How it happened that we found ourselves, the Confirmation class and I, sharing in the festivities of Charlotte Metro Pagan Pride Day is a funny story. See, we were supposed to be going to the Greek Festival down the street — talking about the filioque clause and iconography, touring the Byzantine room, experiencing a Christian tradition far removed from our own. You know, doing Confirmation-type stuff. But we arrived an hour before the festival opened that morning and needed to kill time with 20 sleep-deprived middle schoolers, so we headed for the park. The park, where soccer games were being played; a Pilates class was gathering in the shade; a corporate picnic was being laid out under the shelter. Displays and exhibits were being set up on the front field, and vendors were showing forth their wares. We took them to the park on Pagan Pride Day.
The first thing I learned at Pagan Pride Day is my deep and abiding love for the First Amendment. Where else in the world, I ask you, could this group of people assemble and practice their religious rituals, free from government interference or suspicion? The freedoms of the First amendment — speech, assembly, press, religion — are granted only by the most self-confident of societies.
I also learned that what passes for pagan today is nothing at all like the classical pagans of antiquity. Nobody at Pagan Pride Day looked sincerely afraid that some war was about to break out among the gods of the pantheon that would bring down fire or pestilence on the earth. No one was truly anxious that his or her measly offerings would anger the gods and cause the heavens to withhold the rain and bring famine or devastating plagues. No one looked capable of an actual human sacrifice.
Contemporary pagans are a much more benign bunch than the ones who threw those first Christians to the lions, or offered the still beating heart of their victims as a gift to the Sun god. They are a curious mixture of witches, wizards, earth religions, and new age spiritualities. They like to wear black. Native American stuff is big, too. Anything that is not mainline monotheism is sheltered under the umbrella of paganism these day. Nothing too specific; nothing too rigorous.
For the most part, though, they looked like a harmless band of misfits who shared a common narrative of rejection and so had taken refuge with each other.
They are the rejected, the outcast. They were never that kid; the one we call, and write, and text, and e-mail, begging her to come to youth fellowship because we know she is the key to attracting 15 more kids, who will bring a dozen more, which will make our youth program a success.
They are the ones who found no hospitable place among us when we had the chance. Theirs is a narrative of rejection, not solicitation; of exclusion, not invitation. Paganism has become a refuge for them from the popular.
So, the most important lesson I learned at Pagan Pride Day is that our quest to be popular, which defines so much of what has passed for evangelism in my lifetime, leaves collateral damage in its wake. The world is filled with those we have stepped over or around in order to establish our credibility with the successful. We have built a community that witnesses more to who we are, who we like, who we find attractive, valuable and desirable, than who Christ is and seeks to save: the lost, the lonely, the outcast, and forgotten. Look at the congregations sheltered in our pews and see that we have been ruthlessly efficient at this process of self-selection. The misfits and outcasts have gotten the message. They know where they are not wanted. So now, for them, “pagan” means “not Christian” — demonstrably, intentionally, proudly, persistently, not one of us.
We are a community that didn’t want them, while paradoxically, following a Christ who does.
DOUGLASS D. KEY is pastor of Clover Church, Clover, S.C.