What do you believe in?
I do not mean “believe” in the small sense of the word, as in: “I believe in the power of positive thinking,” or, “I believe there is a mouse in the salad bowl.” I mean what do you BELIEVE in, fundamentally, passionately, all the way down to the very core of your being? There must be something.
Is it family?
Do you believe in something more, something that makes you who you are and yet exists outside the individual “self”?
Or are your beliefs simply little things that you can sit on a shelf and admire, and then put away when company comes over, to save you the embarrassment.
I have been thinking about a conversation I witnessed many years ago.
Once upon a time I used to enjoy roaming around a variety of online religion forums. On one occasion I found myself on a Paganism Debate board and I remember following along with a rather rousing debate between a devout Christian (on a mission) and a number of my fellow Pagans of various stripe.
These diatribes usually followed the same pattern: “You’re going to hell…, blah, blah…, worshipping Satan…, blah, blah…, accept Christ as your savior, blah blah.” It was all very routine until someone pointed out to the fellow that while he was free to believe all that about us, all we really required of him was to be left alone.
A simple enough request, on the surface, but not one that our would be benefactor would grant us. To allow us to deny God unchallenged, he alleged, would have been a denial of his faith. His love and devotion for Jesus, he alleged, was such that he would gladly give his life rather than deny his god.
Now this was certainly nothing new. The Christian who goes trolling through Pagan Debate Boards tends, in my experience, to have a fairly active persecution complex working. An extreme response of this nature was to be expected.
No, I was put off less by his aspirations to martyrdom, and more by the ridicule he received from my compatriots, in response to his zealous declaration. Rather than explaining that no one had asked him to give up even so much as his parking place, they told him that his devotion was foolish.
“If someone threatened to kill me if I didn’t pray to their god I would just do it. Why should I suffer when I can just do what they want me to do? Our gods just want us to be happy and safe. They wouldn’t care what we say or do to save ourselves.”
Oh, well sure, that’s okay then.
It’s fine to dishonor ourselves and vilify our gods as demons and falsehoods, as long as we are saving our own skin.
And the gods encourage that sort of thing, do they?
I think about that conversation all these years later and I cringe at how very small we must have seemed. How empty the arguments and mockery.
I do not think that they knew their gods at all.
We use this word a lot. We make sacrifice to our gods through libations and the burning of incense or candles. Maybe we give money or time to a worthy cause and we silently dedicate our actions to the gods.
We offer unto them our blood, sweat and tears. Well, maybe not so much with the blood, we tend to frown upon that these days. Actually, we frown upon giving up much of anything that would cause us discomfort, and therein lies the problem: we have forgotten what sacrifice means.
It’s not just about giving away things that we won’t miss or that we didn’t really need anyway. Sacrifice is about giving up something that had real and true value to you, something that you will miss.
It’s about suffering a loss, accepting a discomfort and sometimes it’s even about putting your life and livelihood on the line for something that you believe is worthy of that sacrifice.
It shouldn’t be a totally foreign concept.
Our brothers and sisters give up their lives every day to serve their country overseas.
Just last week we watched as regular folks transformed from spectators at a marathon into heroes, willing to risk their own lives to pull others out of harm’s way.
Before the shock of those events had passed, first-responders here in Texas were consumed in an explosion as they tried to hold back the flames of a raging chemical fire.
We honor these sacrifices.
How strange that we can find value in risking our lives for our friends, our neighbors and even for strangers we have never met, but we will deny our own most fundamental beliefs. Because to admit that we are different, that we worship many gods instead of one, might bring scorn from our family, friends and employers?
“Admit” — as if our beliefs were something to be ashamed of?
Certainly there are those who think we should be ashamed of ourselves for believing as we do. How much stronger do we make them when we hide ourselves away, deny our gods, practice our rites in secret, all the while fooling ourselves into thinking that our little sacrifices are worthy compensation?
If we want society to honor us, our employers to treat us equally, and our families and friends to love and respect us, we have to show them all that we respect ourselves first.
No one wants to suffer needlessly, but it is important that we do this. No minority group has ever won a place in society without a heaping dose of pain and suffering. The more of us willing to share that abuse among ourselves now, the easier it will be for those who will come after.
And more and more of us are doing exactly that.
We stand up in the light and honor the sacrifices of those who came before us.
We hold out our hands and ask that you join us.
May 2nd marks International Pagan Coming Out Day. Coming, as it does, on the heels of Beltane, itself a celebration of new beginnings and coming together, IPCOD is a splendid opportunity to take those first steps in being open with others about your beliefs. The more of us who are open about who and what we are, the more quickly we can create a society that will truly accept us and our beliefs.
Being open does not come without risks. Every closeted Pagan has his or her reasons for remaining so. I simply ask you to weigh those reasons against the power of your belief and decide for yourself which is stronger.
If we put ourselves out there, if we run toward the flames and the smoke, we can make ourselves strong for those who need us now and in the years to come. We can pull them out of harms way and into the light of a better day.
And may the gods accept our sacrifice.