This post addresses religion as well as a social issue. If religion is not your cup of tea, then it may not be your favorite post on the ‘Lancer. For those who stick around to the end, you will see why I had to write it.
On Sunday, April 13, 2014, a rabid anti-Semite from Missouri named Frazier Glenn Cross allegedly committed lethal violence at a Jewish Community Center and a Jewish assisted living home in Kansas City, Kansas. Reminding us that bigots usually aren’t too bright, the killer couldn’t even commit a gutless hate crime against defenseless people according to intentions. So happens that the three murder victims were all Christians.
That’s kind of like if Cliven Bundy had fired on the BLM, but through poor aim, killed a couple of sagebrush and a Steller’s jay.
That was bad enough. Then CNN got into the act, focusing on Cross’s ties to the Ku Klux Klan, the ‘White Patriot Party,’ and Odinism. Odinism might best be described as a subset of Asatru, the modern incarnation of the pre-Christian heathen beliefs of the ancient Germanic peoples (Norse, Goths, Suevii, etc.). I happen to be Asatru, so that randomly flung grenade sent shrapnel my direction, and I didn’t like it. It was careless and ignorant–but I know why it happened. The primary reason, which is that CNN is sloppy, lousy and sensationalistic, is becoming evident enough to most people that I don’t see a need to belabor that.
Some ass was chewed, and CNN presented another viewpoint–without, of course, demonstrating integrity by openly admitting that it had thrown a grenade blindfolded. This piece was by an Asatruar, and it presented an extended version of what I call the Standard Heathen ‘We Aren’t Nazis or Racists’ Disclaimer. You will find it on nearly every webpage associated with Asatru. You even get it from some representatives of some Asatru groups whether you ask about it or not, as one of their first points of description/explanation. When it is presented pre-emptively, one may fairly say they are touchy about it. It seems to anticipate the first question as: “Are you Nazis?”
Maybe that usually is the first question. I don’t know. No one ever asks me if I’m a Nazi.
Why would they be so touchy? Partly because of stuff like this CNN business. You might be touchy too, firing off pre-emptive disclaimers, if verbally incontinent and factually challenged news organizations periodically did stuff like this to your religion.
But its journalistic and ethical bankruptcy is not the only reason CNN conflated Odinism with racism; that simply made it possible. Nor did they do it simply because we are presumed weird, non-mainstream, fair game for such things–true as that may happen to be in a theocratic nation where the theo- in question is not our own.
Partly it was because there’s a grain of truth in there. Not enough to justify the way the article put it, but one that we must address. We cannot say we have addressed it until we confront it. We cannot confront it until we admit it.
Before we talk about what Asatru is not, let’s talk about what–for most of its adherents, including all of those who were paying attention when they read the ancient materials–Asatru is. The term means ‘true to the gods,’ as in, the Aesir (Odin, Thor, etc.). However, it’s not precise that way, because the Vanir (Frey, Freyja, etc.) are also revered by most Asatruar. There are people who self-identify as Vanatru, but that splits a hair. There is nothing fundamentally racist about Odinism, which is not to say an Odinist cannot also be a racist. A few are. Some keep it on the down low. It speaks well for us as a movement that they need to keep it there, but not well enough to satisfy me.
For most of its professing believers, Asatru is not just loyalty to the ancient gods. It also means a code of conduct based upon nine Noble Virtues derived from ancient lore: courage, truth, honor, fidelity, discipline, hospitality, industriousness, self-reliance, perseverance. A failure in any of those areas is shameful for any Asatruar (adherent).
Asatruar (it’s also the plural term) greatly esteem the ability to give and keep an oath. Politically, we lean right/libertarian on average, with a high emphasis upon personal responsibility. If an observant Asatruar fairly owes you money, you won’t have to send a collection agent after him or her. S/he will see to it that his or her obligations are met, or stand accountable. We have no salvation from the consequences of wrongs we do, save that granted by those wronged (and it isn’t recompense until the victim or his/her kin say it is). Asatru is not a pacifist belief system; we believe there are times when one must fight, and that one should do so with valor and ferocity. I dislike that I even need to mention that cowardly murders, such as those of innocent people at community centers and old folks’ homes, are diametrically opposed to Asatru values. A more Asatru behavior would have been to guard such places, and gun this murderer down in his tracks at the first sign he demonstrated a threat. And your typical Asatruar would own the firepower and will to do just that. Most Asatruar would have tackled him even unarmed, and if they died doing so, reckoned that an admirable end.
