The Problem of the Pagan “Us and Them”

When I questioned the place of compassion in Pagan and Polytheist philosophy a couple of weeks back, I got an interesting response from one of my readers, “LaurelhurstLiberal”. She wrote,

“Now, about compassion: as a Heathen Reconstructionist, this is one of the big questions I’m still trying to puzzle out. Right now, it seems to me that a Heathen should be a good neighbor and a good citizen, but isn’t necessarily supposed to have capital-C Compassion for everybody in the world. There are people inside the gates that you particularly need to take care of, and those outside the gates should be helped, or at least not harmed, but not at the cost of those inside the gates. I think that’s difficult enough without trying for a saintly level of universal compassion.”

Steven T. Abell, storyteller and Patheos columnist, followed up on this idea in his post, Compassion in Cold Climates, by explaining in detail the ideas of Inangard and Utgard, or “Inside and Outside”, “Us and Them”.

I appreciate both L.L and Steven’s attempt at unpacking these ideas, but I have to come clean here and admit that I’m having a very difficult time with this way of thinking.

I have been “outside of the gates” on many occasions, and perhaps this is a part of why I have reservations about religious or cultural systems which place a value on reinforcing the boundaries of the group. Build a wall, and there will always be someone on the other side of the wall, be it women, gays, trans-folk among the gays, or Pagans. The list of those being othered is long, and it includes many of us. This list is added to every time a new “Us and Them” philosophy is created; or, for that matter, an old “Us and Them” is re-constructed. So, for me, the question is less about how to treat those on the outside of the wall, and more a question of whether the wall is even appropriate anymore.

I appreciate that inspiration comes to many Reconstructionists from exploring ancient cultural practices. I used to think Reconstructionism was very rigid, but author and Celtic Reconstructionist, Erynn Laurie, changed my mind during the 2012 Pantheacon Conference. Now I understand that searching for information about the ancients is a source of great inspiration for many of us. It can be the launching point for our spiritual practice, and I respect that. Truth be told, I look to the past for meaning as well.

But there’s still something about the reclaiming of an ancient “Us and Them” philosophy that rubs me the wrong way.

I wonder if strengthening our sense of separateness requires us to ignore other ways in which we are connected. If there was ever a case to be made for questioning models of thinking that reinforce our culturally constructed boundaries, it is the current ecological crisis. The air we breath, the water that falls from the sky — these things care nothing about our walls. They do not acknowledge our rationale for keeping some people in, and leaving others out. The Earth does not discriminate based on how we’ve chosen to group ourselves. We share our resources, we share this planet, and we share — contrary to what some politicians would say — the responsibility of her upkeep.

There is a connection between the personal and the global that doesn’t seem to be acknowledged within a binary, “Us and Them” worldview. There are never only two of us; there is always at least a third. We have evidence that our individual actions have far-reaching effects (see the Great Pacific Garbage Patch), and we have tools — namely, the internet — which provide evidence of a diverse, culturally eclectic and totally interdependent world outside of the cultural boundaries we create. We are undeniably interconnected.

Steven writes in his column,

“You can try to solve the world’s problems. You will fail. Or you can try to solve your own problems. You might succeed. You can work at various scales, but focus on things close at hand. The world will be better for it, as will your place in it.”

I like where he ends, and I wonder if it is more accurate to say that our personal problems are the world’s problems, and likewise the problems of the world belong to each of us. Working from this, can we ask whether or not our personal systems, religious or secular, are supporting an awareness of our interconnectedness, or are they reinforcing a philosophy of division?


51 responses to “The Problem of the Pagan “Us and Them””

  1. Pax Avatar

    As a Pagan and Witch who, while I no longer embrace the term Wiccan, was ~strongly~ influenced by the non-initiatory streams of Wicca and the writings of many Wiccans… I find this discussion reminding me of the line from Valliente’s Charge of The Goddess…

    “Love unto all beings is my Law’

    Love, and Compassion, are values and virtues that are sometimes easy to talk about but much more difficult to put into practice.

    How do we find love, or compassion, for someone who has abused us or done us personal wrong?  How do we find them for those who have done great wrongs in the past, but now seek a path of true repentance and restitution?

    I think the ideas of Utgard and Inangard, as he explains them, CANNOT be seperated from Frith and Grith…  There are those we embrace willingly, and those we are forced by circumstance and custom to deal with…

    I would encourage folks to also research the ideas of Xenia and Philos and Xenos in ancient Greek…

    Our modern discussions of Compassion, and indeed a lot of our society and culture are influenced by the dominant Monotheism’s and their Dualistic … either/or worldview… yet it seems to me that the world is often more complicated than either/or…. I like the concept of healthy boundaries that Abell’s post speaks of… and implied in the Ancient Greek.

