Can You Sue Your Shaman?—Part 2

Last October 9 I blogged on the deaths at a sweat-lodge ceremony conducted by James Arthur Ray near Sedona, Ariz.

There has been a lot of discussion in the Pagan blogosphere about the case, particularly at The Wild Hunt.

A lot of people piled on, and there was the usual sloganeering about “cultural appropriation” and how “ceremonies were not for sale. ”

Actually, throughout much of the world (and throughout history), ceremonies are indeed for sale. How else do you pay for maintenance of the temple? Do you think the Shinto priest is going to bless your new Toyota for free?

In Wicca, Gerald Gardner’s insistence on not taking money “for the art” was mostly about avoiding prosecution under anti-fortune-telling laws, not cultural appropriation.

But back to James Arthur Ray.

In the latest issue of Shaman’s Drum magazine (no. 82), founding editor Timothy White makes some thoughtful points in an editorial titled “What Can We Learn from the Tragic Sedona Sweat Lodge Debacle?”

White points out several things that went wrong:

  • The sweat followed a 36-hour period of “visionary” fasting, meaning that participants were more dehydrated than they would normally have been.
  • Ray was a “spiritual jock” (my term, not White’s), pushing people to “push past your self-imposed and conditional borders” and shaming participants into not leaving when they were suffering.
  • The plastic tarp coverings may have trapped heat and retarded air circulation more than fiber blankets would have done, making the lodge even hotter.

But he makes several other points as well. First of all, it appears that the lodge was built by the Angel Valley Retreat Center, not by Ray’s team, and had been used previously by other center visitors. Since participants signed a release, it may be difficult to prove criminal negligence in court.

The Sedona location, with that area’s reputation for New Age activities, made it easier for those who “blamed the deaths on New Age spiritual practices ‘stolen’ from Native American traditions.”

White’s conclusion: “I personally believe that the Sedona sweat lodge deaths were caused by a combination of preventable errors and manipulative mind games, due in large part to Ray’s negligence. . . . However, it may be difficult to prove that Ray’s behavior during the sweat was criminally malicious—since he subjected himself to the same challenging conditions.”

And one more thing: screaming for Ray’s head on a plate could encourage the prosecution of “all sorts of ceremonial leaders—vision quest leaders, entheogenic ceremonialists, and even shamanic practitioners—for other accidental deaths. [There have been some such prosecutions—CSC] Although I believe that careless teachers and leaders should be held responsible for preventable mistakes, I think that civil suits may be the best way to encourage appropriate safety measures.”

I titled my first post “Can You Sue Your Shaman?”  But should you? Shouldn’t people walking dangerous paths accept some responsibility?  After all, we followers of magical religions insist that we are not sheep who need a shepherd (Latin: pastor).

The secular law, after all, has fairly narrow definitions of what constitutes a crime and what constitutes a tort. “Bad spiritual teaching” or “improper ritual” or “malicious magic” do not quality.

After all, there was a day—a mere 400-500 years ago—when “malicious magic” or sorcery was a criminal offense in  Western secular courts, but do we want to go back to those standards of proof?

5 Comments

  1. Rombald says:

    1. “Ceremonies not for sale”: I think you overstate your case. Of course buildings/sites have to be upkept, and many religions also have full-time clergy or other employees. However, that doesn’t mean profiteering like Ray; can’t we have some concept of a “fair price”, perhaps? I think that, at worst, a shaman or Pagan priest should make the sorts of charges that most Christian denominations do. In one of Jack Forbes’ books he mentions a tribe who would only respect a medicine man who lives in a run-down cabin. I mean – can’t we agree that, whatever we think of his religion, we respect a priest or pastor who gets paid maybe 1/5 what he could in a company, but we have mere contempt for televangelists?

    Japan is not a good example. The Shinto priests are not too bad, but the Buddhist priests are mostly incredibly grasping and unpleasant. I lived there for 10 years, and I knew people considering converting to Christianity solely so as to avoid paying for a Buddhist funeral.

    2. The court case: It strikes me that this should not be concerned with the legitimacy of the practice. Ray should be seen like, say, a mountaineering leader who may or may not have taken unreasonable risks.

  2. Chas Clifton says:

    Yes, I have run into the “shamans and medicine people should not display wealth” concept before.

    And I am sure it derives from incidents when such people DID use their powers to accumulate wealth (however it was defined in that culture).

    If the Buddhist priests are “grasping,” then I would suggest that Japan is indeed a good example. Or Catholicism in the days of selling indulgences in the marketplace. Or whatever.

    The court case, if one arises, will not be concerned with the legitimacy of the practice, since that is beyond the law. Rather, it will hinge on the issue of negligence, I suspect, which will be difficult to prove, as White argued. But I would not bet on Ray walking away scot free.

  3. “Shouldn’t people walking dangerous paths accept some responsibility? After all, we followers of magical religions insist that we are not sheep who need a shepherd (Latin: pastor).”

    I would argue that this is a difference between newage and pagan/neopagan and shamanic practices. Many involved with the newage circuit may not be intending to walk on a dangerous path, or may not realize the path they are on is as dangerous as it is due to the white-washing of those practices. Newage paths seem to be much more interested in following a charismatic leader than other magical paths, and Ray’s particular emphasis of cheap tricks to attain material wealth doesn’t seem overly conducive to deep, tranformative magical work.

    Accepting responsibility in those cases is dependent upon informed consent, and it is questionable how informed the consent in Ray’s case was. If you’re new to such practices, and the person in charge tells you not to worry, because he’s looking out for you, it’s very easy to trust such a person at his or her word.

    That said, yes, if you’re thinking of doing something that involves sitting in a tiny hut around hot rocks after not drinking for several hours, you should check out to see how dangerous it might be. Hey, you may even come up with some google results on how the guru you’re going on that retreat with has a reputation for safety issues. Caveat emptor and all that.

  4. Rombald says:

    “Caveat emptor and all that”: If I set myself as a rock-climbing instructor, and urged people to take extreme risks, bringing psychological pressure to bear against those who were unwilling to do so, resulting in several readily preventable deaths, I would find myself in prison pretty quickly.

  5. Dver says:

    You bring up some interesting and important points. I do think that people tend to go overboard reacting to “selling ceremonies”. While spirituality is free (well, even that is debatable, as anyone who’s really involved with the spirits knows, because everything has a price of some kind, and offerings can get expensive), people’s time and energy, not to mention ritual supplies, facilities, etc., are not and should not necessarily be free. That being said, there’s a difference between seeking reasonable compensation and bleeding gullible people out of huge amounts of money.

    I have to say, there is a part of me that doesn’t like the way American society doesn’t want to ever take any responsibility for the actions of individuals. While these people might have been fooled by the New Age nothing-spiritual-is-dangerous approach, I would think that any reasonable adult might question the wisdom of spending 36 hours fasting and then sitting in a sauna with no ventilation, just on the physical factors alone. However, they were also under teh impression that the leader was an experienced professional, and may have deferred their judgement to his. So I think it’s complicated.