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?