Why Jailbreaking?

This is a hard topic to explain. Normally, I don’t write about why I do things. I focus on the what. I think way too often people hem and haw about trying to find others who think the same as they do. We’re not all supposed to think the same. It makes a lot more sense to find people who are doing the same things I am doing. I try to lead workshops where people do the thing I’m trying to describe instead of talking about it. It works, too. People can find the value for themselves in the action. 

Since I started down this path, I’ve seen a few people who have reservations about my deities coming into pagan spaces. On the one hand, I get it. Christians have hurt a lot of us. There’s an evangelical proto-fascist “conservative” movement in the US that’s been wreaking havoc since the late 60’s. The list of potential traumas is long and in itself traumatizing. Out of respect for that, instead of just pushing my way in, I want to have a conversation. I want to explain why I do what I do and why what I do is not Christian. I believe that the process of repaganizing these practices is one of multiple avenues from healing the spiritual sickness of whiteness, and it is my search for that medicine for myself that brought me here.

In order to understand the medicine, you have to understand the disease. White is a racial category created through laws, social mores, and bad science that seeks to unite wide swaths of people into one identity. This identity can then be used to incentivize and excuse violence on behalf of the state. One very large example of this is the settler colony of the United States. People labeled white were given special protection under the law for most of the country’s history, and even today the justice system favors white people. People performing whiteness were and are empowered by the government to commit genocidal acts against indigenous Americans in exchange for land or money. They were and are given extra opportunities for employment, which means access to better food, housing, and healthcare.

Now, for those who haven’t had the same teachers as me, I want to bring some nuance to this definition of whiteness. First, who is and is not white is far more complicated than your skin color. People with albinism of black ancestry are pale, but are categorized as black due to other physical and non-physical markers. My mother is white until she opens her mouth and people hear her accent. Someone with all the physical features of whiteness and a British accent, however, does not lose their whiteness once the accent is revealed. Whiteness is a category that people can float in and out of and whose lines can be blurred. Also, just because someone is firmly white by all institutional measures does not mean they are always performing whiteness. It does mean that being placed in that category brings some advantages (though they don’t always help very much), and that all of us who are placed there have a responsibility to dismantle the entire structure.  

Whiteness comes at a cost. First, there is a profound loss of well-being and safety that comes when all that brings you life is rooted in large swaths of violence, regardless of your race. The food I eat is grown on stolen land, in ways that slowly promise a future mass extinction event for humanity. All the clothes I can afford to buy are made in part or in full by sweatshop workers. All the material wealth I have, and much of the emotional wellness I have, was not earned by me. It was arbitrarily handed to me by a series of institutions that could just as easily take them away. I have cried over this more times than I care to admit.

The second cost I want to point out is that of ethnic identity. As a white-passing immigrant, let me tell you that whiteness is actively recruiting me, and I hate it. Language, food, dress, history, spiritual practices: whiteness tries to strip potential recruits of these markers. Some things you lose because of inconvenience. Some you lose because of internalized shame. Some you give up for economic benefit. The process looks different in every decade, and is ongoing today.

So when it comes to the task of looking for a polytheistic, animist, ritual-based, and/or earth-worshiping practice, white Americans are multiple layers of fucked. People raised protestant, atheist, or agnostic are an additional layer of lost because most Protestantism stripped itself of anything we might even remotely call culture and never bothered to grow it back, like a human missing a liver who somehow managed to keep living by drinking only water and pre-filtered piss.

Then what do baby pagans do? One of two directions: they go out or back. I’m going to start this section by admitting that I went both directions, so if I’m calling anyone out here, it’s myself. Also, both of these approaches to finding a practice have good solutions and paths inside them. What I want to highlight are the issues that kind of stuck in my craw like a fishbone I never managed to swallow or a cough that lingered months after the initial infection.

Going out means engaging with a living tradition from another culture such as Hinduism or Shinto. On the one hand, serious long term conversion can be a good and wholesome path. That’s between you and your spiritual adviser from within the tradition. The issue comes when you try to take a deity or kami out of their contexts, as is the case with many eclectic wiccans. Going out runs into the issue of what is and is not cultural appropriation. It doesn’t really solve the spiritual sickness whiteness creates.

