In terms of religion, my exact calling has become difficult to describe. If pinned down and told to summarise my religious position on pain of torture, my reply would still have to start with, “That’s a tricky one”.
As I recently posted in Another Place (not the House of Lords, but my more mysticism-and-suchlike-orientated and far-less-frequently-updated blog, Via Nemorum) [2018 note: Via Nemorum is no longer active, and is now this blog here what you’re reading here], if pushed I would probably suggest that I’m something vaguely related to a Druid – though the association is more down to a general pervasive connection to that abstract ‘Otherworld’ than about any particular pull towards specific Welsh/Celtic mythology.
I have a strong sense of the mystical. A strong sense of the world-behind-the-world. But I also have a strong sense of this world. Questions of reality or true nature are all well and good (and utterly absorbing: is this world a simulation? Is there a multiverse, and of what form?), but there is a world here and now which I live in and which – at least to the best of my perception – involves a lot of other people. So, first and foremost, any religious or spiritual or philosophical or mystical belief that I may hold has to accommodate and support the fact that I am one of a great many sharing this world.
The various strands of modern paganism – for all their internal squabbles and one-upmanship and power plays – generally hold, at least nominally, to principles of equality and acceptance. They’re usually quite cool with the sex and gender thing, the ethnicity thing, the queer thing, the ability thing, the age thing – and so on. For the most part, this includes Heathens, those who follow a modern interpretation or reconstruction of the old religions of northern Europe and Scandinavia (and who generally prefer the term ‘Heathen’ over ‘pagan’ – so I equate the two only for blog-post purposes here).
Heathenry, though, in its various forms (such as Asatru, Odinism and Forn Sed), has always had a troubled relationship with issues of race. Its modern originators, back in the 1800s, were to some extent kicking out at what they considered the ‘foreign’ religion of Christianity, and much was made by Alexander Rud Mills, the founder in 1936 of the ‘First Angelcyn Church of Odin’ of what he referred to as the “fall from grace of the White Race”.
It is true, of course, that Heathen religions – like many pagan religions – tend to direct at least some of their attention and reverence to their ancestors, and the line of descent that’s resulted in them, the individual, modern Heathen. I have no problem with this, though I have no frame of reference for it. At a basic intellectual level I understand the concept, but I feel no affinity for it in my soul. I love my parents very much, and I think fondly of those other relatives who I knew and who are now dead – at least to the extent that I remember them. But for my family before them, I have no particular feelings. I don’t hold reverence for people I never knew, whose ideals and values I may or may not share, and who had no idea, as they went about reproducing, that their efforts would one day result in me.
I can’t stress enough that this isn’t intended to be disparaging of people who feel a greater connection to their past line than I do – just to explain that I, personally, don’t have an innate understanding of those feelings. I feel similarly detached from notions of ethnicity and nationality, and perhaps this is just a symptom of my privilege, born of living in a (recently and for the moment) relatively untroubled part of the world. Who knows?
Still, there is undeniably a detectable undercurrent of racism in some of the modern Heathen movements – often disguised (fairly weakly) under talk of the virtues of ‘folkishness’, and being ‘true to your ancestors’. But Heathenry, and ‘Odinism’ specifically, carries this millstone around its neck, and extra weight has recently been added to the burden by an Asatru Folk Assembly representative. New AFA Allsherjargothi Matt Flavel posted on the group’s Facebook page:
“Today we are bombarded with confusion and messages contrary to the values of our ancestors and our folk. The AFA would like to make it clear that we believe gender is not a social construct, it is a beautiful gift from the holy powers and from our ancestors. The AFA celebrates our feminine ladies, our masculine gentlemen and, above all, our beautiful white children. The children of the folk are our shining future and the legacy of all those men and women of our people back to the beginning. Hail the AFA families, now and always!”
As a transwoman, I might be expected to rail against the idea of gender being “not a social construct”. I could do that. There are plenty of arguments I could make, from my own personal experience to the consensus opinion of those around the world who study this sort of thing – and of course making a very clear distinction between physical sexual characteristics (themselves quite fuzzy in light of modern scientific understanding) and the social roles and conventions that constitute the modern understanding of ‘gender’.
|Our feminine ladies. (Yes, I do know it’s a TV show.)|
But that argument’s going to be rolling on for a while yet. The world is slowly coming to terms with the existence – and the rights, freedoms and equality – of LGB people, and T people are making similar progress, but are as yet some way behind. Even so, acceptance is far wider than it was only a decade or two ago, and that’s reason for hope.
That aside, what I find particularly disheartening about Flavel’s post is not only the unveiled racial supremacism – “The AFA celebrates … above all, our beautiful white children” – but the denial and excuses being posted in support of it. It’s not about racism, posters insist: it’s about respecting diversity. It’s a simple fact that people are different, and some religions are for some people, and other religions are for other people. And we should all stick to our own.
That, to me, is not diversity. From diversity comes strength. But diversity requires combination. Segregation and isolation are simply the enforcement of uniformity. Uniformity makes a society brittle. It leads to fragility, stagnation, and ultimately weakness and failure.
Again, I have no fundamental disagreement with the idea of respecting your ancestors and I appreciate the importance of preserving, or at least recording and remembering, culture. That said, there are elements of certain cultures – including my own – that I believe the world would be better off remembering rather than actively preserving. So I will highlight and criticise racism and other forms of prejudice even where they’re presented as a part of someone’s cultural or religious belief. Perhaps even more so then, because in such cases they tend to come packaged with an expectation that, because they’re based in sincerely held religious faith they must be immune to challenge. They are not, and must not be.
Other Asatru groups, including prominent organisations The Asatru Community and the Troth, have denounced the AFA’s position statement.
Modern Asatru, as I understand it, holds to nine principle virtues. These are:
- Self Reliance
They aren’t commandments, as such – more ideals to try to live up to. And I have no quarrel with any of these. But not one of those virtues expresses anything akin to ‘masculine men’, ‘feminine women’, or ‘beautiful white children’. Those virtues are as accessible to any ethnicity or any sex or gender. In fact, I’d argue that the presence of ‘Hospitality’ as a virtue presents a problem for the idea of ‘folkishness’ in the form of racial and ethnic segregation, as championed by many of Matt Flavel’s supporters. It’s difficult to be hospitable if you can’t accept the presence of strangers in your lands.
But my greatest problem with any type of racial, ethnic or national supremacism, religiously justified or not, is simply that it fails to present any logical foundation. It always, always requires an arbitrary delineation, and that’s illustrated perfectly by Flavel himself in his closing words:
“Back to the beginning.”
The problem is that we don’t know what or where or when that ‘beginning’ was. Human history disappears into pre-history and thereafter into a fog from which we could never hope to extract individual cultural, tribal or family lines. So, to create an isolated ‘folk’ and justify the rejection of others based on a common descent, you have to be willing to draw a line arbitrarily across history and just cross out everything before that line. That’s not respecting history. That’s erasing it.
The ‘folkists’ are right on one point when they protest the criticisms they receive: respect for history, culture and tradition are not the same as racism. But they’re very frequently used as a thin cloak for it. AFA, I gather, have always held that cloak fairly close about them. It seems that their new Allsherjargothi has let it drop.