The High Druid's Homily

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Monday, December 05, 2005

A Pagan Response to Terrorism

Recently there has been a number of articles posted in the Wiccasphere about the moral position that modern Paganism has on the current War on Terror, and on terrorism in general. Most of these Pagan responses take into consideration our religious preference to eschew terms like “evil” when faced with complex moral issues such as the atrocities of the 9/11 attacks and the bombings in Madrid and London.

Yet I have to disagree with some of the conclusions, namely the idea that Pagans can theologically reject the concept of Evil. Certainly, the idea of a kind of institutional evil has been shamefully used by the dominant culture against more marginalized cultures for millennia, now. It was all too easy for Christian and Moslem missionaries to encounter aboriginal cultural practices that did not fit within their narrow idea of morality; this enabled them to classify such practices as “evil”, “the work of Satan”, or simply “immoral” and, therefore, justify an extreme, brutal, and (in many cases) economically lucrative response. One of the hallmarks of the modern Pagan Resurgence has been a rejection of this dualistic paradigm in favor of a more measured, more relative idea of morality.

But that does not mean that we have totally abandoned the idea of evil as a force in our world today. When faced with such astonishing events as the Holocaust, the A-bomb and other Weapons of Mass Destruction, and the periodic genocides that plague our world, it is hard to say that evil isn’t a valid descriptor of these things. As a Pagan thealogian I have had my share of debates with Abrahamists of all traditions on the subject of evil, and the issue is often how evil is defined by the relative morality of Paganism compared to the absolutist morality of the God of Abraham. And while most Pagans would agree that personifying evil as the Abrahamists do is both inappropriate and destructive to society at large, I think that we can, in fact, reach a good, general rule-of-thumb Pagan consensus on the subject: if it looks evil, it probably is.

On the face of it I agree with most of my colleagues’ basic premise: that suffering the recent terrorist attacks is one of the results of our decades-old foreign and economic policies, and that terrorism is the only available military response of the Oppressed. History is replete with examples of oppressed religious, ethnic, and national groups responding to unbearable pressure by resorting to violence – what the military currently calls “asymmetrical warfare”. In the past it was also known as “guerrilla warfare”, “irregular warfare”, “low-intensity warfare”, “insurgency”, and “politically based banditry”. It’s what happens when a group of people feels that no recourse but violence, but they don’t have the resources for a tank regiment. In other words, War on a budget.

Asymmetrical Warfare is the type of war known as a Police War; instead of infantry and cavalry, air support and supply chains, a Police War has other operators. It usually uses the regular and “special” police of a nation as soldiers, uses criminal-style organizations, and uses assassination, sabotage, espionage, counter-espionage, propaganda, press-releases, publicity stunts, kidnapping, theft, indictments, treachery, politics, and any number of dirty tricks to carry out the war. There are, at any given time, hundreds of these Police Wars going on between rival power groups. And it is important to keep that in mind when we talk about this: all warfare is a struggle between rival power groups with a goal to set policy.

Police War, like all war, is “diplomacy by other means”; a way for one group to get what they want over the interests of another group. Police Wars are usually undeclared, as they often take place between groups without proper states or governments behind them. Police War covers struggles as diverse as the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the Basque separatists, the finally ending Ulster conflict, the endless narcotics wars in Latin America, the struggles between the Mafia and law-enforcement, innumerable revolutionary movements, and even some struggles between corporations may evolve into this kind of conflict – Halliburton comes to mind. Our own Revolutionary War started as a Police War before we got the French involved. In all cases, though, the goal is to project power in order to influence policy, like other types of warfare. And a Police War can be won or lost like any other kind of war.

Police Wars can be subtle affairs, such as the complicated and largely secret 50-year dance of the Cold War superpowers; or they can be nasty, bloody, and very public, as the IRA and the Basque Separatists once demonstrated. They can be conducted with wide-spread popular support, as the French Resistance enjoyed in WWII, or they can be fought with a handful of die-hard fanatics who are generally despised by the public, as was the 17 November organization in Greece. The classic model is that of a small, lightly armed insurgency organized by clandestine cells and embedded within a civilian population versus a larger, better funded and equipped government military force.

But Police War is still a war, and war has rules. That has been established since the earliest days of the professional warrior. And while these rules change as politics and technology evolve, there are some that are unwritten and universal: such as the crime of deliberately targeting innocent civilians. Any professional soldier – or professional revolutionary – despises that kind of conduct and recognizes that it is almost always counter-productive in fulfilling the aim of war, i.e. establishing the right to set policy.

