Tag Archives: hospitality

On Dialog, Interfaith and Otherwise

DialogThe online Pagan and Polytheist blogs have been discussing interfaith involvement and how and if we should speak for and about our various communities.  Amid the outcries of privilege, denials of the same, and various stories from Pagan and Polytheist alike of good and bad experiences while engaging in interfaith efforts, I think something was lost:

A way forward.

Ruadhán J. McElroy presented four standards for relations between Pagan and Polytheist communities.  These four standards are presented about two-thirds of the way down the post.  While I may not agree with everything therein–for example, I find the standards as written to be too demanding of one party without recognizing that sometimes concessions must be made by both–I do think that these standards can be made valuable for us in situations outside the wider Pagan community.  They’re especially so when we are called upon to represent the views of another.

In order to make these standards more generalizable, though, I think we need to consider how they could be reconsidered to include those outside our communities.

1. Extend Hospitality

I’ve heard it said that hospitality is perhaps the closest thing to a universal ideal that our various interrelated communities may share.  Hospitality isn’t simply being polite to others, though that’s certainly a good start, it also means that we provide them with what they need in that moment whether it be a willing ear, a strong-arm, or a loud voice.  Hospitality is the action of treating others as they wish to be treated.  This is greater than the Golden Rule; treating others as you wish to be treated.  The latter makes assumptions; the former requires that we engage with the other in order to provide for them.

McElroy’s first rule focused specifically on the actions that a Pagan should take when inviting a Polytheist to present a ritual or ceremony at a pan-Pagan event.  The crux of the standard, however, was a request that Pagans offer hospitality to Polytheists in their midst.  For my tastes, that’s too one-sided.  Hospitality, like friendship, is a two-way street.  One should both extend hospitality to the other, but also act in with the expectation that this hospitality will be extended to you in return.  In this way, the relationship becomes reciprocal; we learn about and from the other as they learn about and from us.

2. Treasure Difference

Things are not always what you expect.  Or, perhaps more importantly, the labels we use to describe each other and define our world are imperfect and far less generalizable that we think.  Underneath those labels lie a treasure trove of diversity and difference, quite often to a surprising degree.

My partner and her family are Catholic.  In America, at least, Catholics are largely considered to be fairly conservative, politically and socially speaking, and many of the Catholics operating on the national stage (e.g. the Conference of Catholic Bishops) fight the advancement of LGBTQ rights, access to contraceptives, and the availability of abortion services all in the name of traditional families and the specifics of church doctrine.  But, my partner is married to a solitary eclectic Polytheist and Witch and her family knows it.  My sister-in-law is married to another woman, and they’ve adopted a mixed racial young daughter.  I’ve sat in Mass with them and they all attended and supported my wedding outside the walls of the Church.

The point of view described by the Catholic political leadership in America does not, obviously, define the only way to be Catholic just as I don’t define the only way to be a polytheist.  Rather than expect others to conform to our expectations, we should, instead, seek to alter those expectations or–even better–work to avoid them entirely.

3. Avoid Assumptions

McElroy’s third standard was written as an absolute; that one party “shall make no attempt” to speak for another.  On the one hand, I agree.  We should avoid the assumption that we can adequately explain the point of view of another.  We cannot.  I can no more correctly describe the fulfillment that my partner finds in Mass than she can probably explain to others why I devote myself to my gods.

But, on the other hand, I also think that operating from a standard of absolutes leaves us unprepared for the inevitability that we’ll find ourselves in a situation that doesn’t quite line up with that expectation.  For example, I find myself being asked to compare and contrast my own point of view with that of another.  Especially in interfaith settings, when I’m asked to try to share with another the nuance within the Pagan community, to simply refrain from even attempting to do so would likely shut down the dialog.

Instead, when we are called upon to speak for another, we must not allow others to assume that we speak with authority.  In other words, it must be made crystal clear to others when you’re not speaking from your own experience.  Even better, we should do our best to connect those we’re working with to those who can best answer their questions in the moment, but if that’s not possible, be sure that you offer the opportunity to do so at a later date.

4. Trust Others

One of the things most appalling to me during the online conversations around Pagan interfaith involvement has been the situations in which one person denies the experience of the other.  Even if all parties were present at the same event, it’s naïve to expect that everyone experiences that event in the same way.  In reality, every experience is a blind-men-and-the-elephant situation; everyone takes away something different.

It is, therefore, imperative that we trust others or, at least, offer them the benefit of the doubt.  If the situation calls for it, trust and subsequently verify, but trust is key.  Even if someone’s experience contradicts our own or, maybe, especially so.  It’s probably nothing more than ego and arrogance to assume that our own perspective is correct while all others are flawed.

Trust is especially necessary in situations of harm.  It is all to easy to minimize or dismiss the harm dealt to another.  Worse is the tendency to blame the victim, claiming that no harm was intended, that the victim is overly sensitive, or that he or she was otherwise “asking for it.”  All of these responses represent a lack of trust for the other.

That said, trust can be misplaced and abused.  There’s no reason to let someone use our trust against us or to continue to extend that trust if the other has been proven a liar.  But, until such a time, we can very like avoid additional harm by offering to stand in solidarity with someone who has been harmed rather than dismissing that harm and, in so doing, dismissing them.

