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Article ID: 5032
Age Group: Adult
Posted: January 13th. 2003
The Ties That Chafe and Bind...
I read a lot of news. And I get much of that news from both foreign and domestic sources. I also peruse (read: lurk in) a sundry assortment of Pagan and Heathen message boards and Usenet groups. I'd like to think that these activities would give me a pretty well rounded education and insight into the hearts, minds and cultural mores of a very diverse world. But lately, I am not so sure of that anymore. I have been thinking a lot about it and so --Oh, lucky you! -- I post this week's column more as a stream of consciousness than as any final word on the subject at hand.
And that subject is: Diversity.
Certainly, it has been a topic much in the news since that day now forever known as September 11th. Many of us here in the western part of the globe knew little to nil about the various factions of Islam before that date. I'd venture to say that we might not be all that well informed about them now. The U.S. and British press has done a good job of labeling the more politically expedient radical Islamic sects, but how many of us understand much more about the beliefs of the average Muslim on the street (or in the mosque) than that? Other countries in which the Muslim population makes up a greater percentage of believers have been dealing with these issues much longer than we have in the West. They have their own biases, of course, and depending upon which press or newspaper that you might read, you can plainly see what these are.
But that sort of discernment requires a good deal of 'shopping around' in order to gain a balanced view as it is expressed from all sides. It's a lot of work. You have to be interested and you have to care about ferreting out the truth from the compost heap that tries to pass as 'news' these days. I don't know if most of us have it in us. The world is vast and our time is limited. Is it worth the effort expended to learn more about religions and cultures not our own?
I think that it is. I also believe that if the peoples who inhabit the nations of the world don't make that effort, we shall all be in big, big trouble. And real soon, too.
For political leaders have their own agendas. It is expedient for capitalist states to remove barriers that stand in the way of the further spread of capitalism and its ventures. Capitalism --and for the record, I am neither a knee-jerk anti-capitalist nor an anarchist -- by its nature needs to ever expand its base of operations. That is called 'growth'. Growth can be good, as any gardener will tell you. Growth run rampant and unchecked can be bad. Any oncologist will tell you that. Just who gets to decide what is a good level of growth and what rate of growth will destroy too much to be healthy makes all of the difference.
There has been a growing unease across the world that in the name of growth, much of intrinsic value is being plowed under, paved over or hacked down. I am not speaking here of rain forests or blue bonnet fields or the Everglades although they do come into the picture as we shall see. No, what I am talking about is culture and religion and how we treat these things as if they were items -- and often simply as an intellectual subject for debate -- separate from all other issues.
For in many parts of the world and in many cultures, there is no difference between the land and the cultural and spiritual beliefs of those who live upon it. And the way that we as Westerners --and even as Pagans and Heathens -- talk about these lands and their cultural and spiritual heritage and paw through their lore and history, it is as if we believe that by some sheer exercise of the mind or might of will, we can understand them, convert them and so make them our own.
We don't. We shouldn't. And we can't.
Reading every book ever written about the Lakota will not enable us to 'understand' what a place called Stronghold 'means'. We can empathize. We can support the cause. But as non-Lakota and never having lived on a reservation or been raised in the Lakota culture, we cannot 'understand' it as a tribal member does deep within his/her very being. It is not our culture. These are not our Ancestors. This is not our 'religion'. We are not that People.
The adolescent Australian aboriginal undergoes an initiation ceremony that most of us would consider brutal and barbaric. The main purpose of the rite is to strip all individuality from the person so that he becomes part of the tribal mind that is the very existence of the culture. Few Westerners or urban shamans -- worshipping as we are so drawn to do at the holy shrine of 'Me' -- are eagerly lining up in the Australian bush country to undergo that process! Neither are most of us physically equipped or psychically prepared to undergo a real 'vision quest' outside of a carpeted living room or an inner-city park. These things only exist in the context of a specific culture and religion. We can read about them. We can think about them. We can even desire them. But they are not ours to play with.
