Pagan Presbyterianism? Protest and Prophetic Theology

 

by Alastair McIntosh

 

This essay was originally presented as a paper in the Contemporary Innovations in Religion in Scotland conference, Department of Religious Studies, University of Stirling, 23 January 1998. It was published in The Friends Quarterly, 32:7, pp. 300-309, July 2001.

 

 

Alastair McIntosh, a Quaker who grew up in Presbyterian traditions on the Isle of Lewis, is a Fellow of Edinburgh’s Centre for Human Ecology. 

 

In 1992 the Pollok Free State protest camp was started by a local man ... who sat up a tree for two weeks armed with a copy of Robert Burns’ poetry. Over the following three years the construction company, Wimpey, was to force through the M77 motorway. This now benefits the relatively rich of Eastwood and Ayrshire by cutting through the recreation grounds of some of Scotland’s poorest people in Pollok. It comes within a mere fifty metres of houses at the Corkerhill housing scheme.

 

Many thousands of people visited and were influenced by the site. The majority were local with a hardcore of camp activists standing at around 100. To the casual visitor it may have appeared a very “pagan” gathering with its totem poles and native-American style prayers; indeed, it mainly comprised those who would sometimes, patronisingly, be described as the “unchurched.”

 

In contrast, I want in this article to suggest that the Free State represented a new opening of spiritual awareness in contemporary Scotland; one influenced by both neopaganism and by values that reflect Scotland’s dominant cultural Presbyterianism, thus my title, “pagan Presbyterianism.” 

 

Reformation and Protest

 

Reformation is a continuous process in any Spirit-led movement: ecclesia reformata, ecclesia semper reformanda - “the reformed church must always be the church with is reforming itself.” In Biblical terms, reformation is the process that Ezekiel, perhaps the greatest ecologist amongst the prophets, mused over with his dry bones (Ezekiel 37). Is it possible, he asked, for a culture that has died to dance again? Other examples of Biblical reformation include Moses’ reaction when he came down from the mountain to find the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf, and in 2 Kings 23 where King Josiah drives out idolatrous practice. Idolatry, of course, is grievous because it deludes people into false reality, and it is primarily against the incursion of idolatry that the continuous process of reformation is required.

 

Reformation is invariably preceded by protest, objection being the grit that fashions the pearl. Thus the word, “protestant,” derives from “protest,” which originates from the Latin protestari, meaning, “to testify for” something. Protesting can therefore be an affirmative and creative action that, as the Council of Trent and its successors through to Vatican II have shown, as well as nonconformist traditions such as Quakerism, is not limited only to the reformed tradition. Indeed, spiritual reformation is not be the sole preserve of the churches at all. As such, protest for justice, peace and the integrity of creation, where spiritually motivated, can be seen as standing in a broad tradition of prophetic theology that straddles, but is not defined by, the canons of organised religion.

 

The Pollok Free State and its People’s University

 

I shall not attempt to describe the full history of the Pollok Free State motorway protest here. Other published material does that, for example, Paul Routledge’s “Carhenge or Carmaggeddon?: Environmental Protest and Notions of ‘Home’ in Glasgow,” Scotlands, 1996, pp. 100-110. But briefly, the self-styled “Free State,” which has been described as a “canvas fairyland,” was one of a number of British anti-motorway protests that took place during the first half of the 1990s. It was distinguished by being run mainly by working class people. As with most such protests, the motorway was eventually driven through, but only at considerably inflated expense and political cost. Whilst this protest and most others like it failed in their overt objective of stopping a given motorway, they contributed towards the wider political achievement of calling into question Mrs Thatcher’s “great car culture.” The battle may have been lost, but as government slashed roadbuilding budgets in response to a collapse in political will, a wider war was won.

 

To illustrate the spiritual underpinning of the protest, I shall concentrate here on the period February-March 1995. During this time hundreds of local schoolchildren went on strike to register their protest at the desecration of local play-areas. As they swarmed out of Pollok’s schools and climbed over contractor’s equipment, Louise Bachelor of BBC TV described the scene as resembling the “children’s crusade” or “the last of the Zulus.” The Scotsman picked up on this religious metaphor, running a headline that proclaimed, “Children’s crusade invades M77 site.”

