Oklahoma bill to discriminate

Marriage licenses, doing it wrong edition!

The Oklahoma House has passed a bill that would require all marriage licenses to be signed by clergy. This is a direct attack on separation of church and state: it effectively requires people who want legal benefits which are administered by the state to interact with religion. This is doing it backwards – we ought to be working on separating civil and religious marriage, not further conflating them.

Now it’s true that I fought for the right to sign marriage licenses in Virginia as a clergy person, and I would do so again. I did that as a stop gap, because it’s one of the ways “real” religions are recognized and because until we get to a better separation of civil and religious marriage people want their clergy to be able to do that. It’s unfortunate that the option of having a civil license signing is seen as a “lesser” option, but that’s part of the problem. However, even at the time I said that I didn’t think this was the way it should be, and that I advocated separating civil and religious marriage celebrations.

What’s really nasty about the bill in Oklahoma is that the originators say that they are concerned about protecting the delicate feelings of the public servants who have to do marriage licenses. Apparently the mere possibility of being confronted with two actual gay people is deeply disturbing to these public servants. In reality, this is a way to increase discrimination by pushing a public function off onto private individuals – clergy – who have a legal right to discriminate.

The spurious explanation makes this bill even more disgusting. As a clergywoman, as the wife of someone who served his country for many years, and as a regular citizen, I find that handwaving defense egregiously offensive to the very idea of civil society.

Public servants have to be prepared to put their personal scruples aside in a multitude of ways. That’s why it’s called public service – you have to serve the public, not just do what you want to do for the people you find acceptable.

I just went through the process of getting my Ohio driver’s license. The public servants who do that work have to deal with lots and lots of people from all walks of life. In the relatively short time I spent in those offices, I saw people who looked like me and people who didn’t. There was a man with an offensive (to me) t-shirt and a woman wearing hijab. There were people who didn’t speak English and people who didn’t share my standards of personal hygiene. And all of them, every single one, deserves the exact same standard of consideration and service from those public servants.

And the folks in the driver’s license offices have a relatively straightforward job. If you choose to work in the court system, you’re going to be dealing with a lot of people who are there especially because they’ve done something that society considers unacceptable – and I don’t just mean smoking pot or driving while black. You’re going to be dealing with felons and deadbeat parents and all kinds of people. Even if you only ever work in the marriage office you’re going to be dealing with people who are on their third or sixth marriage, you’re going to be dealing with some guy in his 70s marrying an 18 year old where you can’t tell who is taking advantage of whom, you’re going to be dealing with some guy who has been divorced by his previous two wives for violent abuse but has found another woman who is convinced that he’s changed, and so on and so forth, day in and day out.

If you go into public service, you get to serve the public. No exceptions. You don’t get to put your feelings or personal preferences into the judgment space. It’s your job to see that the paperwork is filled out correctly, that they’ve got supporting documentation, and that everything is above board and legal according to the laws as they are currently constituted. When those laws change, you change with them. If you want them changed, you go out there on your private time just like every other citizen and do what you can. But at work you take your feelings and you put them someplace else and you serve the public.

This bill is especially insidious because there is so much potential for collateral damage. How are atheists supposed to get married? How are Catholic divorcees supposed to get married? Yes, most people would be able to find a friendly UU minister or somebody similar, but why should they have to? In order to get the state-administered legal benefits of marriage, they should be able to go to the state, file paperwork, and get a signed license.

Deep down, I don’t think this bill is really about protecting public servants’ feelings. I think that is an excuse, and the lack of consideration for the collateral damage is one indication that the real motivation is simple bigotry. Whether or not this bill passes the Oklahoma Senate and is implemented, we will see many, many more attempts like it because this is the modern-day equivalent of the attempts to avoid desegregation by closing the public schools.

