The black birds thunder overhead. Below, the combatants gather. They are marked by red. They speak the names of the dead.
It is afternoon and I am sitting quietly in the warm sun. I have taken the afternoon off from working on the book to join a peaceful demonstration against police violence and racism. Around the steps at the front of Oakland City Hall, some hundreds of people have gathered, wearing red clothing and armbands and carrying signs of protest. They have recited softly the names of youths killed recently at the hands of militarized police forces. I am sitting with friends, wearing red, holding up the names of the dead, breathing together in silent prayer.
The demonstration was planned as a “national moment of silence”. Silence doesn’t come, though. Helicopters beat the air overhead. I’m not entirely sure when the official minute of silence begins. I go on praying silently, the peace prayer I use regularly as a meditation: Sid co nem, nem co doman. Peace to the sky, sky to the earth.
Beneath the beating wings, the combatants chant battle songs. They cry outrage, clamoring for justice, restitution. Light breaks over them.
The loud minute of silence has come to an end and people are beginning to rouse and cry out and chant. “Hands up, don’t shoot! Hands up, don’t shoot!” I begin to hear the outrage beneath the calm of the demonstration. “Black lives matter!”
Speakers step forward and begin to address the crowd. I’m deep in my prayer cycle. I’m not sure if I missed a speaker before Alan Blueford’s mother steps forward and begins to speak. She speaks with power about her son, another Black youth slaughtered unarmed, going to his death with his hands raised in surrender. She speaks of her community, their exhaustion with unending oppression, racism, violence, tragedy. She speaks of the end of patience and the need for action. “And I am a mother of action!” she cries out.
I AM THE MOTHER OF ACTION.
Another voice thunders it behind hers. It echoes silently over my head, over the thrumming of the helicopters, over the crowds with their red ribbons, over Jeralynn Blueford. The Hero’s Light, or something like it, breaks open over her. Anger and passion ripple through the crowd.
I can see that this demonstration is not one that will become a pitched battle today; but I sense a hunger for confrontation here. None of these people want battle for its own sake, but they are hungry for an opportunity to confront those who wield the powers that hold in place the oppressive situation they are living in. They contain an enraged desire to confront those who have brought about all these deaths, and who still refuse to be accountable.
I am starting to grasp why, apart from my own desire to help somehow, I felt the Morrígan pushing me to come down here today. I grip the devotional stone in my hand and I return to my prayer cycle. The stone is dry against my palm, so dry. Peace to the sky, sky to the earth.
NO, comes the voice again. THE TIME OF PEACE IS NOT YET. THERE HAS NOT BEEN ENOUGH BLOOD SPILLED.
There is no bloodlust in the voice, though. I pause, sink inward and mull over what that means. I don’t think She’s saying She wants more bloodshed; the message feels impersonal, like the word of an unflinching observer. I think She’s saying that’s what it’s going to take for us to fully confront what we’re doing. I think She’s saying we can’t have peace until we can face this down, complete the confrontation with the specter of our own horrors. I find myself thinking of the seeress Fedelm, giving voice to her vision of the battle that her people have instigated for themselves.
“O Fedelm, how do you see our host?”
“I see it crimson, I see it red.”
They are all wearing red here today. And they are ready for this fight, past ready. Jeralynn Blueford is still speaking. People are echoing and responding to her words in quick, angry outbursts. I change to a new prayer: one for strength and victory. For justice. That is what these people are crying out for passionately. They are wise enough to know that before peace can come, justice has to come. The signs here say as much: “No justice/No peace” and “There can be no justice without struggle”.
I am reflecting on conversations I’ve seen recently, on the subjects of peace and war, violence and nonviolence, racism and justice. Asa West wrote this blog post, “I Have Conversed with the Morrígan about Gaza” in her blog Jewish Witch. It has provoked conversations in some Celtic polytheism forums about the nature of the Morrígan; whether She would ever advocate for a position of nonviolence as suggested in the blog. Whether it is incorrect to associate Her with peace as well as war. People have their various reactions. I think back on what I have learned of Her, and what I’ve experienced. Does She advocate for war, in Her mythology? Yes, no doubt. She is ever working to bring conflicts to a head. Sometimes, the texts say it’s so that She can revel in the carnage. But much of the time, Her motives are cryptic. Often, I think it has as much to do with observing the latent tension between conflicting forces, and bringing that tension to open battle so that it can be resolved.
There is this: Every time I’ve tried to ask Her about the merit of a particular war my country has engaged in, She has refused to answer. No, She tells me. Your wars are yours to own. Your sovereignty is your own and you must bear the weight of how you wield it. I will be there where the consequences unfold. For me at least, She never seems willing to advocate for or against. In the mythology, She gives poetic prophecies of both war and peace. But where the vision of peace comes, it is delivered together with a vision of conflict and suffering. Always presenting us with the choice, never allowing us to stand down from the consequences of choice.
There is also this I have learned: Peace is not the absence of conflict. Peace is more rightly to be understood as the condition of being free to live well. Freedom from violence is only one of its elements. That is to say, a situation where there is no active violence happening can still be very far from the peace we would hope for. Injustice may be enforced in the name of preserving “the peace”; but what is being served there is order, not actually peace. Where order comes at the expense of human life and dignity, and relies on coercion and threat, there is already no peace, even if there is no violence yet. That is a condition that is neither war nor peace – and it is in that charged in-between space where we most hear Her voice inciting toward the conflict.
In Ferguson, Missouri, I’m told there were no homicides this year until the day that Michael Brown was shot dead by police this week. Someone might have said that the town was at peace. No blood had been shed. But look what latent violence was held there: That the white police force could be so tightly coiled in militarized terror and racialized contempt of its own population that the single trigger event could unleash all this violence against the people. That the Black community had been coexisting with a police force that hostile to them has to have meant coping with a constant threat to their ability to simply live daily life. This was not peace. It was simply a latent battle waiting to be unleashed. As are so many of our cities. Ferguson is no different than many places in America. On the same day I went out to the demonstration, I had to engage online with Celtic Pagans muttering veiled criticism against the idea that a Jewish woman like Asa West has a right to worship the Morrígan at all. Racism is in our culture. We cannot call this situation peace. We cannot hide in it from the conflict we have created for ourselves.
“I see it crimson, I see it red.”
I am not saying that I foresee bloodbaths needing to occur. I think we have opportunities every day to choose better ways, to choose for justice, to be more human to each other. I am hoping that the example of Ferguson may teach us something about the costs of choosing order instead of peace. I think part of its lesson, and the message I take today from the Battle Goddess, is that when the existing order has been enforced with injustice, that injustice demands to be confronted before peace can be found. That injustice represents a state of latent violence that must like a spring be uncoiled before the system can come to rest. That conflict and violence are not always antithetical to peace: peace and conflict do not exist in metaphysical opposition, but as coupled aspects of one dynamic.
And this: We have to fight for justice before the time will come when we can pray for peace.