 

To educate the young protestors a “People’s Free University of Pollok” was temporarily established at the camp. This lasted for two or three weeks until pressure on families from such statutory authorities as social workers created a climate of fear that caused the children to return to conventional studies. For a short time, however, seminars and workshops were offered in tents and around camp fires aiming “to empower students to become more alive to the aliveness of life.” The self-declared University promoted itself as being a forum “where degrees are offered in living.” The power of such assertions lay not so much in the quality of what the protestors could lay on with very limited resources, as in the feeling of so many of the young protestors that what school offered was not education in the sense of “leading out,” but narrow “training” in the sense that a fruit tree might have limbs cut off to force growth in particular directions. Advised by various radical educationalists, the present writer included, the Free University set its “entry requirements and educational aims” as being:

 

1.   Respect and service to ourselves, others and nature.

2.   Learning with hand, heart and head.

3.   Taking responsibility for the education of one-another and ourselves.

4.   Listening deeply to others with sympathy and tolerance.

5.   Gender, ethnic and social justice.

6.   Standing up, speaking out and being true.

 

Plato was quoted on enrolment certificates: “We are discussing no small matter, but how we ought to live.” Its curriculum included everything that the Board of Studies (comprising student-teachers and teacher-students) deemed most deficient in conventional schooling, namely:

 

·      Political Empowerment - reclaiming our human rights and building community.

·      Social History - why the poor are poor and the rich have the land.

·      Spirituality - how to grow strong in love from the soul.

·      Living Skills - crafts, childcare, cooking, literacy and ways of being useful.

·      Creativity - self-expression through music, art, poetry, drama, dance and writing.

 

During its short and largely symbolic life the Peoples’ Free University of Pollok achieved considerable broadcast and print-media coverage. Much of this was admiring; some was scathing. The Times Higher featured it as standing in the tradition of Plato’s Academy on their back page on 3rd March 1995. The Herald of 2nd March quoted a police spokesman as saying, “As far as we are concerned there is no doubt that these children are being manipulated.... This is an extremely dangerous situation to get children involved in.” However, the same article quoted a 13-year-old spokeswoman replying, “If this didn’t mean anything to us we wouldn’t be here in the rain, at weekends and after school. This is our future. We’ll quit when Wimpey does.” In one day alone, the Herald recorded, 150 pupils from Bellarmine and 182 from Crookston Castle left school to join the protest. Strathclyde’s education chairman, Councillor Thomas Farrell, criticised the “highly irresponsible behaviour from adults who should know better.” A 14-year-old boy retorted, “It’s brilliant here. You learn stuff. They let you chop logs and abseil, but only if someone is watching.... School’s crap.”

 

The University, then, revealed that the self-styled Free State protest camp in the woods was about much more than just stopping a road. It was also a challenge to the manner in which people generally, and Scotland’s poor in particular, are processed by a society that perceives little value in the fullness of their humanity. It was a call, in effect, to “suffer little children…”

 

 

Community and Redemption

 

Poetry, song, art and prayer were regular features at the Free State, providing emotional release and consolidating an ethic that was summed up by a gigantic banner on one of the trees bearing the single word, “RESPECT.” Former drug addicts and gang leaders found respect for self and others. Sometimes this extended towards reverential relationship with a strong implicit recognition of grace. I spoke with many protestors who movingly described the protest as providing them with a pattern and example of community – both social and ecological. “You just come out of the flat,” a young Pollok woman told me, “and you come in here and it’s amazing because it’s so beautiful with the trees, and the campfire, and the singing ... and everybody’s so nice to you.”