This bill is nothing less than an attack on the fundamentals of civil society. Our society is trying to evolve to afford more basic civility to all its members, and as that evolution takes hold, one of the only possible responses by the fundamentalists is to try to tear down civil society as a whole. We cannot allow that to happen; as more of these attempts occur, we need to recognize them for what they are, call them out, and stop them in their tracks.

Cuccinelli v All Acts of Love And Pleasure

My religion encourages oral sex.

Ken Cuccinelli, candidate for governor, wants to outlaw it.

Why am I not the new face of the brave fight for religious liberty?

Cuccinelli for Governor: Because oral sex sucks!
Image courtesy of the blogger’s partner (in crime, apparently). If you copy, please link back.

Seriously, though: Ken Cuccinelli, the current attorney general of Virginia and Republican candidate for governor has just launched a new website as part of his campaign that argues in favor of a law which criminalizes oral and anal sex between consenting adults in private.

This law is currently unconstitutional as a result of a Supreme Court ruling. But Cuccinelli is arguing that it’s a vital part of protecting children from sex offenders, which makes no sense. Moreover, it’s offensive to me as a woman, a Wiccan, and a feminist.

The actual case where the law was declared unconstitutional as a result of SCOTUS precedent involved at least one seventeen year old. I agree that there’s a metric crapton of potential problems with someone in hir teens having sex with someone in hir 40s or 50s. But if Cuccinelli has a problem with 17 year olds having sex, he could try to raise the age of consent, or prove that the situation was not consensual. That’s not what he’s doing. He’s specifically argued in favor of keeping the parts of the law (that are unconstitutional) that ban private consensual non-commercial adult (above the age of consent) behavior.

Cuccinelli basically says that the law won’t be used to prosecute adults doing what they want. But there’s no reason to believe him. That’s exactly what the law says, and in the law, you live and die (or convict and set free) based on what the law actually, very specifically, says. What kind of prosecutor argues that on the one hand, he desperately must have a law that criminalizes a wide range of behavior, but then promises that on the other hand he won’t prosecute what the law says, even when that’s what he’s actually doing? Not to mention, what kind of fiscal conservative says that it’s vitally important to spend precious government time and money to defend laws that have already been declared unconstitutional?

The homophobic kind, that’s who.

From Think Progress:

In fact, Cuccinelli is a major reason that the provisions of this particular law governing non-consensual sex were left vulnerable to court challenge. In 2004, a bipartisan group in the Virginia General Assembly backed a bill that would have brought the law in line with the Supreme Court’s ruling. They proposed to eliminate the Crimes Against Nature law’s provisions dealing with consenting adults in private and leaving in place provisions relating to prostitution, public sex, and those other than consenting adults. Cuccinelli opposed the bill in committee and helped kill it on the Senate floor.

In 2009, he told a newspaper why he supported restrictions on the sexual behavior of consenting adults: “My view is that homosexual acts, not homosexuality, but homosexual acts are wrong. They’re intrinsically wrong. And I think in a natural law based country it’s appropriate to have policies that reflect that. … They don’t comport with natural law.” As a result of Cuccinelli’s homophobia, the law’s text remains unchanged a decade after the Supreme Court’s ruling.

While Cuccinelli tries to spin his efforts as “Virginia’s appeal to preserve a child-protection statute,” this amounts to little more than his attempt to restore the state’s unconstitutional ban on oral sex.

This matters because it shows that Cuccinelli is willing to fight a dead letter over a culture war issue. It matters because he’s willing to mislead people with moral panic over child endangerment to do it. It matters because this anti-sex agenda is what Cuccinelli really thinks is worth working on, and it’s what he thinks will make him win. You’d better believe it’s what he’ll act on if he does win.

His culture-warrior stance runs a lot deeper than just oral sex. He’s been using his current office to move heaven and earth to restrict reproductive health rights in Virginia. In addition, his running running mate is one EW Jackson, a Christian pastor, whose aggressively anti-non-Christian attitudes and comments have been covered quite seriously at the Wild Hunt and with an appropriately large dash of sarcasm at Wonkette.

