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A Pagan Perspective on Social Action

Robin Herne's picture

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One of the most socially active of the prominent modern pagans is the author Miriam Samos who writes under the name Starhawk. A leading light in various feminist, ecological and civil rights movements, Starhawk advocates social activism and responsibility as integral to spirituality.

This approach echoes at least as far back as Ancient Rome where one of the chief virtues was ~ civic responsibility. For the Romans this duty was mostly expressed in terms of the rich endowing public buildings (much as they still do), rather than in more direct care for the poor or oppressed. However, there were some who expressed concern for the poor, such as Marcus Agrippa who donated olive oil to the poor and paid for large numbers of people to get free haircuts! The primary expectation for civitas was upon the wealthy, with little or no civic responsibility expected of the poor.

 

The Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote, “Reverence the gods, and help men. Short is life. There is only one fruit of this terrene life, a pious disposition and social acts.” Of course being helpful and charitable to others need not involve any kind of radical political activity, which is the way many people will view the concept of social action. However, if suffering or inequality exists because of the structure of society then clearly just helping out one person is really only a sticking plaster solution. In such circumstances pushing for reform to prevent a repetition of the causes of misery is the wiser course.

Starhawk’s approach probably owes a deal more to the American philosopher Thoreau than it does to Aurelius, but the notion that care for the community is part and parcel of the spiritual or ethical life was expressed in our duty towards the wider world. Many modern pagans echo Starhawk, especially in the tendency towards civil disobedience - the belief that the ruling elite are corrupt and that siding with disenfranchised groups is the best way of improving the world. Indeed, some might see it as a duty. Possibly this may be because modern paganism is itself a largely side-lined spiritual tradition, and many of the people joining its ranks are from disempowered subgroups, and so naturally tend to identify more with other outsiders than they do with the powerbrokers of this world.

Historically the polytheist religions tended to give strong roles to women within the temple systems, and rarely had any issues around homosexuality or bisexuality. As a probably consequence of this paganism had (and continues to have) a strong appeal to feminists, gay and transgendered people, whose lives may often draw them into politically activism simply in order to gain equality or acceptance under the law.

Possibly the most prevalent cause amongst modern pagans is environmentalism, and the deep urge many people now feel that action must be taken to preserve endangered ecosystems and threatened species. The Dragon Network is a British Pagan campaign group focussed on ecological issues, and has been going since the 1990s. Like a number of such organisations political protests and practical work are combined with magical efforts, in the belief that ritual, focused meditation, the directing of collective willpower, and so forth are as helpful in reforming and transforming the world as more conventional means.

It might be considered that this combination of mysticism with pragmatism is a particularly strong feature of Pagan religions (though it is not necessarily unique to them). Starhawk, like a number of other prominent authors, also advocates the blending of magical, ritualistic attempts to transform the world with more conventional forms of protest and political reform.