Wiccans in British Columbia, and an example of mediocre framing

I’ve been quiet lately because I was trying to get ready for an exciting trip with family, but I’ve come down with an annoying infection and am not allowed to travel. It’s proving pretty stubborn, so I’m resting a lot. I hope to be back to my usual hijinks in a week or so.

In the meantime, here’s an interesting story about how corrections officials in British Columbia initially arranged to try to hire a Wiccan chaplain, but the decision was reversed by a higher official – or at least it is on hold pending further review. The government official’s office insists he supports freedom of religion, but that “the government is not convinced all services offered through the chaplaincy program reflect an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars.”

The article’s coverage isn’t too bad – although one of the Wiccans quoted makes the cardinal mistake of bad framing by saying that people have an unfairly “negative image” of Wicca. We don’t know whether or not she was prompted, but denying that we are “devil worshippers” is generally the wrong tack to take. The counter-characterization as “tree-huggers,” is only marginally better, but it’s at least more neutral and vaguely true, even if commonly used as an insult.

Remember, if you’re going to speak to the media, be prepared. Think about your framing. Don’t bring up ridiculous ideas and prejudices. If you’re confronted with them, downplay them and return to your positive message.

Pluralism in action

In contrast to the previous post, I’d like to point out the way pluralism was an essential element of the Canadian state funeral for politician Jack Layton which took place Saturday. As mmy writes:

The first blessing at the funeral was given by Shawn Atleo (national chief of the Assembly of First Nations) in an aboriginal language. He concluded that blessing by giving a white eagle feather to Olivia Chow (Jack’s widow.)

Rev. Brent Hawkes explained that he was wearing his academic gown to officiate at the funeral in order not to give precedence to any one religion. Later on in the service Hawkes made reference to his own husband, John.

The program for the memorial is available and includes readings from both the Bible and the Qu’ran, all focusing on the theme of social justice. But most of all, I’d really encourage you to watch the video of Shawn Atleo’s blessing. I found this incredibly moving. Atleo is a gifted ritualist, working in the style of a master storyteller. He made a moving tribute to Jack and gave a white eagle feather, a special blessing, to Jack’s widow Olivia.

I asked mmy for some more detail on her reaction to the memorial and whether she felt included or excluded by any or all of the religious elements.

Nothing was presented as “you must believe” rather as “this is how I celebrate Jack,” and so one could feel included in the spirit of love and celebration without feeling the least bit proselytized. At no time were people called upon to pray or speak to any god.

mmy also pointed out that Jack’s memorial had been designed in concert with the family’s wishes, and that it remained focused on Jack and the family, rather than featuring prayers for Canada or specific honors to other current politicians in attendance.

The message that I got from the memorial and mmy’s reaction was that it successfully communicated that Jack had been a politician on behalf of many different people, celebrating the pluralism and variety among them while working for social justice for all.

Canadian newspapers treated this memorial as perfectly normal. Contrast this with the way the right-wing media in the US mocked and whined about a Native American blessing given at the memorial service for victims of the Tucson shooting earlier this year. Even including a brief acknowledgment of  Native American practices in the Southwest, one of the areas with the highest Native American populations, was described as bizarre and inappropriate.

As Jason at the Wild Hunt has ably pointed out, conservative Christians in the US see anything less than complete Christian hegemony as depriving them of their rights. They want there to be Christian religious elements even at at funerals for non-Christian veterans, regardless of the family’s wishes. They see pluralism as an outright affront.

Many Pagans and other members of minority religions in the US would look with envy on the situation in Canada while we struggle to have even basic respect paid to non-Christian religions, let alone a full celebration of pluralism. As we continue that effort, it helps to have examples of what our desired outcomes might look like. To me, Jack’s memorial was a beautiful example of the kind of respect for religious pluralism I strive for.

The last paragraphs from one of the eulogies were:

We’re all shaken by grief but I believe we’re slowly being steadied by a new resolve and I see that resolve in words written in chalk and in a fresh determination on people’s faces. A resolve to honour Jack by bringing the politics of respect for all, respect for the Earth and respect for principle and generosity back to life.

My wife Michele reminded me of a perfect quote from the celebrated Indian novelist, activist and feminist Arundhati Roy. Jack doubtless knew it. He might have seen it as a mantra. “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing.”

I can hear her breathing, too, and working to acknowledge religious pluralism and to be inclusive of all people, especially at state events, is one of the things that brings us one step closer to her embrace.

I would like to thank mmy for bringing this news item to my attention in the first place and for providing such insightful analysis.