Once someone self selects, if then their behavior is determined to be detrimental to the group, the behavior can be addressed and ultimately they may be asked to leave.

But even larger than community based groups, I hear from MANY people that they are not sure if they are welcome in polytheist spaces, are not sure if the Polytheist movement is for them. This seems to stem largely from interactions with a vocal minority of people seeking to define what Polytheism is for all of us, and intentionally excluding other input and conversations.

I also want to see polytheism “grow” in that I want people to be validated, to have access to the community that is the most relevant to their experiences, and to be able to share what we learn with the wider community – including those outside polytheism – because there is much wisdom in the way we (sometimes) approach the world.

But at what cost does that growth come? Our current examples of growth in movements and organizations are not the most healthy. We can do better.

And if our entire religion/movement is going to crumble because we “let in” a few of the wrong people, or because not everyone agrees with us, then it was probably not very strong to begin with. We have to build it to withstand those things. We have to have healthy soil and solid foundations, a strong guiding ethos. We have to practice what we preach. Or we deserve to fail.

RWS_Tarot_16_Tower
The Tower from the Ride Waite Smith tarot. Wikimedia.
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