“Breaking Curses” a fundamental characteristic of “Apostles”

We’ve been hearing more and more about the New Apostolic Reformation lately, led by “apostles” such as Cindy Jacobs, John Benefiel, and C. Peter Wagner. In a book by Wagner about what it means to be an “apostle” today, he lays out “12 characteristics displayed by many (if not most) apostles,” although not all “apostles” have all twelve characteristics.

Number eleven on his list is “Breaking curses of witchcraft,” and in his explanation of a Biblical example, he equates witchcraft with divination and demonic possession. Number ten on his list is “Casting out demons,” by the way, so these ideas are intimately related in this present-day “apostle’s” mind.

Things get even more interesting when I read the actual Bible verses cited as examples of “breaking curses of witchcraft.” In the first one, Acts 16:16-18, a female slave who is possessed by a spirit that allows her to do divination, from which she earns money, follows the Apostle Paul and his companion around, announcing that they are exactly who they say they are: servants of “the Most High.” She urges people to convert to Christianity. Finally, Paul becomes annoyed and casts out her demon.

The message I take from that is that today’s “apostles” are supposed to be aggressive even towards people who claim to be Christian or to be working for the same goals. They are supposed to turn on their allies and coworkers if those people are doing things in an unacceptable way. They will even deprive their allies of a livelihood. I can’t help but think that this is also another example of misogyny: a female slave can’t be allowed to upstage the Apostle Paul, even if she’s telling the truth.

So if you’re Christian but you think a Magic 8 ball or even, gasp, Tarot cards (full of Christian symbolism) might be acceptable, think again. And if you do divination for money, especially if you’re a woman? Forget about it. The NAR are explicitly announcing that they are coming for you.

The second instance, Acts 13:8-11, is when Paul is trying to convert a local government official, but the local “sorcerer” is trying to prevent it. Paul responds by cursing the sorcerer with blindness. Of course, the government official converts, because he sees how powerful the Christians are.

This is the model the NAR wants to follow. This is their stated goal: offensive spiritual warfare with real, physical consequences.

Edited to add: To clarify, I don’t think their spiritual warfare is going to cause physical harm. But they do, and they want it to, and we should take that seriously. If they don’t get the results they want through curses, they might take more direct action.

They certainly want to use government to enforce their narrow subsect of Christianity. That’s what DC40 is all about. And don’t think this is solely about spiritual issues: very few people are talking about it, but their prayer networks in every state could easily be converted into networks for taking political action. Now that Perry has officially joined the Presidential race, I believe those networks and their involvement in “The Response” are intended to be a part of his campaign.

In the face of this effort, it is vital for us to work peacefully to protect our rights in all the ways available to us.

h/t to Right Wing Watch for the book excerpts

Review: Edghill, Bell, Book, and Murder

Edghill, Rosemary. Bell, Book, and Murder: The Bast Novels. Paperback, 448 pages. Forge, 1998. Omnibus edition of Speak Daggers to Her, 1994, Book of Moons, 1995, and The Bowl of Night, 1996, by the same author.

These three novels are set in mid-1990s New York, and follow the experiences and exploits of Bast, a Witch who has to draw on all her talents, mundane and magical, as she stumbles into a series of murders, betrayals, intrigues, and even a curse. In the first novel, one of Bast’s friends is found dead, possibly as a result of malefic magic from an unethical coven and coven leader. Bast’s investigation navigates deep currents of what magic means in the world today and how we can and should use it and respond to it; the outcome is ambiguous in some ways, which is one of the things I love about these books.

Edghill accurately represents the uncertainties of working with magic. There’s no hocus-pocus here, no Harry Potter-esque wand-waving that makes lights flicker, and not even any telepathic messages or ominous Tarot readings. There aren’t detailed accounts of rituals, either – very little of the book takes place in the setting of a circle or ceremony.  Instead, Edghill represents magic as we experience it: in the workings-out of intent in the world, with all the attendant murkiness, with multiple causes and effects intertwining, and with a distinct lack of clear-cut choices in most situations. Bast resolves the situation with the potential curse, but the resolution is as magical – or not – as the suspicion of malefic action was in the beginning, depending on how you see the whole situation. (I’m being deliberately vague to avoid spoilers, but also because simplifying the complexities of the plot would destroy the exact effect that I appreciate about this book.)

