#ItsTime to reexamine its leadership
I will make no effort to hide my distaste for the Asatru Community. From my very first interactions with them, they have never failed to disappoint me with their attitude and behavior in the face of even the most basic of challenges. They epitomize a self-important, undeservedly self-entitled, and outrageously empty “spiritual not religious” attitude that is so pervasive in general paganism and something that is destructive to any religious pursuit. Religion is a pursuit, a collective expression and exploration of meaning in a world that can often prove all too meaningless. The Asatru Community is a group ideologically committed to expressing no formal ideology, that all ideologies have essentially the same meaning, that they rob their members of finding any sort of meaning. As Brad Bird expressed in his movie The Incredibles, when everyone is special no one is.
If it was simply a matter of not agreeing with the stated mission of The Asatru Community, I could easily in good conscious keep my criticisms to the time and place where they are most relevant. However, as I have watched the organization develop, it has become truly apparent that it is not simply ideological incoherence, but also gross incompetence and perhaps even malfeasance that is at the heart of the Asatru Community, and to merely disagree with them on ideological grounds is not enough. For it will soon become clear that if even if you agree with the vague and often contradictory philosophy behind The Asatru Community, a well-informed person cannot in good conscience donate to the organization.
The Ethical Issues of Seth Chagi
Central to this controversy, and perhaps representative of the many problems inherent within The Asatru Community, is Seth Chagi, its President. Since his first appearance, Mr. Chagi has proven to be something of a controversial figure in public Heathenry — a man who tries very hard to present himself as a neutral party with the best interests of his religion at heart, yet lacking the interpersonal diplomatic skills required of an individual in such a position. He is consistently capricious in his decision making and unable to engage with his critics in even the most basic of ways.
My personal interactions began on Twitter. I first became aware of them through a friend and fellow moderator of reddit’s /r/Asatru Subreddit who pointed out several articles to me. Soon after some exchanges on Twitter, mostly snarky on my part, I joined their Facebook Group. It was during that time I learned that the Asatru Community engaged in something they called Online Blót. I found the very idea so bizarre and offensive, I shared my criticism with them via Facebook. Although I freely admit to being confrontational, at no point in the exchange did I engage in any abusive behavior or was otherwise untoward in my criticism of this act. Their defensive tactic was not to meet me with level heads, as expected of an organization which took criticism seriously, but to childishly and flippantly ban me and silence my voice. This established a pattern of behavior which not only violates their organization’s core principles, but also amply demonstrates Mr. Chagi’s immature leadership. Multiple people who work alongside me on Heathen Talk have had their memberships revoked simply for being associated with criticism of Mr. Chagi and his organization’s direction. Recently, a report surfaced on Reddit’s /r/asatru subreddit, which I moderate, which spoke to troubling practices taken under the auspices of the Asatru Community. When confronted on these questions, Mr. Chagi first refused to even accept them as accurate, dismissing them as “either true, or even believable,” with a tone and level of maturity “Sigh, if only people would actually look into things before spewing their Bs.” This was in the face of inquiries from people who were trying to look into things.
Mr. Chagi has continued to use his administrative position to silence all direct criticism of his organization, and when confronted outside of the safe zones of his own echo chamber, Chagi has refused to engage, frequently blocking or banning all critical voices to his actions and stated philosophy, all the while claiming to provide an open forum for people to share ideas. Kenneth Nowicki, a Texas Heathen, was banned after complaining about Mr. Chagi’s behavior in the Texas Regional group mentioned above, was banned from all TAC affiliated resources. When he inquired to the reason for this, he was told “since you were banned [due to] racist images on your profile, you are banned from other remaining groups led by TAC.” When asked to provide examples, member of the TAC Board of Directors Michelle Koren said, “I wasnt [sic] involved directly when this happened thereford [sic] I cant [sic] answer which images or be the middle guy any further on this specific matter.”
In another instance, our producer Marc Beneduci was blocked on twitter for criticizing TAC’s use of a meme making fun of people for choosing how they worship and approach the gods. It seems that it’s okay when *they* do it. But that seems to be the way with the Asatru Community. Everything is permitted, unless it is something they don’t agree with, and it seems consistency is something that is only found in their tapioca or pudding cups.
Mr. Chagi is young, and clearly inexperienced, so may be given a bit of leeway with making mistakes that come with time. However, whatever benefit we accrue him on account of his age and overabundance of enthusiasm must be tempered by the fact that he is the leader of a group with a clear agenda to speak for and to the Heathen community at large. In light of that balance, he must be held to the highest ethical standard and any lapses in that standard confronted and exposed. People who are becoming interested in Heathenry are going to find his organization, and those people may be inclined to take Mr. Chagi’s word as an authority, when it is clear that his use of that illusion of authority is capricious and unethical.
