Author: Root Holden
Combatting White Supremacy in Spiritual Communities Among Incarcerated Populations
White supremacists have appropriated Norse Heathen mythology and symbolism to create a group identity based on racist beliefs. These groups grow their membership in prisons because incarcerated people are vulnerable and searching for group affiliation for safety. Inclusive heathen organizations such as The Troth, Gullveig’s Hearth, and Heathens Against Hate provide prison in-reach services including study groups and rituals that are open to people of all races, genders, and sexualities. Incarcerated people need access to an inclusive, anti-racist pagan/heathen community to support their spiritual growth.
Heathenry is based on the reconstructed pre-Christian beliefs of Germanic pagans and Northern Europeans. Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic scholar, historian, and lawspeaker, documented these beliefs in the 13th century. By the time Sturluson was writing the Prose Edda, Poetic Edda, and additional sagas, Christianity had come to Iceland, so the stories Sturluson documented included Christian stories as well as an attempt to integrate Christian and Heathen beliefs. The texts by Sturluson along with other collected works such as the Havamal have been used to develop the Heathen belief system over the centuries. The latest wave of what we will define as Modern Heathenry began in the late 1960s in the United States, about the same time as the pagan spirituality movement in general.
The main practices in Modern Heathenry include living by a code of ethics and honoring the gods of Norse Mythology, the spirits of land, and ancestors. Different Heathens go about this in different ways. Some groups live by Heathen values but don’t necessarily believe in the gods as anything more than myths, others do seidr (magic), divination, ritual, and work with the gods daily. The most common theme among most, if not all Heathen groups, is living by a code of ethics that applies to everyone in the group and to which they will be held equally accountable. Modern Heathens honor Nine Noble Virtues or ideals to live by. These virtues are seen both as a way to live a good life and also to be seen favorably in the eyes of the gods. These virtues include
- Self Reliance, and
In developing a theological understanding of Heathenry, we need to look at the development of self and how spiritual work can inform that development. The Nine Noble Virtues were originally taken from a variety of sources, including the Havamal, which was said to have been written by Odin himself. It’s essentially a guidebook on how to be a good neighbor, community member, guest and host/ess, which are very important in a culture where a neighbor might be the person fighting next to you to defend your village or asking for a safe place to sleep as they travel.
Hospitality is one of the virtues that we consider when working on prison in-reach services. Speaking from the perspective of The Troth, an inclusive heathen organization based in the United States, Heathens from outside our community and prospective Heathens are welcome to join The Troth and come to Troth events so long as they agree to agreements about frith (group safety, security, and friendship), inclusivity, and anti-racist work. Prison in-reach services are offered as part of this hospitality, as we are connecting with a part of our community that is temporarily incarcerated.
In addition to the white supremacist movement impacting heathenry, there is currently a lack of BIPOC inclusion in pagan circles within prisons, which prevents BIPOC from being from getting access to a community which could help provide a better level of safety while incarcerated. Heathenry is available to people of all races, genders, sexualities, etc, and inclusive organizations such as The Troth and Gullveig’s Hearth providing in-reach services can help disrupt the white supremacist narrative that is being used to acquire new members by creating inclusive spaces and providing curriculum and reading materials that debunk the white supremacist myths that come up in Modern Heathenry.
Loyalty is a second major theme that applies to prison in-reach services, as it is up to the individual to decide and live up to the standard that is being set by the group. The concept of frith mentioned early, refers to a feeling of community connectedness and security that group membership offers. Frith requires loyalty among members, but only so far as an individual feels that the other members are also acting in frith. Outside of incarceration when members are discovered to be racist or not adhering to the values of the group, they are given a chance through education and mentoring to deal with their views and behaviors or to be removed from group membership. In the modern day, a person could just go find another group to be a part of, but the idea of exclusion or banishment could have been a death sentence in earlier times. In the case of incarcerated individuals, the goal is to help people find a better path through education, spiritual development, and connection with the divine through ritual and prayer.
Through prison in-reach services, the Heathen community can provide incarcerated individuals space for education, community affiliation, connection with the divine, and spiritual tools to aid in their growth. By providing those tools with a theme of inclusivity and anti-racist actions, this growth could help incarcerated people who may be going down the path of white supremacy simply out of fear and a need for protection in numbers. Spiritual growth can take place while a person is incarcerated, and having that community offering continued support post-release can assist people in finding a new path, rather than going back to prison due to newly indoctrinated messaging about race. Inclusive organizations can provide that education and support to incarcerated people through the support of prison chaplains who are open to supporting non-Abrahamic traditions.
