Walking away from Omelas

Have you read Ursula Le Guin’s classic short story, The ones who walk away from Omelas?

If you haven’t, go and read it now. This can wait.

Omelas is a privileged city, almost a utopia, apart from the one thing that enables its citizens to lead full, happy, and carefree lives – and that one thing is what makes many people walk away from Omelas.

Would you walk away from Omelas? Or would you consider that the bargain is justified?

Light Walk in October by Hartwig HKD

The ones who walk away… (photo by Hartwig HKD)

The thing is, in a way, we all live in Omelas. If you live in the West and use products made by underpaid workers, or even slaves, in the Far East, shipped across the ocean at a high cost to marine wildlife, then you live in Omelas.

But our society is not Omelas for everyone. Some people cannot even walk down the street without fearing for their lives. Some people get arrested or even killed for the colour of their skin, the way they walk, the way they dress. If you are Black, or transgender, or gay, you are especially in danger.

Walking down the street without fear of harassment, arrest, or assault is not a privilege, it is a right. Those of us who pass for cisgender and/or straight and/or white take this right for granted, and are often unaware that it is a right that is denied to many of our fellow-citizens.

Education is not a privilege, it is a right (at least until the age of 16).

If you are right-handed, you take it for granted that the world fits you like a glove. You are unaware of the structural disadvantage faced by left-handers, and call us “awkward” and “cack-handed”.  (I use left-handedness as an example because whilst the structural disadvantages are fairly minor, it seems they are invisible to everyone except left-handers.)

A privilege is defined as “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group”. A right is defined as “a moral or legal entitlement to have or do something”. By definition, rights are, or should be, available to everyone, whereas privileges are, or should be, only granted under exceptional circumstances. 

Walking down the street without fear of harassment, arrest, assault, or being murdered by police, is something to which every citizen has a moral and legal entitlement.  Being afraid every time your son or brother or father leaves the house, that he will get killed just for being Black – that should be a right, not a privilege.

There are many privileges that are granted only to white, straight, (cis) male, and cisgender people, that ought to be rights for everyone.

There are many privileges granted to people in the West that ought to be rights for everyone in the world – access to healthcare, not being in danger of famine, epidemics, enslavement, maiming or death by bombing, displacement by war and persecution, and other horrors. The relative peace and security and wealth of the West is built on the deprivation of the rest of the world – our cheap goods result from the economic disparity between East and West, and the fact that people in Bangladesh, China and other places, are prepared to work for very low wages.

Our Omelas is very big and very pervasive – and we seem to be trapped in it.

Perhaps it is not enough to walk away from Omelas – we need to dismantle it from within.

Indigenous peoples

Friday 9 August was United Nations Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

The rights of indigenous peoples are important for many reasons. They are important first and foremost because they are fellow human beings with a right to live safe and free, but also for other reasons.

Indigenous peoples often understand how to live in harmony with their environment, and have built up unique lifeways and mythology to help them live in harmony with it. Consider the Hopi traditions around the Three Sisters, corn, beans, and squash. They also have unparalleled knowledge of the plants and animals in the places where they live. And they have unique and irreplaceable cultures.

When they are ripped out of their environment, lifeways, and culture, they do not flourish. Look at the problems experienced by First Nations people in North America. Look at the alienation of Europeans who are divorced from our indigenous lifeways both by capitalism and barren forms of religion.

What can we do to help indigenous peoples?

One thing you can do is join Survival International and take part in their campaigns. Without the support of ordinary people who write to governments in support of indigenous people, more massacres will occur.

The destruction of ancient pagan religions in Europe was a tragedy from which the European psyche has never recovered. As members of the contemporary Pagan revival, struggling to recover our ancestral ways from the wreck of history, we owe it to our relations, the indigenous peoples of the world, to help prevent such a tragedy for them.

I first learnt about Survival International from the UK Pagan Federation magazine in the late 1980s. Survival International was founded in 1969 and is a human rights organisation that campaigns for the rights of indigenous and uncontacted peoples, and helps them to determine their own future. Their campaigns usually focus on tribal people’s fight to keep their ancestral lands. Part of their work is to re-educate people about misconceptions that help justify violations of human rights against indigenous people, and the dangers that they face from the advancement of corporations, governments and also good intentions based on ideas of “development” that are forced on them. Survival believes that their alternative ways of living are not deficient, that they represent a model of sustainability in the environment of which they are a part and that they possess a rich culture from which others could learn.

Even as I write, the Yezidi people, who have a unique religion and indigenous culture, are being persecuted by the terrorist organisation calling itself Islamic State. Please sign and share this petition calling on the United Nations to protect them.

See also:
International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. What It Is & How It Relates To You
August 8, 2014 by 


And here are some more actions you can take to raise awareness and help indigenous peoples:

Stop uncontacted tribes being annihilated: send an email

A massacre caused a group of uncontacted Amazon Indians to emerge from the rainforest last month. Help Survival International persuade Brazil and Peru to take action.