Civilians get hurt in war all the time. The military has plenty of euphemisms concerning this unpleasant fact: “collateral damage” is the newest way to clean it up. Civilians have always been in the wrong place at the wrong time in war. Bombs do not recognize uniforms, and bullets can’t tell a farmer from a sapper. It is one of the greatest horrors of war, and in every discussion about the rules of engagement since the Stone Age, it has been agreed by professional warriors of all stripes and cultures that purposefully targeting civilians is anathema. Even the Mafia has rules about such things.

This is true especially in a Police War where civilians can be easily damaged, by both sides. Asymmetrical Warfare presupposes that an insurgency is going to hide among a civilian population, which means that inevitably the innocent will be swept up by the government in efforts to net actual insurgents – and some will be wrongfully accused, mistakenly prosecuted, and summarily executed or imprisoned without charge. Similarly, insurgents will often “shake down” civilians for supplies and support, often resorting to threats of violence to do so, or target innocents for assassinations based on faulty intelligence about collaborators in their midst or as leverage against a target. But making war on a civilian population is never a good idea from a policy standpoint. It loses the insurgents their base, and it alienates the people from the government that is trying to fight the insurgency – and collect taxes.

That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen – indeed, it happens at some point in nearly every war. But that doesn’t make it any more right, or less reviled, by any belief system. The soldiers and revolutionaries and politicians who fight a Police War know the risks of what they do. The average farmer or shopkeeper or commuter does not, and it is universally unjust to include him into the battlefield without his knowledge. When you make war on civilians you are increasing suffering for no real political cause. As a Pagan thealogian, notorious for promoting our “relativist morality”, I deem unnecessary suffering as a universal evil.

So without descending to the level of using the term “evil” to describe one side of our current conflict (which , thanks to Abrahamic Dualism, implies that our side is therefore “good”) I would propose that the actions in the case of the Jihadi war against the West should be viewed by Pagans as violations of the essential rules of war. As such, it is to be condemned, regardless of the religion of the critic, the victim, or the terrorist, as evil.

Most of us cling to the Rede (“An it Harm Ye None, Do What Thou Wilt.”) as our guiding moral principal, whether we are Wiccan or not. But the Rede doesn’t exist in a vacuum, nor can it always be interpreted in a way that covers the myriad of ethical concerns we face on a daily basis. As a Pagan, I use it as a great rule-of-thumb to make my moral decisions. But I also use two other important guides to daily living to assist me in the ethical labyrinth that I am faced with: the Path of Wisdom and the Codes of Chivalry and Hospitality.

The Path of Wisdom is an unwritten (or custom-written) set of practical suggestions for the express purpose of Doing the Right Thing at the Right Time. It includes every scrap of useful lore you were ever exposed to, and it is frequently referred to as “common sense”, although as many have pointed out, it is a lot less common that we would prefer. The Path of Wisdom is constantly evolving and changing as we grow and develop our own moral and ethical judgments. It is guided by conscience and tempered by experience. It covers all of those “gray areas” that are left open by the Rede, and it is unique in form and composition for every Pagan.

The Codes of Chivalry and Hospitality are the rules of “civilized” behavior that were developed by our Paleopagan ancestors to regulate the rights, obligations and responsibilities of an individual in peace or in war. It may seem antiquated, archaic, or even obsolete to some in our modern age – Christianity, industrialism and Marxist theory have dramatically eroded its popular respect over the years. And while they may seem like quaint matters of simple politeness now, in the formative years of the great Pagan civilizations these Codes were elevated to the status of holy sacraments in nearly all cultures. The Roman cult of Jupiter, for example, held Hospitality as a religious rite, not merely a social institution. The Codes were created to inform the people about what kind of behavior they could reasonably expect in certain situations.

For example, if a wounded stranger wanders into your territory, you are obliged by the Code of Hospitality to take him in, feed him, nurse him to health, and allow him to leave your lands unimpeded (providing, of course, that he did not himself violate the Codes). Likewise, as a guest you have the obligation not to steal or damage your hosts’ property, to treat his kin with the same courtesy and respect you would treat your own, and to contribute in whatever way is appropriate to the management of his estate.

The Code of Chivalry regulated the affairs of warriors and the conduct of war. While the term eventually morphed into a high-minded set of rules of etiquette for the upper class, at its base it was developed to bring a semblance order to the bloody business of warfare. It codified the elements of mercy and fairness that make up the foundation of our human society. It made the word of the Warrior his bond, to be kept no matter the price. It established the responsibility of the strong to protect the weak without demeaning them. It institutionalizes the idea of a Warrior’s Honor, without which he is little more than a thug with a sword. And among its most sacred principals was avoiding the purposeful slaughtering of civilians – especially women and children. Such a crime was a supreme dishonor.

