Posts Tagged ‘leadership’

Thinking on Chris Hedges, Revolution, and Climate Change

March 3, 2019 9 comments

I was watching a lecture by Chris Hedges entitled Corporate Totalitarianism: The End Game. In it, Hedges engages with the subject with both frankness and humor, both of which I appreciate. Hedges has, for a long time, spoken quite well on the problem facing us. What he, and most any social or political critic has been awfully short on, is how to address the predicaments we are in.

He rightly points out that the prison systems rely on slave labor to operate and that, were prisoners retaining even a minimum wage salary, it and the industries this work supports would collapse. He rightly points out that our democracy doesn’t function, which by this point is almost “No shit?” passe. He could have cut a huge chunk of his lecture out by just saying “There is no top-down approach coming because the top is going to watch the bottom burn and drown.” It is the same damned song regardless of political party that has been pursued for the entire length of time that I have been alive. This is a point I am grateful that Hedges hammers on throughout his lecture and in the Q&A. The politicians are not coming to save us.

Something a lot of folks watching this lecture are probably going to miss is a very key point I felt was buried in the lecture among all the socio-political commentary. It is something I hammer on a lot in my writing and that folks from the Post-Carbor Institute, JMG, and others have been hitting on the head for some time. Namely, that the oil and natural gas markets are operating on what amounts to gambling to keep money in the system and keep production somewhat commensurate with needed supply. Except the field outputs are down. The Bakkan Oil Shale is being run by large companies with lots of land that they lease to small, risk-taking companies whose primary income is venture capital. The main way most of the large fossil fuel companies here stay afloat has nothing to do with well productivity, but land leasing. When that glut runs out the ability to generate income will also dry up, not because the gas will all be gone, but because the cost to extract and produce it in useable forms will eclipse the revenue from selling it.

In other words, the EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested) is going to go down and bring a good chunk of the energy market with it. The whole system is facing this all at once alongside climate change. We would be lucky, and I use that term loosely, if the whole damned facade of the energy industry fell away before that 12 year mark for 1.5F increase in global temperature hits, because the damned near complete demand destruction we saw in 2008 when oil hit almost $150 a barrel of crude was one of the most effective acts in reducing greenhouse gas emissions that we made in this country. It was hell for any of us who were low-income, as I was fired in 2007 not long before the financial chickens of the crash came home to roost. When a gallon of gas hit $4 and was threatening to hit $5 the ripple effect was enormous. So trust me when I say such a thing will not be a picnic nor even desireable for the average person, but it may be something that could save us from our own consumption of fossil fuels.

Hedges’ point in the lecture about going to Scranton, PA where the city is insolvent is happening in every State and damned near every city I can think of in my own State. Hell, the DIA in Detroit almost sold off its collection to pay debts. His point that capitalism eats itself and its own until collapse is what we are in the middle of right now. The economic system is simply unsustainable. I appreciate he hooks this into his point in the lecture where he talks about the money system, especially in regards to how personal and student debt cannot keep churning out new debtors if the means to pay off interest and principle are subject to these interruptions. As he says, 1/3 of the employed people of America make less than $12 an hour and have no health insurance provided by employers. Keep in mind that Obamacare takes another chunk out of that, either directly through one of the health care plans, or with the year end penalty for not choosing a provider. There is a growing swathe of Americans who bought into the lie that a college education would help us become solid middle-class members. Instead, it has indebted us, some of us through our whole lives. Those, like myself, who went into public service with the promise that if we gave 10 years of our lives that our debt would be forgiven are now coming out the other side, having served that obligation, and our debt forgiveness being rejected. With the costs of living tracking to increase with energy costs there’s not going to be a way to pay off the debt, let alone stave it off much longer.

If we are to make any progress anywhere it is in getting that point across. It doesn’t matter if you are a conservative, liberal, leftist, rightist, any of it. The economic system is unsustainable. The energy infrastructure that allows for the modern American way of life is unsustainable. If you don’t get that then there is no conversation to be had. Without energy being available, on which money depends so it can work, the whole house of cards collapses. If folks disagree with basic reality, that we cannot expect infinite growth on a finite planet, then there is no more conversation to be had. The person can be on the same exact part of the political spectrum that I am on and if they deny the basic nature of where we are then speaking with them is completely without merit.