What happens when you go back? Going back to pre-Christian practices of Europe gives us reconstructionist and revivalist paganisms. There’s a lot to like here, and I know a lot of people for whom this works really well. The issue that comes up  is that whenever you make a narrative that goes back to a “better time” before the culture was “ruined”, you attract nationalists. White nationalists are a known issue in Heathenry. Religio Romana has an infestation of fascists. There are even some white nationalists in Celtic Polytheism. I have a deep respect and admiration for the people who are fighting to keep their beloved practices out of the hands of these nationalists, but I can’t help wondering if this is a case of treating the symptoms rather than the illness itself.

I want to be thorough, and that means I have to address the three Modern Witchcraft practices: Wicca, Tradcraft, and Feri. I don’t really understand enough about Tradcraft (in the Cochran or Chumbley sense) to really place it within this discussion, so I’m not going to. Wicca and Feri I feel confident describing as going out. Neither, to me, stay in the present ancestral/cultural context and address the wound itself.

This is where re-paganizing comes in. Instead of going out or back to look for ethnicity and polytheistic spirituality, I started by being in the present moment and the current place. Where am I? What am I? How did my surroundings get to be this way? Why don’t I have something to draw from here? 

What is going on, really, is that institutional religion is always in cahoots with other political institutions to maintain power for the tippy top of society. Yeah, they fight over theological issues like what god even is, but priests are all after the same thing: keeping their jobs. Keeping your job, no matter what industry you work in, means keeping the guy with the money happy. It just so happens that Christians are taught they have to respect authority or face hell. That much is not new to pagans. It’s much of the reason we avoid Christianity and all things linked to it. However, it is obvious that Christianity is the institution that creates spiritual whiteness, and we carried the disease of whiteness out of its home from Christianity into our Paganism.

What role did Christianity play in creating whiteness? Simple. Institutional Christianity removes aspects of ethnicity from spiritual identity. Since the Council of Nicea held by Constantine I, being a Christian in Europe has slowly become a matter of what you believe rather than who you are connected to. The way in which Christian institutions split off and argue over things like how old you should be when you get baptized only reinforces that dogma and not community is what you should be bonding over. Can you imagine a Catholic church where it was acceptable to worship Lucifer as the bringer of wisdom? No, because believing something so radically different would go against what the church is. Nevermind how many generations of your family have been members. It doesn’t matter how many friends and loved ones are there. No one will care how often you brought food to sick members or how often you laughed together. If you do not hold the same beliefs, you cannot be in the same spiritual group as the others.

That identification works in another way as well. If someone comes to the same church and has the same creed, they are of the community instantly. On the one hand, that’s a beautiful bond of siblinghood and hospitality. On the other hand, this has been abused by kings, presidents, congresspersons, and businesspeople to convince people to do terrible things. Colonization in many parts of the globe began as missionary work. A lot of cultural genocide was carried out in the name of saving souls, which is to say violently programming children to believe the “right” ideas.

In summary, whiteness brings spirItual sickness. Christianity is the religion that helped build whiteness. Part of the sickness of whiteness is that whiteness removes our ethnicity, encourages us to perform state-endorsed violence, and replaces real connection to other people with crap like consumerism and dogma. So when polytheists reject Christianity, we don’t always escape the illness of that whiteness. The two most prominent ways we bring whiteness into our polytheism are commodification of other cultures (cultural appropriation) and the building of genocidal false identities (white nationalism). Even though there are polytheisms that resist and reject whiteness (Anti-Racist Heathens, for example) I’m not sure the practice inherently addresses the illness of whiteness that is structural to our ways of being. To be fair, you get called where you get called, and if Brigid or Odin calls you, what are you gonna do? Say no and lose a deeply satisfying spiritual path? No, you’re going to answer the call. I’m only saying I wasn’t called, so I kept looking.

