From the archive, originally posted by: [ M McAllister ]
Paganism gaining popularity in prison
By KRISTEN GELINEAU / Sunday, July 23, 2006
STAUNTON, Va. — A pagan religion that some experts say can be
interpreted as encouraging violence is gaining popularity among prison
inmates, one of whom is scheduled to be executed this week for killing
a fellow prisoner at the foot of an altar.
Michael Lenz is scheduled to die Thursday for the death of Brent
Parker, who was stabbed dozens of times at Augusta Correctional Center
during a gathering of inmates devoted to Asatru, whose followers
worship Norse gods. At his trial, Lenz testified that Parker had not
been taking the religion seriously and had to die to protect the honor
of the gods.
Other followers call the religion misunderstood and say most adherent
inmates do not use it to further violent agendas.
Asatru has been gaining popularity among inmates, say religious
leaders and prison experts who believe its roots in Viking mythology
attract prisoners seeking power, protection and unity.
The gang culture in prison also contributes, said theologian Britt
Minshall, a former police officer and Baltimore pastor who ministers
to inmates. Some white inmates who felt threatened by black prison
gangs formed their own gangs and sought out a belief system they felt
would provide additional security, he said.
“It’s a way of grouping together for safety,” he said. “And you have
to have a god in the middle of that to really keep you safe.”
Asatru is often referred to as Odinism, although some followers
believe the two are separate religions. It is a polytheistic,
pre-Christian faith native to Scandinavia whose adherents worship gods
including Thor and Odin.
It emphasizes a connection with one’s ancestors and values honor,
loyalty, generosity and truth.
An estimated 10,000 to 20,000 people in the United States consider
themselves Asatruars or Odinists, said Stephen McNallen, director of
the Asatru Folk Assembly, a leading Asatru group.
No national statistics are kept on how many inmates follow Asatru. But
experts say its popularity enjoyed a boost from the Supreme Court,
which last year sided with an Asatru inmate by upholding a federal law
requiring state prisons to accommodate prisoners’ religious
Asatru is often associated with white supremacy, although most Asatru
leaders bristle at suggestions of such a relationship.
A 1999 FBI report on domestic terrorism described Odinism as a “white
supremacist ideology that lends itself to violence.”
“What makes Odinists dangerous is the fact that many believe in the
necessity of becoming martyrs for their cause,” the report said.
Such comments are typical of those who don’t understand Asatru, said
Jane Ruck, who runs the National Prison Kindred Alliance and ministers
to Asatru inmates. White supremacists make up only a small portion of
Asatruars, and most inmates who follow the religion do not use it to
push hate-filled, violent agendas, she said.
“There might be some white supremacists who consider themselves
Asatruars, but they’re not (Asatruars) because they’re not following
our beliefs,” Ruck said. “We don’t hate anybody; we just want to take
pride in our heritage.”
Lenz and another inmate, fellow Asatruar Jeffrey Remington, stabbed
Parker a combined 68 times with makeshift knives. Remington was also
sentenced to death but committed suicide in 2004.
According to Art Jipson, who studies white racial extremism and
directs the University of Dayton’s criminal justice studies program,
Lenz’s belief that fatal force was warranted is not surprising.
“If he believes the fight was necessary, whether or not it was legal
is the least of his concerns,” Jipson said. “If he’s a truly devout
practicing Odinist or Asatruist, he’s doing what he must do. And it
would be a shame – it would be a black mark on his soul, his spirit
… for him to be cowardly and not to fight.”
That kind of warrior mentality can exacerbate the tense environment
behind bars, said Mark Potok, a leader at the Southern Poverty Law
Center in Montgomery, Ala., which monitors hate groups.
“It’s a theology that celebrates raw physical power and domination,
and that is why I think it is so popular among prison inmates,” Potok
said. “The kind of inmate who might be attracted to this is a white
man who is looking for justification for extreme violence, who is
looking for an ideology which explains why he should be the boss.”
On the Net:
Asatru Folk Assembly: http://www.runestone.org/
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