In the second book, Bast faces the politics – good, bad, ugly, and stupid – of the magical community in the 90s, from Niceness Wicca to an S&M leather coven, from Ceremonial Magic to Womyn’s Goddess worship, plus seekers of all stripes. I can’t speak for the accuracy, not having been in that historical setting, but Edghill’s portrayals come across as incisively accurate and still a good assessment of the kinds of politics and power plays that go on between individuals and groups. Bast herself is something of an insider-outsider, giving her a chance to reflect on the biases of her own viewpoint, which is an exercise that every reader ought to engage in as well.

The third book finds Bast squarely in the middle of a confrontation between neo-Pagans, fundamentalist (often rendered hilariously as “funny-mentalist”) Christians, and the law enforcement agencies who have to try to sort everything out. Villains and potential villains abound; achieving the right relationship between law and justice is more like a complex negotiation than a straightforward set of consequences. This one is the most difficult for Bast personally but also leads to the most reflection on the hard limits to which Bast will and will not go – even in the face of desire.

These works have aged well; there are a few places where a cell phone would have really changed the plot, but those are simple enough to overlook that they don’t distract from the pleasure of reading. Since the explosion of Cunningham-type self-initiated solitaries and the fashion for “magick” (sic) among teens in the Silver Ravenwolf vein, the makeup of the community one finds at open rituals and bookstores has changed a bit, sometimes quite a bit, but the population Bast interacts with is familiar to anyone who has spent a little bit of time around Pagans and magic-users.

The only other big difference from the present day is the lack of an overarching cultural concern about war that has been present since September 11th. For those who can (or want to) cast themselves back to the seemingly idyllic 90s, when whether everyone brought potato salad to the potluck rated as a major concern, these books will be familiar territory.

I’d recommend these to anyone who is pursuing a Pagan or Wiccan path and especially people who enjoy murder mysteries. It’s great to see a well-executed example of the genre set in our sub-culture, and you might just learn something about magic and meaning along the way.

Collaborative post: self-hate and trolling

This is a collaborative post written with the assistance of DetroitMechWorks, a fellow commenter in the Slacktivist community. Recently DMW used a sock puppet with the username honestwoman to post trollish comments and stir up controversy. The situation came to a head as DMW accelerated the frequency of posting and the ridiculous and inflammatory nature of “honestwoman’s” comments. Some community members started to speculate about whether this was a deliberate effort, calling honestwoman a Poe, a parody of extremism that is indistinguishable from real extremism.

Unfortunately, in the process, several people were offended and hurt by honestwoman’s statements. I responded with a “nuke” post when my personal sore spot was hit. Shortly thereafter, the parody effort was revealed over honestwoman’s username, and then DMW stepped up with his own username to admit that it was him and to apologize. Some of DMW’s statements in his apologies were both familiar to me and related to my recent attempts to explore how self-hate gets externalized, and I proposed this collaboration. DMW graciously agreed to join me. Following paragraphs are labelled with the respective authors’ names and colored differently. (The colors are an experiment for me – if they really don’t work, say so, and I’ll undo them.)

Literata: I realized that DMW had inadvertently helped me identify my personal trigger: accusations of “faked” disabilities and especially accusations that people with disabilities are faking in order to get money. That was the last straw that made me nuke, and it is a trigger for me because I have spent so much time and effort overcoming my own self-blame about my personal disability. When my disability worsened a couple years ago, to the point where I can no longer work full-time, I had an episode of major depression where one of the dominant things that drove the depression was the idea that people didn’t believe me or wouldn’t believe me about my condition. It was almost as if I had the chorus of doubting voices in my own head – and I spent so much time and energy justifying myself to them, and preemptively arguing with them, that it contributed to my withdrawal from the outside world. These kinds of critics are never silenced. Coming out of the depression was in part a process of eliminating those voices from my own psyche. When I heard them again from the outside, it echoed some of the worst times of depression, and I reacted with anger, an anger disproportionate to the situation. What struck me about your apologies, DMW, was how similar some of your descriptions sounded to the kind of experience I had during my depression. It was interesting to me that my defensive response came when you hit on something that echoed my depression, but you described the entire experience of using the Poe-sock-puppet as a lot like my internal experience, just turned outwards. Was the Poe a kind of defensive response of your own?

