The Goddess Made Me Do It! (part 3)
Unfortunately this basic goodness doesn’t appear to prevail enough or be cohesive enough for our society to function without a legal code. So let’s take a look at ethics and morality and their relationship to the legal system.
I find it interesting to note that we are faced with a primarily modern and primarily Western phenomena here; the separation of “church” and its corresponding morality from “state” with its corresponding legal code. Historically societies have always combined these. What was generally agreed upon as moral was also legal. The legal code reflected the lived beliefs of the culture which it served. People didn’t live separate “religious” lives independently from their “secular” lives, they just lived. In fact there are cultures today who’s languages do not contain a word equivalent to our word “religion.” In Sanskrit, Hindi, and Tamil you find words for “law,” “duty,” “custom,” “worship,” “spiritual discipline,” or “the way” but not “religion.” These concepts organically incorporate all the things modern Western culture often separates out as being specifically “religious.” However in America today, especially as Neo-Pagans, we do not have the luxury of having the “state” automatically define our ethics for us and have that be adequate.
Most of us have heard the phrase “morals are above the law,” but what does that really mean? If we think about it we come to the conclusion that this is a real issue for Pagans living under legal systems that perpetuate policies of destruction and hierarchies of domination that are at odds with the tenets of our belief system. So the question is, how do we respond? The Mennonites, a totally pacifist people whose tradition originated in Holland in the 1500′s, have lived with this conflict for centuries. One of the deeply held tenets of their faith is the immorality of war and their response to living in lands where war became reality was to relocate whole communities across national borders rather than allow their young and able-bodied men to supply the ranks. While this was a viable option in years past it is not as attractive today in a globally diverse and increasingly populated world. Consequently there will be some of us who will feel a moral obligation to work for political change, either within or from without the system we are situated in. Others will not, preferring instead to take the position that as long as they are not personally affected in a substantial way they have more to offer the community by focusing their energies in other areas.
Now this brings us face to face with the issue of authority. So what is authoritative to us? Most of us would say that the words of the Lady, whether spoken by a priestess at a “drawing down” or heard by our inner ears in meditation, carry a sense of authority. Many of us invest a certain amount of authority in those who are proficient in the psychic arts such as tarot readers and astrologers. We also tend to invest a lot of authority in our clergy and our elders, which is frequently an appropriate and wise thing to do as they often have much in the way of hard-earned experience to offer us. While each of these has an appropriate place in our decision-making processes, we are still ultimately individually responsible for our choice of actions and the consequences that come of them. Therefore our ultimate authority must come from within our own selves, from our own internal authority. Like the song says: “My skin, my bones, my heretic heart are my authority.”
So what exactly are our responsibilities in exercising our internal authority? For one, we have a responsibility to be always aware of our connection to Deity and to be constantly monitoring that connection for “static”. Carlos Castaneda refers to this phenomena as the “trickery of the spirit” or “dusting the connecting link to intent.” We have to struggle with developing ways of sorting out what is real from what is imagination, fantasy, and wishful thinking. When accepting and acting on the advice of others we have a responsibility to understand and internalize that information lest we fall prey to finger pointing if things develop in unexpected and unwanted ways. And we have a responsibility to be aware of the social and legal environments of the situation and to weigh these factors in. Only when we are reasonably convinced that we have done all these things can we say that we have exercised our internal authority in a morally responsible manner.
So how might we approach formulating and documenting our own code of ethics or a code for our coven or group? First and foremost it’s important to critically think about these things. One way to tackle this is to take a top down approach. First consider the broadest of Wiccan ethical concepts, the Wiccan Rede; an it harm none, do as thou wilt. Keep this in mind as the overriding principle as you develop more of the specifics. Also keep in mind that what you eventually come up with needs to both address the central concerns of Paganism and be a practical and useful tool for those who will seek to use it.
With these in mind you might start by considering our societal norms and legal laws. Examine these to see if there is anything that falls within this general category that needs to be explicitly addressed. For example, my coven had a line in its code that said you couldn’t do anything illegal. This generated quite a lively discussion over whether speeding was ethical (vs. legal) and what that meant with respect to “an it harm none.” But in general this would be where such things as our behavior towards the environment and the earth would be addressed. This is also where you might address pacifistic issues, if you identify yourself as such, and what choices you wish to make regarding pacifistic activities when they clash with the law. Likewise with abortion and other issues where laws may infringe upon the Pagan tenet of full sanctity and control of one’s own body. This aspect of your code should in no way be taken lightly and developed arbitrarily with little thought. Anytime you choose to go against the legal system you are not only putting yourself at risk, but you are also putting the community at risk by association. But we each have limits as to just how far our personal morality and integrity can be pushed before we act. It behooves not only us personally but our broader community as well to have a clue beforehand as to where that boundary is and what we think is the best course of action when that boundary is breached. This is where the effort put into critical thinking and communal dialogue can pay off, because there are a variety of responses to this situation and none of them are necessarily “right” for everyone in the group.
Next you might consider overall practices and generally held beliefs specific to the Pagan community. What are the community’s generally acceptable behavior norms, especially where they aren’t addressed by the legal code? This would be the place to address things like the appropriate uses of magick, will, and intent and the wielding of power for example, or the appropriate expressions of our sexuality within the context of the community. It might also be appropriate to include a code governing hexes and curses.
And finally you might consider what coven specifics and personal agendas might need addressing. This could include group agreements regarding skyclad work and more specific expressions of sexuality. It could also include the groups’ agreements regarding smoking and the use or prohibition of drugs for non-medical reasons.
And when you have done all this, keep in mind that what you have produced is a living document that is meant to change over time as you and your group change. And also keep in mind that what you have produced is a code of ethics, not a legal code. You cannot enforce them the way you would hard rules or legal laws. You can only offer them as a gift to your community with the hope that someone will find them helpful on their journey to a better life.