In the end, these are solid guidelines for more interactions than simple those involving different religious (or non-religious) points of view.  I’m going to have the opportunity to engage in an interfaith conversation with a Mormon on Tuesday when I join him on his podcast.  Considering that it’s likely that I may be asked about experiences and points of view of others within the community, I’ll be keeping these guidelines in mind.

I hope that they’re useful to you as well.

How I did and did not prepare for a storm

It has been nearly three weeks since Hurricane/Superstorm Sandy hit the east coast. Thank all the gods and spirits that I live in an area which was not heavily damaged. There are some areas (like parts of Long Island) which are still without power, and a LOT of people still trying to clean up and figure out what to do next. Before I get into a little exchange I had before the storm, let me encourage all of you to continue to help the victims if you can. Give cash and don’t worry so much about getting stuff, because while money may seem unfeeling, charities are better able to put that to use than the hodge podge of what people send which may or may not be of value.

Now, I spent the week leading up to the storm keeping my eyes on the weather and wondering what might happen here. I do admit to having an interest in preparedness for such disasters, even though in this case it was not as needed. The only utility which went out here was the cable. I managed without TV for a day, it was not that difficult. But oh, the storm. I was glad for the extra food I picked up and for knowing where candles and flashlights were located. Trees near my home were snapped or uprooted, large fans flying off buildings. My employer even closed for those two days. They NEVER close. I still feel thankful that they took the step because I imagine it kept a lot of people safer at home rather than trying to navigate the roads through that mess. And I did not have to worry about what I would eat should the power give out.

Amid my preparations, I asked on social media for suggestions of what I should pick up in anticipation of the situation becoming very dire. Being in the traditional foods movement, I come across people who hold some very different beliefs from me. One person suggested that I go out and buy a shotgun.

Say what now?

Never mind that I don’t have a lot of extra money these days, or could even likely get a gun that fast. Never mind that I do not know how to properly handle and shoot a gun. Never mind that I do live in suburbia and a relatively affluent area. This is New England. I know we have a reputation for all sorts of liberalism here, but there is also a certain old school conservatism. At least in the more urban areas. That’s not something we DO much around here.

It seemed like an overkill suggestion. If the storm did not come on that strong and cause such an extreme level of damage I would have felt like I had wasted money. (Again, never mind the fact that I don’t WANT a gun in my house, unless I start to hunt on a regular basis.) But if the storm was so bad and left the area so ravaged that people were reduced to some kind of apocalyptic scenario, I would probably have a lot more to worry about than someone MAYBE coming to my door with some kind of demand.

There are people out there who not only prepare for disaster on this level, but seem to be welcoming it, wanting it to come forth. On some deep level, I don’t understand that sort of wish. If the world were to unravel to that level, I’d rather be packing hospitality than heat.

Does this seem like a strange stance for a polytheist? Someone who actively honors Gods from cultures where war was a regular part of life? Although I feel hard-pressed to think of any sort of culture on earth which has been exempt from this. But if you look further into the culture and lore of these societies, you will often find a high value placed on the virtue of hospitality.

Blessed be the givers! A guest has come in,
where is he going to sit?
He’s in great haste, the one who by the hearth
is going to be tested out.

Fire is needful for someone who’s come in
and who’s chilled to the knee;
food and clothing are necessary for the man
who’s journeyed over the mountains.

Water is needful for someone who comes to a meal,
a towel and a warm welcome,
a disposition, if he can get it, for good words
and silence in return

-Havamal, translated by Carolyn Larrington

My two main traditions are Kemetic (Egyptian) and Heathen (Norse/Germanic). Both religions cam up from people living in harsh climates. One was a hot desert, the other a land dark and cold for half the year. Anyone who would have been traveling a far distance would have not had the easiest time on their journey. Settlements could be spread over miles and the only supplies would be the ones you carried. If something happened, like an injury or weather change, the traveler could die. Imagine the above stanzas being on the minds of a Scandinavian family who has heard a knock at their door during a snowy night after Midwinter. They open their door to find a man who has walked for days without seeing a single home, much less a full village. He is cold, frost handing from his beard, and his supplies are low. In that sort of environment, who would just go out for a stroll in those conditions and have nature beat down so hard on him? He might be a traveler, or yes, he might be a criminal. But it would not likely be in the family’s thinking to consider this person storming in to take over their settlement. I can imagine them getting before the fire, wrapped in a blanket, sharing some of their stew and home brewed ale to warm him. If he were somehow a criminal, I can’t imagine him wanting to rob or harm the people who had saved his skin.

Yes, my spiritual and physical ancestors knew bloodshed. They also put a high value on times of peace, and on their communities. They needed those other people around and knew that together they could accomplish much more than with everyone working and focusing on their own little worlds. Life was rough, and they cherished the times when it was not because all too soon, those moments are gone. As modern pagans and polytheists, we would be wise to focus more on these aspects of our traditions rather than pugilism.

With the climate going through major changes, storms like Sandy may well become more common. Who knows what kind of damage may come from them. Perhaps among our supplies stocked away for such storms, we should consider a good helping of compassion along with instruction in non-violent communication and conflict resolution.