    Just from the top of my head,

  2. […] there is a fascinating discussion of Compassion and boundaries and relationship entitled The Problem of the Pagan ‘Us and Them’ going on over at Bishop in The Grove over on the Patheos Pagan Portal.   At the same time, or at […]

  3. Tamalia Avatar

    Someone shared this book with me that points out many things in the church that strengthens the urge not to be a Christian. After reading this I saw that those who are least like Christ are Christians! Maybe the author didn’t mean for it to be used as literary suicide to his belief’s position by Atheist but glad it was shared with me. PLEASE Share with your friends! See it here: and

  4. LaurelhurstLiberal Avatar

    Hi, I’m glad my post gave you food for thought!  A couple responses:
    1) I’m a dude.  
    2) I was offering my thoughts on compassionism in Heathenism in a tenative, exploratory way,  not as a definitive explanation of how Heathens are different than Druids or Wiccans. 
    3) The philosophical concept of “the Other” comes from 20th Century Continental philosophy; it naturally gets complicated when you start mixing late Western philosophy with ancient wisdom!

  5. Colleen Avatar

    Agreed, Cara, but if you’ve seen this video, you may understand Teo’s point of view a little better. The world has changed to become our responsibility more than ever, especially as it relates to our convictions, no matter what religion. Check it out:

  6. Erynn Rowan Laurie Avatar
    Erynn Rowan Laurie

    Thanks for the nod, Teo, and I’m glad that what we talked about helped you understand where some of us are coming from. I don’t think that being a reconstructionist has to mean we are reviving some ancient “us and them” philosophy that emphasizes a deep division between people that we can’t reach across. Maybe some folks read it that way but, as with most things, it doesn’t have to be.

    Human beings are category makers. On some level we need to classify things in order to understand them and interact with them. Even the people who insist “we don’t need labels” are using them with every word they speak — it’s the way “labels” are used that determine whether they might be helpful or a hindrance. Without a label, a bottle of clear liquid might be water or it might be bleach. One is safe to drink, the other isn’t. This isn’t a value judgment, because both are useful (or dangerous) under specific sets of circumstances, but we do need the label to tell them apart if the bottle is sealed.

    Categories of “us and them” don’t have to be about lack of compassion or about discrimination or about the worth of human beings. Sometimes “us” is just “people who do things in ways similar to what I do” and “them” is really “people who are doing things that aren’t like what I do.” It’s not a value judgment, it’s simply a statement of what’s happening around me. I think it should be pretty obvious to anyone who looks that CR is different from Wicca. I’m not sure how we can be other than “us and them” on that level. We all need the ability to discriminate, in the sense of an ability to tell the difference between one thing and another.

    For me, Wicca is mostly “them,” even though I have Wiccan initiations, because it’s not how I conduct my spiritual life. I don’t mind going to a Wiccan circle, but I don’t expect Wiccans to do what I do, or even necessarily to understand how and why what I do is different. It’s not a value judgment, or a lack of compassion, or discrimination in the sense of devaluing the “other,” it’s an understanding that there is a difference and that this difference might be something significant. I certainly don’t think either path is “better,” because each person responds to their spiritual needs in different ways. What makes my soul sing may bore the crap out of the next person in line, and vice versa. Not better or worse, just different.

    In terms of compassion, I suspect it will always be easier to extend it to people we know and get along with than to extend it to people we don’t get along with, people we don’t know, or people halfway around the world. That doesn’t mean by any stretch that it’s impossible or that it’s undesirable to have and exercise that compassion, it’s just a little more difficult for most people. My dad is my family, but I haven’t spoken to him in years because he’s so toxic for me to deal with. Is he an “us” or a “them”? In what ways does that matter? If he needed a kidney and I could give him one, I would probably do it, but I can’t say that I want to be anywhere around him before, during, or after. (He’d probably tell me I was doing it wrong, after all, or that his need for a kidney was my fault.)

    I think the effect of “us and them” depends a lot on how it’s framed. Is it “us AND them” and we all have to get along to survive? Is it “us and THEM” and they are shooting at us because we have something they want to steal? Is it “us and them” and the folks down the road are pretty cool and we get along okay, but they’re still just the folks down the road and not us? They all seem entirely different ways of dealing with the concept of self and other, all expressed with the same three words — “us and them.”

  7. zendodeb Avatar

     If you care about everyone, then you care about no one. YOU can’t feed a billion starving people. You might be able to feed 1 or 2 in your neighborhood. While that won’t solve the whole problem, it will make a real, lasting impact on those few you do help.

    Then if you concentrate on “helping everyone” pretty soon you are waging a “war on poverty” and poverty expands. Or you wage the War on Some Drugs – because it is best for everyone. Really? The problems caused by prohibition are not minor. But we can’t change, because we are doing it for “everyone’s good!”

    If we all worked in our communities to end hunger, and create jobs (that’s what used to be called “creating opportunity”) and help people get off drugs and get an education, how many problems do you think we could solve? Instead of lamenting our inability to do everything, we should do something.

    And I don’t care what you do in life, there will always be us and them. Old School. New School. Christians and Infidels. Muslims and Infidels. Yankees fans, and everyone else.

    You may want to be brothers with all men, but trust me, they don’t all feel the same way. They will look at the color of your skin. Or your last name. Or your level of education. Or they will listen to your accent. And you will be out.

    Icht bin ein auslander.

  8. Daniel SnowKestral Avatar
    Daniel SnowKestral

    “Three things that are never at rest: Heart for Working, Breath for Moving, & the Soul for Purposing.”

    “Three foundations of spirituality: Hearth as Altar, Work as Worship, and Service as Sacrament.”