How to address the sickness, then? To me, the source of the sickness are the regimes that benefited from the creation of whiteness and the stripping away of other identities. What benefits them makes us sick. What they try to suppress can be a place for healing. So what has historically been suppressed by the regimes? Diversity of religion and practice is by far the answer. Politicians and rich people can’t rule effectively over populations who don’t share an identity or have similar values. So differing from each other in our spiritual beliefs and practices, pluralism, is something polytheists already handle incredibly well. Everytime I hear a call for pagan unity from a frustrated organizer, I have to admit it makes me smile. “Ah yes,” I sigh contentedly, “We have become ungovernable. Good.”

I mention this not just because it is the largest answer, but to underline that I am not writing this essay to convince anyone to do what I am doing. I recognize that as not only a fool’s errand, but an evil one. What I hope to gain is that my relationship with my gods will be able to be talked about as a pagan one in pagan spaces. I want this path to be one more option amongst many, not the one and only way.

The other things the regimes of power have wanted to suppress over the years are heresy and identification with something not reliant on political boundaries. Jewish people have been persecuted under both of these reasons despite not actually being heretics. I want to pause here and make this part clear. Judaism is not proto-Christianity. Jewish people are not one messianic dogma away from coming into Christianity. Labeling them as heretics is part of how institutional churches justified the opression and murder of these people over the centuries. What’s really going on here that the churches label heresy is that groups with overlapping symbol sets were interpreting those symbol sets in a way the institutional church couldn’t influence.

But Cabra! What about the Protestants? First, Protestants are heretics depending on who you ask. Second, the reason why we don’t think of them as heretical Christians is because they gained the backing of a lot of fancy aristocrats and won a bunch of wars. So the same way that military institutions want to have the monopoly of violence, institutional churches in Christianity want a monopoly on interpretation. It is that desire for monopoly along with the desire for a unified people that fueled the suppression of different relationships to these divinities the Christian church deals with.

So then. Difference in interpretation without the validity of state power is a potential source of healing from the long centuries of violence that have shaped the Christian hegemony we live in today. A polytheistic, animist interpretation of Christian images and practices has many benefits in this context. 

What does a polytheistic interpretation look like? For starters, there is a broader idea of what source material is and how to draw meaning from it. Decrees from Church heads, especially the papacy, can be completely ignored or used as a benchmark of what not to do. The bible is not one canonical text, simply a text amongst many with no more or less weight than the grimoires, lost books, and apocrypha. What does carry a lot of weight are those localized folk practices that have survived the years not as exact copies of previous practices, but as evolving conversations between the community and spiritual matters. When looking at texts, a feminist reading is important: context, author, bias, political motivations. These things must be taken into account.

Looking at things with this weight quickly showed me just how permeable and ridiculous national and racial identities are. It also gave me an understanding of ethnicity that I can finally put into words, even if those words are a sort of imperfect simplification. Practice and relationships are the two things that matter most in this form of identity building. For example, part of my queerness is that I extole the virtues of glitter. The act of going overboard on glitter is part of that identity, but the relationships I built with other queers in queer spaces is also important. I didn’t read about wearing glitter in a book and then just adopted it. I came to it through my relationships with people, place, and history.

Anyway, I take this lens and look at folk Catholic and folk Byzantine practices. I know enough about my family history to know my line centers on Iberian peninsula, French, and Dutch lands. I also have relationships with some divinities outside my blood relations because I have non-blood relationships. (Hail Brigid, Lady of Imbolc, Mistress of Blacksmiths and Poets) Now, my spiritual identity isn’t cut off from the last 1500 years of history. The Matron Goddess of my maternal bloodline has inheritance from the Gallo-roman pantheon, but her current cultus started less than 200 years ago. I can see my practices as good things that happened despite regimes of corrupt priests, not because of them.

As another summary, I want to explain the potential medicine here in another way. Imagine your hometown has a natural spring in it. Many generations ago, the town built a fountain on top of the spring so the whole town could make good use of the water. Washing, cooking, drinking: the precious clean water was shared. Different leaders of the town would try to control and restrict access to the fountain, but ultimately the water could be used for multiple purposes because of how the fountain was built.