 

Addressing violence necessarily became a central skill amongst the protestors. The rubric was forgiveness. “You know what, Alastair,” I was told by one dreadlocked protester who had recently been stabbed in the chest three times by a gang leader who had come to make trouble at the camp, “This place is a fuckin’ redemption centre.” When BBC Radio 4’s Costing the Earth programme quoted this, they edited out the adjective. This reduced a piece of contextualised theology to an effete statement of piety, demonstrating the difficulty that bourgeois society has in relating to vernacular spirituality.

 

Connection with the natural world was expressed on site through remarkable carvings and totem poles created by Govan artist and community leader, Colin MacLeod. “See the eagle,” he told me one night after a difficult day. “It’s forever being pestered by smaller birds, but it just has to ignore them. It has to on with looking for food and living a life. Well … it’s the same with us.”

 

A number of protestors were arrested and in February 1995 John Livingstone wrote as follows from HM Prison Greenock:

 

I am on remand until March 29th and I am disgusted. I have so far refused food and will only accept water. My freedom means so much to me and without it I am nothing, so please do not fret about my well-being for I am on my feet and have not taken this decision lightly or without deliberation - so do not worry for me as I will find freedom.

 

I am missing you all so much that I speed my spirit to you that it may give you strength in the fight that is just and true. You are the people of the trees be noble and sure, for the fight is just beginning and your enemies are hidden in ivory towers guarded by injustice. So take your strength from your birthrights: you are the last of the free and hold in your souls an indisputable justice and a most worthwhile cause - the health and well-being of our planet and its children.

 

You shall know your enemies in the forest for they walk heavily on the soil and break that which is in their path. Do not fear them for their time shall be ended by those who walk softly, spirits of the woods. Never bow to your oppressors or let them anger you into violence. Take your strength from the hands of those who stand beside you, your Kith and Kin. I kin ye a well ... Livingstone.

 

The more things got difficult, the greater the role that spirituality played in upholding courage. Sometimes this was expressed liturgically. For example, Vanya Stevens from Drumchapel, one of Glasgow’s poorest housing schemes, wrote material such as this which was shared round the campfire: 

In the shadows they were one. Their power gave light to the sun. Echoes of their voices opened up the earth and the growing was strengthened by the beating of wings.

 

 

Shamanism and Prophetic Theology

 

It might be tempting for established religion to dismiss such passions as “pagan.” However, etymologically this word simply means “country-dweller.” We might, therefore, resist any suggestion that “paganism” in the sense of “nature spirituality” (as distinct from idolatry) is necessarily unscriptural. Pantheism - God as nature - is idolatrous. To think of God as a tree, a stone or even the universe limits our understanding of God, thus Jeremiah’s denouncement (2:27) of those, “who say to a tree, ‘You are my father,’ and to a stone, ‘You gave me birth.’” However Moltman’s panentheism - God in nature - is central to any meaningful understanding of either creation or incarnation. The Spirit of God is thus in the tree and arguably even the stone, but not limited by such forms. Scripturally this is clear, for example, from Genesis 1, Job 36-39, Psalms 104, Proverbs 8, John 1 and Acts 17:25.  Hebrews 1:3 says of Christ: “He sustains all things by his powerful word” (my emphasis). The totality of God, then, is both transcendent and immanent.

 

In reminding us of the idolatry of neglecting God’s immanence in exclusive predication of transcencence, the spirituality of the Pollock Free State can be seen as prophetic. It can be contextualised in shamanic passages that appear in scripture. For example, Livingstone’s words quoted above resonate with those of Isaiah 11:6-9, 24:4-5 and 55:12-13. Indeed, Livingstone would doubtless love Isaiah’s refrain: “And there is no peace, saith the Lord, unto the wicked.”

 

A prophet, as a particular type of shaman, is called to step outside of the “consensus-trance reality” of normal life to see the spiritual roots of        dis-ease in the people. Stepping back into normality, the prophet testifies truth to power, often seeking to “gather the Remnant” of the faithful people of God to establish a real or metaphorical “promised land.” The primary concerns of the Biblical prophets can be summarised as having been 1) The worship of the totality of God as distinct from idolatrous fragmentation, 2) furthering social justice and, 3) furthering ecological justice.

