Opening the Sacred Enclosure

Like millions of others, I followed the events in Charlottesville a couple of weeks ago with outrage and horror. Amidst all the images of violence and hate, there was one frequently shown photograph of flags and banners held by the hatemongers which produced in me an extra sense of anger.

It included a banner with the image of a rune: Othala.

As a Heathen who works with runes, it is of course frustrating and infuriating to see a symbol which carries no implicit racist or supremacist meaning adopted by groups promoting such philosophies. Like all the runes of the Elder Futhark, of which it is a part,  Othala is rich with varied meanings and significances. Broadly speaking it encompasses such concepts as homeland, ancestry, tradition — that which grounds you, supports you, strengthens you — your spiritual core. It is a rune of spiritual and emotional strength and resilience, not a rune of fear and bigotry.  The appearance of the rune itself suggests an enclosure, and Diana Paxson develops this idea in her book, Taking Up the Runes:

The symbol of the sacred enclosure, whether spiritual or psychic, can be very useful. Whether or not one owns property, one can claim a sacred space in vision that will be an inalienable refuge. This rune relates to the human need both for personal space and for a community to which to belong.

Whatever its varied meanings, to interpret this rune in a racist, “blood and soil” sense is utterly unjustified. And after high profile events like the ones in Charlottesville the cry goes up in the Heathen community to “Take back our symbols!” — to wrest these symbols away from the racists and supremacists who pervert them so that the symbols can continue to be used in our own spirituality without misunderstanding.

While I agree completely with the desire to reclaim Othala and other symbols from groups that would misuse them in hideous ways, the response can’t end there. Once we reclaim them how do we use them? Do we simply proceed as before, or do we perhaps find in the timeless meanings of these symbols new ways to directly counteract their uses by the forces of hate?

With Othala, maybe we can look again at the “sacred enclosure.” It is not an enclosure for a given race or culture to shut themselves in due to fear and bigotry. Rather it is an enclosure open in hospitality to all who wish to live in harmony, and in particular those who face persecution and oppression. This is the “community to which to belong.” The forces of fear and bigotry aren’t on the inside of the enclosure — they are on the outside. But as the cause of justice is increasingly embraced the enclosure can always be made wider. Thus Othala is changed from a tool for hate to a symbolic weapon against it.

This is the challenge for Heathenry and indeed for all of us — to not just say, “This is who we are not,” but to say as strongly and defiantly as possible, “This is who we are.”



Opening the Sacred Enclosure

Hospitality, Sanctuary, and Decriminalizing Existence

The concept of hospitality is presumably as old as society itself. Whenever strangers entered a community, a decision had to be made. Do we reject them? Do we send them away? Or do we welcome them and share our resources with them? And if they decide they want to stay, do we force them to leave, or do we accept them and integrate them into the community? And how does such integration and inclusion happen?

Recently, a seminar on the topic of immigration was held in downtown Asheville. Sponsored by Indivisible Asheville, it featured speakers from Project South, a leadership development and activist organization based in Atlanta; and the Asheville group Compañeros Inmigrantes de las Montañas en Accion, or CIMA. As Alan Ramirez of CIMA reported on his group’s work in education and advocacy in the local Latino community he talked about one of CIMA’s aims being “decriminalizing our existence.” He spoke of immigrants as being rendered “invisible” to the larger community, and of not only rules but language being used against them. He outlined the systemic racism involved in being presumed to be a criminal because of the color of your skin, and of constantly being asked for your ID, as if you have to justify your presence in a community where you might have lived for years, if not decades.

In opposition to this, Ramirez offered the concept of “sanctuary.” In contemporary discussions about immigration, this term is generally used in one of two ways: “sanctuary cities,” where elected officials and local law enforcement declare they won’t be coerced into unnecessarily helping federal officials detain and deport local residents; and “sanctuary congregations” — religious groups who offer to take in those threatened with deportation to give them time to make their case as to why they should be allowed to stay. But Ramirez used the term more broadly — an outlook, a mindset of resistance where we look out for our neighbors and friends, and stand with those marginalized in any way against individuals or forces who would harass or persecute them.

In this sense, sanctuary might be seen as the next step after hospitality. It is the journey from acceptance to inclusiveness. It is the difference between, “you are welcome to be here with us” and “you are one of us.” And if you are one of us we cannot see your existence as being criminal (or “illegal”). Yes, differences and conflicts may arise. But we will work through those differences as neighbors in a community, and we will defend your right to be here and your right to equal treatment. Because by doing so, we are protecting those rights for all of us.


Hospitality, Sanctuary, and Decriminalizing Existence

Reaping the Whirlwind

Recently on Twitter, Stuart Stevens posted the following: “From Boy Scouts to law enforcement, POTUS is urging American institutions to embrace anger and & give up on trying to uphold higher standards.”

For the record, Stuart Stevens is a Republican. And not just any Republican: he’s a top strategist who has worked on the presidential campaigns of, among others, Bob Dole, George W. Bush, and Mitt Romney. He is someone with whom I disagree politically a lot more often than I agree. And yet there are some issues which are larger than partisan politics.

Late July and early August mark the season of Lammastide. It is the time of first harvest, when the wheat is being brought in, and we begin to celebrate the bounty from the seeds that we planted earlier in the year. We rejoice in the generosity of Earth, which keeps us alive. But not all seeds are wholesome. And some harvests can be poisonous.

Over the past six months or so, seeds have been planted in this country which could produce a highly poisonous crop: a society where hospitality is seen as weakness, and fear and bigotry are seen as strengths. An example of these bitter seeds is alluded to by Stevens in his post: the speech that Donald Trump recently gave to a group of law enforcement officials, the transcript of which can be found here.  In this address, Trump went far beyond simply praising law enforcement for their courage, and offering them support. He painted a picture of a society in the grip of chaos and anarchy, threatened on all sides by immigrants, “thugs,” and “radical Islamic terrorism.” He praised his director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for looking “very nasty” and “very mean.” He repeatedly referred to the criminal gang MS-13 as a reason for his crackdown on undocumented immigrants, even though the great majority of such immigrants are leading peaceful and productive lives in our communities. He portrayed the court system as being totally on the side of criminals. He implicitly endorsed police brutality against those arrested for crimes. And throughout the speech he left no doubt as to the general nature of those who in his view pose such dangers: they are the “others” — racial and religious minorities. In the society that Donald Trump portrayed, generosity and tolerance lead only to violence and lawlessness.

At Lammastide we rejoice in bounty and we celebrate generosity — the generosity of the Earth towards us and our generosity towards each other. It is the harvest of  hospitality, compassion. justice, and goodwill. But when seeds of fear, hatred and intolerance are planted,  the crop produced is a thick morass of brutality, resentment, and violence. We should speak out loudly against the planting of such seeds — and utterly avoid the reaping of such crops.

Reaping the Whirlwind