And quite frankly, my understanding of Wicca really does validate all kinds of consensual sex. It’s right there in the Charge of the Goddess:

All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals.

The idea of “acts of love and pleasure” is a very potent way of expressing my feminist ethic of consent to sex. I’m not going to consent to something that’s not pleasurable to me. If I can’t consent – if I can’t engage in love and pleasure – then whatever’s happening isn’t sex; it’s sexual assault, abuse, battery, or rape.

Cuccinelli is actually making a version of the Two Boxes argument about what kinds of sex are permissible and not permissible. Nearly all “slippery slope” arguments about marriage equality are versions of this. (Cuccinelli gets double Conservative SexHater Points for pretending that outlawing consensual adult oral sex is a way of “protecting our children.” Score!)

The Two Boxes argument says that the Christian god has designated certain kinds of sex as “good” and other kinds as “bad,” and that there is no other possible way to differentiate between allowable and not-allowable actions in our secular civil law. Therefore, if you allow one “bad” thing, you’re allowing all “bad” things. Slippery slope: people will gay-marry their dogs! The Two Boxes argument is extremely simplistic. By contrast, my ethics – both my secular civil reasoning and my religious understanding – tell me that we can draw a different boundary based on enthusiastic consent.

In the rest of this post, I am going to talk about the connections between my civil feminist understanding and my Wiccan understanding. There’s already been a lot of great feminist explication of this ethic of consent. I think that we should determine our secular, civil law on the basis of secular, civil reasoning. I am not trying to substitute my Wiccan standards for Cuccinelli’s Christian standards. I am trying to explain why my Wiccan standards coincide with my secular feminist standards. With that in mind, Cuccinelli’s efforts really are offensive not just on a human rights and feminist level but to me as a person with a different religion with different standards.

I think that the idea “acts of love and pleasure” contains the seeds of the concept of affirmative, enthusiastic consent. This concept differentiates between acceptable and unacceptable sex on the basis that some people can’t engage in love and pleasure. That might be because they’re not people: lampposts, dogs, box turtles; it might be because they’re incapable of consent: under the age of consent, handicapped, intoxicated, etc. Either way, the standard concepts of “love” and “pleasure” don’t apply.

Ultimately, my understanding relies on the idea that sex is a cooperative activity that is done by partners together. Sex is not a thing that men do to women as objects. Sex is not a thing that women have that men try to get or take. Sex isn’t just about men and women. It’s about people, and their consent, to acts of love and pleasure.

Those ideas, deep down, are what scares Cuccinelli, and his fellow culture warriors, spitless, pun intended:

People – consent – love – and pleasure

If you care about those things, whether for civil or religious reasons, or especially both, then you ought to find Cuccinelli’s latest actions reprehensible.

PS: Regarding the first statement: There. Now you can start blaming me, right after the makers of Witch-sploitation movies, for causing people to claim that they’re Wiccan when they don’t have the first clue what Wicca really is.

ETA: Think Progress also gives an example of a sheriff’s department in Louisiana enforcing a similar “anti-sodomy” statute which is equally unconstitutional and hence unenforceable. This proves that “unenforceable” does not prevent officers from arresting and detaining people. I don’t know the details of how arrest records work, but they may be different from court records. Certainly the news often reports that people were arrested on offenses in the past, and job applications may ask if the applicant has been arrested, not just about convictions. I hope I don’t have to spell out all the implications.

At Forging Futures: Choice and the Goddess

Over at Forging Futures, I’ve written about why I think honoring the feminine divine means that we must trust women to make their own choices about their bodies – especially the choice to have an abortion.

Given the juxtaposition of this piece with the previous one, I want to point out a few things about my political speech, since I am often political.