    “Three manifestations of
    humanity: Affectionate bounty; loving manner; and praiseworthy
    knowledge.” -Gaelic Triads

  9. WolfThorn Avatar

    Here in America, many of our radical conservative Christian sects are fiercely “Us and Them” about things, probably because their charismatic pastor/despots really know how far off they really are from the core Christian values they no longer live by, and they set up the walls of “Believer vs. Non-believer” to protect their influence over those they manipulate.   They always have to have an enemy to blame and fear, and distinguish themselves from.
    As a mature Druid, looking back at the Christian faith that was my root in childhood, I am dismayed by the evil such thinking cultivates in extremist modern conservatives, be they Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, or of any tradition in this world that “Battles against the Unbeliever.”   
    But I also believe that much of this thinking is a reaction to the sense of sweeping changes and “loosing control” that many people feel in a warming world of nine billion people.    So they build their walls, and hide with-in them.

    I like the summary of this article,

    ” Our personal problems are the world’s problems, and likewise the problems of the world belong to each of us.”  

    I could not better express how I see the Druid’s Way in walking the world morally and ethically, and facing its needs honestly, its rising seas, shrinking ice, struggling species, and nine million people.

    Dealg MacTire/WolfThorn

  10. Kay Avatar

    I think what has been overlooked here, and is an important point, is that the Utgard man in the story was not a stranger.  It was a known bad neighbor, who had previously demonstrated himself as unworthy of trust.

    There is a woman I have the misfortune of being acquainted with.  She is, for lack of a better term, an emotional terrorist, and constantly flitting on the edges of my circles of friends and associates, looking for new people to latch onto.  She takes joy in causing turmoil in our community – it’s her entertainment.  Time and again, I have watched as she pleads  her case as being so misunderstood and wrongfully mistreated, and then watched as a newcomer extends her their full compassion, wondering why everyone else is so closed to her.  And, time and again, I have watched as she latches on to that person, earns their confidence, and proceeds to tear them to shreds for her own entertainment.

    That woman will forever be Utgard to me.  She is not an unknown stranger, who may or may not be a good friend or reasonable ally – she has proven herself to be poison, repeatedly, preying on anyone naive enough to let her in.  To let her in makes me the frog, and makes her the scorpion.  Utgard keeps the scorpions outside the gate.

    1. Themon the Bard Avatar

      This is an interesting point, and a complicated one. I think in many regards this kind of “preferential Utgard” is a consequence of general affluence.

      When you eject this unpleasant woman into the outer darkness, you don’t really worry that she’s going to starve to death in the wilderness. Nor does her absence threaten your existence.

      Suppose, however, that — unpleasant as she is — she was the village physician. The ONLY village physician. And maybe she’s not even very good at it, but she’s what you’ve got. So you need her. Suppose also that if you turn her out, she’ll be gone for good, probably dead, possibly taken in by some other village, but you’ll never know one way or the other. So you’ll be without a physician. Based on past years, you know this will mean you will lose several children and probably one or two hunters/warriors in the next year. That will weaken your village, and there are those Utgard bastards to the southwest who may notice and decide to raid you for women and food.

      I think you’d make a different set of decisions about this woman.

      In practice, the village elders would probably step in, and she’d probably mend her ways in a hurry.

      The reason she can get away with being so disruptive, and the reason you are so quick to flick her to the outer circle of Hell, is that you don’t actually need each other.

      1. Kay Avatar

        But she is not the village physician.  Even in the original story, the impossible neighbor was not left out in the cold, he was let in under very strict circumstances, with the stipulation he’d be out the door again if he broke the rules.  If there was some redeeming characteristic, that would be an argument to not write her off. There isn’t one.

        Much of this criticism of in vs out seems determined to shoehorn it into a very black and white construct – you are good or you are evil, you are chosen or you are outcast.  It’s not about a label, it’s about discretion.  There comes a point at either end where someone may be beyond reproach, while someone else has burned the same bridge so many times there’s nothing left of it.  The vast majority of people fall somewhere in between.  Acknowledging that scale, and measuring the risk vs reward of helping someone is not the same as what some here are suggesting – that only an elite group are given help, while everyone else is cast out at the far extreme of burnt bridges.

        I do have to wonder how many making that analogy actually read the end of the story?

      2. zendodeb Avatar

        I have tried 3 times to respond to this and always end up too far afield.

        1. “village physician” is a nice hypothetical, but it ignores reality. Any seamstress would have stitched wounds. Most families would have had someone – or several someones – who knew how to make splints and set bones.  Home remedies are available at home. That “village physician” could have died from an infected scratch, fallen from a horse, or died of the flu. Cities breed specialization.

        2. If you are at your ease, then you would help those  in need. If you are in the middle of a famine. A harsh winter. Winter following a bad harvest. Whatever, you might not take in all comers. There is a reason that so many European cities were walled fortresses. Some consider it easier to steal than to store for the winter. Faced with a choice of watching your mother or your children starve, and not taking in strangers might take on a different light.

        3. In the story of the ant and the grasshopper the grasshopper starves to death in winter. Some say it shows the ant is heartless, but most take the meaning to be that if you don’t prepare, don’t expect the rest of us to take care of you. (We will have our hands full.) So while YOU might not want to make those decisions, I suspect there are plenty who will. And they will decide that Charity Begins At Home.

