Devotion 3.5: Stealing and Borrowing

Nov 15, 2006
(I wrote this post during my blogging hiatus, and found it whilst trying to find something to distract me from NaNoWriMo. I'm sure there was something other than my own writing that set me off on this topic, but I'm afraid I can no longer remember what it was.)

I've been tangenting from the Devotion series for quite a while, so actually, this tangent is slightly more on-topic than I've generally been recently, so actually this tangent is not really much of a tangent at all, but it still isn't actually the last real post in the Devotion series, so I'll keep on calling it a tangent until the word tangent has lost all real meaning. Tangent.

Anyway, the last real post in the series is going to cover a number of ideas and practices I have tried, and since I do tend to like my religious practices to have some sort of weight of history behind them, they're all practices I've borrowed stolen from other religions, ones with actual traditions, as opposed to my own seven-year-old eclecticism.

First, a note on terminology. I've noticed that my online vocabulary doesn't really go over quite as well in what we so egotistically call the real world, so in my defense: I find that sticking to a moderately offensive vocabulary keeps me mindful of exactly what I'm doing. Borrowing is a fairly benign thing to do. Stealing, not so much. Rather than feel better about myself with the nicer term, I'll stick with the harsher one -- but I don't really mean it as an insult. Everybody steals from everybody else all the time, but calling it stealing helps to remind us why some people get so pissed off about it sometimes.

Paganism is all about stealing from everybody else. Early Gardnerian rituals are stolen from the Golden Dawn are stolen from Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism, never mind from each other. Voodoo and Santeria steal from both African religions and Catholicism. More recently, stealing from Native American and Aboriginal Australian traditions has come into vogue. Even Reconstructionists aren't originally members of the culture they are reconstructing, so that's a kind of stealing, too.

Now, you could argue that what I'm calling stealing could also be called the natural progression of cultural development and exchange, and you'd be right. Change happens to everyone, all the time, no matter how "primitive" or "untouched" some groups may seem. (More on that later. Oh, have I got a rant on that.) You could almost say that modern Paganism, which has probably stolen from everyone in history to become what it is today, is the only natural result of a shrinking multicultural world.

If only it were that easy. After all, religion is a very sensitive and personal subject, and of all the bits of culture you could steal from someone, the religious aspects are probably going to annoy them the most. In addition, many modern Pagans feel a kinship with the still extant aboriginal religions -- but the reverse is often not true. At the very least, we ought to be respectful while we go about stealing bits of other people's religions.

Exactly how that respect should be expressed is another matter. We hashed this out a bit in my anthropology classes, actually -- where we were mandated to be respectful by federal law. In our museum, we had a number of Native American ceremonial pipes (I want to say they were Hochunk, but I could be wrong) which were kept in a cabinet in the basement of the museum and were not allowed to be viewed or handled by menstruating women. Of course, the museum put up with these restrictions because otherwise the pipes would have been returned to the tribe they originated with. Without the threat of the loss of research material, the respect paid to that particular tradition would have been nominal at best -- and probably not even that, given the vocally feminist nature of our campus. Of course, I was part of that vocally feminist majority, and I can't say I disagree with them: but then, I never particularly wanted anything to do with the pipes, either.

As we as Pagans are stealing religious bits and pieces to use as religious bits and pieces, though, I think we should be held to a higher standard than the federally-mandated anthropological tolerance. I don't think we ought to be required to agree with every aspect of a practice before using it -- after all, if you were willing to do that you'd just convert (although that can be a kind of stealing, too). I do thing we ought to be required to understand every aspect of a practice, or at least as much of it as possible, before stealing it for our own practice. And, because I'm an anthropologist and context is everything, that includes the history of the practice and its variations, not just its spiritual significance. And if what I said earlier is true, that modern Paganism is stolen from just about everybody, then that goes for every aspect of our practice, including the things we already think we understand.

The fact that you understand something about the thing you're stealing isn't necessarily going to mollify the person you're stealing from, of course. It might, however, stop you from looking like an idiot and a complete jackass about it. Cultures and religions steal stuff from one another all the time; it's how they survive in a changing world, and while that doesn't mean the people being stolen from don't have a right to be upset about it, it does mean that it's not something to be thoroughly ashamed of, especially if you put enough thought into the process to understand what you're doing and to try to be as inoffensive about it as possible.

(Does it make a difference who you steal from? Absolutely. While I do believe that everyone and all cultures deserve respect, I also think it makes sense to be a little more cautious about stealing from cultures which are used to being kicked by others than those which are used to doing the kicking. (The kickers might scream more, but they'll be hurt less.))

A more respectful stealing has a multitude of benefits for Paganism; it helps flesh out our practices and theology, it helps us know where we've come from (to better figure out where we're going), and it makes us a little more popular in the wider world. If anything, modern Paganism's sin has been in ignoring its own history more than anyone else's, so I'm not sure how offensive we tend to be (as opposed to ridiculous), but it's certainly not a subject to be ignored.

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