First of all, what I’m doing is very different from the kind of pulpit politicking that is being pushed by the Religious Right which I so strongly disdain. Yes, I’m ordained as a priestess by a 501(c)3 tax-exempt religious organization. But none of my online speech is as a leader for that organization, nor is it funded with the support of those tax-exempt dollars. These are my personal views and my personal speech. I defend even the most conservative Christian pastor’s identical right to his views and his speech, when he’s not using his tax-exempt organization to push them.

Second, for all that I often discuss how my religion guides my life, my ideas, and my choices – including my political choices – I am also determinedly in support of secular government. Whatever ways of understanding I use to arrive at my conclusions, when I advocate a policy approach that will affect other people, I always, always, always have a purely secular justification for it.

Respecting women’s bodily autonomy and giving them the right to make their own health care decisions should be an obvious conclusion when considering the situation from a secular point of view, and it’s on that basis that I want to see policies enacted. The fact that I also have strong religious reasons for supporting this position is relevant to me, and is something that I discuss as part of exploring how to live out my values in the world, but it is not the defense I offer for putting something into law.

These are the kinds of distinctions that make the difference between religious people who are engaged in politics and would-be theocrats. Respecting them is part of keeping our pluralist democracy functioning.

On the other hand: a handshake

As I said before, my (relatively light) encounters with anti-Pagan and anti-Wiccan prejudice really make me want to take action. Sometimes I can, and sometimes it even goes well, even if it’s just a small thing. This was one of those times.

After one of the recent mass shootings, I was in the lobby of our apartment building picking up mail. Someone else was talking with the person at the front desk and I half-heard some mournful laments about the lack of “traditional values” and how that contributed to these kinds of shootings. (I’m not sure whether I actually heard the person say “kids these days” or my mind supplied that as part of the same trope, but you get the idea.)

I have to admit that made me a little uncomfortable; nearly anyone who talks about being sorry to see the departure of “traditional values” defines those values as excluding me, and is probably more than willing to identify things like Wicca – or whatever they think is associated with Wicca – as examples of the problem, or even the root of the moral decay.

But some impulse caused me to think of this as an opening; while I didn’t want to try to engage a total stranger in conversation, I knew the person who was working the front desk, and he had always been kind and considerate to me.

When I passed the desk again after getting my mail, I stopped to say hello to him. I commented that I’d heard just a bit of the previous conversation, and we exchanged laments about the tragedy of the shooting. Then I said something along the following lines:

I don’t know if traditional values or their lack had anything to do with the shooting, but that phrase always makes me nervous. Most people who use it don’t think very much of me. You see, I’m a member of a minority religion; I follow an earth-based path, and some people don’t like that. But you’ve always treated me just the same as anyone else, and always been kind to me, and I want to thank you for that.

I don’t know if he’d ever heard of earth-based religion before, and I don’t know if he knew what I was talking about. He realized, though, that I sometimes felt excluded, and that sometimes I was afraid, or had been treated badly, and that it meant a lot to me that he didn’t do that.

When I shook his hand, he knew I was thankful for him and how he treated me. That was one of the best handshakes I’ve ever had.

I didn’t make a big deal about “coming out,” and I didn’t try to do any Paganism 101. But somehow, I hope things like this might make a difference. This is one of the ways that people who are “out” can help forge a path towards acceptance. It’s not about making a big deal of being Publicly Pagan everywhere I go; on the contrary, I only mentioned it to this person because we were already acquainted. He knows I’m not an axe murderer or a wild-eyed fanatic; and if someone so, well, normal can be a member of a minority religion…maybe we’re not so bad after all.

This isn’t going to change the Bad Jackies of the world. Indeed, making this move runs a serious risk that the person I out myself to will turn out to be a Bad Jackie. There’s a risk she’ll refuse to reevaluate her beliefs about my religion in light of what she knows about me and will instead reevaluate me in light of what she thinks she knows about my religion.