Gustavo Gutierrez is the originator of Liberation theologian. Liberation theology is a practical theology that focuses on the liberation of the oppressed through the practice (praxis) of social activism and taking action to help the poor. In this passage for example, he discusses Guaman Poma de Ayala taking action to “promote justice and help for the poor”. Liberation theologians see suffering and evil as due to human action, specifically the actions of the oppressor, not the oppressed. The oppressed suffer the “evil of misfortune”, which they can be liberated from by taking action against the oppressor.
Liberation theology includes the foundational belief that we are all “the daughters and sons of God” but that “God prefers the poor in a special sense…the whole Bible is written from the perspective of the poor: its promise, its promises, are for the poor”. It is also a theology of hope in that even in asking the question “My God, where are you?” Gutierrez points out we are showing faith that there is a higher power.
Liberation theology includes scripture as a source of authority when interpreted as a source of faith and hope for liberation from oppression. Reason is used to reflect on injustice and to critically investigate the sources of oppression. The empowerment of the oppressed is found in the language of the Bible, with phrases like “Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth” in Matthew 5:5 and “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” In Matthew 5:6.
Salvation comes in the form of earthly works. Freedom from sin would be achieved by stopping the oppression that a person is responsible for through their role in capitalism. Helping the poor and oppressed is the job both of the church and also of the individual who can take care of their neighbors.
In Liberation theology, experiences of oppression and liberation are foundational to the theology and necessary for salvation. Gutierrez will be looking for stories like we find in Exodus 2: 23-25, where the king of Egypt dies and God hears the cries of the enslaved Israelites. In this story, God remembers his covenant with the sons of Israel, and in Exodus 3: 7-12 he speaks to Moses about bringing his people out of Egypt. This is a story of oppression and salvation through God’s hand and his followers that is used as a standard example of liberation.
Gutierrez would also be looking for places where God calls upon a person or people to help the poor and in particular stories of Jesus using his power or influence to heal and empower. In Luke 10: 28 we are told to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, setting us as the caretakers of those around us in need of help. He would also look at systems of oppression and those who are causing evil and oppression and their need to repent and change their ways in order to find salvation.
Solle, Dorothee. Thinking about God: An Introduction to Theology. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers. 1997. (39)
Delores Williams is a womanist theologian. In her writing she references the lack of inclusion of Black women in black liberation theology, the focus on Israel’s liberation to the detriment of the “oppressed of the oppressed” and “the figures in the Bible whose experience is analogous to that of Black women”. Womanist theology focuses on the experiences of Black women as foundational to its theology with a goal of liberation for all by focusing on the most underrepresented and marginalized people, Black women. Womanist theology is also a liberation theology that came as a critique of Black Liberation theology due to the lack of inclusion of Black women.
Womanist theology applies the intersectional analysis of systemic oppression developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw to draw parallels between Black women and people in scripture who face systemic oppression due to multiple facets of their identities, including race, gender, and class. In this passage, Williams referenced “the oppressed of the oppressed”. Intersectional theology, Postcolonial feminist theology, and Black Liberation theology also look at systems of oppression, but only Womanist theology specifically uses the experience of Black women as a foundation for their theological method.
Womanist theology applies a hermeneutics of suspicion with scripture, and does not take scripture literally but does include it as a foundation. Williams directs theologians to find passages in scripture that they can relate to as individuals as well as the “biblical faith, events and biblical characters with whom the community has identified”. Theologians are also instructed to apply a hermeneutic of suspicion, looking at the sociopolitical context of scripture as it was written as well as the context and biases of the interpreters along the way.
Faith in tradition is also a piece of the womanist theology foundation. Theologians are directed to look at what has been “revealed in sermons, songs… liturgy, ritual” which are part of the tradition. It is not faith without reason though, as Williams is asking theologians to look at those pieces of tradition and apply socio-political analysis to them to find the biases that will come through in their scriptural interpretation. Finally, she asks for a thoughtful look at who is missing from the stories of biblical writers, as womanist theology is inclusive of all people by focusing on those who are most often left out.
Williams would likely interpret scripture from a place of questioning and focus on the most oppressed. She would look for stories of Black women specifically as well as stories of the “oppressed of the oppressed” whose situations are most able to be identified with by a Black woman. She would pay attention to systems of oppression including racism, sexism, and misogyny, and interpret the stories from the perspective of the oppressed rather than the oppressor.
