No More Witch Trials! Looking at Religious Intolerance

October 27, 2009 - 8:58 am 11 Comments

No More Witch Trials-Looking at Religious Intolerance
The Reverend Peter Edward Lanzillotta, Ph.D.

This month, I have focused on the other Western religions that share our modern civilization with us… And I would be remiss if I did not mention- especially as Halloween nears- that there is another great tradition… Namely indigenous European spirituality that has come to the New World- namely, Paganism, Wicca, or the Earth-centered religions in all of their various forms.
With such broad inclusiveness always comes questioning and uncertainty. As religious liberals, we should be comfortable with doubt, with the willingness to explore new ideas, beliefs and practices, and even if they do not speak to us personally, become willing advocates for those among us who do find these ideas and practices to be inspiring and worthwhile.
Today, I would like to examine the roots of religious prejudice, and I have selected this day because of the historical realities that we, in this country, have witnessed and have tragically perpetuated among us.
For you see, when Halloween rolls around, our culture goes into its trick or treat mentality…. We uncritically agree with historical stereotypes of women as witches, and it is from that awful association, that the first recorded trials and punishment of women occurred when this country when we were in our uninformed, unenlightened infancy, some 300 years ago….
A Quick Colonial Quiz… Q: How many men were condemned after being accused of witchcraft and sorcery? A: None! Why? Its simple…

As you all have known since Sunday school, all the evils of the world come to us by way of women; women are the Devil’s playground, Lucifer’s consorts, Satan’s concubines… Remember, the disease of hysteria comes from the Greek root word for womb… Because women are so often hysterical! Feminist theology or Paganism anyone?
With all our sophistication, with our burgeoning, ever present media outlets, to realize that we have made so little progress in inclusiveness, tolerance and acceptance of one another baffles and disheartens me. Prejudice, intolerance, and the persecution of differences in worship and belief still fill our news stories, and can be seen as a contributing factor to group violence and cultural harassment nationwide.
Yet, could we expect otherwise? The despicable history of witch hunts and hate crimes is pre-Biblical, almost Neolithic! Some anthropologists claim that drawing differences between people, approving of only one skin color, one way of belief, etc., and this was a necessary step in building families and clans of affinity, and so, over time, the societal rules for inclusion and exclusion were formed and enforced to build an ethnic or religious identity.
From the Creeds to the Crusades, from Salem to Selma, we have seen various and vile expressions of prejudice be given their voice, their values, and their violence. We, as humans have born witness to the effects that these pernicious motives, and we know that these events have been fueled by fear and further abetted by erroneous theology.
For me, there is no worse light, nor deeper shadow than when one’s faith has been used to justify acts of vengeance, exclusion and acrimony. There have been “Burning Times ” in our collective history when these attitudes ascended to popularity or when people of conscience stood by passively and allowed venom to become accepted and affiliated with governmental and economic systems of power. What seems to encourage this willingness to be passive or give a tacit approval is the appeal to the status quo, and such coercion remains a powerful one today;
there is a motive or drive within the human heart that declares that I want to be safe from others, safe from strangers, and away from those who are different from me…. So much so that we will willing shelve our discernment, and mothball our compassion in order to achieve conformity and obedience, and thereby punish the individual conscience and the organized need for dissent that sounds the alarm!
What I have perceived recently in our national debate, and in our cultural consciousness, is there appears to be a significant rise in a lack of acceptance… An increasing, and I would say, an insidious creeping justification for exclusion and for virulent prejudice among us….
Being of a generous and accepting nature, I am willing to say that some of those feelings are marked by a simple and uninformed xenophobia- the fear of the stranger, or anything different from what you are used to or that makes you comfortable. This feeling is somewhat understandable.. .
And, if all it amounted to was a little awkwardness, and that it does correct itself with a lesson in cultural openness. If this acceptance is accompanied by a period of halting welcome, and then an awkward adjustment that moves towards a more full acceptance, then its just a simple case of human process/ progress.