Download & share a tribal quote

Give tribal peoples a platform to speak to the world. Share this quote with your friends on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

Set up a monthly $5 gift to Survival

Regular giving is the best way to support Survival. It involves less administration, allows them to plan their work, confident in the knowledge of your regular support.

Watch & share the short film The things they said

The extinction or assimilation of tribal people has been predicted for over 500 years. Wrong then, wrong now.

Distribute Survival flyers in your local area

Display Survival flyers in your local library, museum, at work or anywhere you think they will get noticed.

Why do we need labels?

I have been asked twice recently why people need labels for sexual orientations and gender identities; one person commented, “aren’t we all just human beings?” People have also wondered if we need theological labels like ‘polytheist’, ‘pantheist’, ‘monist’ etc.

To me this question is a bit like asking why we need names for things. We say sun instead of “local fusion reactor that is almost perfectly spherical and consists of hot plasma interwoven with magnetic fields” because it is shorter and universally understood as the English word for the big hot yellow thing in the sky.

The most obvious reason why we need labels is as a short way of describing a complex concept or identity. New labels for subgroups emerge all the time as people discover that what they mean by a word is not the same as what others mean by it. For example, if you have a broad definition of ‘male’ which includes transgender men, cisgender men, genderqueer men, gay men, bisexual men, straight men, and so on, then it comes as a shock if you come across someone whose definition only includes cisgender heterosexual men, and they may want a different label to indicate what they mean by the term ‘male’, since their definition is narrower.

Similarly, if you are a polytheist who believes the gods and goddesses are discrete entities, you may want to describe yourself as a hard polytheist. If you are a polytheist who has a devotional approach to the deities, you may want to describe yourself as a devotional polytheist, because what other people mean by polytheist might not sit well with your idea of polytheism.

The other main reason for needing a label for your subgroup is as a way of finding like-minded others. If you are a man who is attracted to other men, it helps to identify as gay or bisexual so that you can find other men-loving men.

Interestingly, it is usually people who are part of a hegemonic group who can’t see the need for labels. For example, there has been a great deal of resistance to the use of the term cisgender to describe people who have the same gender identity that they were assigned at birth. Similarly, some heterosexuals resisted the label heterosexual. Such people claim that they don’t need a label because they are “just normal”. I would strongly resist the idea of any kind of identity being “normal”, but even though cisgender heterosexuals are in the majority, I still think we need labels to describe cisgender and heterosexual, so that we know what we are talking about when we refer to people who identify as the same gender they were assigned at birth, and people who are attracted to people of the opposite gender to themselves. Given that the term cisgender was coined in 1904, and the term heterosexual was first published in 1892, they are hardly new-fangled terms.

As a genderqueer person, I resist the gender binary – the idea that people fit neatly into one of two monolithic gender categories with little or no overlap between their behaviours and interests. My partner came up with another label, postgender, to describe a person who rejects all gender norms and just wants to be themselves.

The person who actively resists the proliferation of categories of identity is typically someone who is part of the dominant paradigm and doesn’t want to think about other people’s needs, or change their current way of classifying people.

One situation in which variant theological and gender identities challenge the hegemonic paradigm is that of ritual. If your ritual setup is based on the assumption that there is one God and one Goddess, and they are cisgender heterosexual lovers, and that there are two major energetic polarities, “male energy” and “female energy”, then this will create the assumption of ritual norms such as making participants stand in a pattern of alternate male and female. This set of assumptions breaks down completely if you have people with different gender identities such as genderqueer or transgender (unless you allow a trans person to play the ritual role of their true gender, the one they actually are, not the one they were assigned at birth), and people of different sexual orientations who may experience magical polarity with someone of the same gender. Most people seem to assume that polarity in ritual involves a component of sexual attraction, even if this sexual attraction is never acted upon. Therefore it makes sense for gay and lesbian people to work with someone of the same gender (such as their partner, where the sexual attraction is reinforced by their physical lovemaking).

Similarly, assumptions that “all the gods are one God and all the goddesses one Goddess” or even that they are all aspects of a single Divine Unity will affect how you address and described deities in your rituals, hence the need for polytheists to devise our own traditions and rituals that are meaningful to us, or adapt existing traditions.

On the matter of rituals that are meaningful for people of all gender identities and sexual orientations, some people have suggested that gay and lesbian people form their own ritual traditions – and these do exist (the Dianic tradition and the Minoan tradition, for example). However, as a bisexual person, a “homocentric” ritual would be just as excluding of my identity as a heterocentric one. So my preference is to develop ritual formats that include everyone. A polytheistic perspective helps with this because deities can have multiple genders, different sexual orientations, and fluid identities. These can be found in many myths.