Then one day, the leader decides to destroy the fountain and build a new one. The issue is that the new fountain doesn’t separate the water the way the old one did. So it can only be used for drinking. Sometimes grandmothers will sneak off with pans of water for cooking or laundry, but they would never admit that or the local leader wouldn’t allow them near the fountain again.

So you have a few options. First, you can move to another town where the water politics aren’t such bullshit (Going out). Second, you can get your water from the local river that feeds into the spring. It’s the same water, you just have to walk farther for it (Going back). Third, you can walk up to the fountain and just take the damn water. You have to deal with the local leaders being upset if they catch you, and you still want to put water that isn’t for drinking in pots to carry home like the grandmothers. However, until we find a way to oust the local leader and replace the single use fountain with a multi use one, you can wake up every morning knowing you use water from the fountain you have every right to use.

I’m not trying to get everyone to steal from the metaphorical fountain. All that will happen then is we will crown another leader and they will continue to make bullshit rules. Diversifying our water sources is important. What I’m saying is that when the river water folks have a water party, I’d like to be invited, and I’d like to bring my pan of reclaimed water to celebrate. Just because I carry the water the local leader has claimed is his doesn’t mean the water is actually his, nor does it mean the water can never be used for cooking. To bring it back to real life, just because Our Lady of Lourdes is an official Mary of the Catholic church doesn’t mean she isn’t also a goddess of healing springs, and I think there is a benefit in bringing her icon to any communal water altar in pagan spaces alongside deities such as Poseidon or Danu.

Which brings me to my last point. If I claim my practice isn’t Christian, what do I mean by that? I’ve hinted at a lot of this throughout the essay, but it should be made explicit. The reasons why I am not Christian begin with rejecting the idea of a Christ. “Christ” is a title given to Jesus of Nazareth, a radical Jewish preacher who may or may not have been real. To be the Christ is to be the Messiah or Savior who gives each human the opportunity to cleanse themselves of original sin through belief in his sacrifice, his death on the cross. 

To start with, I don’t believe in Original Sin. This idea that something fundamental in human nature makes us “sinful” and therefore separate from divinity is antithetical to my beliefs. Creator is not a source of perfect good, she is just the source. The reason why bad things happen is not because we are separated from her, but due to 2 reasons. 1) Things just die sometimes, and it sucks but that’s part of the journey. 2) Life is a continual experimental process and imbalance is just as important to life figuring itself out as balance is. We are never separate from Creator, we just engage in the illusion of being separate so we can come to know ourselves more fully. If Mary has an Immaculate Heart because she was born free from sin and fully in union with divinity, then we all have Immaculate Hearts.

So Jesus has nothing to save us from. The folkloric Jesus of Nazareth was not Christ, he was a zealot for HaShem who hated the Roman Empire and was killed for rousing people’s fervor. The Jesus we know now is one prophet, two sun gods, and two thunder gods all trying to squeeze into the same overcoat. (and maybe a mushroom? For flavor.) 

Alongside not agreeing with Christian dogma, Christians are not the people I have relationships with. The pantheon I have a relationship with may be Mary, Lucifer, and the saints, but the way I conceive of and build those relationships is through the ritual structures of paganism. I wouldn’t even be able to do this if it had not been for the years I spent in paganism to learn how to think about the world from these perspectives. I had to travel far to see what was lost, to learn how to pull the poison from the root, to even know what community means.

So as much as I understand why many pagans may have complicated feelings about seeing a Mary or a saint on an altar, and as confusing as it might be to hear a pagan ramble on about Immaculate Hearts and what that means, I would really like to not have to leave my pagan community to go find space to do my work. I don’t want to have to choose between Lucifer and Prometheus, the Devil and Cernunnos, Freya and St Lucy. These entities hold the potential to be a continuation of the earth-based practices many of us gathered here for, one more thread in the tapestry. 

I can’t do that unless there’s a real conversation about boundaries. I know I’m asking for a lot of time and attention, but I wouldn’t have spent weeks writing this essay to ask for this if it wasn’t important. Forcing this on people very easily recreates the same violence I was trying to get away from. I do think, however, that someone out there feels the same way me and my partner do. I think there may also be people who, while they do not work with these entities, may benefit from the conversation.

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