However, you and I know that the world today is far from safe, or free from the more adamant expressions of exclusion… While it is relatively safe to assume today that we have outgrown the religious fervor that surrounded the Colonial witch trials, I can’t help but wonder if the culture has changed all that much, or is it that the targets for hate and prejudice have changed?
I also have to wonder if the general rise in rudeness, and the acceptance of crudeness, together with the decline of civility and courtesy signals a greater lack of societal respect…
Personally, it seems to me that it sows the seeds that encourages intolerance, and endangers the process by which we can work for greater dignity and worth for everyone….
Witch hunts of every kind, then and now, are fear-elicted responses, built on uninformed, rehearsed prejudices. They are, for the most part, irrational, and emotionally driven responses to perceived outside threats. They manifest in the desire to find convenient scapegoats, and to identify culpable targets for slander and derision, hated and violence.
Some of the rationale that tries to explain the appearance of new hate groups and others who enthusiastically are practicing religious, racial or homophobic intolerance, stems from various occurrences…
First, they are the results of feeling disenfranchised from The American Dream, and the desire to regain access to this elusive prize. This dream never, in fact, existed, much like Horatio Alger myth, yet it was given to us as an illusionary false hope, and reinforced by the myth of individualism….
Such beliefs erroneously assert that everyone is born culturally equal, and therefore it up to each person to overcome obstacles such as poverty and illiteracy and then succeed for and by themselves!
As a counterpoint to this, I feel that it is worthwhile to frequently recall the words of Mark Twain: When speaking about the need for social change in our religious and cultural attitudes, he was reported to have remarked, ” Loyalty to any petrified opinions has yet to break the chains or free any souls”

In order to be an effective deterrent to hate and intolerance, we have to further our understanding of how our culture condones the practice of social ostracization, and just how it is that we marginalize others in our society. The obvious and the easiest targets of this exclusionary practice are those who are already on the fringes, and who are struggling for acceptance. Each of us can make a quick list: the sick, the uneducated; the immigrant, the stranger, the drug-dependent; the gay or lesbian, the homeless, the disenfranchised in any or in all these ways…. The arrogance that perpetuates this inequality is incredible and incredulous for me… Yet, each of us here can attest to the results of recent governmental and economic decisions that cut spending on food, medicine and housing , etc. That make these realities among us continue to fester and multiply….
For me, what disturbs me most is the growing specter of religious fascism- those extreme patterns of persecution that are effectively concealed under the banner of God and Country. For me, it is one of the greatest blasphemies! While our elected officials seem to garner great delight in reminding us about the value of freedom, the price of our liberty, and giving frequent lip service to our national security and those historical ideals about being “The land of the free and the home of the brave”, I conclude that far too little attention and resources are going into making this ideal into a living, achievable reality.
As I see it, our national priorities are doing more to incarcerate than liberate, to imprison us rather than to free us…. Only an deep and profound ethical challenge that speaks truth to power will ever suffice; ever be sufficient to alter the course of our cultural history.
You see, because of the accumulated pressure- economic and political- to be safe from harm, as if anyone ever could be secure when the world is in flames, and the admission that our society is suffering traumatically from multiple fractures of trust, support, adequate housing, meaningful work, and the list goes on…. The onus of having to be normal, to be acceptable, to be free from criticism, or to play it safe so dominates our societal consciousness today we have ethically withdrawn from raising our voices, speaking of such injustices! As a result, I would say, borrowing from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, [“At the expense of our ethical conscience, and spiritual convictions, it makes cultural cowards of us all’]

Witch hunts have affected me personally… and I am sure that others among us can attest to their cruel effects, and the lasting scars of their inhumanity… Rather than dwell on their lasting effects, I feel that each person has to be willing to first ask themselves, and then inquire as a community, how is it that we can join together to express our U-U motives and values…. We first ask ourselves: Do our ethical and religious values truly inform our daily choices? The we can ask each other: What else can we do as a church, to counter those social trends that exclude or that encourage prejudice and intolerance?

Today, in remembering the witch trials, we can ring the bell, we can draw the line, we can make the shift in our personal consciousness and in our collective purpose and mission, to put reduce prejudice whenever and wherever we find it…. SO BE IT!

In an attempt to create a prayer for tolerance that express this,
I would say:
” Holy One, known to us in both our deepest fears, as well as found in our deepest levels of knowing and loving,
We ask for a calmness and clarity of mind, an open and courageous heart. We affirm that we have been given a resilient strength of will that can step up, and that can work to challenge hate, and can exert itself to break the shackles of prejudice wherever we find it.

We, ask this, Spirit of Life, as we seek to forge friendships, build community and establish the vision of a future church that will be ever more welcoming, and that becomes a haven, a house, and a helping hand where equality and caring will be offered to all. AMEN; SO BE IT; Blessed Be

Opening Words:
One of the founders of American Universalism, Hosea Ballou, taught us this:

If we can agree in love, then there is no disagreement that can do us any injury…. But if we do not, then no agreement can do us much good….

Closing words? Benediction:

Devocation: ” whether we name it God, Goddess, Spirit or something else, its truth lies in that it is not something outside of the world- like some kind of remote judge…
It is a force that manifests in nature, that lives within each of us, and will be reflected clearly among us, in the community and in the culture we create…”

From Starhawk’s “Truth or Dare”

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