The Virtue of Courage

In the wake of #Charlottesville my Facebook feed has been overflowing with folks shocked and outraged by both the eruption of violence (although anyone surprised hasn’t been paying attention) and the fact that Nazis are once again an active public force in 2017.


Don’t think it was straight-up Nazis, or don’t know what went down? Here’s an on-the-ground look. Disturbing footage – you have been warned. 

I’m assuming that everyone reading this post is firmly in the “Nazis are Bad” camp, so I’m not going to belabor that point. I also don’t want to overtalk the POC and Jewish folks who need the floor right now.

However, I would like to discuss a tangential issue that keeps coming up: the guilt many are feeling because they’re not out on the front lines clashing with Nazis face-to-face, shedding blood for the cause.

Examples abound. “I wish I could protest, but I’m not able-bodied and wouldn’t be able to physically protect myself.” Or, “I would be out there, but I have two young children and can’t leave them without a parent if I’m arrested/injured/murdered.” Or, “I’m sorry, but I can’t get off of work to protest without losing my job!” It’s like they feel lacking in some way, like they’re not being courageous enough, and they’re apologizing for it.

Let’s unpack that.

What is courage, anyway? 

Courage is a virtue honored by every Pagan/polytheist path I can name. Even beyond that, though, we’re all the heroes of our own stories, and when the chips are down we picture ourselves as heroes. Or even superheroes. And if – when – we fall short of being the heroes we think we should be we beat ourselves up for it.

A poster from the Wonder Woman movie with the tagline

Hero: One person, or a member of a very small group, advancing relentlessly in the face of an overwhelming force, armed with the strength of their convictions and protected by the blessings of the Gods.

It wasn’t always like that, though. Ancient polytheists valued courage too. Thing is, they defined courage differently than we tend to, and that naturally manifested in a different view of heroes.

Here, this says it better than I can:

“Aristotle describes each virtue as a mean between extremes. Courage, for example, is a mean between cowardice, on the one hand, and rashness on the other.

“To be courageous is neither to shrink from your best action on account of fear, nor to foolishly go into danger when no good is likely to come from your doing so. This means that what is courageous for one person may actually be cowardly for another, and rash for a third, depending on the abilities and situations of the individuals. For a small seven-year-old to fight a large eight-year-old bully may be courageous, when it would be cowardly for an adult to act in the same manner, and rash for a four-year-old to do so.

“The key to determining the mean in the case of courage is deliberation about what good is threatened, what options one has to protect that good, and what the likely outcome will be using the different options. The course of action which does not sacrifice the good to fear, when one has a likelihood of protecting it by taking action, is the mean between the extremes of cowardice and rashness, and hence is the courageous one.”

Deborah Kest, Right Action – A Pagan Perspective, ADF

By those standards, Wonder Woman was courageous. As a superhero, her charge could conceivably make a real difference and she didn’t let fear stop her from making the attempt. Anyone attempting to emulate her would be considered rash, though, because they would have immediately died on the field without accomplishing anything. That doesn’t make everyone not Wonder Woman a failure, it just makes them human.

Ancient heroes were often blessed in some way, demigods or magical or whatever. They could do things beyond the human. That’s what made them heroes. Those of us without those blessings could never hope to measure up. Which is fine – we weren’t expected to.

In the ancient world, heroic deeds were inspirational benchmarks, not standards to be met.

Most of us are more prone to caution than recklessness, right? Were I somewhere with bullets flying I’d be way more likely to hunker in my bunker than charge screaming across a battlefield. Thinking of Wonder Woman might be the inspiration I needed to act instead of being paralyzed by fear.

On the other hand, if I were prone to being reckless? To not thinking things through? Those in the bunker would be inspirational, because that extreme would be the harder one for me to reach.

True courage lies between hunkering down and brazenly charging down the throat of a stronger foe. Hitting either extreme means we’re missing the mark. Courage is the sweet spot in the middle.

Nazis win if we quietly keep to our bunkers. They also win if all those protesting them die in the doing. No matter which extreme we’re talking about we wind up with no one kicking Nazi ass. And who wants that?