Archaic though this idea may be, the ideal still holds tremendous resonance for modern Pagans. Chivalry was the code adopted voluntarily by the male fighting elite as a means of practicing compassion, an essential and boundless quality of the Goddess. Chivalry predates the Christian expansion into northern Europe (despite the Arthurian cycle) – indeed, the early Church fought hard against it, blaming it for institutionalizing warfare (true), until it wised up and co-opted the institution. At its core was the idea that it was a Warrior’s duty to protect the tribe, clan, family, temple, and nation – but to do so with honor, even if it meant the death of the warrior.

Nor was it an exclusively European invention. The Moslems certainly had their own Koranic code of Chivalry, as did the Chinese, Indians, and Japanese. The idea of Chivalry was developed in many cultures, and while the specifics of the Code changed with relation to time and culture, the central idea was universal. The Warrior is ultimately responsible for his own actions – and the actions of his warband. The ends do not justify the means, no matter how important the cause. War may be inevitable, but it need not bring more suffering than absolutely necessary.

Starhawk, one of the prominent spokeswitches in our religion, has made an analysis of the moral issue of terrorism. At the root, her analysis is framed with the idea that as horrible as terror attacks are, they exist in a context that must be appreciated in order to understand that horror. That we are, in effect, reaping what we have sown as Westerners for allowing our governments and corporations to create a climate where this kind of violence can thrive. While I cannot disagree that corporate leaders bear some large share of responsibility for the current situation – especially the petroleum consortium that exploits the oil resources of the Middle-East – and that our politicians have been sadly myopic in designing both foreign and economic policies in this region, I feel that Starhawk ultimately misses the mark when it comes to a Pagan perspective on this conflict.

For Paganism is not an inherently pacifistic religion, despite the personal convictions of many of its adherents. As I write this there are hundreds of Pagans in military service and police work – even in the Central Intelligence Agency, if my sources are correct. They are putting their lives on the line for our freedoms, regardless of the asinine leadership of our politicians, and we should honor and respect these Pagan warriors for their individual sacrifice and high personal ideals. I appreciate Starhawk’s syncretism of progressive ideals and the re-emergence of the Goddess, and applaud her continuing struggles for social justice – but from a thealogical perspective, I remind her that it is the right of all species and peoples to defend themselves in the face of aggression, no matter what the source.

One of the things I have learned of the Goddess is that She is capable of boundless compassion for all of Her children. She is truly the All Mother, and she looks after us and loves us all, even when we fight amongst ourselves. It’s a learning experience, after all, and we acknowledge the fact that sometimes it is necessary to suffer to learn, even if the lessons learned don’t become manifest until the next lifetime. But She does not abide unnecessary suffering. If there is a Pagan definition of “evil”, that has to be it.

When the World Trade Center was attacked, I was as rabid as any Red Stater about the necessity of removing a brutally oppressive regime from Afghanistan in retribution for their support of the terrorists who murdered 3000 people in an utterly senseless and unnecessary infliction of suffering on my people. I did this knowing that there would inevitably be civilian casualties and wanton destruction. But I saw it as necessary, even as I prayed to the Goddess to protect the innocent. And I stand by that position.

I was also vocal about the utter foolishness of prosecuting the Iraqi war – ethical and moral considerations aside, it was a fundamentally unwise decision – and I (successfully) predicted the result. Our current Administration and their political cronies are de facto imperialists, turning our nation into a hegemonic Imperium, firmly in the pocket of commercial and Evangelical interests. And they apparently have only a nodding acquaintance with the concept of Wisdom. While fighting a bloody war on someone else’s territory may have some resonance in the heartland, sticking your hands into a hornet’s nest and clapping merits a dunce cap, not a victory lap.

Starhawk is also correct in her assertion that Pagans have no centralized . . . anything. The website Witchvox.com, a kind of Pagan USA Today, is our only truly common forum. We pride ourselves on our individual right to choose and decide and bear responsibility for those decisions and beliefs. We regularly receive criticism from text-based religions about our lack of absolute values, and why it makes us a kooky cult instead of a valid religion. But that does not stop us from recognizing, as a community, the innate wrongness that the Jihadis have demonstrated in their global insurgency. Without labeling their cause as evil, I feel fully justified at labeling their actions as evil when they make random war on civilian populations.

They are falling into the same pit of evil that the Marxists did last century: using an ideological system to justify random violence, to make it OK for angry young men to express their testosterone poisoning by blowing things up. If a group wants to prosecute a war of liberation, a secessionist movement, a struggle for ethnic or religious identity, or the violent redress of grievances from a brutal and oppressive regime, fine. There are lawful and moral ways to do so, some of which do include killing people blowing things up. Even guerilla wars have rules, though, and even wide-eyed fanatical holy warriors have honor. Regardless of the cause, regardless of the situation, violating such a fundamental aspect of the international Code of Chivalry is no less than evil – and should be called out as such by any Pagan who gives the matter much thought.

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