But this time, it worked, and I hope it did just a tiny bit of good. I certainly wasn’t left with the gnawing feeling of being marginalized in space that should have been safe for me that I had after my experience of friendly fire. And I think that gentleman appreciated being thanked for his kindness. He certainly deserves it.

Taken together, these are just a tiny slice of what it’s like to be Wiccan. It’s not just about the question of whether to out oneself, or doing 101 education, or the black and white of absolute hatred or acceptance. It’s full of dangerous pitfalls and surprisingly uplifting moments of hope; it’s full of uncertainty and paradox whether one is around friends or strangers; and it’s always, always about trying to live in relationship in the midst of a culture that may or may not allow for the possibility.

Review: Gadon, The Once and Future Goddess

Gadon, Elinor. The Once and Future Goddess: A symbol for our time. HarperCollins, 1989. Paperback, 405 pages.

The effort to recognize and restore the place of female power, authority, and divinity, especially in areas of study like archaeology, prehistory, and history, is deeply important to women’s empowerment and our reimagining of the possibilities of Western culture. But there is good reason to think that in the first blush of excitement over the possibilities, the pendulum swung too far in the other direction. Gadon, like many others, fell prey to the myth of matriarchal prehistory which Cynthia Eller has so capably exposed as not just inaccurate but an unstable foundation for women’s spirituality.

Let me say up front that I largely agree with Gadon’s descriptions of the dehumanization of women through modernity and patriarchal societies as documented in the historical record. But Gadon is determined to read that narrative back in an unbroken arc to prehistory, where the silent evidence of artifacts rather than texts is more accommodating of Gadon’s reinterpretations. By the end of the work it becomes obvious that Gadon really wanted to write about contemporary female artists and their reenvisioning and reclaiming of women’s bodies and women’s meaning. Those chapters may be valuable, but the majority of the book is devoted to pseudo-historical imaginings that have great potential to do harm.

Gadon’s historical errors and problems are pervasive. She cites Maria Gimbutas as an inspiration and takes Gimbutas’ often-discredited interpretations as authoritative. Gadon then presents these to the reader as if they were the predominant archaeological position. Similarly, Gadon bases an entire chapter on the theories of an archaeologist since disgraced for potentially smuggling antiquities and whose evidence for “the Great Goddess” and a matriarchal society was wholly discredited. Gadon’s reliance on these sources might have been barely excusable for a non-scholar twenty years ago, when she was writing, but our understandings of history and archaeology have developed significantly since then. Today’s readers need to be aware of these issues and look elsewhere for their information.

She also plays a neat shell game with visual evidence, asserting that similarly-described patterns in three different places have distinct meanings related to the goddesses she wants to identify: on page 43, diamonds and chevrons represent water, on page 49, diamonds are a sign of the vegetation goddess, and on page 53, bands of dots and zigzags are snakeskin designs. Similarly, bull horns are both symbols of masculinity and a representation of the lunar crescent – so is the moon a male symbol, too? In later chapters, Gadon slides from one goddess-figure into another, the snake and bird goddess(es) being sometimes separate and sometimes the same, but regardless, Gadon presents all evidence as supporting the pan-Goddess hypothesis.

This kind of sloppy scholarship does nothing more than convince me that interpreting prehistoric artifacts is an extremely difficult field in which it is easy to pick the possible interpretation that supports preexisting assumptions. She also conveniently ignores other possible interpretations. For example, rather than goddess figures, archaeologists might be unearthing Neolithic erotica, which does not necessarily mean that women were valued or powerful. I guarantee that an archaeologist digging up my current culture would find lots of representations of women, but that doesn’t mean women are running an idyllic goddess-worshipping matriarchy.

For someone who wants to imagine herself back in time, Gadon’s disconnection from any physical realities of the period is sometimes annoying and sometimes laughable. Her penchant for inappropriately syncretizing everything leads her to try to unify the rhythms of agricultural food production and those of hunter-gatherer production – in every bioregion and climate! – to support the idea of universal spring sacrifices. She has also apparently never seen winter wheat. (72) This is one more symptom of how she slides back and forth between the symbolic and the actual much too easily.