If, as I feel, Hedges is speaking well and pointing out fundamental problems in regards to our political and economic systems why do I feel such a disconnect from him? For the same reason I imagine most folks do. Though he has covered war and conflict as a journalist and lived alongside folks in those horrible situations I get the distinct feeling that his life, given he was educated at Harvard and has taught in prestigious universities, is a world apart from my own.

Hedges is right in saying that we were conned by Bill Clinton and his pushing through NAFTA, stating it would make us countless of middle-class jobs. I can look out into the neighborhoods where the auto industry was king and clearly see this lie on display, as can anyone who has seen similar scenes in coal and natural gas country. He is right to talk about the collapse of societies and bring his experience of what that looks like into this lecture. He got to watch Yugoslavia’s disintegration up close from the sounds of it. He’s right that we could well be facing the same damn thing here for the same kinds of reasons.

Hedges speaks of democracy as though we could possibly save it at this stage in America. His proposal to save America from totalitarianism is “sustained mass acts of political disobedience”. To me this is completely and hopelessly naive. He uses Standing Rock as an example, and I think it is a poor one in the way he uses it. Standing Rock was a powerful example of civil, sustained disobedience because, at its core, there was and continues to be a series of communities, the Standing Rock Reservation peoples, with real spiritual and physical stakes in the care of Standing Rock and in opposing the Keystone XL Pipeline. So long as there is abstraction there is inaction, and for far too many people Standing Rock is and remains abstract. Mni Wiconi for too many people is a slogan, something to put on their Facebook wall and to think about every now and again. If Mni Wiconi is merely words then its impact and its meaning is truly missing. The peoples of Standing Rock, and those who joined them long-term in their work, had real skin in the game and something to lose: sacred lands and sacred water their people were tied to in sacred right relationship.

I was at Occupy Wall Street protests near me not long after OWS started to come together across the nation. I attended rallies and I found them complete and utter wastes of time. Hedges states we need to not be restrained by the tyranny of the practical. I got to see what that looked like with OWS rallies local to me. The decision making process, if ever it could be called such a thing, was long, drawn out, tedious, needlessly time consuming and without any sense of order, duty, or use to the communities in which they were arranged. They actively repelled anyone older than maybe folks in their mid-30s. Even for those in their age group, many OWS folks pushed us out because we could see nothing was going to get done. There was no interest in folks with years of experience in organizing, non-profit work, none of it. The OWS in my area died about as quickly as it appeared.

Not a few moments after this statement regarding the tyranny of the practical Hedges calls for revolution, for ‘the overthrow of the corporate state’. Without practicalities addressed this will never happen, not for all the faith one has. Countless Marxists and Communists since Marx wrote Das Capital have been eagerly awaiting the Worker’s Revolution. So many millenarian, apocalyptic, and radical sects who have had faith in and waited for the coming of saviors and the awakening of ‘the people’ have been waiting for the exact same thing. Whether secular or religious, both groups who have had abiding faith in their salvific movements have ignored that revolutions that seek to succeed must pay attention to the practicalities of things so that not only is the revolution succesful, but that any of its gain can stick.

For anyone that has studied the abdication of the Tzar and the rise of the Bolsheviks, to call that anything like a nonviolent movement is foolish at best and obfuscating history at worst. It also ignores that deep, ravaging pain that the Bolsheviks and later Communist regimes would exact on those people they would be in charge of or conquer. These are not revolutions to look at as examples. Rather, I would see such be avoided.

The Founding Fathers understood that the practical and idealistic had to walk hand-in-hand. They understood the notion very well, organizing on levels that I think anyone thinking of such revolutions would do well to pay attention to. They did not merely speak pretty words. Their necks were, on signing the Declaration of Independence, very-much on the line. Hedges’ assertion that we can have a revolution with non-violence, especially in this country where corporate interests are entrenched with violence, where the State stands as it had with the Pinkerton agency in coal’s heyday times with TransCanada and Enbridge Energy today, and come through to victory, is foolish at best and at worst dangerous for his would-be revolutionaries.