DMW: Yes, the Poe was originally a personal attack on myself.  During the original posts that led to the creation of the Poe, I had come under fire for being “hostile” when I was trying to express my very real fears.  As a result, I fired off a post under the pseudonym with the negative words I heard all of the time when trying to express myself.  Essentially it was a bait post, and I was expecting people to agree with the Poe in attacking me.  The extremely negative response to the Poe actually made me feel much better, and gave me hope that people weren’t trying to hurt me, and were in fact trying to help.  Looking back, it was a very immature thing to do, but at the same time, there are a lot of hurtful things that I just shrug off in my daily life, and don’t think about, or try not to.  It may have something to do with my army experience, and the need to control my emotions and reactions, but I am not a therapist.

Literata: That sounds familiar. I had internalized doubts and fears about how others viewed me – unreasonable ones, as it turned out – and was fighting with them constantly. They were hard to express, though, and it wasn’t until I had an opportunity in therapy to “voice” some of what my internal criticizers “said” that I was able to examine the ideas behind them and realize that they were unreasonable. It was especially hard because I knew in some ways I had internalized prejudice, and so it was hard to point to an external example. That made it more difficult to communicate what was going on inside me for a long time. The other danger was that since I had those concerns about what other people thought about me, I was at great risk of projecting those expectations and misinterpreting small signs as evidence that really, deep inside, those people were thinking exactly what my internal criticizers were. The Poe had a positive result for you in that you were able to know that the people who criticized you really weren’t thinking the same things as your internal critics.

DMW: I do see what you mean here.  Every word I threw around as the Poe was in some manner created by me.  It was very representative of the self-criticisms that I deal with daily, and the fears and concerns that consistently run through my head when I am feeling negative. The words I used were designed to get a reaction, since they were the words that tend to annoy and anger me.

Literata: You wrote a little bit about how you “have been on the receiving end of these types of arguments” and about an incident that “inspired” this Poe. Please tell me a little more about that. What made you pick that username, for example?

DMW: The incident that REALLY inspired the Poe was a discussion about corporate criminals.  I was discussing on another board I post on the corporate crimes that are going on, and one of the posters said that the solution to the problem was prison rape for the offenders.  I personally am horrified by the idea of sexual assault being tolerated in any capacity, and called him on it.  The person who I was speaking to refused to be sidetracked, claiming that I was trying to defend corporate criminals, and that I obviously was an idiot who didn’t understand the truth.  And that was what stuck in my mind, this obsession with “I’m right, and you’re wrong, and I am telling you the TRUTH.”  So, honestwoman.  I swapped the gender, and since I was making someone who attacked using feminist-esque terms, It HAD to be “woman”.  I was tempted to make it “Honestwomyn” but that would probably have been a dead giveaway as  to the Poe status of the post.

Literata: You wrote: “I find it frightening how easy it was for me to channel the self-loathing and doubts I feel into criticisms of others,” and “Most of what I wrote are doubts and fears that I myself have about my own life.” You implied that there was almost a feeling of relief when you wrote the honestwoman material. What was that like?

DMW:The negative response to Honestwoman really reaffirmed my faith in the goodness of the people on the board.  I know that’s cliche, but the anger directed at someone who really deserved it almost felt like justification.  As far as relief when writing the material, well, it was just easy to put together a caricature of every person who I can’t stand and then speak for them.

DMW: That’s what the Poe was, and every word she said was nearly the polar opposite of what I believe and stand for:  I try to check my spelling and grammar on my posts, but for Honestwoman, I had to go back and deliberately insert errors.  I try to have a decent grasp of history, Honestwoman was a complete historical illiterate.  I admit it and apologize when I’m wrong, but Honestwoman’s most true line was “So I got a Fact wrong, doesn’t change the fact that I’m RIGHT!”  Honestwoman played race cards, religious cards, and lookist/ablist cards, while I feel guilty if I claim my G.I. Bill.