Gadon’s inaccuracies are not merely symbolic, though: she asserts that people’s “material life improved” as they moved into agricultural communities, when in fact, nearly all the extant evidence shows the exact opposite. (45) Every time a large enough population of humans concentrated, “herd” or “crowd” diseases cropped up, and in fact, even when they survived childhood, farmers were less well nourished and in poorer health overall than their predecessors.

Even in discussing the presence and role of the Goddess in the very society from which she comes, Gadon is sloppy with her evidence, giving incorrect Biblical citations for her quotes, ignoring the Old Testament, and failing to differentiate between popular Catholicism and the Church’s actual teachings. She also wanders through the ideas in her typical scatterbrained way, tossing off odd comments like the idea that the moon brought menstruation into Mary’s iconography by association. (204) Huh?

Most problematic for me was  Gadon’s unremitting gender essentialism. The tactic of valorizing things previously derided for being “female” is an important part of changing patriarchy, but unquestioningly accepting the patriarchal framing of what women are is a major strategic error. Gadon argues that women’s wombs are the source of their power. (289) Reducing women to their reproductive systems is dehumanizing and wrong no matter who does it.

The idea that some of the Goddess images are also phallic, and thus incorporate men, is as backhanded a way of justifying the Goddess as a universal representation of deity as the idea that the Christian god is neither male nor female. The “coincidental” connection to Christianity suggested on page 44 is frankly insulting to Christians in tone and verges on spiritual-cultural imperialism. Replacing the “default male” assumption with a “default female” assumption may help break down patriarchy, but it still defines some people as normal and some as Other.

Ultimately, Gadon’s fascination with visual representations means I should not be surprised by her finally stating bluntly that “the sacred image is not an illusion of reality, but reality itself.” (200) But Gadon does not realize that this willingness to valorize iconography – whether theological or visual, whether life-affirming or otherworldly – is a major root of much of the damage done by patriarchal systems that she decries. The kind of interpretation of the world that deliberately, knowingly, prefers its ideas, or theology, or goddess worship, over reality, and insists that reality will simply have to conform itself to those ideas is the same kind of interpretation that supports refusing women abortion as a life-saving medical treatment, because the reality of the woman’s death isn’t nearly as important as the invisible spiritual interpretation someone else has imposed.

What’s really valuable in this book is the material on contemporary culture, art, and the idea of the goddess. She could have written a perfectly good book about that without doing violence to prehistory and archaeology along the way. Her chapter on the artist as prophet of the Goddess’ reemergence offers a variety of visions of the Goddess in contemporary life and can be read as an invitation to the reader to join that process. I would think that knowing where that journey is headed would make the deep delving of the beginning of Gadon more relevant, more inspiring, and more worthwhile for women who haven’t yet encountered the reemergence of the Goddess, or haven’t encountered it as fully. She concentrates, as usual, on visual imagery, and runs the risk of making women who are not artists or whose artistry occurs in different media feel as if they are not as fully participating in the reemergence of the Goddess, but even for that, this material is uplifting and inspiring.

Towards the end of the book, Gadon acknowledges that there is no real evidence for the kind of society she spent so much time imagining, and mentions the fact that the mother goddess archetype puts too much emphasis on women’s reproductive capacity, but this two-page slice of reality does little to outweigh her first several chapters. (303-304)

Similarly, Gadon’s comment that “sacred narrative often preserves memories of how people experience cultural changes,” is very true and a much better statement of that fact than the overused trivialization that victors write history. (117) But her excellent suggestions about things like women reclaiming the process of birth from an overly-medicalized approach don’t have to be grounded in imaginary ancient sacred narrative to give them truth and power.