Courageous Responses to Nazis

Each of us has our own mean, our own courage sweet spot, based on our own individual circumstances. We simply have to find it.

It can be hard to find that sweet spot in the moment, though. If we’re hardwired to hide we’ll do that by default until we have time and space to process. If we’re more prone to lash out we’ll do that until we can rein it in. Our instinctive responses will happen before our brains can catch up.

Martial artists are familiar with this phenomenon. That’s why they practice the same moves over and over until they become instinctual. They’re deliberately rewiring their brains so that the training overrides their instincts.

We can do the same thing when it comes to courageous action. While most of us don’t want to live a life where crisis becomes routine, it does help to work out our logic trees in advance of a crisis. When it comes to Us vs. Nazis, we’re better off if we’ve at least grappled with the theory a little before we go about putting ourselves in harm’s way.

So let’s grapple with Aristotle.

1. What “good” is being threatened? What are we protecting?

Bam.

An image of people throwing the Hitler salute on one side and the Statue of Liberty on the other. The caption is

I can’t make it any plainer.

Nazis directly and violently threaten our communities, our friends and neighbors, our families, and ourselves. They’re fascist, racist, sexist, ableist, xenophobic, and homophobic. Many of the homegrown version are theocratic, too. I don’t know about you, but damn near everyone I know falls somewhere on their hit list. All of those targeted groups need to be protected.

On a greater level, the Nazi threat radiates beyond our communities onto the world stage, especially considering the power America wields. Imagine the might of the US military in the hands of Steve Bannon and his fanboys.

With courageous action against Nazis we can help protect every citizen on earth. That’s a pretty important thing to do!

2. What are our options? What can we do to protect what we value against Nazis?

There’s a whole wide range of responses we could make here, from deciding to “focus on happier things than politics” to “drawing and quartering every Nazi we find”. I don’t find either of these options to be ethical (and I hope my readers don’t either!), so I’m not going to discuss them. That said, what are some ethical things we can do?

  • Show up ready and willing to physically throw down with Nazis in public protests.
  • Serve as support for those physically protesting (supply bottled water and food, disperse information for planned protests, host planning meetings, offer crash space for those coming in from out of town, offer transportation, offer a safe retreat option if things go south, help protestors network, etc.).
  • Take classes in de-escalation tactics and first aid and/or help other people get trained.
  • Learn self-defense and/or teach it to others.
  • Help protesters and targeted groups with self-care or networking.
  • Step in when witnessing a one-on-one case of Nazis harassment, or call the cops if stepping in isn’t advisable for whatever reason.
  • Show up to speak out against Nazis in public forums, knowing violence is unlikely but possible.
  • Speak out against Nazis in face-to-face situations unlikely to lead to violence, such as with family and friends, knowing you’re risking those relationships.
  • Actively amplify the voices of those targeted by Nazis.
  • Cut ties to those who espouse Nazi views, letting them know why you’re cutting those ties.
  • Make your anti-Nazi stance knows to employers, both your own and those with whom you do business.
  • Make your anti-Nazi stance known to the employers of known Nazis and the companies with whom they do business (hotels, web servers, gyms, restaurants, etc).
  • Write letters to your government representatives linking your anti-Nazi stance to recent events.
  • Speak out against Nazis online, knowing that doxxing and other types of reprisals are possible.
  • Speak out against Nazis online anonymously.
  • Refuse to let Nazis rebrand themselves, or apologists to do it for them. Call out Nazis where you find them as Nazis, without using whatever more palatable term they come up with. (Notice how many times I specifically say “Nazi” in this post? There’s a reason for that.)
  • Write, sing, dance, paint, and put on theatrical productions that show how bad Nazis are – there’s certainly PLENTY to work with!
  • Recommend those creative works to others and support the creators.
  • Form a book club to collectively read and discuss pertinent works (The Diary of Anne Frank, The Hiding Place, and Number the Stars are all classic options).
  • Prepare hidden rooms in your home or on your property to hide victims of potential purges without posting that shit online! (An extreme, I know, but it is an option for any upcoming dystopian hellscape… ).
  • Get passports for you and yours in case you need to leave the country as a result of doing any of the above.
  • Leave the country to ensure the safety of yourself and your dependents while continuing to speak out against Nazis from the outside.