 

In advancing these causes, Biblical prophecy is surrounded by shamanistic elements that resonate with the spirituality of a movement like Pollok. Ezekiel, for example, had to be fortified, first with a remarkable vision of totemic creatures and crystal; then with the courage not to be afraid “of their words, though briers and thorns surround you and you live among scorpions” (Ezekiel 1 & 2:6). This finds echoes in Revelation (note especially 4:6-8 on the Apostolic power animals). Similarly, his tree of life echoes Genesis and the Garden of Eden (Ezekiel 47). It comes back right at the close of the New Testament as that which engenders the “healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2). Ezekiel’s ecological vision thereby receives Christian baptism. We should note in passing that his prescription for land reform in chapter 47 states that the second generation of incomers must be treated fully as “Israelites” and given equal shares of the land. As with the Pollok Free State’s emphasis on ethnic inclusiveness in the Gaelic tradition of fostership, Ezekiel sees xenophobia as contrary to God’s will. Cultural regeneration and the strengthening of national identity must not be at the expense of the stranger or the refugee: it is for all God’s people, not only for the king’s men.

 

In his remarkable critique of globalised advanced capitalism – the lamentation for the King of Tyre - we additionally find Ezekiel treating the Garden of Eden story as a metaphor. It is little wonder that this is a chapter about which few sermons are preached. In it the prophet rather shifts the blame from Eve and maintains that the Fall came about because, “In the abundance of your trade you were filled with violence, and you sinned” (Ezekiel 28). Later, in Ezekiel 36, we find God personally promising to re-set the seeds of Eden to restore both human community and natural ecology in the desolated hertiages. The parallels with the Free State’s appraisal of the condition of Scotland in their epistle to the Assynt Crofters are striking.

 

Another prophet/shaman relevant to Pollok was Joshua. He set up a standing stone in a grove to mark the new-found monotheism of his people (Joshua 24:26-27). Jacob, of course, had behaved somewhat similarly with the pillow stone of his archetypally shamanic dream in which God gave him the land upon which he lay. This featured the recurring shamanic theme of the axis mundi ladder between the lower and the upper worlds. It was, we might note by way of bibliographic reference, the original Genesis 29 version of Stairway to Heaven.

 

Let me press on with indicating the shamanic dimensions of the Bible. Consider Moses. He had his Heaven-sent manna and his magical rod, famously calling in Numbers 11:29 upon “all God’s people” to stand with him as prophets. Indeed, that whole chapter is a classic portrayal of the tribal shaman’s struggle. I shall return to it at the end of this text. The Pollok protestors were likewise fed serendipitously, frequently by strangers, who would stop to deliver food. I remember one night in sub-zero temperatures a restaurant owner appeared with several large urns of curry. It was as delicious as it was unexpected – Manna fallen like dew from Heaven.

 

Indeed, when it comes to having enough to eat, Elijah’s job was so badly paid that he had to be fed by ravens (1 Kings 17:4). Raven totem poles were prominent at Pollok, mindful that in some traditions, for example, the Tibetan and the Nordic, the raven is a power creature symbolising enlightenment. It looks through death into the rebirth of life eternal. We might note, too, that Elijah’s power was tied up with that shamanistic accessory, his magic mantle (1 Kings 19:3; 2 Kings 2:7-15). This is found in traditions as geographically far-flung as Native America and, as we know from Martin Martin’s 1695 account, it played a role in what were probably consciousness-changing practices in the bardic schools of the Scottish Hebrides. A number of the Pollok protestors wore mantles or plaids as part of the full traditional kilt. “It is a spiritual dress,” one wearer told me. “When you dress in this you see why they banned it in 1747 [the post-Culloden Acts of Proscription]. It’s powerful. It makes you stand two feet taller.”