I disagree with Gadon’s essentialist take on femininity, but I agree that we – as part of the women’s spirituality movement and as part of the earth-centered spirituality movement – are participating in reconstructing the mythology and cultural consciousness of our time. I think we should try to do so on a stable and sustainable basis, rather than on fancies mistaken for fact. As a result, for a casual reader, I strongly recommend only engaging with the last part of the book and ignoring the prehistorical sections, if you read it at all.

RD on Americans and their cars

After I mused about how Asphaltia’s influence spread along with the interstate highway system, it is interesting to see Religion Dispatches picking up on a related theme. The piece describes Michele Bachmann’s promise to return gas prices to $2 a gallon as tapping into some of Americans’ self-constructed myths about the sacred and the self:

The federal highway system — the real America — on the other hand, operates as widely dispersed, center-less system for individual travelers on separate routes, an enactment of the American protestant primordial act: the prioritizing, centering and sacralizing of the individual in pursuit of their own happiness.

I would argue that although Paganism is about connection, at its best, it tries to balance the individual and the group, prizing both and the connections between them. This is why grounding and centering can be a group act as well as an individual one. What do you think? How do Pagans construct their myths of the center, the sacred, and the self, and how do they relate to this idea of cars and travel?

Contemporary Deities: Asphaltia

Names and titles: Asphaltia, Our Lady of Traffic, Changer of Stoplights, Who Bestows Parking Spaces.

Symbols and correspondences: Good luck charms hanging from rearview mirrors, especially bells or chimes as representatives of Air, Element of movement and travel

Offerings or ways to worship: Incense, either beforehand to ask for a safe and smooth road trip, or promised in the midst of difficult travel and lit to her afterwards – do not stint a promised offering!

 

I think Asphaltia first started to take shape in my mind when my partner’s parents gave us a good luck charm for the rearview mirror of our car. It’s a Celtic cross with small bells hanging below it. When a really bumpy patch comes up, the bells can jingle surprisingly loudly, or bang repeatedly against a parking tag. LitSpouse announced once that he was going to take the bells off, and I told him equally quickly that no he wasn’t, because the bells were the Pagan part of the charm, since they invoked the Element of Air.

I knew that I made that connection in part because of Hermes, god of travel and communication, in the ancient Greek myths, who was clearly associated with air. But Hermes didn’t seem to fit, in my mind, with the rather unique spirit of car travel today. Automobiles and especially highways are uniquely recent means of travel. It was in thinking about interstates, urban roads or highways, and, yes, traffic, that the name Asphaltia occurred to me.

I think Asphaltia’s origin myth has a lot to do with heat, for all that she’s mostly associated with air. The vulcanization of rubber and the development of asphalt concrete, both heat-dependent processes, were necessary steps in the evolution of today’s car-centric transportation culture in the US. I think she became more firmly present in the US through the spreading construction of the interstate highway network; I imagine it as the flow of Asphaltia’s spirit across the land.

Part of that spirit may be uniquely American, or at least have some some American-specific features here. I’ve been to Europe just enough to know that the transportation culture there is quite different. The most interesting example of this was the way roads in Ireland are marked: with destinations rather than road names. The roads have names or numbers, and some major highways (interstate equivalents) are referred to by name, but nearly always with a destination attached. Something like “I-395 south” wouldn’t be a reasonable description there; even on a major highway sign, it would list the name of the next primary population center, and would tend to omit the directional descriptor. All the small road signs that I saw gave “To [placename]” rather than the name of the road.

One possible conclusion I drew from this was that in the US, a road is a place in and of itself; you can be “on the road,” and if someone calls me while I’m in the car and asks me where I am, I would normally give the name of the street as the first response: “I’m on 295” is a perfectly reasonable statement here. Depending on context, I might go on to add details about direction and/or destination, but roads are places to be.