And that is the problem. These 'things', these cultural treasures, often stand in the way of the all mighty god, Growth. Sacred mountains must be mined. Ancestral middens must be leveled for roads and shopping malls. Native populations must be moved out of the way. So must be their silly ties to their lands. So must be their unreasonable insistence on preserving their cultural integrity. Growth will not be denied. Growth --both financially and physically -- must proceed. Growth at any and all costs. Even spiritual ones.
Now, don't get me wrong. Virtually no culture or religion exists in a vacuum or is completely uninfluenced by other cultures and beliefs. Whether you believe that Wicca is fifty something years old or that Witchcraft is thousands, the beliefs and practices that many Pagans and Heathens follow today did not simply magically rise up out of the nether sphere. Snips and fragments from here and from there combined to become what we recognize as the modern or reconstructed Pagan and Heathen religions and beliefs.
And I am not saying that we should toss it all away because most of it is based upon or 'borrowed' from something else. Most Native Americans are Christians today and many Australian Bushmen and women have college degrees and wear business suits even as some Pagans don animal skin loincloths or tartan kilts. (Minds out of the gutter there, ladies!)
But the fact remains that diversity is under threat. In the rush to expand profit margins, lands and resources are being swallowed up. And the thirsting spirit of the average Westerner is doing the same thing to many unique cultural and spiritual practices.
We, as Pagans and Heathens, are often in the front lines of environmental and anti-globalization efforts. But we have been less than honorable sometimes when it comes to absconding the spiritual practices from these same sources. Perhaps we can intellectualize it and rationalize it and so convince ourselves that taking over lands in the name of industry to benefit the growth of capitalism is not the same thing as snipping out parts of another culture's spiritual heritage for our own spiritual 'growth'. But to indigenous people, it is one and the same thing.
And we are better than that. If there is one belief that I have always held close to my heart, it is that Pagans and Heathens are here right now, at this point in time, for a reason. I believe that we, perhaps more than any other group in modern Western society, are capable of both embracing diversity and helping to preserve it.
We do it -- often quite fiercely -- in our own communications with other Pagans and Heathens. And we do it within the society at large when we defend our right to be Pagan. And I think that we can do it throughout the world. But we must tread carefully.
We must honor cultures and try to learn more about them and not just from the pages of a book or the web site of a newspaper. We must talk with the people of these cultures. We may never be able to fully 'understand' that foreign culture or that spiritual connection as they do, but we can listen and then support their right to be unique and sovereign.
And we must vow to be a more honorable people. We cannot separate that which indigenous people believe cannot be separated and act as if it does not --and, because it is somewhat inconvenient for us, should not -- matter.
We, as part of a dominant nation and society, often feel entitled to take what we want simply because we want it and we can take it. That is as destructive to the spirit of diversity as any steam shovel to a sacred cairn. Some things should stand in the way of growth if that means the preservation of something for which there is no substitute.
It won't be easy. Even as we interact with other cultures and religions -- and amongst ourselves in the Pagan and Heathen communities -- our differences often can annoy us and set us at odds as much as they can excite us and stimulate us to learn more about each other.
But that is the challenge that diversity presents: To honor another without surrendering what is yours. To examine without prejudice. To embrace without avarice. To preserve without arrogance. To listen without ulterior motives. To protect the many faces and languages and cultures is to erect a watchful guard against a homogeny and dilution that -- while it would make the world's lands (and its peoples) much more manageable -- would also destroy much of its power and dignity.
Diversity can chafe us as we scrape up against the challenges of getting along with people whose cultures, religions or beliefs are very different from our own. But on the other hand, the riches inherent in living in a world of dizzying variants provides a hedge against the bleak grayness of a life lived without inquisitiveness, challenge or wonder.
In the end, we are all -- each of us -- different from anyone else. Each life is unique and precious. Each person is a cultural and spiritual treasure that cannot be replaced. Diversity is built into the world and is infused into all of its inhabitants. It is nature's safeguard against complete and utter global extinction.
And, in the end, that may be the tie that ultimately binds us to one another.
Co-Founder - The Witches' Voice
Monday, January, 13th., 2003
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