Let’s relate this to the hate criminal in Kansas City. As we reckon it, he was not only an idiot, but a coward, and he deprived innocent people of life. No amount of prayer will do him a damn bit of good. If the world operated according to our values, he would be outlawed, meaning that he could legally be killed as a public service. By anyone. He would owe weregild (compensation) to the kin of his victims, if they would accept it, which they would not need to do. His status is one of odium, not Odinism.
I often wish you, society, would let us do it that way.
Asatru is not an easy path, but it satisfies those of us who follow it, and helps guide us toward right conduct. Such conduct makes us outstanding friends, partners, hosts, guests, neighbors, business contacts, employees and warriors. It is completely egalitarian, recognizing no gender bias. We do not proselytize, so you will never find Asatruar at your door handing out tracts about Thor. I suppose we have some homophobes, but most of us don’t care who you boink.
The Asatru movement has several large, loosely-knit organizations that have zero say in the way local Asatruar handle their business, either individually or in groups. It could not be any other way. We don’t boss around easily, especially when one bears in mind that we don’t turn the other cheek. Many Asatruar are firearms or blade enthusiasts. Military service is an esteemed career among us. If oath-keeping and courage lead us to a grave, we esteem that a worthy way to die. Just as we are good friends, we make bad enemies, and a threat from an Asatruar is good enough reason to make plans to defend oneself. We are a fierce people, without apologies for that.
Asatru and Wicca (a far more numerous neo-pagan belief system, of which more people have heard) differ markedly. Many Asatruar heap scorn upon Wicca, though many also found their way to Asatru through Wicca. As for the greater neo-pagan movement, the best capsule summary of Asatru I’ve ever read is that we are ‘the Klingons of neo-paganism.’ Far nearer the truth than not, even though most Asatruar dislike the label ‘pagan,’ preferring ‘heathen.’ I’m not touchy about it, but most are.
On race, the subject brought to the fore by this event and its perpetrator, we vary. This variance of belief is generally accepted with comfortable mingling. For the most part, that is a good thing, because we don’t have very many real racists, let alone racial supremacists. However, in one area, it exposes a serious problem within Asatru. I’m going to talk candidly about it, and it’s going to offend and/or alienate some people.
Some will be mad because they know I’m right, but am saying the thing we aren’t supposed to say, making public an issue that most prefer to paper over. In my view, Asatruar need to face facts and take a stand themselves, for the sake of honor, truth and courage.
Some will be mad because I will have explicitly taken a stand against them. They need to build a large fire and leap in, because they are the members of the hate groups who call themselves Asatru. I am their enemy. I refuse to make nice, or to pretend comradeship I don’t feel.
We might assign Asatruar ‘wings,’ resembling political divides, for the sake of discussion and understanding. The primary questions that divide us involve views on ancestry and racialism. For purposes of this discussion, please use this definition of racialism: the notion that ethnic heritage is worthy of note, or can ever play a valid role. I would define racism as the notion that ethnic heritage is a grounds for exclusion, discrimination or antipathy in any form. I would define racial supremacism as racism with the added component of assumed superiority.
Far left: essentially Norse Wicca, which is to say, Wicca with Norse overtones. This view rejects racialism. There is minimal consideration of the Eddas and examples from the sagas, or the differences between Nordic and other pre-Christian pagan beliefs. Norse Wicca tends to be near-standard Wicca with Germanic deity names. I won’t go so far as to say they are not Asatru, but I suspect the Norse Wiccans would decline the label. Let’s say that if they adopt the label at all, their version minimally resembles mine, except in the ways that most life-affirming religions resemble each other.