I got the impression that in Ireland roads are not places to be in any important sense. You’re always going somewhere, and you would describe yourself as in between origin and destination. This approach treats roads as inherently liminal. It makes more sense in a country where it would be unusual for a road trip to last more than a few hours, and even a very long road trip might only take two days. In the US, I have regularly made road trips of six or eight hours; those involve an entire day, and so it’s more natural for me to have an idea of place attached to that situation of traveling. I’ve also been on a cross-country drive, which took a week but could easily take ten days.

In some way, transitory can be a persistent state of being in the US. With the development of the interstate network and the economic adaptations that cater to it – notably fast food and motels – we have in some ways created a specific sub-culture in which the liminal state of travel is considered completely normal.

At any rate, I think these things contribute to Asphaltia’s current situation, especially in my own life. Since her name occurred to me, she has taken on a more definite character, and while she can be hard to understand, she’s not exactly capricious. I imagine her as being just as frustrated by traffic jams as we are; when I’m in one, I try to focus on visualizing the roads as a free-flowing network, with air or water coursing through them, and I blow out a calm breath to will it to be so.

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.

The Bedamnitudes, or, Curses from the Speech in Galt’s Gulch

A satire on the attitudes of the extreme right-wing in America today:

Cursed be the poor in spirit: for they desire affirmative action.
Cursed be they who mourn: for they expect government death benefits.
Cursed be the meek: for they mooch to inherit the earth.
Cursed be they who hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they are socialists.
Cursed be the merciful: for they are soft on crime.
Cursed be the pure of heart: for they are naive.
Cursed be the peacemakers: for they shall be called bipartisan compromisers.
Cursed be they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for they promote victimhood.

Working, not fasting

My response to the conservative Christian day of prayer and fasting – Rick Perry’s “The Response” rally – will be to spend Saturday working and eating, because I think that the problems Perry and company want to turn over to their god for supernatural solutions are better addressed by human action.

There have been a number of prayer rallies around the nation named “The Call,” and now Rick Perry has put together “The Response,” all of which say they are modeled on an ancient example of petitioning the Judeo-Christian god for the renewal of the nation of Israel in a time of crisis. Perry’s message on the webpage of The Response says:

“Right now, America is in crisis…As a nation, we must come together and call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles, and thank Him for the blessings of freedom we so richly enjoy. Some problems are beyond our power to solve … There is hope for America. It lies in heaven, and we will find it on our knees.”

I think Perry is wrong: there are few problems to which we cannot find solutions, but if we spend our time asking for the divine to rescue us, we will not have the time and energy to find and implement those solutions. The difference between me and Perry is that I think I can make a difference with what I do here, in this world, now, in this time.

As a Pagan, I am called to engage in the world around me and to participate in it fully. I am called to live, to work, and to eat, relating to my environment and my companions. I am not called upon to absent myself or disengage, even from situations that I find frightening or dangerous, like the suggestion that “as a nation we must come together and call upon Jesus.” When a governor who might become a candidate for President explicitly allies himself with people who are willing to blame Shinto for the earthquake in Japan, who say that for Christians to be present at Muslim or Buddhist prayers would be “idolatry of the worst sort,” then I worry. But I do not retreat, and I do not withdraw.

I am called to be thankful for my freedoms, as Perry suggests, but not to his god. I am thankful that our system of government has recognized those freedoms as inherent in our human rights, and tries to live up to that declaration. My gratitude and joy in those freedoms means that my response is to protect those freedoms however I am able, especially by exercising them.

On Saturday, I will spend time on my knees. I will spend time on my knees tending my garden, to foster growth and provide herbs for my family’s meals. I will spend time on my knees meditating, to be grounded and centered, connected to that which matters most: my life, here and now, and what I do with it for myself, my communities, and my country.

I will spend time on my knees, and then I will get up and I will act, working to reduce and redress danger and injustice, to create and support life and love, wherever I can. When the opportunity presents itself, I will act politically to ensure that elected officials adhere to the First Amendment. I will act, because that is how I make hope, here and now, for freedom, especially freedom of religion.

Cross-posted at Hail Columbia.