The corporate people who hosed down the Standing Rock protesters in sub-zero temperature were committing violence. That pipeline is still getting its building permits worked on. The company, TransCanada, has not stopped to see that its aims are realized. Non-violent protest stalled the progress of the pipeline, but has it stopped it? No. For all the attention the pipeline garnered, all the protest, needed as it was, for all the symbol it was and how good a victory it felt when it was temporarily stopped, folks need to get that it, and countless B/l/a/c/k S/n/a/k/e/s like it are not done. They are not stopped -yet. These B/l/a/c/k S/n/a/k/e/s still need killing. Thankfully, the Standing Rock people of the Dakotas, the Anishinaabek Line 5 Protesters here in Michigan, and so many others are standing up again and again with folks in and across their communities. Not everyone standing up, proverbially here, will be doing so before a pipeline; not everyone can. There are plenty for folks to do who are unable to be a physical presence, and the best place where people can go to and learn how best they can contribute is to talk to those who live on the land and waters being threatened.

Another source of disconnect I feel with Hedges is that he is still living a very comfortable upper middle class life. Unlike many peak oil folks there is nothing I can point to that comes through in the lectures I have seen or interviews he has given that give me an impression of him like those I have seen of Richard Heinburg, James Kunstler, or JMG who live their values through living as sustainably as possible on the land each lives. He is not showing the future, showing where he has put up solar panels, started community gardens, or grown his own food. For all that he speaks well, he has not shown, even in general, how he seeks to enable future generations to live well in a post-petroleum climate change future. It is one thing to approach a crowd with a good speech. It is another to approach a crowd with a vision of the future where a good life is possible, even if it is not the life we have been sold by countless companies and TV shows. We need more than speeches. We need living leaders whose lives show us how we may live better on and with the planet and one another.

Now is time to do everything we can to live well with our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir. Now is the time to organize our communities; the politicians will not save us, and the States are not going to make the coming crises easier to face. Now is the time to learn the skills we can, to pass on what we know, to do everything in our power so the next generation can face what is coming with every possible advantage on their side. We must do the work before us however we can do it. It is not enough to merely write and speak on what we need to do. Each of us concerned with our Holy Powers, our communities, and the Earth we live on will, wherever possible whenever possible, be living examples.


A Polytheist Reflection and Response to Convenience, Consumption, and Peak Oil Part 7

March 24, 2016 2 comments

The game of our time is no longer chess. Nor is it truly blackjack or craps.

The game of our time is tafl.  This is a game few people are familiar with, so I will give a basic explanation.  As I am most familiar with hnefatafl, it is the example I will be using going forward.

Tafl is a game of strategy and skill.  There are two sides: attackers and defenders.  The ratio of attacker is 2 to every 1 defender, and a chief that starts in the center of the board.  Unlike chess, all the pieces move in straight lines, and can move wherever they please in these lines.  Both sides capture by wedging an opposing piece between two pieces of the same side or one piece pinning another against a side of the board, or against the center of the board which is where the chief starts.  The chief may also capture.


An example of a hnefatafl board from Wikimedia Commons.

The object of the game for attackers is to capture the chief.  The object of the game for the defenders is for the chief to escape by getting to one of the four corners.

I see this as the game of our time economically, politically, and environmentally, and understand it as a drastic shift away from the chess understanding a lot of folks apply to how U.S. citizens exist within this country.  The simple reason is that the parameters of the game we all exist within have changed.  It may have changed for many of us a long, long time ago, or you may have been playing hnefatafl from birth.  Because of the ever-increasing poverty line, a majority of people in the United States are understanding this shift in very direct ways.  Very few of us actually ever were more than a pawn in our political or economic system.  Now, we face a future where we must escape the attackers in our midst.  Some of us have or are contemplating taking the opposite approach: taking the others’ chiefs.

The point of hnefatafl is survival rather than complete victory.  Its mindset is wholly different than that of chess.  You are not seeking to crush an opponent, or if you are, you may entirely miss opportunities to help/stop the chief escaping, or become entrapped by your opponent.  No piece once reaching the end of the board can become another, and there are no special moves.  In this way, the potential of the chief is no better or worse than that of the other defenders, save that they are the leader that the defenders are trying to evacuate.  In an interesting twist, the attackers have no leader.  They are all focused on the destruction of the chief.

Unlike chess, in order for the chief to be secure, he must move, attack, and defend himself.  Unlike in chess, which sends other pieces to die so that the king is secured and the opponent’s king captured, the chief in hnefatafl must place themselves in the same danger their fellow defenders face.  The chief in hnefatafl cannot rely on the bishops to leverage diagonal moves, the knights their L-shapes and jumping, nor the rooks their unfettered straight movements, nor the queen her omni-directional moves.  The chief in hnefatafl moves in exactly the same manner and with the same abilities as their fellows.