Womanist theology connects to the stories of Mary and Jesus Christ from a perspective of shared pain. The story of a young pregnant woman with few resources giving birth with little support while temporarily unhoused due to outside circumstances can share key experiences with a contemporary person. A mother losing her son to government forces, forced to watch him suffer and die with only the hope of his salvation in the afterlife is an unfortunate but common circumstance for Black mothers. Williams would look for those stories that she can connect with and that tell the story of her community, to bring hope and connection to her community. She would not interpret the stories literally, but see characters as symbolic of the struggles of oppressor and oppressed.
To learn more about Delores Williams, visit: https://www.religion-online.org/author/delores-s-williams/
What is Contextual Theology?
Contextual theology is a category of theology that recognizes the contextual nature of theology and uses parts of that context to inform the theology in development. Context is everything that is happening alongside the theological process that could potentially inform it, including the sociopolitical, cultural, racial, economic, ecological, and historic climate. All theology takes place in a variety of contexts, but it is up to the theologian and defined within the theological method they use to decide what piece(s) of context are used to inform the development of their theology.
The contexts for the development of womanist theology include the civil rights movement in the United States, the development of Black liberation theology, and the ongoing oppression of Black women through multiple facets of their identities. The quotation includes multiple indications of context including phrases like “If Black liberation theology wants to include Black women…” and “Black liberation theology’s bias against Black women” suggesting that they were not included in the movement. Williams directs theologians to review what is missing in “Biblical aspects of the community’s faith-journey are revealed in sermons, songs…” specifically for the experiences of Black women due to socio-political bias.
The contexts for the development of liberation theology include Gutierrez’s experience in Latin America working with the poor and oppressed, seeing where the church was only working for the needs of the middle class and above, and finding language and similar issues being called out through Marxism including class struggle, capitalism, and minority ownership in the means of production. Lifting the oppressed from poverty and achieving social change through praxis is a necessary foundation in liberation theology.
The contexts for the development of eco-feminist theology included the development of nuclear technologies which were a huge concern for environmental activists. The impending ecological crises between a potential nuclear meltdown and the destruction of the environment launched a piece of the feminist movement that focused on a Mother Earth goddess and which McFague adopted into Christian theology with a metaphorical God as a mother aka earth.
What is theological method?
The theological method is the process used by theologians to connect with God’s message as it is revealed and find meaning through its interpretation. Sources of divine revelation can come in the form of scripture, reason, tradition, and experience. Theologians then engage in study and discussion of the interpretation of the messages so that they can share the exegesis or meaning of the message with a contemporary audience. Each theological method has defined epistemological truths, which are the foundational philosophical beliefs that theologians will use to judge the meaning and importance of revelations.
What is a priestess?
I define a priestess as a person who serves individuals, the community, and the divine. This role could be equivalent to a nun, a minister, or other types of spiritual leaders, including leadership of the spiritual community, activities that support community members, and communion with the divine.
“Priestess” does not refer to the gender of the person, rather to the type of service that is being performed. I use the term priestess as it’s used by the Reclaiming Tradition Collective, as spiritual worker who shares power, co-creates ritual, and supports, in the case of Reclaiming, a non-hierarchically structured community.
However, everyone priestesses in their own way. One person may be a devotee of a goddess and maintain a temple space online. Another may work as a pastoral care chaplain in a hospice.
My skills as a priestess were developed through classes and participation with the following organizations:
I am currently attending United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities to receive training as an Interreligious Chaplain. I am currently in a process of discernment to decide what professional role I will choose and what field I would like to work in. Examples would be a spiritual care chaplain in a hospital setting, assisted living facility, correctional center, or university campus. I will use my skills as a priestess, coupled with my skills learned through seminary to support the community.
About the Author
Welcome! I’m The Root System, a plural person who uses they/them pronouns. Call me Root.
I’m located in Dakota / Anishinaabe territories on the shore of Gichigamiing also known as Duluth, MN.
I was raised Catholic with a Polish folk twist, picked up my first occult book and a set of runes at a crystal shop when I was 15, and my spiritual work has followed that path since. I spent 10 years working in the Reclaiming Tradition co-creating ritual and student-teaching classes on the Elements of Magic, Iron, and Pearl Pentacles.
Since my move to Minnesota in 2018, I’ve been exploring Norse mythology and inclusive heathenry with The Troth and recently began the Bard grade course with the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids (OBOD).
I’m currently attending United Theological Seminary Twin Cities working toward a Master of Divinity in Interreligious Chaplaincy.
I am also the Gender Stories podcast producer working with the delightful host Alex Iantaffi.