DMW: In a very real way, Honestwoman was nothing more than a channeling of pure Id.  It can be very easy to do, but I honestly felt sick every time I wrote posts under the handle.  It’s a little thing that still affects me, but I feel guilty when I hurt others. The repeated posts that suggested that people were not only angry, but HURT and offended, well that’s when it really started to get bad.

Literata: How did you stop? What did you think when the community started speculating about whether or not it was a Poe – did you intend for it to be discovered? When you started, did you think about how you would stop?

DMW: I never intended to do the Poe for more than two or three posts.  It was just going to be a drive-by troll and that would be it.  I stopped because people were really getting offended, and there was a real sense to me that I was causing real distress.  I never thought about stopping, how long I would do it, it just started going on and on.

DMW: Once again, attention is a HARD thing to ignore.  I find it ironic that my best writing has never been published, my best videos have about 400 hits, but my heavily typoed porn  has over 45,000 downloads.  I don’t know if that means that my negative impulses are the ones that are the most profitable or what, but It kinda frightens me.  It’s like when I do the right thing, nobody cares, but when I do the wrong thing, the world says “Give Us More!”

DMW: I stopped doing the Poe because of 2 reasons.
1.  I hate hurting people.  I get sick playing “Bad Guys” in video games, fercryingoutloud.
2. To continue, I would have had to find even worse things to say.  And I was rapidly running out of material from my own life to draw on.  There are a few topics that REALLY anger me that I could have gone for, but that would NOT be a good thing for me to do morally or spiritually.  (Plain Vanilla ablism/lookism/bigotry are offensive to me, but not killing rage offensive.  It just says that whoever is espousing those views to me is an idiot.  Now, if you ever want to see me furious, here’s the topics that send me totally nuts: Genocide Denial, Single Fathers are Molesters, and BAD SF being passed off as legitimate fiction.)

DMW: In closing, from me at least, I still know what I did was wrong.  There’s really no excuse for it.  I can spend a lot of time justifying it and making excuses, but at the end of the day, I knew I was doing something wrong, and chose to go ahead anyway.   I hope that others can learn from the error, and how such a thing can happen even to someone who wants to be a good person. And to everyone I hurt.  I am sorry.

Literata: Thank you for the heartfelt apology and thank you even more for joining me in this exploration of what happened and why. It sounds like a few good things came out of this ugly incident: You found out that the people on the board aren’t like your internalized critics, even if they’re hard on you sometimes, and I discovered my trigger, which lets me handle that better in the future.

Literata: Hopefully, this can show some people who are immersed in self-hate, whether they’re internalizing it or externalizing it, that there are ways out, that you don’t have to let that feeling take you over. Find someone you trust and talk it over. Get an honest assessment – because it’s almost certainly not as bad as you think it is – and use it as a stepping-stone to start walking away from the internal chorus of criticism. There are other choices. Find them. Make them.

Just World fallacy

Definition of a liberal: A conservative who has just discovered that bad things really do happen to good people. – Jenny Islander

I cannot say it enough times. The idea that bad things must happen for a reason is false. It is patently contradicted by millions of people’s experiences every day. The worst extreme of the Just World fallacy is Objectivism and its near cousin, LaVeyan Satanism. But there’s another, less extreme but more corrosive, version that I’d like to mention as well.

(Trigger warning: violence and sexual violence.) Someone I used to be close to exemplified this when he said that he was utterly repulsed by the idea of “depending on the kindness of strangers.” His personal concern was self-defense: people who are unprepared to defend themselves, who aren’t alert and aware of their surroundings at all times, and constantly assessing the potential dangers of others, people, in other words, like most of us, were in his mind, “depending on the kindness of strangers” to avoid being robbed, beaten, raped, or murdered. He wasn’t disdainful, or generally victim-blaming, any more than most of our culture is. He took pride, in fact, in providing protection to others, especially people he cared about. But this deep, deep need to be totally independent and self-reliant was haunted by the equally deep fear that he wouldn’t always be perfect in his independence and self-protection.