Similarly, we are entering a period where standing amongst one’s people and understanding ourselves not as inherently special, but as people belonging to a group with leaders rather than despots are requirements for thriving.  Peak oil and climate change render chess’ model of allocation of political/military power to rooks and knights, religious authority to bishops, despotic divine right powers to the king and queen, and all of them using the poor, the pawns as front-line soldiers, moot.  This old way of doing things is a use of time and resources we cannot afford to waste.  We may never be without kings or chiefs, but the old way of doing things that enabled chess to dominate the landscape of political thought is passing on.

The game has changed, and it is time to play.


Links for A Polytheist Reflection and Response to Convenience, Consumption, and Peak Oil

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7

A Response to Critiques

Leadership and Priesthood Part 2: Skillsets

February 18, 2014 2 comments

I was recently reading a piece on io9 “The Real Reason Why Techies Are the New Yuppies”, and it occurred to me as I was reading in the comments that there is a parallel here. Not being alive any earlier than the 1980s, and not officially part of Paganism/polytheism until 2004, I cannot speak on what Paganism or polytheism was like. I am wholly a product of the early 2000s in regards to my religious development as a polytheist. The parallel that struck me was actually in the comments section in reference to a person having computer use and literacy as a skillset. They had a far easier time navigating things like the Obamacare website, versus a person who was not as computer literate. The person with the skillset took about 5 minutes to find the relevant information, whereas his housekeeper was sobbing after 3 hours of trying to get the damned thing to work. This, to me, brought something to light.

A lot of spiritual specialists are working with wholly different skillsets oriented towards different things than most people. We are often wired different for our jobs by the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits we serve. Many of our initiations serve in this capacity to alter our spiritual form, functions, etc. to the task at hand. For some this makes a certain skillset far easier, and for others, nothing changes aside from getting the go-ahead from the Holy Powers in question to do a thing or perform a service. Even if we are not altered by the Holy Powers for the task at hand, our skillsets develop in differing ways, and so, it may appear that we’re really awesome all around from the outside, when really we might be hyper-specializing in a few areas.

So for some of us, to use an example, entering trance or meditative states is a whole hell of a lot easier than someone else. This can (and often is) simply a matter of “I have had x number of years doing/working on this”. Other times it is a matter of “I am, for whatever reason, wired to have these experiences easier” and others “I was rewired to have these experiences easier”. There’s tons of reasons for this, but at the end of the day it makes little difference in terms of my worth as a person, religious, spiritual, or otherwise. Spiritual practice is, like a great many other arts and disciplines, something that has to be worked at to develop the capacity to do it, and do it well. The ability to use a computer well, likewise, does not make me better as a human being compared to a person who does not. It merely means that my skillsets are in areas that are immediately useful to the task at hand. I cannot do carpentry, plumbing, electrical work, or other forms of trade skills (though I would like to learn, even on an amateur level) but that does not make me less of a person. I am absolutely at a loss with cars; if it sounds weird, I trust someone who is better experienced with my car. So while I am a piss-poor mechanic I am not a piss-poor human. A mechanic expecting me to be on hir level in regards to car repair would be like me expecting a person wholly new to polytheism to be on my level in regards to shamanism or priest work. It’s not realistic, and not what I expect of others any more than my mechanic expects me to have his working knowledge of my car.

Much like my mechanic expects me to do baseline maintenance though, I think that it is wholly fine for spiritual specialists to have expectations of the people who come to us for help. Some of the first questions I ask anyone who comes to me are: “Do you have an altar/shrine to your Dead?” “What Gods, Goddesses, Ancestors, and/or spirits do you worship and/or have relationships with?” and “Do you do daily devotional work?” and “Do you do daily personal work like grounding, centering, cleansing, shielding, etc.?” For me, these questions are no different than my mechanic asking me “What is the make and model of the car?”, “When was the oil changed?”, “What have the sounds/experiences been in driving the car?”, and similar questions. He’s not being a jerk by asking me these baseline questions, he is being thorough. Because his skillset is in a different place than mine, he has to ask the basic questions before getting to the meat of what might be wrong with my car. I am being very general, but even so, some of these questions come up even when the problem is something specific, i.e. my door won’t go back up and the motor for the window makes a clicking sound.