Moderate left: universalism. Universalist Asatruar also reject the notion that race or heritage play any role in being Asatru. So far as I am aware, neither the Eddas nor the historical record say anything directly about race or heritage as they relate to religion, so they are on firm ground. In the first place, the universalists would point out, the Germanic peoples got around a lot; other peoples also got around to them. In the second, deeds and conduct matter far more. In the third, short of a mandatory genealogical study, we can’t really know anyway. (One could have great hilarity compiling and publishing genealogies on known racist leaders, considering that the typical ‘white’ American is probably about 10% nonwhite.) Anyone can get in, and deeds and conduct are all that pertain.
Center: tribalism. Tribalist Asatruar, like myself, consider it fairly natural that Germanic ancestry is a draw to the belief system (as best we understand it today) of one’s ancestors. The best I can describe this, from my own experience, is that it felt like coming home to what and who I was. However, a tribalist does not concern him/herself much, if at all, with whether others profess or possess Germanic roots. Put another way, if someone shows up, and feels truly drawn to Asatru ways, and lives an Asatru lifestyle, we reckon that common ground. If they ain’t blood kin, we can adopt them as such, strengthening us. Just because I feel drawn this direction by my own roots doesn’t mean I can assess anyone else’s commitment, or how they came to it, except in terms of how their actions demonstrate it. This is slightly racialist, but only on a personal level.
Moderate right: folkish. Folkish Asatru teaches as a core tenet that Germanic peoples are descendants of their ancient gods. However, that does not mean that folkish groups make a habit of inquiring into one’s heritage, or that they consider themselves superior to any other culture. The most similar (if not precisely analogous) examples would be some Native American belief systems, or Judaism. Folkish Asatruar respect such beliefs, and do not place themselves above or below any such group. In fact, if you took a poll of folkish Asatruar, you’d probably find that many admire Israel’s warrior spirit and strongly support Native Americans’ right not to have their culture strip-mined by outsiders. The Noble Virtues matter greatly to folkish Asatruar, but they would at least wonder why someone with zero discernible Germanic heritage might be drawn to Asatru. It’s fair to call that racialist. If grounds for exclusion, it is racist.
Far right: basically, Team Adolf. There is an extremist wing calling itself Asatru that is avowedly racist. Such groups are not necessarily violent, but for me, the key breaking point is that their doors are flatly barred to non-whites, and that many are racial supremacists. Many sympathize with Nazism, which means they favor a viewpoint that committed mass murder of many innocent people. Many, probably most, are Holocaust deniers, which means they are idiots concerning the historical record. Team Adolf is an embarrassment to respectable Asatruar at the very least–you can infer that from The Disclaimer. At mainstream gatherings, if Team Adolf shows up, it is usually sensible enough to keep its real beliefs toned down. Put another way, if a bunch of assholes start singing the Horst Wessel Song at a mainstream Althing, they’ll be squelched (I know of one instance where this actually occurred). A lot of Team Adolf is in jail, and/or joined Team Adolf there. That usually results in some symbols.
So let’s talk about symbols. The Nazis misappropriated a number of honorable and venerable Germanic emblems, making them hateful in most people’s eyes. There’s a lot of debate among Asatruar about symbols. I can tell you where I stand: I believe that we must reject and disfellowship racists and hate groups, which begins by calling them out in noisy and vulgar fashion. I believe we must not legitimize such groups in any way. I believe that the Holocaust was the ultimate dishonorable action, and that it is honorable and right for us to show respect for the many innocent people dead, brutally mistreated, robbed, tortured and otherwise subjected to unwarranted cruelty–not so much because we’re Asatru, but because we’re decent human beings with a sense of justice and compassion.
One way to show that respect is to set aside the swastika. We don’t have to concede that a very ancient good luck symbol is now fundamentally evil; I for one will not concede that, not least because it concedes a victory to Nazis, who will get nothing from me that they’d like. We should, however, abjure its display and use in public or private. This serves to nail our colors to the mast, emphasizing our hostility to the Nazi movement and its modern illegitimate spawn. I believe that, while no one has the right to demand this of us, they shouldn’t need to; we should do it for our own reasons and by choice, because it’s the right thing. I also believe that, with this done, we have the moral right to reclaim and use other symbols that were perverted in the name of evil, provided we do so in honorable causes and with consideration and common sense. I think it would be a stupid overreaction to remove the S-rune from the Elder Futhark, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to think it’s cool to tattoo two of them side by side on one’s body. Rights must be balanced with consideration and compassion in their exercise, if that exercise is to be thought honorable.