 

And then there was Jonah. He serves as a reminder of the storms sent by the unconscious if prophetic calling is evaded (Jonah 1-2). We may run from God, but we can never run away. Running, however, is human nature with considerable precedent. Jeremiah also tried to evade his calling, protesting to God that he was “only a boy” (Jeremiah 1:6). Isaiah’s initial excuse was his unworthiness, being a “man of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). One wonders what the ladies of the Women’s Guild might have thought of that. And Moses in prophetic denial protested disability, complaining: “I have never been eloquent ... I am slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Exodus 4:10). The point is that when called by the Jungian deep Self, known in the Bible as “the Lord,” our narrow little egos are not their own. The common task of the prophet, shaman or bard is by reiteration of the Word to constellate an alternate reality - to articulate a renewed poesis or making of reality to salve the soul of his or her people. It was noteable that many of the Pollok protestors were there against their own superficial better judgement. Some lost jobs or were condemned by the authorities or family because of it. But I did not talk to any committed protestors who had not felt a sense of calling. Such is vocation, and as women and men who professed their vocation they made fitting professors at the People’s Free University of Pollok.

 

In marked contrast to the reluctance of Jonah was the attitude of Elijah’s successor, Elisha. He seems to have positively relished and pursued the trappings of his role. One could imagine him in the ermine robes, expecting some title such as, “The Very Reverend Professor…” Why? Because he asked Elijah if he could inherit a double dose of his power. When the old man dies, Elisha finds this request is granted: sure enough, Elijah’s mantle also proves magical on Elisha’s shoulders. He tries it out and manages to divide the waters of the River Jordan and cross over. With dry feet Elisha then makes off to ascend Mt. Carmel. But as he passes through a village, the children tease him about his baldness. In another of those passages about which not many sermons are preached, we then see this double dose of shamanic power rush to his head. Elisha’s male ego is affronted. He turns round and curses the children in the name of the Lord. In response, two she-bears come out of the woods. They tear apart two and forty of the little miscreants. And Elisha continues on his way, apparently without remorse (1 Kings 2). Similarly at Pollok, conflicts often arose as spiritual power surged and they ... I should say, we ... wrestled with the powers and with the dynamics of deep self and ego. It was easy, in our anger and our frustration, metaphorically to tear apart the “children” - the fragile principles of peace, love and non-violence by which we were attempting to confront the mainstream rampage of Western culture. The story of Elisha thereby yielded useful material for reflection around the campfire.

 

“What we’re on about is the unity of work and worship,” Colin MacLeod would say, who has since developed a major community cultural project reintroducing traditional artisan skills. “What we need round here to cut through the drugs problems and despair ... is spirituality, man.” Other former participants of the Free State have similarly carried the vision forward with projects such as tree-planting and constructing community gardens in areas once blighted by vandalism.

 

 

Pagan Presbyterianism?

 

I have, perhaps seemingly tongue-in-cheek, dubbed the coming together of Judeo-Christian traditions and nature religion described in this paper as “pagan Presbyterianism.” Scotland never was, of course, an exclusively Presbyterian nation and many of those at the Free State came from Roman Catholic or other backgrounds. But there was a real sense at Pollok of stepping into a tradition of protest that came from the people, and rested on the nation’s spiritual traditions. By freshly contextualising these the protest was, without doubt, in the reformatory spirit. It has resulted, for example, in lasting close-links between a number of the protestors and Govan Old Parish Church, currently in the charge of the visionary Rev. Tom Davidson Kelly. This was the church from which the 1930’s rebuilding of Iona Abbey was organised by George MacLeod. It houses a number of ancient totemistic stones which mark Govan Old as one of the earliest sites of Celtic Christianity.

 

I want to close now with a passage that I wrote for use in an Easter reflection at the Pollok Free State in 1995. Call it a midrash, but it is actually a fairly accurate step-by-step re-contextualisation of the Book of Numbers, chapter 11, with a passage from Isaiah 24 added at the end. To any readers who think that this is sacrilegious, I am sorry; you will doubtless see me at the brimstone lake. To those who think it is a trivialisation, I ask, how do you make your sugar-white refined Testament meaningful to the protesting oppressed who have been historically duped and doped by conventional religion? Equally, to those who think we would be better off without the complexity and messy history of the Judeo-Christian tradition, I ask, “To where will you turn when you too are cast down the well like Jeremiah; when you too face the exigency of crucifixion?”