If it were only questions of internet politics, and who is banning who, I would hesitate to write such a piece. The churn and twists of the internet humdrum is such that it really doesn’t matter who says what. But this is about more than just theology or identity, important as they may be. For someone who has spent a good deal of time watching TAC operate, it has become clear that the primary driver for TAC is not a better heathenry, or even just word-fame, but something much more material: money.
The (Non-)Profit Motive
The Asatru Community, Inc. is a 501(c)3 corporation located in Thousand Oaks California whose mission statement is to be an organization that “brings together resources to help strengthen and grow both the online and local community.” To that end, they solicit donations, offer TAC branded merchandise, all the while advertising that, as Mr. Chagi has said, “Proceeds go straight to you, the community!” If there is one thing Mr. Chagi is more on message about, other than providing a safe space for all heathens (except those that Mr. Chagi disagrees with or that disagree with him, it would seem), is that TAC is accepting donations and selling TAC Branded Merchandise.
Even here, there raises the question of questionable business practices. TAC offers shirts featuring branded art that is suspiciously similar to the art of Todd Keyser of Yggdrasil Designs. When contacted and asked about the art, Mr. Keyser declined to comment citing advice from his Lawyer. However, in at least one formal complaint obtained by Heathen Talk staff, it was intimated that the artwork currently in use in TAC branding was not properly licensed by TAC. Where is the money that TAC is raising being spent, if not in the pursuit of compliance with copyright law?
There are requirements of any 501(c)3 organization, and one of them is to maintain complete and open books. To date, despite repeated requests for information on its finances, TAC has refused to detail those expenses outside of the following information provided by their treasurer, Jennifer Shoemaker:
TAC does not differentiate percentage of funds allocated specifically to veterans [sic] programs or outreach programs. No veteran organizations have received nor requested funds directly from TAC as of this email.
No salaries are paid by TAC. We are completely a volunteer organization.
No money is specifically allocated to our Ambassador Program. There are no funds paid directly to Ambassadors either. If a request for funds for an event or item is received TAC pays for the event or item directly. This ensures no misappropriation of funds.
If TAC has not yet disbursed funds to any Veterans Organizations or had any Veterans organizations request disbursement, why does Mr. Chagi claim that TAC is supporting Veterans? Exactly how does an Ambassador request funds from TAC? How much funds have the Asatru Community received in the form of Donations? How much has gone out? To what purpose? How are the funds from sales of T-Shirts and other TAC Branded merchandise accounted?
As an organization with less than 5,000 dollars in revenue, TAC is not required to file anything more than what is known as the “Postcard 990” that merely states that it has not received more than that. And, according to the most recent filing for 2015, they have not received more than 50,000 in Gross Receipts.
I am still uncomfortable however, with someone who is so clearly unwilling to engage with his critics, who hides behind deleted comments and dishonesty, who has yet to do anything but shill for donations, who commits to and then reneges on the open civil debate he says he so wants is going to be doing anything ethical with the money he collects. I think it is both fair and fair warning to bring up these concerns, and nail them to The Asatru Community’s door.
I am still left with these questions:
* What is TAC’s ultimate purpose?
* In what ways are they pursuing it?
* How much money have they collected so far?
* How has it been used?
* Why is Mr. Chagi so afraid of people not agreeing with him?
* What is his background that has prepared him for leadership in a national organization?
* Who, outside the Board of Directors of TAC, can speak to Mr. Chagi’s leadership?
* Why does he claim to be helping Veterans when no funds have been disbursed to that end?
* What kind of Heathenry is TAC Actually working for?
* What actual good has TAC done for Heathenry?
* Why does Heathenry need TAC?
We recently reached out to TAC to get comments on this article as it currently stands. We have at press time still not received word back. However, within an hour of having sent our request, TAC has announced that it will be adding a new section to its website and by the next morning announced a new veterans pen pal program. While we welcome these moves towards transparency and action, it does beg the question: is this is going to be a precedent moving forward? Will action only follow the specter of public criticism which comes from channels that Mr. Chagi and his coterie of sycophants cannot silence? As much as Heathen Talk Network is committed to bringing you the kind of information that heathens are looking for, we are not at this time prepared to continually investigate and hold accountable The Asatru Community on all of its claims and programs.
As Ashli, who first brought the question of TAC funds to Heathen Talk’s attention said in our interview with her: “If they are ashamed of their behavior, changing it would be a better solution than scrubbing the damning proof.” We are more than happy to see them change that behavior, but it is a poor sign that it takes action on the part of the press to prompt it.