That fear is more than just a concern: it’s a reality. We are all, to a certain extent, dependent on the kindness of strangers. “No man is an island,” wrote John Donne. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” wrote MLK. No one gets through life entirely on her own. We were all children, dependent on adults, and at the other end of life, more and more of us are experiencing a period of senescence when we are increasingly or even totally dependent on others. And not all of us are in perfect physical condition at all times: we get tired, we have the flu, we are disabled, and sometimes, even in spite of our best self-reliance and heroic preparedness, bad things happen, because bad things really do happen to good people.

The idea that one should never depend on the kindness of strangers, the myth that this ultimate independence is even possible, is harmful to people who hold it. It drives a kind of self-judgment by an impossible standard that causes people to live in fear, and when they, inevitably, fail to live up to their self-imposed  standards, it causes them to live in self-hate. Using one’s level of self-reliance to justify thinking that one is a good person is a shortsighted substitution that is doomed to fail.

Even worse, when applied to others, these standards are the antithesis of social justice. They create a kind of society-wide self-hate best exemplified by Faux News’ specialized brand of froth and furor. Accepting the Just World fallacy and letting it shape social policy institutionalizes the fear of failing at perfect self-reliance, and that fear manifests itself as a defensive, unrelenting anger at those who have “failed,” even among people who know that they are only one accident or forty years of life away from being in the same situation. The essentially Calvinist substitution of hard work, self-reliance, or other external measures for deep reflection, true ethical striving, and the compassion for others which naturally results is contrary to all experience and evidence, and it is time for this clumsy sleight-of-hand to stop driving our politics.

Objectivists and Satanists

The ultimate development of Rand’s so-called Objectivist philosophy is Satanism. Not the almost entirely mythical Christian heresy, but real Satanism, the atheist, self-worshipping philosophy/religion promulgated by Anton LaVey and his ilk. Satanism explicitly acknowledges its foundation on Randian attitudes. But Satanism takes the ideal of self-reliance further. Rather than seeing reason as the arbiter of good, as represented by money, Satanism sees pleasure, or individual satisfaction and enjoyment, as the ultimate good, possibly the only good. (Updated: Please note the other forms of Satanism pointed out in Sarah’s comment; I apologize for presenting LaVeyan Satanism as the only Satanism extant. For the rest of this post, please note I am only discussing LaVeyan Satanism.)

I’m not going to do a complete comparison, partially because I can’t stomach that much of either Rand or LaVey&Co. But just to give you a few examples:

Rand’s description of Objectivism: “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”

Current leader of the Church of Satan on the Satanic view of deity: “To the Satanist, he is his own God. Satan is a symbol of Man living as his prideful, carnal nature dictates.”

Their web page describes the Church of Satan as, among other things, “a forum for ground-breaking new developments by Satanists who move with fury and grace through this current culture of rampant mediocrity.” Sound familiar? That’s how Rand would have written her heroes if Rand had any writing talent. Instead she substituted speeches. But that’s another issue.

Finally, from the “words of welcome,” on why they choose to call themselves Satanists:

“We don’t need a lot of followers; we need more leaders in society in general and Satanism is a philosophy of leaders. That’s the glib answer. The more complete answer is that Satanists find more strength in images of defiance, fortitude against all odds and self-determination than we do in the image of the guy hanging on the Cross. We are sickened by the complacency, hypocrisy, prejudice, and self-righteousness that most conventional religions (including “Wicca” and “paganism” as they are currently defined) encourage in people.”

“There is always a Satan, an adversary, in every culture. There is always the figure who represents the Dark Side, the unexplored realms, the prideful beast who defies the norm. God, on the other hand, generally represents conventionality, predictability, the safety of normality, the comfort of the larger group and the rewards of staying within the bounds of propriety. That interaction is necessary to life and progress—not “good” versus “evil,” but that constant interchange between a need for conventionality and a need for risk-taking by those few who are compelled to explore the murky regions.”

