- Associated Press - Saturday, May 20, 2017

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - When Jody Hadley arrived at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in 2003 on a kidnapping charge, he wasn’t an especially nice guy.

But the man who’d once held an elderly Worthing couple hostage and stolen their car said he learned a lot about morality in the 12 years that passed before his release.

Most of it came from Asatru, an ancient pagan religion whose modern adherents send prayers to Odin, Thor or Freya and abide by principles called the “Nine Noble Virtues,” among them honor, courage, fidelity, discipline and perseverance.

Without it, Hadley suspects he’d have remained rudderless.

“Asatru helped me become a better person. When I first went to prison, I was a dirtbag. I lied, I was a thief,” Hadley told the Argus Leader (http://argusne.ws/2pPNIvd ). “Because of Asatru, I am an honorable man.”

Hadley founded the Asatru religious group at the penitentiary that still meets, although its relationship with the prison hasn’t always been cordial.

Last week, Hadley heard that correctional officers found a copy of a white supremacist essay called “88 Precepts” inside a member’s cell.

The discovery led the Department of Corrections to shut down the group’s study meetings, at least temporarily. The DOC reinstated meetings this week.

That upset Hadley and Sam Lopez, an Asatru practitioner from Sioux Falls whose son practices in prison.

Asatru is not about racism, Lopez said.

“One idiot does not a community make,” said Lopez.

Neither of them is particularly surprised about the development, though.

Asatru and its offshoots have drawn neo-nazis and white supremacists for years, particularly behind prison walls.

The author of “88 Precepts,” now-deceased white supremacist and convicted racketeer David Lane, latched on to a version of the Nordic religion called “Wotanism,” Lane preferred “Wotan” as both a stand-in for “Odin” and an acronym for “Will of the Aryan Nation.”

The extremist embrace of paganism has forced regular worshippers into a steady struggle for legitimacy, according to Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“They do oftentimes get caught in a box where people think they’re all racists, and it’s not true,” said Beirich, whose organization tracks hate groups in the U.S. “It’s quite unfair. A lot of these pagan religious are pretty progressive.”

Prison officials are often at the center of the controversy. Hate-related speech and paraphernalia are barred prison, but courts have generally ruled that religion is protected in prison by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

It’s not uncommon for inmates with racist views to sue for the right to meet as a group by organizing as a religious group.

Department of Corrections spokesman Michael Winder did not offer details on the incident itself, but said only that the group is under investigation for potential violations of prison policy.

“While individual members are not currently permitted to meet as a group, they are all permitted, and are encouraged, to practice their faith on an individual basis,” Winder said. “Those members who are ultimately found to have not violated policy will be permitted to meet again as a group.”

Winder said the group’s right to meet has been reinstated.

Hadley said Asatru and Native American groups commonly sparred with prison officials over rituals, group meetings and religious artifacts during his time behind bars.

Much of the Asatru trouble has to do with pagan symbols that now stand-in as symbols of racism in the modern imagination, he said. Long before the swastika was adopted by Nazi Germany, Hadley said, it served as a pagan signifier.

Hadley was once questioned in prison about a Thor’s hammer tattoo on his chest, for example.

The hammer symbol is also ancient in origin, but extremists wear it today. Ryan Giroux, a white supremacist sentenced to life plus 83 years in prison for a shooting spree in Mesa, Arizona, has the hammer tattooed on his chin.

Hadley’s tattoo has nothing to do with racism, he said, and he had to convince the Department of Corrections as much. The situation was frustrating, he said.

“They tried to write me up for gang activity, even though I was the only one who had it,” said Hadley.

Hadley and Lopez both say the Sioux Falls group offers rehabilitative value for inmates.

“It really is building community for these guys, so when they get out, it makes it easier for them to do well and harder to screw up,” Lopez said.

Hadley said he’s proof of that. He went from a man who didn’t think twice about stealing from his own family to one who holds his family in high regard, and that he wouldn’t have without spiritual influence.

“I ran that group for 10 years,” Hadley said. “I always stressed that it’s about loving who you are where you come from, not hating other people for who they are and where they come from.”

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Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com

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