Monthly Archives: August 2013

On Competing Freedoms

We’re activists.  What we do is right there in that label:  act.  But, I’ve found over the last few weeks that sometimes we need to reflect on the choices we’ve made, the causes we’ve stood for, and reassess where we stand today.

I also write at the Wild Garden blog on Patheos’s Pagan channel, and as a part of being an author on Patheos, we sometimes get the opportunity to review books hot off the presses.  I’ll be posting a full review of the book I’m reading now later this week, but I wanted to touch on something the author has made me think deeply about as I’ve worked through his words.

The author, Os Guinness, is often critical of limitations placed on one freedom in order to provide another.  Whether it is a limitation on our free-exercise of religion in favor of free speech or restrictions on our ability to assemble and associate when balanced against a real or perceived threat, Guinness has forced me to think critically not just about how we act and when but also why.

The recently decided case in New Mexico regarding a private photography business, owned an operated by Christians, that refused to photograph a same-sex couple’s commitment ceremony in 2006 has me reflecting on the nature of competing freedoms.  In that case, it was decided (appropriately, in my opinion) that the photography business, which refused service to the same-sex couple because of their sexual orientation, had violated the law and was forced to pay a fine.  Further it was made clear that they, and other businesses run by those with similar points of view, can no longer refuse service to others based on sexual orientation.

Even Guinness (jumping back to the book) recognizes that the free-exercise of one’s faith stops when that exercise infringes on others.  In his terms, “[Freedom of thought, consciousness, religion, and belief] is absolute at the point of belief but qualified at the point of behavior, because behavior touches other people and other things” (p. 70).

In our American experience, we’ve seen the religion used to justify slavery, the plans of Almighty God used to defend laws prohibiting interracial marriage, and more recently that religious freedom enshrines the right of some to deny the rights of others, as in the New Mexico case described above, but also in others like an anti-bullying law in Louisiana, for example.

I have sympathy for these views.  I don’t agree with them, but I understand the desire to try to struggle against uncomfortable change.  Especially when those changes touch us at our very core, as our religions regularly do.  That said, we have seen great changes, even within Christianity, with respect to GLBT rights.  The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for example, elected their first openly gay bishop this past June.  Granted, in so doing, members of the church opposing this act split to form the North American Lutheran Church, but they were free to do so.

I suspect that in a few decades the cultures wars over GLBT rights will seem as distant as the fight for interracial marriage in the 60’s seems to us now.  Undoubtedly, we’ll be fighting a different battle in the decades hence and I’m certain that this or that group will try to use their religious identity, and their freedom to exercise that religion, to influence the decision one way or another.

As activists, we act.  But, we must do so compassionately and with the understanding that our successes necessitate others’ failures.  It behooves us to understand that loss and to be prepared to suffer those loses ourselves (e.g. the recent overturning of section 4 of the voting rights act by the Supreme Court).  But, in the words of Theodore Parker, a 19th century Unitarian minister:

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. […] But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.


On a different topic, I’m pleased to follow-up on my earlier article regarding bees.  The Environmental Protection Agency has taken steps — exceptionally small though they may be — to try to combat the use of pesticides containing neonicotinoids.

Unfortunately, all they’ve done is to develop new warning labels regarding the use of these chemicals, but activists, like Friends of the Earth, have taken this opportunity to send letters containing over 175,000 signatures to stores like Lowe’s,Home Depot, and Target urging them to cease the sale of such products.

Further, the state of Oregon, has temporarily banned the use of some of these chemicals as they investigate the cause of a die-off of over 50,000 bees.  It’s a shame that this ban is only temporary, but still the investigation is being done and, with luck, things will go our way.

Energy Exodus

UntitledOver Labor Day weekend I’ll be joining thousands of people on a march from Fall River, Massachusetts to Hyannis, Massachusetts in an epic march to end reliance on fossil fuels. Called the Energy Exodus the march promises to be a “lunch counter moment” for the new century. This 70 mile walk is being planned by youth activists from around New England to bring the plight of our ailing planet to the forefront.

This march is part of a larger movement to end reliance on fossil fuels. Two campaigns have commenced around the nation. Fearless Summer has been implementing protests, sit ins, hikes, and other small scale events to educate the public about the destruction fossil fuels require to power our homes. Summer Heat is also a number of large scale events to bring media attention to actions across the nation. Energy Exodus is one of Summer Heat’s large scale actions. The two groups are working cooperatively.

Around the nation churches of different denominations have begun to divest from the fossil fuel infrastructure. Leading the way is the United Church of Christ whose leadership decided to divest. Individual churches have also made divestment promises such as the South Church of Portsmouth (NH). With the call for divestment from President Obama promises further divestment actions. (If you need infomation on divestment check out that link).

1013016_635895346423199_467862768_n I am calling out to the readers of Pagan Activist to join me on the Energy Exodus. Pagans Against Climate Change* can march together spreading the love in our hearts for Mother Earth, creating spells, and doing whatever it is your personal worship compels you to do as a Pagan in healing ritual for Mother throughout the march and a large ritual at the end in Hyannis.