This is Randian thought with “reason” replaced by “desire” or “aesthetics” and “creativity” replaced by, primarily, “lust.” In some ways, LaVey was more honest than Rand about what he was teaching his followers. Michael Shermer’s interesting piece “The Unlikeliest Cult in History” describes how ultimately whatever Rand liked or wanted was taken by her followers to be the standard of Objectivist “reason,” including her desire to have an extramarital affair, but not to allow her younger lover to have other affairs besides with her.

I am not saying that Objectivists are Satanists. I’m saying that the Objectivist philosophy, taken to its logical extreme, is indistinguishable from Satanism except for the fact that the Objectivists fool themselves into thinking everything they do has a perfectly rational explanation that everyone ought to agree with them about. The Satanists admit that they’re bastards and that it’s their personal philosophy to be bastards.

Finally, a graphic that summarizes it better (from here):

The Objectivist Tree

Veterans’ Day and the choices military folks make

Irony is good for the blood, or so my friends tell me. My blood got a boost today when partway into the afternoon of a beautiful federal holiday that my husband and I were enjoying together, he got a call that he had to go in to the office. Now he’ll be there until 10 or 11pm. He’ll probably get comp time for this, which is nice, but our plans for dinner went out the window. On Veterans’ Day. Because he’s military. Yup, I feel my blood getting stronger by the minute!

Seriously, though, I know this isn’t big as military issues go, so let me give you a heads-up about one that is: Operation Circle Care by Circle Sanctuary. Circle Sanctuary does some great military ministry, and this is part of it. They’re working on sending care packages to Pagan troops who are overseas. You can help: you can donate goods to be used in care packages, or you can donate funds to help send the packages. Head over to their page and see if you can contribute!

In his post for today, Jason at The Wild Hunt covers OCC, but the second part to his post is also interesting: called “A Warrior’s Conscientious Objection,” Jason tells of a report that calls on the government and the military to make it possible for soldiers to object on grounds of conscience to individual conflicts. While I understand, deeply, how this could be seen as a great advance by many people, I have to say that I don’t see how it could be possible in today’s military. I’m all in favor of deeply considering ethical choices. I’m also the first person to say, loudly, that the military doesn’t work by giving orders that demand instant, unquestioning, unthinking obedience. But this kind of pick-and-choose may not be possible because of how the military works today.

People tend to think of “the Iraq war” or “the war in Afghanistan” as a thing, a single, discernible entity. But even if that were ever true – and I would argue that for those with ethical objections, it probably wasn’t – it’s definitely not true today. It would be almost impossible to allow serving soldiers to object to participation in a particular conflict because there are thousands of actions throughout the day that any serving soldier makes that may be tied up with a particular conflict to wildly varying degrees. My husband’s job on the staff means that even as someone planning for the future, he’s actively caught up in how the conflicts today are being handled; what do we buy, given that we’ve got these wars now, and these other possibilities in the future? How do we adjust the budget to balance present and future? And so on – my husband would be literally paralyzed if he had to decide, before working on any project, whether that project was supporting the Iraq war, for example, and whether it was supporting the Iraq war too much for his conscience. More than that, his office would be paralyzed. Anything he opted out of would get dumped to other people, and because no one could predict that reliably (it is his individual conscience, after all) the workload on other individuals would be wildly varying. And it keeps going: staffing needs might change, which might prompt budgetary reviews, which prompt soul-searching….and so on.

No, not every servicemember is faced with a situation like this. But many, if not most, servicemembers who searched their consciences would realize that they are doing something that supports the current conflicts. One way to try to implement this call for conscientious objection to particular conflicts would be to allow servicemembers to refuse to deploy to particular areas; but people conscientious enough to do so would probably find plenty of problems with working anywhere in the Middle East or parts of Asia. Never mind the potential for abuse by the unscrupulous. Plus, there are lots of folks here in the continental United States (that’s CONUS, if you want to sound cool to military folks) who are actively participating in overseas missions – guys at Nellis who fly UAVs over combat zones halfway around the world are just the start.

