Growing Beyond the Families of Abraham – Part 3
Sharing the Burden
by Hans Gustafson
One of the greatest barriers to meaningful interreligious learning is the oversimplification, or ignorance of the internal diversity, of religious traditions other than our own. It comes out in the many stereotypes and misconceptions we have about others: “all Catholics are against birth control,” “all Jews observe kosher,” “all Mormons and Muslims refrain from alcohol,” to name a few examples. We probably all do this, and usually not out of malevolence but simply out of ignorance. Misconceptions can carry significant weight, such as “all Muslims are terrorists,” “all Christians hate homosexuals,” and “all Heathens are white supremacists.” Parts I and II of this three-part series discussed welcoming marginalized traditions to the table of interreligious engagement in general and Contemporary Paganisms in particular. Part III calls on Abrahamic traditions, and/or those with power and resources, to share the burden of these traditions in their exhausting task of separating themselves from loud extremist groups that perpetuate misunderstanding. This task is not unique to any one tradition, for all religions have histories of extremism, violence, and oppression.
Heathens Jennifer Snook and Karl Seigfried provide courageous models for us (Heathen and non-Heathen alike) to confront the troubling tendencies that lurk in all of our traditions. Heathenry, in this context, refers to the reconstruction and living out of pre-Christian European religious and cultural traditions, usually polytheistic in theological outlook. Heathen should not be confused with the generic, and often derogatory, sense of “non-Abrahamic.” In his chapter “Ásatrú and Hindu: From Prophecy to Dialogue,” Karl Seigfried, scholar and Pagan chaplain, teaches that Heathenry is “an umbrella term for modern religions that revive, reconstruct, or reimagine pre-Christian Germanic polytheistic religions – not only Icelandic and Norse beliefs and practices, but also those of the Anglo-Saxons, Franks, and other ancient groups that spoke Germanic languages.” Since there was no word in the Germanic languages for this old religious practice prior to encounter with the new religion of Christianity, “the term Heathen (Old Norse heidinn, Old English hǽden, Old High German heidan) was used for those who believed in the old way, and it is in this sense that it is used by modern practitioners.” Today, Heathen is “commonly used as a self-identifier by practitioners of Ásatrú, a new religious movement that revives, reconstructs, and reimagines Norse polytheism as a living religion in a modern context.”
Contemporary retrieval and reconstruction of this ancient Nordic worldview and lifeway began in the 1970’s Iceland, but has since spread worldwide, especially in Europe and North America. In Iceland, Ásatrú has been an officially state recognized religion since 1973 and, after the Christian traditions (and the unaffiliated), it remains Iceland's second largest religion but the fastest growing. Heathenry is also recognized in the United States with the Department of Veterans Affairs having approved Thor’s hammer (Mjölnir) for use as a religious symbol on government grave markers in 2013. As Karl Seigfried notes, Ásatrú’s customs, practices, and beliefs vary widely, “from humanism to reconstructionism, from viewing the gods as metaphorical constructs to approaching them as distinct beings. Deities venerated in Ásatrú include Freya, Odin and Thor, but respect is paid to a large number of gods, goddesses and other figures (including elves and land spirits).”
Like all religious and cultural traditions, Heathenry has its oppressive and fringe aspects to deal with. Snook, sociologist of religion and author of American Heathens: The Politics of Identity in a Pagan Religious Movement, writes, “My inquiries into Heathenry as an ethnic folkway have forced me painfully through the muck of reality that illustrates that racism in American Heathenry is indeed a fact.” By recognizing the disturbing reality of racism that lurks within her tradition, she does not endorse it, but rather shines a light on a movement that needs countering. This is nothing new to the living religions of the world. Stephen Prothero raises this concern with respect to Christianity and other religions in the “Toxic and Tonic” section of his bestselling book God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World, and Cawo Abdi calls out Islamic extremists in her widely read CNN article, “Where is my Islam?”
While these tendencies exist across religions, Heathens and Muslims in the West often bear a disproportionate burden of needing to actively disassociate themselves from minority factions that commit violent, hateful, and racist atrocities in the name of their traditions. A recent article in The Atlantic, “What to do when Racists Try to Hijack Your Religion,” addresses the problem of racism in Ásatrú Heathenism. It is no secret that negative stories about religion get more attention than positive ones. “If it bleeds, it leads.” Heather Greene, managing editor of The Wild Hunt, likens “the media and cultural problems faced by Heathens …. to [those] faced by Muslims.” She argues:
There are real factions of society who are claiming to be ‘true’ practitioners of the religion and who commit atrocities in the name of that religion. Overall, these factions are minorities, but they are loud, and they are aggressive, and they are violent. Like many in the Muslim community, Heathens are looking for ways to solve this problem and protect their religious practice from the inevitable backlash, trauma, and bad press.