So. Mainstream modern Asatru is not racist, though some aspects have racialist overtones to one degree or another, not unlike some other groups. The racists are the fringe. But our movement has a problem. And if bringing this up makes some people angry, maybe they should ask themselves why.
Here’s the problem: we don’t always draw the line firmly enough, take the right stand. I have seen a desire to avoid making waves, or a reluctance to exclude, taken too far in many Asatru situations. This can take the form of tolerating the presence of Team Adolf, as long as it behaves (in essence, lies about itself by omission). Part of the logic probably stems from the strong individualism of Asatruar, and our nonjudgmental tendency concerning professed belief (and one that has positive sides, which is how universalist, tribalist and folkish Asatruar can find common spiritual ground). Part of it is just fear of confrontation. There may be other motivations I don’t understand, but I don’t really care what those are. There are no valid excuses.
To me, non-confrontation and tolerance toward evil serve to sweep the problem under the rug, where it is never disposed of. That’s just not good enough. Where it exists, tolerance of Team Adolf harms our movement. It lends a fig leaf of respectability to those who have forfeited all respect. It leads to stuff like this CNN article, which offends me with its ignorance, but we would have a stronger foundation against such ignorance if we did our rightful part by slamming the door in Team Adolf’s face at every turn. Why does the Southern Poverty Law Center keep suggesting that the smoke of racism, that some associate with Asatru, has its source in a small but actual fire? Because the fire does exist. And it exists because we do not hose it down with cold water, as noisily and fiercely as we can arrange. We post The Disclaimer, but we do not all refuse every association with members of Team Adolf.
There’s another reason to be vocal, a personal one. I’m the one who often points out that if other religions do not want to be lumped in with the scum who pollute their belief systems, they need to step forward and be vocal in that opposition. Christians should shun and condemn the late Fred Phelps’ picketing club, for example (and most do). Muslims should not make nice with extremists who murder (and I think most do not). Every group has low-lifes who wave its flag and do wrong. I can’t tell others they ought to take out their own trash unless I’m willing to help haul ours.
Take for example the pedophile priest revelations within the Roman Catholic Church. The pedophiles themselves were disturbing enough; what compounded the issue was that the church hierarchy warehoused pedophiles rather than defrock them and turn them over to the police. If your religion has an internal problem that some of your people aren’t taking seriously enough, and your religion matters to you, you will stand up. And you won’t be intimidated by big-name religious leaders. If a Catholic, for example, you’d make your point to your clergy hierarchy. And if they tried to pressure you to silence, you’d refuse. If they hinted at consequences, you’d tell them to bring it on. You either live by your principles or not. Sometimes leaders need to be clocked on the head and dragged back to their principles.
Was I eager to write a post calling out some Asatruar (whom I would otherwise respect) for lack of action? Of course not. I’m no social activist. Am I glad that this post will stay with me, and make it problematic for me to fit into some Asatru social circles? Surely not–but going-along-to-get-along, refusal to make waves, legitimization through silence, is less bearable to me than solitude. If not a form of outright enablement, at the very least it fails to answer the bell for action.
To the degree that it associates itself with Asatru, Team Adolf makes itself our problem, because the world notices. The Disclaimer is not adequate. We must reject Team Adolf, refuse kinship with it, and cuss it up and down the floor. We must stop looking the other way. The standard disclaimers aren’t good enough.
One of my greatest pet peeves is people who don’t believe their own philosophy. Do I really believe in courage, truth, honor, fidelity, discipline, hospitality, industriousness, self-reliance, perseverance?
Either I do or I don’t, and sometimes living our beliefs means we have to fight, or that we may pay a price.
And now you see why I had to do it.