The only way that I see for something like this to be possible would be for the military to create a way for people with legitimate conscientious objections to sever themselves from the military if such a conflict started. Most officers can resign their commissions; if they have an active duty service commitment, incurred to “pay back” the military for specific training or other benefits they’ve received, that causes a problem. Most enlisted folks, as far as I understand it, are enlisted for a specific term of service; similar concerns would be raised about their remaining commitment if they wanted to get out early. All kinds of potential problems arise for this scenario, but they might, just maybe, be resolvable. And, of course, the status of those people after they leave the military is a big question: are you a veteran if you get out because of a particular conflict? What if you’re an officer within spitting distance of retiring, and we invade Iraq?

That leads me to say a word or two about the folks who stay in. There are all different kinds of reasons for being in the military. We as a society have thankfully moved beyond blaming military members as individuals for anything we see wrong with policies or larger military actions. I’m heartened by seeing a bumper sticker that says “Support the troops – bring them home!” But I just want to put out there that some of the people who stay in do so precisely because of the tough ethical choices that such a course presents. They want to try to make a difference – to make it better. They don’t want to leave the military to be run by people whose consciences are clear (or unexamined).

Some officers retired in protest at the approach to invading Iraq, for example; they all had to make the hard choice to leave the men and women they led in someone else’s hands, someone else who might not do as good a job, who might not fight as hard to get the plan fixed, or at least improved. They had to weigh those chances and their consciences, and act on the balance they found, even with incomplete information and great uncertainties involved.

And that’s what we all have to do, every day. How much is too much? How bad is too bad? So get out there, and make your own ethical choices, and if you appreciate veterans for what they’ve done, appreciate them for this, too: for making the hard choices, not always well, but always trying.

Open-ended promises

Like many Wiccans and Pagans, I was raised Christian. Unusually, I was raised Christian by a father who had a doctorate in theology. Although Dad believed that women couldn’t be pastors, he spent a fair amount of my childhood passing on his great love of intellectual engagement with the divine, his one real skill. Since I’m also an intellectual, it has been natural for me to be something of an amateur the(a)ologian. As my engagement with Christianity changed, I explored more liberal theological approaches. Eventually, it just couldn’t stand up to what I was experiencing in my life; maybe I’ll write more about that later. Regardless, I find myself occasionally comparing previous theological approaches from Christianity to what I now believe and live, and one of those ideas came up today: the open-ended promise.

Also like other Wiccans, I’m a Cat Lady. (I have not yet graduated to Crazy Cat Lady status.) I’m just an animal person in general. Violence to animals is almost harder for me to take than violence to humans – even when it’s fictional, or happened long ago. I was reading a murder mystery today where a victim’s cat is found with her body. I almost cried. Never mind that it was the third or fourth dead body of the book, that the victim and the cat were equally fictional – it’s the cat that makes me emotional. I found myself looking at the kitten occupying my lap and petting her, telling her that I would never let anything like that happen to her.

And it’s true: I won’t. I’ll take good care of her. She won’t be exposed to crazy fictional murderers, and probably not to non-fictional ones, either. She won’t face hunger or a life on the streets like her mother did. It is more likely that I will be struck by lightning before finishing this blog post than that my kitties will have anything less than the best possible life for pampered, beloved pets. But a small part of my mind can’t help but whisper: Will you?

Will I be able to take good care of her? What if she lives longer than I do? What if a natural disaster hits, or a fire, or the zombies kill all the humans? (Lord and Lady forbid!) What if, what if, will I…? And I know that it’s an impossible promise. It’s a promise that has a million little exceptions, unspoken, except in that whisper in the back of my mind. I’ll take good care of you, I promise. I won’t let anything bad happen to you…or at least I’ll do my best. I’ll try. The whispers get louder: You can’t expect me to do the impossible; if you get cancer, I might not be able to save you. If I die, my relatives will take care of you…I’ll do my best. I’ll try. But that whisper isn’t what I say to my kitten, because it’s not very reassuring, and it’s not what I want to say to myself, either. I want to say, I’ll do it. I’ll make it all okay. Nothing bad will ever happen. I want to make the open-ended promise.

