In the past, witches gathered secretively in woods, fields, and abandoned buildings. Sometimes they got lucky, and a spouse knew about their practices and embraced the group. Far too often, witches were simply forced to practice alone to protect themselves. When you died or were seriously ill, your coven would scramble to find your book of shadows and magical tools before your family did. Being found out could mean that your family and yourself were disgraced, lost jobs, and were driven out of your very home for either being “insane” or a “devil-worshiper”. Being a known witch meant you would lose your child in a custody case. If you accepted money for your practices, you could be charged as a “fraudulent medium”. You depended on your coven to keep your secret safe and you safer. Anything less than perfect love and perfect trust could spell disaster.
We’re much more fortunate these days, at least in parts of the United States and Europe. We hold Pagan Pride days, exchange spells over the internet in public forums, and, perhaps most importantly, we gather together boldly and proudly in temples and churches that our very own governments recognizes as legal and valid.
With this open and accessible freedom, however, comes fresh waves of unfamiliar faces into our circles and sanctuaries. For the first time, we’re having “open circles” that general members of the public are encouraged to attend. People being people, some will come and some will stay. Some we will embrace as friends, and others will, at best, garner polite nods from us in public (if we really, really have to). Paganism is still new and fresh enough that many of us are afraid of driving others away, afraid that our numbers will diminish again and we’ll be forced back into hiding. Once you’ve been accepted as a Pagan, our community becomes desperate to keep you, willing to overlook small (and large, grotesque) offenses “for the sake of peace and community.” This drive to welcome everyone into the fold can be both a blessing and a curse.
While our numbers continue to grow (Wicca is listed as one of the fastest growing religions in the United States) thanks to this open nature, it also means that words and actions are tolerated from some individuals who, to be blunt, end up being little more than leeches on the community, ego-maniacal cult leaders, or even dangerous sexual predators. We enter into circles with them, mouth the words “perfect love and perfect trust”, and when the last car pulls away from the circle we let out a sigh of relief and mentally curse them for, once again, failing to contribute anything to the evening other than lewd comments or sour feelings.
We pretend that we don’t notice when those who abusers hurt stop showing up to gatherings. Maybe we pretend that the victims were the ones causing all the drama, and with them gone, at least we won’t be confronted with things we don’t know how to deal with.
Some witches will, on principle, refuse to stand in a circle with these people, whether they were a victim or not. They will argue that they cannot honor the vow of “perfect love and perfect trust” with THAT person participating, and so the situation becomes an uncomfortable one. Do we let go someone who may be a deeply loved friend for the sake of one or two people who are “stirring the pot?” Do we tell the accused person to find some other circle and hope someone else more equipped knows what to do with them? Maybe we pretend it was just a misunderstanding, who are we to judge, where is the evidence?
I’ve struggled with this for years, both as someone participating in a circle and someone watching from the sidelines and wondering why, yet again, nothing was done to protect our community. The excuses never change. There’s the ever-present politics, of course, as if there’s a certain level of community involvement you need to participate in to earn the right to molest someone. Some people are overly forgiving and believe that “it won’t happen again.” Still others are merrily, blissfully clueless as to the toxic levels in the community because no one is willing to name names and open themselves up to a possible lawsuit.
So how do we stand in a circle full of “strangers” and reconcile this with “perfect love and perfect trust”? We don’t. We’ve lost that luxury, if we ever really had it, and the casualties of our willful ignorance are suffering because of it.
Christians preach that anyone can be forgiven if they only accept their demigod as a savior. I believe, as Pagans, that we should know and accept that forgiveness isn’t freely given and trust is earned, and when someone enters your circle or community ask yourself these things:
1. Are they hurting people with their actions?
2. Are they participating in illegal activities?
3. Has anyone thought to perform a background check on them?
4. Do things just not line up with their stories?
I will never advocate welcoming into community the child molester, the compulsive liar, the embezzler, or the domestic abuser. There is no place amongst us for those who seek to prey on others or use our community to build a throne for themselves. Ultimately, these people are so destructive and cancerous to our existence that no amount of donating, volunteering, excuses, or personal feelings of friendship to them will ever make them okay. These are the people who need to be practicing alone, away from others, and if they seek forgiveness let them find it through dedicated work on their own. I am tired of losing my community to those who are hungry to hurt others. I am tired of hearing the old refrain “This is why I gave up on community.”
I am not a Christian. I do not believe it is my job to save your soul, or demonstrate through personal purity how one should live. But I am, nonetheless, a child of the gods and goddesses, just as you are. We are all of us made of stardust. I recognize, through the stories of my faith, that even the gods have faults, even heroes can be corrupted, and even the truly terrible can redeem themselves. Everyone can be saved, but you cannot save everyone, and you cannot do it by putting the innocent into harm’s way.
I have been at points in my life so full of ignorance, ugliness, and despair that my whole body shudders at remembering, and my shame rises up so thick I could choke on it. These are my deeply personal Dark Nights of the Soul. They are the times that I failed someone, hurt them, and reveled in the destruction I could cause as an extension of my own suffering. There will never, ever be a way to make amends for the things that I have done. There isn’t supposed to be. Forgiveness is not a destination, it is a road you travel all of your days, a debt you can never repay to someone. It is an old scar that still hurts, reminding you to be careful, to be compassionate and never again let yourself become a monster. It is your own duty, not the responsibility of someone else, to change. It is a burden you carry alone.
Every month, for years, it’s the same thing. A victim is brave enough to speak. They are harassed by the community for “causing trouble” and “airing dirty laundry” and we are all urged to not “convict someone in the court of public opinion.” The victim is harassed, they are inevitably chased out of the community, and ranks are closed around an abuser. “Perfect love and perfect trust” we murmur happily to ourselves. “Let’s all get along for the sake of community.” And the predator, safe and protected, chooses another victim.
Examine your community. Run background checks, ask for references, and listen when someone is brave enough to come forward with what they know. Be discerning in who you stand with and always willing to report a crime. Be willing to reexamine what you think you know about a person. And if you have made mistakes, if you have sided with the abuser over the victim, or allowed a predator to remain amongst you because of what they offered, correct it now. You will never make it right, but you can prevent it from happening again. You must.
[Ashley Nicole Hunter ….]