Please notice that these options aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s also not an exhaustive list.

3. What are the likely outcomes/consequences of taking these options? What are the likely rewards?  

There’s no hard and fast answer to this because every person’s circumstances are different. Publicly stating anti-Nazi views in cosmopolitan New York has a very different range of likely consequences and rewards than doing the same in, say, Middle-of-Nowhere Oregon!

Keep in mind that the key word of this whole step is “likely”. Sure, we could catch Ebola tomorrow, but it’s not a likely scenario and we shouldn’t plan our lives around the possibility. However, that means that part of being courageous is staying informed. How do we know if something’s likely or not if we refuse to see what’s really happening around us? Information is power, always, and in this case information helps us make the best choices possible.

By confining our options to “likely” we improve our chances of finding that happy spot between “letting fear guide our steps” and “being reckless with our health and safety”.

Consider too that Nazis are making the same decisions we are, with the same consequence/reward balance. Factoring that in helps us more accurately judge a given action’s effectiveness. Besides, discouraging Nazis from being Nazis is its own reward.

4. What is the best action I could take when protesting Nazis? Which option demonstrates true courage?  

Something I find fascinating about Aristotle’s breakdown is that, by his standards, our feelings about it don’t really matter. We can feel scared or cocky or anything in between, and that’s fine. Courage relies on what we do, not how we feel about that choice. That’s why the article quoted above is titled “Right Action” instead of “Right Feeling”.

A courageous act is one that is the best choice available for the greatest good possible from a given set of options, regardless of our fear or lack thereof. It’s less berserker and more chess master.

And that leaves room for all of us to courageously protest Nazis to the best of our abilities and circumstances, with the only shame being the refusal to try.

May we all try our best.

To the Resistance!

Pagan Men and Patriarchy

I haven’t written much here lately. To be honest, most of my attention has been wrapped up in discussions/debates about the UCSB shooting in other forums. Those discussions have been so draining I honestly haven’t had the energy for much else. And I didn’t have the heart. I had just finished a whole thing on consent in response to the Kenny Kline situation – what more could I say?

Well, according to my tired fingers, lots.

I don’t think it can be argued that we live in a patriarchal culture with a prominent layer of misogyny. The silver lining to the Rodger rampage is that the misogyny has been exposed for viewing in a way we can’t ignore. It seems like everyone I know has had at least one conversation about the #YesAllWomen hashtag, about rape culture, about male privilege. Misogyny might be “the way it is” now, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We can change it.  The question is how.

Again and again, as I’ve participated in these discussions, it’s occurred to me that Pagan men have a somewhat unique perspective when it comes to the fight against patriarchy and misogyny. In most cases, these men voluntarily stepped away from faiths dominated by a patriarchal Father-god to embrace faiths that include a Divine Feminine. That’s huge.

As a result of that step, they’ve learned whole new ways of relating to masculinity, femininity, strength, and power. Some of the most passionate feminists I know are Pagan men. They are pioneers, working with women to confront power-over structures and find alternatives. I’m not saying that Pagan men are the only men doing this kind of work, but they’re doing a lot of it!

These are exactly the kinds of lessons other men need to learn if we’re going to address the issues brought to light by recent events, and in my opinion, these lessons are going to be most effectively taught to men by other men. There’s definitely something to be said for effective role modeling!

I’ve been trying to find a way to talk about all of this and couldn’t find the words. Luckily, a bunch of Pagan men can, and have, and did. They stated this better than I ever could.

Here are some of my favorite posts Pagan men have made recently addressing these issues. May you be as encouraged by the reading as I was.