        1. Themon the Bard Avatar

          This seems to be a slippery conversation. I’m having trouble formulating my responses, too. Let’s see if I can even make a point here (which I haven’t managed so far).

          One of the problems with this discussion, I think, is that the examples of what it means to be “outside” are all based on the lifeboat dilemma: realistically, you’re all going to die anyway, if not this time then next time, and deciding who gets thrown to the sharks during each round of perennial crisis is academic. Steven’s marginal family/community isn’t realistic, because the first hundred-year blizzard will wipe them off the earth. We might as well discuss the merits of adding the unpleasant guest to the larder. My only-physician-in-town story makes even less sense, as you point out.

          Let’s abandon the lifeboat and swim back to dry land.

          We do live in huge cities in an extremely complex economy, where we play roles so specialized that sometimes we can’t see the point of what we do, much less the point of what anyone else does. We rely upon others for virtually everything we need to survive, but our dependence has spread into distant anonymity: my life depends, not on my neighbors, but on pill-rollers in New Jersey, cattle ranchers in Montana, lettuce farms in California, Internet services in Utah, oil pumps in Venezuela, factories in China, etc. Personal trust has been almost completely replaced by market competition and government regulation.

          This has seriously blurred — it has almost erased — all of the old boundaries between “inside” and “outside.” Are the illegal Mexican migrant workers who harvest the lettuce in California that ends up on my table on the “inside” or the “outside?” 

          This isn’t new. The Greeks coined the term “cosmopolitan,” meaning a citizen of the universe, as opposed to the citizen of a city-state, like Athens or Troy. This blurring of the “inside” and “outside” has been going on at least since people started building cities. But now our cities have spread until they pretty much encompass the entire globe.

          So “inside” is now pretty much everyone. 

          My issue with the “outside” is simply this — who are they? And what is the functional purpose of putting people on the “outside”?

  11. Éireann Lund Johnson Avatar

    Hi Teo.  As one of a CR-ish bent with tribal interests in which inside-outside would exist in order to determine who -is- inside or outside the tribe, I would say, for myself at least, that this in my mind does not equate to the concept of compassion.  Compassion is feeling for another, and acting on that feeling.  In the vein of my tradition’s values, I would place compassion under both Honor, because it is honorable to treat others well and do what one is able to to respond to demonstrated needs, and also under Hospitality, because that is how people take care of each other.  In Hospitality the stranger is looked after and welcomed, his needs met before questions are asked.  It is also what we extend to those we know in their time of need, with the understanding that they too will help us when we have need.   I would say that in this paradigm, insiders and outsiders can be labelled as such in a way which does not negate those outsiders being treated well and with respect, both in their own good times and bad.  For myself, the tribe I refer to is defined by family, so that is the only inside-outside distinction I make with that phrase.  I hope this helps give you a perspective on the concept you’ve expressed.

  12. Themon the Bard Avatar

    I think the issue of “othering” comes back to a simple prescription I learned a long time ago — be careful of the toes you step on today, because they may be connected to the ass you will have to kiss tomorrow.

    Or in other words, invite good Karma, not bad Karma.

    The idea of Inangard versus Utgard bothered me, too. I’ve been reading about civilizations that have collapsed, and I’m about halfway through the study of four different cultures. The first one was Easter Island, and the collapse was apparently pretty horrific — a descent from an elaborate and wealthy society into sectarian warfare and finally cannibalism-for-survival. 

    The basic problem that keeps coming up in each collapse is the fact that there is no such thing IN FACT as Utgard. That stranger you treat badly or turn away into the blizzard may be Odin himself. Or two angels of the Lord checking out the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Or a powerful witch seeking to see if the spoiled prince is merely a Beast in fine clothing.

    All of these myths urge courtesy and hospitality because a) it doesn’t come naturally, and b) we cannot — we CANNOT — see the ends of our actions. Every one of these myths and stories has an unambiguous message: tread lightly in a world full of powerful mysteries, and when uncertain, err on the side of courtesy, hospitality, and kindness. Because you never know when the toes you step on….

    Or in other words, we are all connected in the Web of Life. 

    The film “Four Feathers” (Heath Ledger) is a beautiful story, with a fascinating minor subplot in the middle. Heath’s character is in the Moroccan desert, dying of thirst, and is rescued by a native. When Heath later asks why the man saved him, the man shrugs and says, “Because Allah has put you in my path.” He is none too happy about this, either: he makes it clear he wishes he had walked a hundred yards to either side and never seen Heath. But he didn’t, and so Heath became his responsibility.

    When the stranger shows up at the door in Steven Abell’s blizzard, Odin has placed the man in the family’s path. It may cause their death, should they dip into their precious stores to feed him, and they might very well save their lives by turning the man out into the snow. 

    I do not know the Heathen stories, so I don’t know if they offer guidance in such a situation. But in the stories I am familiar with, the family would be bound to offer hospitality. Even if it leads to the death of all of them. That would be a death with honor. To turn away the needful stranger to die would be life without honor.

    1. Mia Avatar

       What’s that got to do with “inside and outside”? If my mother suffers the same illness that a complete stranger does, and I can only pay for one person’s medical care, that’s going to go to Mom, because she’s part of my “inside” group.