The comment in the article also made me think of the privilege involved in developing these skillsets, and the privilege these skillsets can bring. To be able to develop some of these skillsets, you have to have certain things, among them a computer or at least disposable income for car/bus fare (i.e. library trips), books or materials. To be able to have access to good resources, and/or a good teacher so you can develop these skillsets is another privilege. To have good training or teachings passed on to you, to be able to afford the various things that make such training, education, and making it to rituals and events to have experiences made possible for oneself is privilege. Once you develop skillsets as a spiritual specialist there may be things that you are simply better at due to the training, the hard work, and/or experiences, as in getting into trance mentioned above. It does not make you inherently better, but it does mean that there are opportunities in terms of training, resources, and experiences that may be available to you that are not available to the average person.

I have had powerful religious experiences throughout my life, first as a Christian and then, as a Pagan. I find it harder to teach someone to connect to the Holy Powers who does not or cannot connect as readily because of this. I haven’t, in general, had to work as hard as others to experience the Presence of the Holy Powers. I do not understand what it is like to go through life with an absence of the Holy Powers being readily in one’s life in a recognizable way. This is a huge blind spot for me when I teach people. It is not like I sit down every time I meditate or sit and pray at a shrine and have a ‘kaboom!’ reaction (read: peak spiritual experience)…but I also look at my experiences and understand why folks might be skeptical of them, to say the least.

I recognize that my experiences are not average, nor that they should have to be. I also recognize that my skillset is different, not better, than others. There are a good deal of skillsets I would like to have, among them, gardening, and ecologically sound building skills, i.e. making cob, strawbale, and similar structures. I have a lot of focus in my life to upper-head type of things, like psychology and theology. Yet, when it comes to things like gardening vegetables, which to a gardener would probably be really simple, like the housekeeper in the comment I get overwhelmed by all the options and data. So, I ask questions of friends who have green thumbs. Do I want results like they get? Of course, but to expect at the start to have plants that grow as well as theirs is probably unrealistic without help. I don’t know much about growing vegetables. Dad has shown me how to do simple gardening, from tilling to planting to watering cycles. Before he gave his help my plants were withering and some died because I did not understand them well enough on my own. I am nothing like a master at this; I am lucky that the aloe plants we keep are so hardy. I have not managed to keep any other plants of mine alive inside the house.

This reminds me of a quote attributed to Albert Einstein that comes around my Facebook feed now and again: “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.” If I judged my gardening by Master Gardeners then I would continuously feel like a failure. Context for understanding where the quality of a skillset should be is pretty important.

Skillsets within religion are important. For some religions, understanding the text of the religion may or may not be important. Singing may be important to religious rites and services. There are too many individual instances to list here. Religion is more than a value system, or system of beliefs. It is lived. It is the way in which one conducts themselves in the world, understands their place, and relates to everything. With religious and spiritual engagement devotional work is a must. Religion requires certain skillsets to develop to be done well. While belief is not, to a great many polytheists, as important as worship and right relationship, the ground of these two things is in acknowledgment of the Holy Powers as real and worthy of worship. It is a given, not altogether different from a fish being surrounded by water.

So if there is a baseline set of skillsets for a polytheist, what are they?

There will, I imagine, be different emphases depending on the Gods and Goddesses one worships, Ancestors, spirits, one’s tradition(s), and individual group(s) within those traditions. Rather than write a list full of caveats and exceptions, here are some ideas of general skills to develop:

  • Develop and maintain relationships. Have or be willing to develop a working relationship with your Holy Powers, whether this is the Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits. This does not need to be a do-all end-all kind of devotion with every minute given over to your Gods, it just needs to be consistent. Even 5-15 minutes of prayer, song, or something where you directly engage with the Holy Powers a day is good.
  • Reciprocity. Have or be willing to develop or engage in a regular system of offerings, even if all you can afford is tap water. Take out the tap water after a full day on the altar, or, if you cannot because people in your home are hostile to your religion, respectfully flush the water or pour it out in a sink. Another option would be to put the offering in a bottle of water, collecting the offerings in the bottle each day, and taking it out to a river, lake, or a tree nearby.
  • Ask questions. I know of no Holy Powers that expected me to know or understand everything all at once. I am still learning about my Gods, Ancestors, and spirits. If you have people you can contact, use them. If you are in luck and have a community that works with or worships the Holy Powers you are interested in learning about, so much the better.
  • Research. If you have a license to drive a car, you sunk some time into understanding how the car starts, runs, and operates. The Holy Powers deserve just as much, if not more consideration. If nothing else, ask for a recommended reading list. Some texts that would be useful to deepening an understanding of the Holy Powers may be on free websites, like, the Gutenberg Project, or similar public offerings.
  • Dedication. Do the work. Whatever it is, whether it is research offerings, prayers, meditation, gardening, cleaning, etc.
  • Ask for help. If you are stuck, if you do not understand something, or if you need or want more help even after asking for help, ask for help. As with ‘ask questions’, I don’t want people to not understand what is expected of them by a tradition or to have to reinvent the wheel, or repeat mistakes I or others have made.
  • Double or triple check. If something feels off, maybe it is. It is always better to be sure than to be wobbly on where you are planting your feet.
  • Simple divination. This can be throwing stones, dice, coins, or something small and simple that costs little to nothing in terms of money. While not everyone may have a knack for divination, a really simple yes/no divination style can be very helpful in answering questions, especially when you are stuck.
  • Decolonize your life. A lot of Western ideas are intertwined with Christianity, and many of the sources, including many pieces of lore, are heavily influenced if not corrupted by the scholars who wrote them down. Many scholars themselves have and still do go back and forth over how Christianity, i.e. in the Norse myths, influenced what was recointerrded, and what is genuine religion, holdovers, mixed tradition, and so on from the original peoples being written about. Clean engagement with the Holy Powers will require this, especially since many of our Gods do not fit well within modern Western paradigms of acceptability. Even speaking about the Gods as real Beings unto Themselves is met with derision in much of society, and untangling that from our minds, thoughts, and words is hard work. It requires us to be careful of the words we use, the ways in which we approach our Gods, and even the ways in which we approach the lore available to us. Treating Loki as the Norse Satan, for instance, is a holdover from Christianity. I am not saying you have to like Loki, or believe His actions/reactions are good, but putting Him where Satan was, especially if you are a convert from Christianity, belies the complex relationships the Gods have, and how important He is, given how intertwined He is with almost every myth we have. It also will interfere with how you understand the other Gods, as Loki is often a traveling companion to Thor, Odin, and other Gods.

Skillsets do not have to be developed in isolation either. You can develop skills while also doing devotional work, for instance. These are just a few ideas, but they are the main ones I can think of right now. It may be that you are or develop a craft, and making origami boats for Njord is devotional work for you. Researching your genealogy, and then including the Ancestors you find can be a powerful piece of devotional work. Gardening and tending your land, or a community garden can be a devotional activity involving your Gods, Ancestors, and spirits. Keeping your home would be a good offering not only to your Ancestors, but to Gods and spirits that are part of or have domain/dominion in the home, i.e. Frigga, Hestia, and houesvaettir, among a great many. While it will not, in my view, replace a daily offering of water or a weekly offering of food, finding ways to incorporate your Holy Powers in your life provides more ways of connection, dedication, and devotion.

To borrow a word from Rhyd Wildermuth, this process is re-enchanting the world around you, suffusing it with the understanding and active acknowledgment that the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits can be connected with anywhere, and the world itself, wherever you are, is holy and a potential place for the sacred. This is good work wherever one is in their life, whatever their relationship is to the Gods, Goddesses, Ancestors, spirits, or communities. Our skillsets will not look the same, nor should they. I would hope that as polytheists we could agree that the basics of devotional work, dedication, and right relationship with our Gods would be among the common ones. This does not require one be a spiritual specialist. The main requirement is that each of us is willing to do the work that each of us can do, each of us in our own time, space, and ability in accordance with our tradition(s) if any, and the will of our Gods, Goddesses, Ancestors, and spirits.

Leadership and Priesthood Part 1: Leadership vs. Priesthood

February 16, 2014 Leave a comment

I have been a Pagan for 10 years, and in that time I have seen very few groups in which priests were not also the leaders of whatever group they were part of. This can be done, and done well. I am part of groups that are very well run and well taken care of by their priests.