Identities and labels and categories are fluid and evolving. Typically, new ones emerge when people find that they don’t fit in an existing paradigm, or need a word to describe the opposite of what they are. Labels are useful because they enable people to find like-minded others for socialising, ritual, conversations, friendships, and relationships. Of course they are all subcategories of people, but when you consider how wonderfully diverse people are, we need categories to help us understand one another.

The boy who was afraid of his own shadow

An original fable by Yvonne Aburrow

Tim was a boy who was afraid of his own shadow. It followed him around all the time, and it never said anything. It grew bigger and smaller seemingly at random. Sometimes Tim shouted “GO AWAY!” but it still clung tenaciously to his feet.

Only when everything was dark all around him did the shadow finally disappear, but then the whole room was full of shadows: the shadow of the tree outside the window, coming through the curtains – sometimes because of the strange orange glow of the street lamp, sometimes because of the pale blue moonlight. Then there was the shadow that lived under the bed, which seemed to move of its own accord, and the shadow behind the wardrobe that loomed up the wall.

One day, Tim was out for a walk. It was a cloudy day, so his shadow was only a watery fuzzy thing, and Tim felt that perhaps it was not so dangerous today. He asked it why it always followed him, but it still remained obstinately silent.

Tim wandered aimlessly through the forest, filling his pockets with pebbles and interesting-looking twigs. A blackbird sat on a branch and sang its liquid song. Tim came to a path he did not know. There was an old woman standing very still in the middle of a glade. She was gazing up at the canopy of leaves and the tracery of twigs above her. She held out her hand, and a small bird came to land on it. Tim watched as the bird fed from her hand. After a while, it flew away.

“How did you do that?” he asked.

“I was very very quiet, both inside and out,” said the woman. She turned to look at Tim, her long white hair swinging like a curtain to reveal her bright blue eyes.

“Quiet on the inside?” asked Tim.

“Yes. Perhaps no-one has shown you how to do that,” she suggested.

“No, they haven’t.”

“Just breathe,” said the woman.

“Is that it?” asked Tim.

“No, but it is the beginning.”

“The beginning of what?” asked Tim.

“Of not being afraid,” said the woman.

“How did you know I was afraid?” asked Tim.

“Most people are,” said the woman.

“Of what?” asked Tim.

“Their own darkness,” said the woman.

“Is that like being afraid of your shadow?” asked Tim.

“Very much like that, yes,” said the woman. “Is that what you are afraid of?”

Tim decided to trust the woman. She seemed friendly, and there was something bird-like about her. Tim had always liked birds, especially robins with their bright eyes.

“Yes, I am.”

The woman did not laugh at him, as other grown-ups had. She just looked at him intently with her head on one side.

After a silence, she said, “You need to make friends with it.”

“How do I do that when it won’t talk to me?” he asked.

“How do you make friends with other children?” asked the woman.

“By playing with them,” said Tim.

“Exactly,” said the woman.

Just then, the sun came out from behind the clouds, and there were both Tim’s shadow and the old woman’s, stretched out across the grass of the glade. The old woman crouched down and made the shape of a hare with her shadow. Tim laughed.

“It’s a hare,” he said.

“Yes. Your turn,” said the old woman.

Tim made the shape of a cat with his shadow. He had to assume such a contorted pose to do this that he collapsed in giggles.

“I think that was a cat,” laughed the woman.

“For a minute, anyway,” said Tim.

Next they played tag with their shadows. Each of them took it in turns to be “It”, and the other one had to chase them and try to step on their shadow.

“Still afraid of your shadow?” asked the woman eventually.

“No, it’s like a friend now,” said Tim.

“Exactly,” said the woman. “We all have darkness inside us, anyway – it is dark inside your body.” [1]

“So it is,” said Tim. “I never thought of that.”

Tim said goodbye to the woman, and walked home, whistling. He decided to call his shadow Tom.

That night when he went to bed, he wasn’t afraid of the shadows in the moonlight any more, because he knew that Tom was there to look after him.




[1] I am indebted to Crow for the observation that it is dark inside your body.

A note on names – Tim means ‘fear’ and Tom means ‘twin’ (and the story is not based on anyone I know called Tim or Tom). Other than that, I will let you work out the meanings of this fable for yourself.

Call for Papers: Pagan Consent Culture – Building Communities of Empathy and Autonomy

Yvonne Aburrow and I are pleased to announce that we will be co-editing an anthology entitled Pagan Consent Culture: Building Communities of Empathy and Autonomy. 

The collection will define Pagan consent culture; articulate widely-held Pagan theologies of the body; examine theological resources in various Pagan traditions for building consent culture; explore strategies for making seeking consent to touch a normal community practice; give recommendations for safeguarding policies at events for children and adults; provide procedures for communities to use when responding to accusations of sexual abuse; consider the role of unequal power dynamics in relationships in Pagan communities; and examine the ethics of sexual initiation, erotic healing, and other Pagan religious practices involving the ritual use of touch.

For more information or to submit a proposal, click here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/sermonsfromthemound/pagan-consent-culture-an-anthology/