Dude, It’s You” by John Beckett on Patheos

“’Men Need to Decide if They Want to Stand Up and Be Allies’: Dude, It’s Not About You” by Anomalous Thracian on Thracian Exodus 

Thoughts About Being a Man” by Phil Brucato on Satyros Phil Brucato

Misogyny and Killing Sprees” by Adrian Moran on Looking for Wisdom, Ancient and Modern

Pagan Men Speak Out on Patriarchy and Misogyny” by Tim on Intersections and Circles

Syrian Martyrs and Wake Up Calls

Today on The Wild Hunt I learned about Yana, a Syrian Pagan tortured and killed for her faith.

For so long now we modern Pagans and polytheists have been somewhat sheltered. The move to revitalize the faiths our Ancestors followed before Christianity systematically destroyed them started in the First World. The more-secular-than-ever First World. There has been harassment and prejudice, and isolated instances of violence, but nothing systemic in the way of faith-based violence aimed against us.

But modern practitioners are no longer isolated in the First World. People all over are hearing the call, and many “lost” traditions are being found.

It is a cause for rejoicing. It is a cause of sorrow. Because while the movement is necessary for so many reasons, those hearing the call in places like Syria are not in the First World, and they have no protections.

Yana was publicly tortured, raped, and killed for her faith. She is one of the first of a new – and likely growing – wave of Pagan and polytheistic martyrs.

I worry that the location of Yana’s death – the Middle East – will make people in the US briefly acknowledge her passing and move on. Will allow people to tell themselves that “it couldn’t possibly happen here” without thinking it through.

It could happen here. Fundamentalists Christians hold a lot of power in the US, often they equate the worship of pre-Christian gods with Satanism, and they are not adverse to discrimination or even violence in pursuit of their viewpoints.

I admit to some bias here. I’ve seen anti-Pagan violence first hand, escalating from dead animals left in the mailbox and ending with the utter destruction of my group’s Covenstead in Louisiana. That’s hard to get past.

However, this viewpoint has also manifested in other ways against Americans, leading to everything from retaliation against serving Pagan soldiers and the destruction of their temple (here and here) to forbidding Pagan students from wearing symbols of their faith to school.

I think we are incredibly conscious of how much of a minority we really are. We just keep our heads down, trying to not make waves, preferring to simply live our lives and consider these blatant acts of discrimination and violence isolated events. We feel that being American entitles us to a life without fear, and for the most part we as a group have actively avoided anything that could threaten that view.

I was recently introduced to a monograph written by a Sgt. Major in the US Army about the need to consider Christian extremism here in the United States a genuine domestic terrorist threat that continues to grow unchecked. These are the people who bombed the Olympics in an anti-abortion protest – do you think they would be shy about attacking individuals who hold spiritual/religious beliefs they consider demonic and anathema? Putting our heads in the sand is no longer a viable option.

As the faith-based discrimination and violence grows along with our numbers, our protections are shrinking every day. In Kentucky it is illegal to not believe in one almighty God, and while the 2006 law is aimed at atheists it could easily be aimed at those of us who follow many gods instead of none. The Christian ethical code is being placed in front of courthouses in Florida and Oklahoma. Alabama has once again re-elected a judge who openly uses his Christian faith to make legal decisions on the bench, up to and including granting custody to an abusive father because he felt that was a better situation for a child than trusting a lesbian mother to parent. Do you think the “justice” would have been any different if the mother had been a straight Pagan? Absolutely not.

Yana died for her faith. We cannot dismiss this as happening “over there”, and above all we cannot be complacent. This is something we in the First World have to prepare for, for as long as there is a push within our society to turn the US into a theocracy like the one that killed Yana.

Politics in the US seem to be teetering on a knife’s edge. No matter which way it goes we have to be prepared. Should the Christian-based political groups gain control we can expect to see more school boards forbidding the wearing of pentacles, more judges ruling as if the US were a theocracy, and more of a struggle even within the government itself for rights and recognitions for Pagan and polytheists. Should the Progressives begin exerting more control in government, extremist groups who already consider us demonic and begin to feel disenfranchised could easily decide to target those of us who live publicly.

Yana is one of the first of a new wave of Pagan martyrs. However, I cannot help but feel that she will not be the last. I sincerely hope that what happened to her is taken to heart by everyone, even here, because her fate could be ours if we don’t wake up, connect the dots, and make our voices heard.