Even though I once wrote it off as a cute dress-up day for kids, I have come to believe Halloween is the most subversive major holiday in our country and activists and spiritual people should take note of its particular brand of magic. Halloween is a mass outpouring of transgressive costumery, alter-egos and anti-social behavior.
For one night, we honor the desire to be wild, frightening, different and mysterious, to be tricksters, to go off script. For one night, we flirt with fear, romance death and seduce the macabre. For one night, children rule for a change, approaching adult strangers and threatening them with tricks if they do not surrender their treats. For one night, we lock the superego (our loud, demanding moral consciousness) in and let the id (our undomesticated bodily desires) out. And the id knows how to throw a raging party.
Superficial religion, in particular institutional Christianity, has a well-deserved reputation for attempting to repress our wild sides at all costs. In my more evangelical youth, I internalized the idea that there was an all-seeing, authoritarian Father judging me from a heavenly throne. This belief restricted my behavior more than I think is healthy and continually led me into dangerous shame when I was not as repressed as I thought I was supposed to be.
In contrast to institutional Christianity’s emphasis on disciplined, repressed behavior, the heart of mystical religion and spirituality is the experience of breathless wonder. When the courageous women apostles first experience the Divine messenger at the empty tomb in one mystical gospel story, they are filled with “fear and trembling.” In the more mystical, less imperial, Celtic Christianity, the Wild Goose is a central symbol for God. In mystical spirituality, God is the Ultimate Mystery — untamable, unfathomable, undomesticated. Our interior freedom, and wildness is a portal rather than an obstacle in the pursuit of union with the Divine.
For activists, wildness has an important place as well. While professional political organizers usually stress the need for strategic, disciplined action, the people on the streets often have their own agenda, and creative self-expression can come out in unpredictable ways. As a professional organizer of sorts, I have at times struggled with and wanted to contain this. But I am learning to see the powerful way in which it is a necessary, healthy and perhaps even spiritual aspect of movement work.
I am not saying we should simply flip the institutional religious script and declare self-control is always bad and that wildness is always good. I believe the truth is more complicated, dynamic and — dare I say — wilder than any binary moral system can elucidate. But as Halloween approaches, may we embrace a transgressive, undomesticated spirituality and activism that confounds those who would make the rules for the rest of us.
Rev. John Helmiere is the convener of Valley & Mountain in South Seattle.
Read more of the Oct. 13-19, 2021 issue.