Greene calls attention to an organization called Heathens Against Hate (HAH), whose mission is “to remove the unfair stigma of racism from the Heathen religious identities while undertaking efforts to combat the ignorance and fear that lead to racism and hate within our own communities.” HAH aims to engage in constructive interreligious outreach. For example, in the wake of a 2015 event in which two Virginia men associated with Heathenry were arrested for conspiracy to possess firearms after being discovered by the FBI to “burn and bomb Black Churches [and] Jewish synagogues” (among other crimes), HAH declared, “The people in the churches and synagogues are not our enemies. The enemies are those who bring shame to our communities through reprehensible actions. Heathens Against Hate is thankful that the FBI thwarted the efforts of these men and that no one was injured.” Greene’s report reminds readers that major inclusive Heathenry groups exist, such as The Troth and the Alliance for Inclusive Heathenry, which both actively participate in the Parliament of the World’s Religions.
Seigfried often finds himself on the frontline of defending his tradition against being labeled as racist. In a recent address, titled "A Better Burden," in Germany to fellow Heathens at the first international conference on inclusive Ásatrú and Heathenry, he acknowledged the importance of this work and also offered encouragement to take control of the narrative. Seigfried said,
As Heathens of positive intent, we are disgusted by the mutual embrace between white nationalist Heathens and the latest version of neo-Nazis. … these are the people determining the interface between Heathenry and the larger society. These are the people interviewed by journalists, featured in media reports, and covered by academics. These are the people who our non-Heathen friends and colleagues see and read about. These are the people who are the public face of Heathenry.
If inclusive mainstream majority worldwide Heathenry is to take control and put their public face forward, Seigfried argues, they need more than just repeated reactions to these extreme-right fringe Heathens, which only allows the racists nationalists “to set the parameters of public discussion.” He does not advocate refraining from denouncing the extremists but rather calls his co-religionists to “something more.” His challenge to them is to join him in producing “A new Ásatrú theology,” a pro-active effort to supplant extremists by drawing on the rich intellectual and spiritual wellsprings of lived Heathenry.
Inspired by the great Catholic liberation theologians of 20th century Latin America, Seigfried challenges his fellow practitioners to immerse themselves in the ills of the world, engage their historical and intellectual tradition in the context of their own concrete religious experience, and offer constructive paths forward – not only for the internal direction of mainstream Heathenry, but also to teach the world the mainstream inclusive narrative of what it means to be a Heathen in religiously plural world. Seigfried is confident that by doing so, Heathens “should be able to offer new perspectives and solutions” to the contemporary problems plaguing the world. Moreover, he believes there are universal implications for Heathens that carry this out.
Seigfried and his community walk the walk, to be sure. Just this month, his local Ásatrú community in Chicago took a public stand against racism by organizing a fundraising team to walk in the Ricky Byrdsong Memorial Race Against Hate, an annual event founded in “memory of Ricky Byrdsong, former Northwestern University Basketball Coach, Vice President of Affairs at Aon Corporation, and Skokie resident who was murdered by a white supremacist on Friday, July 2, 1999 while walking in his Skokie neighborhood with two of his young children.” The shooter later wounded six Orthodox Jews, killed a Korean American, and wounded an African American minister before taking his own life.”
To his fellow Heathens, Dr. Seigfried says, “this transformation gives us insights into today’s events that are valuable and deserve to be heard – not just by other Heathens, but by all the children of Heimdall”; that is, by everyone in the world.
It is not enough to demand these groups condemn, on their own, the extremist atrocities committed in the name of their traditions. For instance, Todd Green’s forthcoming book argues for Why We Shouldn't Ask Muslims to Condemn Terrorism. He offers several reasons apart from the obvious: “All of us should condemn terrorism – whether the perpetrators are Muslim extremists, white supremacists, Marxist revolutionaries, or our own government.” In particular, Green argues, the question a) “wrongly assumes Islam is the driving force behind terrorism,” and b) “ignores the many ways Muslims already condemn terrorism.” Likewise, to require inclusive Heathens to bear the burden alone of denouncing racism wrongly assumes a) Heathenism is the primary force behind racism and b) ignores the many ways Heathens already condemn racism. For Christians especially, this is a call to learn from Jacqueline Bussie’s forthcoming book to Love Without Limits in the way of Jesus (and without exceptions), which includes those groups that our traditions have tiresomely deemed “theologically out of bounds.” Many traditions already possess the internal theological resources to justify greater openness to other traditions. Those resources offer a good place to start.
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