Some time ago I went into the difference between what a shaman and a priest are. This is how I defined a priest then, and this is how I still view a priest:

“A priest is a worshiper of a God, Goddess, Ancestors, or spirit, and acts as an intercessor between humanity and the Gods. When I use the word humanity, this can mean as small-scale as another person or small group or as large-scale as a congregation or worldwide religion. A priest’s job is, in some way, shape, or form, to bring the message(s) of the Gods, the Gods Themselves, and/or teach and bring right relationship with the Gods to humanity. A priest’s other jobs may serve the community in a larger fashion, such as performing certain services as intercessory work, like public festivals, public sacrifices, offerings, and the like, or more personal works like blessings at homes, births, funerals, and weddings.”

Since this post I have felt the need to put more emphasis on the notion that a priest serves their Holy Powers (Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits) first and foremost. That the priest’s first duty, within polytheism as I understand it, practice, and experience it, is service to the Gods. This may have absolutely nothing to do with one’s human community/communities. Much of my work with Anpu, as I noted in the article “Question 10: Shaman vs. Priest”, has nothing to do with living people. Much of my service to Him is to help the Dead. In the last seven or so years I have not done a single public ritual with anyone in regards to Him, yet He still counts me as His priest and others have come to me asking for help with Him. I serve Him, and I serve Him in the ways He asks me, and on behalf of Him with other people where called.

Being a priest does not, by default, make me the leader, or even a leader outside of certain circumstances. It makes me a priest. So if I am making the point that priests are not necessarily leaders, then what are leaders?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a leader as “the person who leads or commands a group, organization, or country”. A leader is someone who may be a trailblazer, just as they might be someone modeling good values, just as they might be the head of a group. The focus of a leader, at the end of the day, is on people first and foremost. They are about the people they lead. A volunteer coordinator is a leader just as a head of the local Kuwanis Club is a leader. Often a leadership position is in service to other people. Contrast this what I have written above in regards to being a priest, and there is a stark contrast: the leader is about the people, and the priest is about the Gods. Their actions are geared towards their focus.

If you are a priest you might be a leader, just by default in a situation like a ritual. You might be the only leader(s), as many groups are lead by priests. However, I think that the onus of leadership is something that ought to be more shared. It is a lot to ask of a person to keep a personal cultus with Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits, in addition to possibly holding rituals for a group, making offerings, and holding a job, and lead a group on top of all the other things required to make a group function well. The list of demands grows if your group is official with the government at all, or if you have a busy ritual schedule. That is a lot on one person, or even two people.

Some people are able to do all of this and keep their group running well. I think, though, that we would have more effective priests and groups in general if this was an option and not a necessity. Note: I am not saying every priest who is in this situation should give up their leadership roles.  From where I stand that is a lot of weight on a person’s shoulders. If they choose to, this is where the priest, especially if they are in or have been put in a leadership role, needs to be willing to speak up, set boundaries, and especially to delegate responsibilities and trust people to fulfill/look after them. In turn, those they trust with the leadership and various responsibilities need to follow through on their obligations and promises.

I saw this at work very effectively as a Catholic. There are councils set up to help the priests do their work, i.e. pastoral councils, financial councils and the like, so that the priests can focus on doing their mission: serving their God and in turn, their congregation. There is a lot of groundwork that has to be laid to make this work well for polytheists, but if we want to have dedicated priests, temples, and the like, some amount of hierarchy, organization, and heavy lifting will need doing. A council format allows for concerned folks to get together and pull their weight together, vote on ideas, and make things happen with a core membership that then goes out into the community and gets things done. In the Catholic Church they work with the priest hand-in-hand to make sure that what is needed is taking care of so the priest does not have to worry about the lights getting turned off or what they are going to do about needed work on the church. This is an effective model that works. Granted, the Catholic Church itself kicks in much-needed money so the wheels are greased. Yet, I believe this council model can effectively work so that our communities can make the amenities, like temples, charities, communities, public ritual space, and so on, that I have heard so many wish for. A priest alone trying to do all of this, pull of this together, would have a very, very hard time.

Why is now is a good time to think about this, and separate priests from large amounts of leadership responsibilities? Because we are coming into a time where we may have the people to do so. There are second, third, fourth, and even fifth generation polytheists, Pagans, and those of like mind who are coming into the world. I would like to see effective foundations laid for them all. Part of this, I see, is defining who and what we are, as-is the need to build lasting groups, buildings, and so on for them to inherit. Not everyone is a priest, nor should the notion that ‘everyone is their own priest’ mean that priests, themselves, and all the skillsets required to be an effective one, get put by the wayside.

More on skillsets in the next post.

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