      It’s got nothing to do with compassion and decency. I can be nice to complete strangers as well as my family and friends, but that doesn’t mean the complete strangers are of equal priority to my family and friends.

      It’s a simple and common concept that most people subconsciously partake in, even if it’s not always named. “Family comes first”, “your children come first”; those are common sayings and that’s all the “inside, outside” thing means. Nothing more.

      1. Teo Bishop Avatar

        Hi Mia – thanks for the comment. I’m glad that you’re part of this dialogue.

        While I imagine that Themon may choose to respond to your question directly, I’d like to jump in here and say that the first connection drawn between compassion and the “inside and outside” idea was in the comment from my post on compassion (which you can reference that comment at the top of the post). There seems to be many people voicing the opinion that the two concepts are not directly connected. That being said, it was a person who is working within a Heathen tradition that is seeking to understand that role of compassion in her tradition. It could be that Themon is simply following her train of thought.

        Again, I’m glad that you’re a part of this conversation. I encourage respectful, patient dialogue here on the blog, as we’re all coming from different places with our own, valid perspectives. You’ve thrown some really good ideas into the pot, and I thank you!

        1. Mia Avatar

           I see the quote you mentioned. I read it before, but now that I read it again it puzzles me as well.  I can see why a lot of people are reading more into the terms than is necessary.

          Compassion has nothing to do with heathenry, any more than other emotions do. There’s no “heathen philosophy” aside from the stuff people make up nowadays (though granted that is often inspired by the stories), so there’s no need to worry about how compassionate one person has be to certain other people. Some people are just naturally caring about everyone they meet, and some people are total jerks. Many are selective for whatever reasons. All those categories still existed back in the ye olde days of heathen societies, and they can exist now.

          I think something to understand now is that the world is global to us, while back then it was not. We can see all the horrible acts right in our own living room TV, crying out for help more than ever before. There’s no way to make an equivalent example out of the old cultures to figure out what they would have actually done.

    2. Steven T Abell Avatar

      Something one encounters in the sagas is a householder doing the arithmetic, figuring out just how far the winter stores will go. This is not an idle exercise. And people are sometimes turned away for lack of resources. I’ll help if I can, and it will hurt if I can’t, but I don’t owe an outsider the survival of my household. And the decision is mine.

      BTW there is a much more interesting “strangers in the snow” story called The Solstice Guests in my book, Days in Midgard. I was not terribly surprised to learn, after I wrote it, that this is an old and favored premise for a story. In its usual form, the strangers turn out to be a couple of saints traveling incognito. In The Solstice Guests, the strangers arrive separately, and neither is any kind of saint.

  13. Mia Avatar

    It’s not “us vs them”, it’s “first us, then them”. I never thought of it as being exclusionary or found it used in such a way (outside of those ridiculous Nationalist groups, but they’re a whole ‘nother problem).

    My family and friends have priority over complete strangers. I’d love to be able to help everyone who needs it, but I’m greatly limited in funds, time, and energy, like most people are. That’s what “inside and outside” means. Most people do that anyway.

  14. T Thorn Coyle Avatar

    “Many Buddhist teachers have described compassion as the ability to react freely and accurately in any situation. Being nice or feeling sorry for someone may be called for, but so may being fierce and unyielding. When sweetness is applied indiscriminately, it is seen as ‘idiot compassion.’” – Issan Dorsey
    We have a blade to draw boundaries by our will. These are necessary. And for me, a strong will = an open heart. My heart can’t be open in a truly compassionate manner if my will is strong. 

    Everything can be brought into the “Beloved Community” and simultaneously we need to measure our own resources, and figure out what true respect and compassion in action look and feel like. If I am carrying someone all the time, is that respect and compassion? Likely not. If I have spread myself so thin that when my family needs me, I don’t have anything left to give, is that being responsible? 

    We need discernment and a strong center to move from. This helps us to act ethically, which for me, is the accuracy spoken of in the Dorsey quote. Morality is a big rubber stamp, that takes away my responsibility. Ethics, however, require me to be engaged and making active choices. 

    I don’t want to automatically exclude someone from my field of compassion. I do want to know what my limitations are, and to discern what true compassion looks like in each moment. This is difficult, but feels necessary.

  15. Rusty Sullivan Avatar

    “Inside/Outside the Gates” is not the same as “Us vs. Them”. It’s a simple case thinking globally and acting locally. Trying to save the world while your own house is burning is simply a ridiculous notion. 

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Hi, Rusty. Thanks for taking the time to comment. I’m glad to see you joining the dialogue here.

      I’m on the same page with you about taking care of home. That makes sense to me. As I explained in another comment, I think the metaphor of “Inside/Outside” is difficult for me, and I’m not sure I experience it as being the same as “Think global / Act local.” I appreciate the latter, and I can understand how it’s useful, but two feel different to me. Perhaps that will be the topic of another post! 🙂

      To be clear, the “Us and Them” was taken from Steven’s article; it was language that he used to describe Inangard and Utgard.

      Thanks again for commenting. Blessings to you.

