Friday, April 16, 2010

Frith, Race and the Building of Community

I recently read an interesting post on Frith, a Northern European concept which has variously been translated as "peace," "justice," "right order" and "security."  Matt, a Pagan legal services attorney, obviously has done his research and likely knows far more about Northern Tradition stuff than I do. He certainly provided me a great deal of food for thought, especially since questions of community have been so much on my mind of late.

I was particularly struck by his closing lines.
In our present state of historical development humanity cannot be defined in terms of tribal kinship. There are simply too many of us now and with advances in science we can be sure that all people are kin on one level or another. It makes no sense to limit frithful relations to an arbitrarily drawn innergarth. In a single day an average Westerner is liable to have contact with a more ethnically and socio-economically diverse group of people than someone in the Saga age would have in a lifetime. It is as necessary for us now to engender frith outside the clan as it was to do that inside the clan in the days before Egil. It is as unlikely now for us to have kinsman living next door or at the workplace as it was expected in the old days. To be whole, we must try to engender frith will all those we come in contact with. Any existential threat we face today comes not from a rival tribe, but primarily from irresponsible use of technology and misallocation of resources. The world has become small enough that we are all in the innergarth now, and our survival probably depends on us starting to really recognize that.
I can certainly understand his discomfort with the idea of a close-knit and exclusionary clan or tribe. In modern times this idea has often been used in defense of the idea that one "race" is superior or inferior to another "race." As tales to promote "racial unity," the Sagas and Lore make a lousy choice.  They generally focus on various tribes and clans - all of whom were of the same white race - waging bloody, decades-long wars with each other.  We should also remember that the longships carried far more merchants than pillagers. The Nordic tradesmen were happy to do business with southern Europeans, Africans, Indians, Asians and anyone else who was willing to trade goods. The colors which interested them most were not black and white, but gold and silver.

The main problem with "racial unity" comes from its very broadness.  Nobody was going to let a stranger into your innergarth, or treat him as the equal of your kinsmen or neighbors, just because he happened to have the appropriate complexion.  Skin, eyes and hair do not speak to an individual's moral character or worth.  One cannot build a community based solely on race: there must be something deeper than a common ancestor fishing in the Paleolithic fjords several hundred generations ago.

Matt thinks we should extend the concept of frith beyond the tribe to encompass all of humanity. I might argue that we would do better to narrow it to a chosen tribe.  We need not be concerned with accidents of genetics: instead, we should remember Theodore Sturgeon's axiom that "90% of everything is crud." Those who are worthy deserve our respect and our protection: the rest can be left to their own devices and their own tribes.

This is not to say we should seek the dissolution of government and replace it with a neotribal culture. I'm neither enough of an anarchist nor an idealist to think that would have any idea of working out well.  Besides, there's a long tradition of clans swearing homage to a vassal in exchange for mutual rights and responsibilities. But the obligations we owe our nation and humanity are one thing: the obligations we owe to our immediate community, our innergarth, are quite another. 

Unconditional, universal love is not a prerequisite for peaceful dealings with our fellow citizens (of our nation and our world).  Tolerance and mutual respect for those who return the favor will suffice. You cannot love all humanity in the same way you love those who are near and dear to you.  A tribe of those who care and are cared for by each other can provide a level of mutual support that cannot be offered by a larger grouping. A gathering of believers can provide each other with levels of care and nurturing that they would not find if they relied instead on the Brotherhood of Man or the tender mercies of the government.

Our obligations to humanity are the obligations we owe to strangers. It is in our best interest to treat them with tolerance and respect their boundaries.  Many of those gore-soaked sagas were intended at least in part as cautionary tales: steal your neighbor's cow and your kinsmen might burn your grandfather's homestead. This of course would obligate you and yours to seek revenge for the injury and trigger a long and unpleasant spiral of events that might span generations. Those strangers belong to a tribe as well: if you don't wish to make trade of goods or ideas with them it's best to leave them alone.  By establishing networks of exchange, you can ensure that their prosperity is shared with you and your wants are shared with them.  When the clans are at peace their cattle grow fat: when they are feuding the corpse-ravens feast.