Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church is something of a villainous celebrity in our world. According to Wikipedia, "The Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) is an independent Baptist church known for its extreme stance against homosexuality and its protest activities, which include picketing funerals and desecrating the American flag."
In March, the Supreme Court upheld Westboro's First Amendment right to free speech, giving them legal ground to continue protesting at military funerals.
Recently, Westboro descended on Brandon, Mississippi to protest a the funeral of a soldier who was killed in action. The planned protest did not go according to plan. To quote the article:
It seems that certain Rankin county pickup trucks were parked directly behind any car that had Kansas plates in the hotel parking lot and the drivers mysteriously disappeared until after the funeral was over. Police were called but their wrecker service was running behind and it was going to be a few hours before they could tow the trucks so the Kansas plated cars could get out.
A few made it to the funeral but were ushered away to be questioned about a crime they might have possibly been involved in. Turns out, after a few hours of questioning, that they were not involved and they were allowed to go on about their business.
As a writer, I am a huge proponent of free speech. My stance is the old, "I may not agree with what you have to say, but I'll fight for your right to say it."
However, the practice of Westboro protesting at sacred ceremonies pulls from a part of the human experience that has nothing to do with laws.
It has to do with Tribe.
Our rituals and ceremonies are richly symbolic. We aren't simply putting a coffin-encased body into the ground - we're returning a loved one to a place that is all around us, a place that we can't see but can still feel. Each portion of a military funeral, from the presentation of the flag to the grieving family to the twenty-one gun salute, has a much deeper meaning than the event itself.
So when a group steps into that sacred, symbolic situation with the intent of forcing their perspective upon it, they are also acting symbolically.
The reason why these protests have so many of us up in arms isn't because we're offended by Westboro's desire to express their beliefs. Our reaction is so strong because, in an event that is rich in symbolism, Westboro has been given the right to symbolically attack the mourners - and the mourners have been told they simply have to take it.
One of the challenges that a traditional shaman has living in our society is that we each tend to walk around with one eye closed, claiming that we can see clearly all around us.
There are two sides to our existence - a linear side and a spatial side. The linear side of our being is governed by laws and numbers. Everything lays out in nice equations. From a linear perspective, the Supreme Court's ruling was correct. Westboro does have a right, as governed by law (and linear nature), to protest on public lands in any manner they choose as long as it fits within the boundaries of those laws. The other side of our existence is spatial. Rather than connecting things in a direct line of cause and effect, it is dependent on the entire weave around it. For instance, you can cut down the trees uphill from a stream, but you will most likely cause the hill to erode, change the landscape, and impact the stream itself - not to mention altering the environment, the daily patterns of the animals that depend on those trees, and the plant species that will invade with increased access to sunlight.
From a spatial perspective, the Supreme Court ruling could not be more wrong.
And the reason is Tribe.
In yesterday's blog, I wrote that we could place the people in our world in one of three circles, each representing how close that person is to our core. This concept becomes clearly illustrated when we find ourselves in the midst of a sacred event - for example a birth, a funeral, a birthday, or a wedding. There are people who come to support us. Others send their thoughts related to the moment and our experience in it. In the midst of those faces are a handful that pull close, that enter into a sacred and intimate partnership, and who "are there" for each other.
Those people are Tribe.
To many, saying that we're Tribal is much like saying we are prone to passing gas in church. The very term reminds us of something "less than civilized." As a direct consequences of this, we neglect Tribe in our culture. We reject the concept that we could still have those Tribal ties after countless cultured generations. Rather than strengthening and relying on those bonds, we neglect them. And yet, in the sacred moments that so often define our journey through life, Tribe still gathers together.
Imagine that your Tribe is gathering to honor a sacred ritual, that even though you've drifted away from each other, the moment holds enough weight that it has drawn upon the ties that bind you together, pulling you close once more. For instance, imagine that it's the funeral of a young man or woman that you've known since they were a child who has devoted his or her life to protecting you. Now imagine that another Tribe descends upon that moment with the single intent to disrupt it as much as possible. They hold up signs that they're thrilled your child is dead. Instead of writing a blog, speaking from the pulpit, or engaging in countless other expressions of free speech, they choose to come to personally let you know that they are glad your child was killed.
What do you feel in that moment?
Framed in this perspective, we can understand how Westboro is in the wrong, even if they're simply exercising their legal right.
Our society has swung too far to the linear extreme. We look at the places it's fracturing and try to find linear solutions to spatial problems. For instance, it never occurs to us that people are drawn to gangs not because of the drugs or money, but because they find themselves part of a Tribe where before they felt alone. That Tribe may not be their first choice - it may not even be where they want to be - but when the threats around them become too great, when the symbolic message of poverty and hopelessness manifests, it is human nature to pull close with your Tribe. Those that have a strong, supportive family often find their Tribe in that framework. Those who have nothing may take the only option they believe is available to them. We will never truly solve any of the problems that face us until we can find that solution in a balance of the spatial and linear.
A traditional shaman's perspective is that peace will never come through laws. Prosperity will never come simply through a linear process. As human beings, we have two parts to our existence - a linear side and a spatial side. When we find a way for those two sides to exist in balance, we'll know peace and find prosperity. Until then, we'll continue to go through life with one eye closed.
It's why something can be both legally right and Tribally wrong at the same time.