  16. Greenflame Avatar

    It’s not an either/or proposition. I can focus on my own problems first, then on my mate’s, families, and cohort group and still find time to have compassion for larger groups of people on the other side of the world that (chances are) I will never meet. I am the first to teach that you have to clear yourself before you can address others deeply, and I have found that when you really do tend to your own needs – having first worked very hard to understand what those needs truly are – you have more and better energy to share with others. And then, there is no lack.

    When you tend your heart  like you tend a garden, with both devotion and prudence, it can grow enough goodness to nurture yourself and have a superabundance of compassion, love, and good energy to share. So many of these comments seem to me to be coming from a space of lacking and limitation, and I find it odd.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Hi Greenflame. Thanks for taking the time to comment here.

      It seems like your idea of tending to yourself first as a way of being prepared to help others is being echoed throughout the comments. I think that you’re not alone in feeling this way.

  17. David Carron Avatar

    “I like where he ends, and I wonder if it is more accurate to say that our personal problems are
    the world’s problems, and likewise the problems of the world belong to
    each of us.”

    Certainly this is a core sentiment for us recons in Asatru.  That our world IS our responsibility to make a better place.  And with that in mind we do so, typically, via those around us one at a time. 

    “Working from this, can we ask whether or not our personal
    systems, religious or secular, are supporting an awareness of our
    interconnectedness, or are they reinforcing a philosophy of division?”

    “Division” is an important identifier of who is connected.  It’s not a question of label but worthiness.  We start with our own and those worthy of our time should be the first in line.  It’s networking tips for Vikings.  Our numbers are too small for us to do otherwise.  Now, mind you, I’m not stopping people from making overseas charitable donations.  I’m just suggesting basic economics, that by supporting locally that the return comes local.  Is not the act globally by acting locally mantra in the same venue?

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Blessings to you, David. Thank you for sharing your perspective on the blog, and for the information about Asatru. What you write, “…our world IS our responsibility to make a better place. And with that in mind we do so, typically, via those around us one at a time,” makes a great deal of sense to me.

      I do feel a little more unclear about your description about the value or role of “division.” This idea of “worthiness” is troublesome to me, and I wonder if you could speak more to how one goes about determining whether one is worthy of not of your time (or kindness, or compassion, for that matter). This seems like it could get complicated, ethically, and I wonder how you go about navigating that.

      The “act globally by acting locally” idea does resonate with me, but I’m not sure it’s an extension of the worthiness assessment you’re speaking of above. Could you unpack a little more how you see those ideas as connected?

      Again, thank you for your comment. I’m glad you’re here.

  18. Possumina Avatar

    Well said, Teo.  As someone who also walks in the margins of many communities, I’ve been troubled by what I see as a growing tide of essentialism in Paganisms.

    Compassion does not require that we negect ourselves or our immediate family and community — quite the contrary.  But it does require that we think more broadly about the communities to which we belong, and have empathy for other human beings and creatures on this planet.  We all belong to a number of groups to which we feel loyalty, and that’s valuable and honorable.  But the honorable person also puts her/himself in others’ shoes — all sorts of others — and treats them as s/he would like to be treated. 

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      I love the entirety of your last paragraph, Possumina. I love the connection you draw between loyalty, honor and empathy. I like to think of all of these things existing in the same ecosystem, and none of them necessarily canceling one another out. Ours is to examine the way that they inform each other.

      Brilliant comment. Thank you.

  19. Fern Miller Avatar
    Fern Miller

    I’m writing under the influence of John Michael Greer’s latest book, “Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth”, not that he’s Celtic Reconstructionist – just because his 4th Law addresses boundries and limits.  To quote from the book: “Everything that exists is subject to limits arising from its own nature, the nature of the whole system of which it is a part, and the nature of existence itself.  Those limits are as necessary as they are inescapable, and they provide the foundation for all the beauty and power each existing thing is capable of manifesting.” 

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      I do love JMG’s writing, Fern. Thank you for sharing it here.

      He takes it to a poetic place, and I like thinking about it that way. It’s as though the boundaries are simply there, by nature, and that it is a question as to how we understand those boundaries. Am I understanding this right?

      I can get with the idea that there are some inherent limitations, but I’m also curious if we are creating limitations where there need not be. Which boundaries, I wonder, are natural and which are artificial? Something to chew on.

      Again, thank you for sharing this. Blessings to you.

  20. Cara Avatar

    I explain this concept within Hellenismos as the airplane oxygen mask.  They tell you to put your own mask on first, then assist the person sitting next to you.  It’s the same in life – if you don’t take care of your family and your community first, you will be unable to care for those further out.  It isn’t about “othering” – it’s about responsible use of resources and keeping your oaths to your family, friends, and neighbors.   

    1. William Hood Avatar
      William Hood

      Thank you, you hit the nail on the head. It isn’t really “us and them” or “othering,” I see it as concentric rings of priority and responsibility. My family takes priority over my specific religious group, my group takes priority over my local community, my local community takes priority over my state community, etc. As long as lesser priorities are taken care of, then there is nothing stopping me from helping broader priorities.

      I think universal-type philosophies can go a bit overboard into seeing any assertion of identity as a threat; no less often than ideas of identity can lead toward actual othering and us vs. them thinking.