 

What follows, then, is an attempt to encourage those who wonder whether the echoes of our religious past, both Christian and pre-Christian, still have some relevance for the morrow. Yes, it treats tradition in a non-Canonical manner. But it does not ignore it. I would suggest that this is what allows the tradition to live.

 

 

MacMoses’ Motorway (A Contextualisation of Numbers 11)

 

And in the reign of John, a not very major Pharaoh, a prophet arose from down by the bulrushes of the River Clyde. His name was MacMoses, and he settled in the Lord’s area of priority treatment at Pollok.

 

One day MacMoses was walking barefoot on ground considered by some to be “holy,” having been set apart for perpetual conservation in the Pollok Estate. Both being ecologists, the Lord addressed MacMoses from out of a bush.

 

“Hey MacMoses!” God said. “Ever since the people got pushed off the land at the time of the Clearances they have been in bondage to the ‘treasure cities’ of Pharaoh.”

 

“Their situation is miserable. A third of their houses are seriously damp. Childhood asthma rates have increased fivefold since 1970. In the countryside 0.08% of the population own 80% of the land. And my mountains are being quarried out to build motorways, pyramids and all manner of vanities.”

 

So the Lord told MacMoses to go forth and prophesy unto the people as to the ways of socially just and sustainable development consistent with Agenda 21 of the Rio Summit. He said to lead them on an exodus unto a promised land “flowing with milk and honey.”

 

The Lord warned that the transition from a degraded world to a new Eden would not be easy. It would be like unto a journey through the wilderness. But the people of the Lord would be sustained day by day with Manna from Heaven - vegetarian, of course.

 

Then MacMoses lead the people out into the wilderness. But after some time they grew weary of Manna, and lusted even for their previous bondage. “Who will give us flesh to eat?” they asked. “We remember what we had in Egypt ... the abundant fish, and melons, and secure jobs out at the Faslane nuclear submarine base, and private cars to drive there, and homes mortgaged unto the Bank of Moloch.”

 

MacMoses despaired, and he said unto the Lord, “Lord, I am not able to bear all this hassle alone. The peoples’ addiction to the drip-feed of consumerism is too great in magnitude. Help me!”

 

So God said to MacMoses, “Gather seventy muckers from among the multitudes of six hundred thousand, and bring them forth to the Pollok Free State protest camp.”

 

Thus it came about that this Remnant of many good causes gathered around the campfire. The Holy Spirit descended in a cloud through their treehouses. She placed upon them a vision of the Promised Land - a land cleared of lairds. A land with Trident submarines beaten into railway tracks. And they did go forth and prophesy, speaking truth unto power.

 

But some amongst the multitude grew angry at this. They told MacMoses, “Your protestors are but as NIMBY if they hail from here, or rent-a-mob if from away. They leadeth others and especially the children astray.”

 

MacMoses replieth unto them, “Would that all God’s people were prophets.”

 

But even then, the multitudes carried on lusting after their old ways. Eventually God got very fed up with their comfortable culture of complacency and their middle aged middle class aspirations to mediocrity.

 

“Alright!” he thundereth. “Let them have meat - let them even eat quail on Wimpey’s corporate expense account! Let them grind the face of Pollok’s poor into the dust of the motorised chariots of Eastwood’s rich if they must! Oh yes, before they choke on it, let them have just one last drag on their great car culture’s fag end!”

 

So it came to pass that early one morning, amidst much wailing of police sirens and gnashing of striking schoolchildren’s teeth, Wimpey felled the great forest of Pollok. The motorway was forced through the wildernesses of social apartheid.

 

And unto one MacIsaiah (24:3-6) who had chaineth himself up in the last tree, the Lord spake saying: “The earth is emptied clean away and stripped clean bare ... desecrated by the feet of those who live in it, because they have broken the laws, disobeyed the statutes and violated the eternal covenant. For this a curse has devoured the earth and its inhabitants stand aghast.”

 

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