One of my favorite Christian theologians, Robert Farrar Capon, actually tells the story of the Passion and Resurrection through this lens. (Bear with me – I promise these two threads will come together in the end.) Rather than going for an explanation of Jesus’ death that depends on an idea like “paying the price” for sin – as if God the Father were some sort of super-Shylock in the sky, propitiated only by flesh, and too stupid to notice that it’s his own son who’s getting his blood spilt along the way – Capon offers an interpretation of the Resurrection as the ultimate assurance of Jesus’ promises. All human promises, Capon says, are bounded by death. They all come with the implicit or explicit limiter: till death do us part. But Jesus, Capon writes, Jesus can promise without that limiter because he is also God, a God who cannot die. And the Resurrection is the ultimate proof of that – the down payment that is supposed to let Christians believe that Jesus will keep all his other promises to them, up to and including raising them from the dead and making it all okay in the end.

It’s a lovely exposition, really. It neatly solves many of the problems liberal Christians have with the traditional interpretations of the Passion-Resurrection narrative, the kind of problems that can contribute to some Pagans’ departure from Christianity. But it’s ultimately unsatisfying to me for several reasons. One of the biggest reasons is that it leaves me unable to make sense of the open-ended promises I desperately want to give – and receive! – in my own life. I don’t have the power to raise myself from the dead; by Capon’s reasoning, I can’t make an open-ended promise to my kitten. If I were still Christian, maybe I’d try to make that promise by enlisting God as a sort of co-signer on the bond I’m putting down: I’ll take care of you….and when I can’t, God will step in for me! And he can do anything! Even if I can’t fix everything, you’ll end up in heaven with me, and it’ll be okay. (Yes, Virginia, there are cats in heaven.)

But I always end up back at the problem of evil, and the feeling that Christianity’s transcendent deity really isn’t a lot of help, especially in the kind of things I face in everyday life. There’s the problem that the deity is out there, somewhere, watching what happens – or worse, making it all happen, even the bad things, even the evil. It turns the whispered limitations on my promise into a kind of fending-off the evil eye, every promise accompanied with the silent prayer, please, deity, don’t send something I can’t handle. Don’t make or let something so bad happen that I have to…no, don’t think that. And if it does happen, then at least let me believe that I’ll meet my kitty in heaven, and I’ll apologize to her there, and she’ll forgive me…I hope.

Believing in an immanent deity changes the question entirely. I believe in an immanent deity, one who is present with me and in me, and my cats, and in all things. I believe that the Lord and Lady are with us even in the bad things. Instead of a down payment on a promise to make it all work out all right somehow in the end, the immanent deity of my Paganism gives me the belief that I will face whatever comes, and that I will face it with love. The Lord and Lady aren’t somewhere out there, having gone through death and come out the other side; they’re here, with me, in my living and dying, having done it before and ready to do it again. They haven’t magically escaped the struggle, the joys, the sorrows, the amazing depth and breadth of experience. They are life, in all its cycles. They are the love that makes the wheel keep turning, that brings new life into the world, that makes going forward possible.

I told someone recently that the only act of faith I have to make in Paganism is the belief that love makes life worth living. That the good times are worth it, worth all the fear and uncertainty and even pain we go through as living beings. I don’t have to believe that deity is going to make good on an open-ended promise in some other world. I have the promise, right here. I am the promise. Every time I find the love in my life that makes it worth living, I am experiencing the promise fulfilled. Every time I act in love, I am making it true, making it real, making it happen for others.

And when I make an open-ended promise with all the power of my spirit – which is a part of the same spirit that is the Lord and Lady – to another being who also has a spark of the same animating spirit, we understand each other. And I know that deity is the support for my promise, the same deity that is in me, and my kitten, and all things. Without fear, without limitations, I can make the open-ended promise, because what I am promising is very simple: I love you. And we will face whatever comes with love. Because we, both of us, are in deity, and deity in us, the same deity which is love. Love makes this life worth living, and you and I will face it together.