      1. Teo Bishop Avatar

        Thank you for your response here, William. You’ve given me plenty more to think about.

        Perhaps I’m reading the “Inside / Outside” metaphor as prescriptive, when in fact it descriptive. Others have suggested that a way of looking at this is “think globally, act locally.” Does that resonate with you?

    2. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Thanks for commenting, Cara. I’m glad that you’re a part of the dialogue here.

      I wonder if you think I’ve either misconstrued the idea of “Us and Them” presented in Steve’s article (a possibility that I’m absolutely willing to consider), or if we might be talking about two different things. In the case of taking care of your family, friends, and neighbors, I see nothing wrong with doing that. Perhaps it’s the metaphor of the “gates” or the “wall” that’s giving me a hard time.

      Do you see how one might read “othering” into an “Inside / Outside” model, even if those who use that model don’t intend to “other?”

      Again, thank you for your comment.

      1. Cara Avatar

        Sorry – I’ve been away.  I think Steve is just like many Heathens and those following revived religions – pragmatism tops idealism.  For many neo-Pagans, idealism trumps pragmatism.  That’s a generalization, of course, but not a bad one IMO.

         It’s also a difference in communication styles.  Heathens value speaking in an extremely blunt way.  It can come across far more …well, MORE … than those not used to it expect or are ready for.  We have that same thing in Hellenismos between American Hellenics and Greek Hellenics.  

        1. Eran_Rathan Avatar

          Cara makes a very good point, Teo.

          Pragmatism, in my opinion, should usually outweigh idealism.  Idealism is necessary for figuring out where you want to go, but pragmatism should be how you get there.

          I’m not saying that the ends justify the means, but that being able to make do with what you have is a primary virtue for Heathens – just look at the list of the Nine Noble Virtues:


          When you live in a harsh land, husbanding what you have is necessary for survival – it is a good lesson whenever you have limited resources.  This, however, is tempered with Hospitality, that you should be on good terms with those whom you are in contact with, because you never know when you may need their Hospitality in return.  As Themon said, “The toes you step on today may be connected to the ass you must kiss tomorrow.”


    3. Lindsey Vaughn Avatar

      funny this is what I was thinking to.

  21. Nicole Youngman Avatar
    Nicole Youngman

    Nicely said, Teo, thanks–I think you’ve expressed what was bugging me about those posts too that I couldn’t quite put  my finger on. I think the us-and-them approach you’re discussing mirrors the desire of some members of oppressed groups (women, GLBTQ, minorities, etc) to want to form a separatist community where they can live as they please totally apart from the mainstream culture/society that has treated them so badly. Come to think of it, that mirrors the discussions re: Z’s rituals at PantheaCon that upset so many people, too.  I do think there’s a legit need for such groups to have “their own space” sometimes, but this can create its own set of problems too and imho isn’t a viable solution in the long-term. It’s certainly easier and perhaps sensible to have your own clearly-defined community to focus on, but I don’t think that has to be done at the expense of caring about and working on larger social issues as well.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Thank you for your comment, Nicole. I appreciate you taking the time to comment, and I’m glad the post helped you get clearer.

      Certainly there are people who have felt excluded based on gender, and that’s a conversation that is getting some much-needed attention within the community. You bring up separatism, and that’s something that my husband echoed to me in conversation about this. Striking the balance seems to be the challenge here.

      There are a lot of people writing comments that say something to the effect of “take care of what/who is close to you first, and then care about the wider community.” As a sociologist, do you have a particular perspective on this way of thinking?

  22. Linden Tebo Avatar
    Linden Tebo

    I enjoyed this post. I’ve been having a hard time finding a path or tradition to stick with, because while I’m quite interested in heathen reconstructionism, I’ve also found that “us and them” (which often turns into “us versus them”) attitude prevalent among heathens, which not only applies to the usual pagan community stereotype of being all “ewwww those yucky Christians!” but has spread to “ewwww those yucky neo-pagans, pantheists, and [Celtic, Hellenic, etc.] reconstructionists!” That doesn’t really mesh with my personal philosophy and way of living.

    Usually that is countered with, “well then don’t be a heathen!” …But I feel like things are always more complicated than that. With the assumption that reconstructionists are trying to, well, reconstruct not just ancient cosmology and beliefs but also ancient cultural context: are they assuming that everybody in Ye Olde Times filled the same social role? Or that everybody shared a hivemind and had the same personality and values? It would be silly to think so, wouldn’t it?
    (Comment mirrored here from G+)

    1. William Hood Avatar
      William Hood

      “But I feel like things are always more complicated than that.”

      What exactly is more complicated about it? You don’t have to be Heathen to worship the Germanic Gods, you don’t have to be Heathen to draw bits from Germanic history for your spiritual path, etc. Heathenry is a particular community of faiths that tend to have common mores, cultural values, etc. If you do not find that community to be one you like, I can’t really imagine a compelling reason why you would NEED to be a part of it despite your reservations. This is not, of course, defending the legimitely bad elements, only the aspects of Heathenry that just don’t float everyone’s boat. I mean my question as an honest inquiry.

      “are they assuming that everybody in Ye Olde Times filled the same social role?”

      Nope. I’m not sure where you get the idea that anyone assumes that, outside of extreme individual examples. It wouldn’t be very “reconstructionist” to think that.