Fear keeps many I talk to about this event from joining. Some fear they will be arrested on sight. Others fear they will not be able to march the whole 70 miles. I too had those fears until I talked with the organizers. There are calls for civil disobedience but you make the choice to be arrested. There will be plenty of opportunities to step aside and let those prepared for arrest to be so. If you do not think you can walk 70 miles (I believe it’ll be about 10 miles a day with stops at night to eat and sleep) join the march along its route and walk as far as you can. If you live along the route, offer up your yard for tents, offer to cook meals along the way, or other methods of support. It’s a long walk for those of us doing it (and I fear I won’t be able to but I’m saying “to hell with the fear, I’m doing it anyway!”) and we will need lots of support. And from a personal perspective, I don’t want to be the only Pagan. I would like the spiritual support of my fellow Earth worshipers and the physical and mental support of those whom I circle with.

Another comment I hear is “oh, well that’s on Labor Day weekend.” Yes, it’s the last weekend of the summer which is why the organizers planned the event over the long weekend. It has been designed to bring as many people together as possible. From my perspective, however, I can think of no better way to celebrate Lughnasadh than to be part of the global conversation against the destruction of Mother Earth. So many rituals and events, small and large, can be organized around this holy day on a holy march.

So much of what Dash, Shauna, Soli, Debra, and I talk about is encapsulated in this event. Join me as I put my Pagan practices into action.

*I just came up with that. What are your suggestions?

The NSA and George Orwell

On Thursday, July 18, a rally was held in Hartford, CT to voice our opposition to the wanton spying taking place by the NSA. The crowd was relatively small, perhaps 40 or 50 people, but the rally was followed by a march to the courthouse and back. Along the way we shared pamphlet information with people walking in the city, waiting at bus stops and folks at corners who were paused waiting for crossing lights to change. I was happily amazed that so many of the people to whom we handed our pamphlets were actually taking the time to read them, then and there! How many times have been handed a flier or other written communication only to toss it away as something not relevant at that particular moment?

What follows is a statement I shared at the rally. My first intention was to highlight how frightening it can be for many people to speak out due to fear of being identified as “a person of interest.” My second intention was to publically declare my refusal to be intimidated by such a fear. The reality is that safety, like strength, is often bolstered by growing numbers in community. Here’s hoping we will all find the strength to overcome fear and continue to speak, act and educate on behalf of the things we believe in.

Good afternoon. My name is Debra Cohen. I represent activists and would-be activists who must confront the very real fear that our phone conversations, emails and social media posts are now fair game for the government to collect, file and potentially use against us.

My personal activism started a relatively short time ago with Occupy Hartford. When I first became active and participated in marches against Bank of America and the biotech industry, I gave no thought to the danger in which I might be placing myself, only that I was taking advantage of my rights to protest and free speech. Recently, I have collaborated with Shannon Watson and Rebecca Burton, two dedicated and visionary women, to create Activate CT, an activist group which encourages not only the sharing of information on a wide variety of political concerns, but also serves as a call to action to everyone who sees wrong and recognizes a responsibility to put it right.

That call to action is made difficult when people are afraid to take a stand, make a public statement, join an action or even talk with people known to be activists for fear that their names will suddenly become part of list of people to be watched. They ask: What constitutes suspicious behavior? How will the gathered information be used against us? What is the government doing that is so egregious that our communication about and actions for change constitute such paranoia on the part of those in power? We have heard people say that they are hesitant to get involved because they are afraid of retaliation, loss of their job, the ruin of their reputation or, at the very least, the hacking of their computer. This is unacceptable and the NSA must hear a clear and definitive statement from Americans across the country that we will not tolerate indiscriminate spying, nor will we stop the work we are doing on so many fronts, despite that threat.

Are you working for food safety, for an end to wars, for economic justice, for education reform? Are you working for environmental protections? Are you working to eliminate the enormous influence over our government held by big banks and corporations? Do you use your phone or computer to speak with anyone else who can answer yes to one or more of these questions? If so, the government now considers you fair game…say goodbye to your privacy and hello to the possibility of having your life disrupted.

There are two possible results of the NSA spying debacle. The first is that enough fear will be instilled in current and would-be activists as to curtail our commitment to investigate the issues that are most important to us. We will sit by and allow our environment to be wasted, corporations to take unfettered control of our economy and trade and all of this will happen while wars continue to destroy whatever hope may have existed for a peaceful planet. This will happen because George Orwell got it right in 1984.

The second possibility is that we will become so energized by this outrageous attack, so motivated to stand up and say NO!, that it will be impossible to silence us. Rather than the government secretly skulking in the shadows in an attempt to catch us at something they think we might do in some un-named place at some un-named time, we will work past fear to stand openly, in large numbers to state publicly and loudly… NOT A CHANCE! CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW? I plan to make the second possibility my reality and see to it that Mr. Orwell’s vision remains a work of fiction.