Paganism, like most other movements, has a leadership problem. Rather, it is plagued by an endless parade of such problems, ranging from abusive behaviors, bigotry and hateful views, to simple ineptitude. All too often, the most problematic of these leaders paradoxically retain their reputations and places of import in our communities, their failings handwaved and met with the too familiar litany of “They aren’t perfect, but they’ve done a lot of good work for us.”
The last few months have seen accusations of abuse against the likes of Isaac Bonewits, founder of the Druidic organization Ár nDraíocht Féin (or ADF), as well as Yeshe Rabbit (of many names), who founded the prominent Bay Area coven known as Come As You Are, or CAYA. These issues, sadly, are not new to paganism, which has wrestled with abusive leadership since the earliest days of Wicca’s foundation.
The age of the modern paganism is a matter of some dispute; while Wicca and the neo-druidic movements can be traced back to the early 20th century or even further, the highly pluralistic and increasingly diverse Contemporary Pagan movement has its roots in the 1970s and 1980s with the birth of reconstructionist traditions like Asatru or Kemetic Orthodoxy. Forty-odd years on, Contemporary Paganism is still effectively in its infancy. We have few institutions (despite hosting many organizations of varying scope and effectiveness), relatively little cohesion or agreement on the scope of the movement itself, and a whole host of growing pains straining the integrity of our religious traditions.
As I stated, these issues of abuse are not new. In Heathenry, they go back to the very beginning with the Asatru Free Assembly and its eventual breakup. Even today, many heathens both new and from the old guard can still be found defending Stephen McNallen, an unapologetic white supremacist who despite retiring from his leadership with the Asatru Folk Assembly has simply moved on to an even more overtly racist project with the Wotan Network. These defenses tend to involve the same sentiment I mentioned above; allusions to how instrumental McNallen was in heathenry’s early growth.
We see a similar divide in heathenry now, at least in the online world, between those who push back against Theodism as it increasingly shows itself to be a bastion of hateful ideologies and contemptuous behavior, and those who still hold up works like “We Are Our Deeds” and other Theodish influences in heathenry’s move towards a more academically inclined religious tradition. Again, the attitude arises that while these groups and individuals may engage in reprehensible behavior, it must be excused or tolerated due to their past contributions.
I say that this is an unacceptable response, and that regressive attitudes such as this can only serve to hurt pagan communities in the long term. They hurt us on an individual level, as seen with the many individuals who suffered abuse during their involvement with CAYA but were cast aside by others who wouldn’t rock the boat. They hurt us on a cultural level, as with the long term policy of the Troth’s leadership on playing nice with the likes of Stephen McNallen and leading us to a place where, thirty years later, there’s still a debate over whether heathenry is an intrinsically racist tradition.
If we ignore the vile behavior of our leaders, if we excuse them as imperfect champions or products of their time, we are hurting our future. We are hurting those who come into our traditions seeking growth, safety, community and solace and instead are met with abuse and expulsion from those who stand by their abusers. We are damaging the public perception of paganism as the SPLC and Vice and the Atlantic and the Sun run piece after piece showing that the only media attention we get focuses on the proliferation of racists and sex abusers in our ranks.
This is our public face. And it falls to us to better police ourselves, to stop looking the other way, to stop tolerating this sort of behavior.
It falls to us to listen when someone tells us “This person has abused me.” It falls to us to say “You do not belong here” not when someone speaks out against a prominent figure in the community, but when that prominent figure has preyed upon someone and leveraged their power because they felt untouchable. The single commonality in every instance of abusive leadership is that there are always individuals who are aware, who see the problem, who hear the whispers and connect the dots and who say nothing. Paganism is no different from Hollywood in that regard. Just as there are so many who knew of Harvey Weinstein’s predations but did not speak up, so too are there often members of our communities who know what is going on, and say nothing.
We cannot afford to say nothing.
We cannot afford to put our leaders on pedestals and guard them like precious artifacts. We cannot afford to let our reverence for those at the top become some perverse thing, like some ugly memorial to Jefferson Davis looming over a park in Alabama. Whether we are Wiccan, Kemetic, Heathen, Druid, whether eclectic or reconstructionist, there is one thing we can learn from the iron age Germanic tribes, one practice that is virtuous enough that I believe we can all be eclectic enough to adopt:
We must learn to sacrifice our kings.
When the fields are barren and our leaders have failed us, we cannot afford to be too afraid to cast them down. There is no one who has given so much to our nascent movements that we should overlook their abuses or their tolerance of bigotry, or shackle ourselves in loyalty to those who are loyal to themselves alone. Let no single person be larger than our morals, our faith, or our principles. No collars. No kings.