      “Or that everybody shared a hivemind and had the same personality and values?”

      No, and a qualified yes. Heathen communities did have common values they shared. Transgressing those values too much lead to things like outlawry, blood feuds, or being drowned in a bog.

      “It would be silly to think so, wouldn’t it?” 

      Indeed it would, which is why no sane Heathen does. 

      1. Teo Bishop Avatar

        Hi William – thank you for taking the time to respond to Linden’s comment. I’m glad that you’re a part of the dialogue here.

        While I’m eager to see if Linden feels comfortable responding to your questions, I will say that I have experience being a part of a community that I was at once felt a part of, and excluded from. That Linden feels there is more complication to the issue may point to some specific experiences of “othering,” either intentionally or unintentionally, and that — I think — would be enough to justify his experiencing this situation to be complex.

        From my experience, if there is one among us who is feeling othered, there is cause to close-examine the way we hold each other in community. Can you see what I mean?

        Again, thank you so much for being a part this dialogue. I’m glad you took the time to express your ideas.

      2. zendodeb Avatar

        “Transgressing those values too much lead to things like outlawry, blood feuds, or being drowned in a bog.”

         There were reasons that societies up against famine every winter were hard on non-conformists. They literally couldn’t afford the risk of resources.  They had a way that worked. If they didn’t all make like ants in the summer, they would starve like grasshoppers in the winter (and if you don’t recognize that reference there is no hope for you.)

        Most modern Americans can’t even imagine it. Refrigeration is less than 150 years old, but didn’t become common until after WWII. Canning of food – what your great-grandmother or great-great-grandmother did to preserve things – dates only to the Napoleonic  era.  It is a relatively new technology as history goes.

        Before that, you had whatever game you could kill, livestock you could kill (you needed some to survive until spring), eggs if your chickens would lay in the winter. (they will often not be too productive if not kept in heated coops.) You could dry and salt meat in the summer and fall. And you had root cellars for carrots and the like. (Potatoes were introduced to Europe from the Americas, and had to wait on Columbus and the Conquistadors) And some grain.

        Life was a struggle to make sure that you had enough food for your family and kin to survive winter. Not having enough supplies – a bad year, or having things stolen – might cause the old or the very young to die in the winter.

    2. Teo Bishop Avatar

      I’m glad you took the time to share the comment here, Linden. Thank you for doing that.

      In step, I’ll mirror the comment I shared on Google+. I wrote that:

      You bring up a really good point, and one that is right in line with the spirit of this post. You can substitute out any group for the “them.” And, we do. Nothing surprises me more than to see a former-fundamentalist Christian abandon their faith for Paganism, only to turn into a fundamentalist Pagan or Polytheist. It goes to show that what we’re talking about here isn’t necessarily the system, but the philosophy which underlies the system.

      I’ll clarify that I’m not suggesting that the writers I mentioned in the post exhibit the signs of fundamentalism. I don’t read that into their words. My point was simply I’ve witnessed this behavior, and I find it fascinating.

      Again, thank you for the comment. I’m so glad you’re a part of this dialogue here.

  23. Kilmrnock Avatar

    I belong to a CR , Celtic Recon faith . I can see from understanding Recon faiths how a us and them bounderies can form . but my take on this is , as long as there is enough for us , then we can help others . We follow a code simular to the Norse NNV , hospitality is one of those values . We believe it is good to share w/ others when you can , but this relationship is reciprical , so as you can expect help when you need it as well .just as one is expected to be a good host , you are also expected to be a good quest as well. There are many things such as environmental concerns and public aid to the poor that transcend cultural and religious bounderies . We as a society need to adress these needs .All of us , not just pagans need to make smarter decisions concerning our mother earth , recycle, cut back on waste etc There are some things that are too big for just one group to deal with , the society as a whole has to fix .                        kilm

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Thank you for the comment, Kilm, and thank you for voicing your perspective on this. When you say, “We as a society need to address these needs,” I completely agree. I think part of this inquiry is an attempt to look at how our philosophies inform the way we do that, and to question whether they keep us from doing that effectively. As is evident by many of the comments on this post, people are able to strike a balance. I’m very interested to explore how they do that.

      Again, thank you for the comment.

  24. Tammywooliver Avatar

    Another brilliant post!  Anytime we create an “other” in our minds…or collude with a system that creates “others” beyond its boundaries, we are engaging in projecting the unwanted parts of our own psyche’s.  It is a quite convenient setup.  We can blame, dismiss, deny, scapegoat…all of which creates distraction so that we do not have to look within ourselves to heal that which fragments our own consciousness.  So we build illusory walls which only mirror the walls within.

    As within…so without…


    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Thank you, Tammy. I’m glad the post spoke to you.

      I like the ideas you present, and you take the metaphors to a metaphysical place. That is, I think, where they exist anyway.

      Do you think that there are no walls? Or, do you think we should work toward a place where there are no walls?

    2. Kilmrnock Avatar

      Well , Tammy the trick to avoiding this kind of thinking is to grow beyond it . To find a philosophy and way of life that doesn’t includes those faulty ways .Many of the recon faiths includes Honor/Conduct codes that preclude such ways/things .    Kilm