Wednesday, April 27, 2011

W is for Westboro

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.


  1. Great Blog thank you for making me stop and truly think about this situation from a different perspective!! :)

  2. Thank you for taking this on. I am very proud of my "Tribe" in Mississippi for the way they handled what could have been a nasty situation. I am very proud of you for addressing this topic. Love your perspective. Beautiful blog.

  3. Thank you for putting into words what needed to be said! :)

  4. Amazing, and it's a great take on a group of people who hasn't acted in the best interest of the community, or rather tribe.

  5. Spectacular read! I agree wholeheartedly. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Thank you, everyone. Tribe (or as a Scottish reader pointed out on Facebook, "Clan") is something that I believe strongly in. We do our best to live the perspective and find the balance between spatial and linear. It's not always easy - but it's consistently been worth the effort. :)

  7. This follows a theme of moments I've noticed in the last week. As always, thank you.

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  9. Ok, we'll try this again...

    Most wonderfully stated, thank you so much!


  10. Hi, Denise! I have loved you since I was a baby girl! So thrilled to see you on Jeffrey's blog. You will adore him!!

  11. This story reminded me of why I don't own guns.
    Thank you for touching on this subject - it's been bugging me for weeks.

  12. There is a group of bikers, most of whom are veterans, and their main mission is to attend these military funerals and provide a protective buffer from the protesters. If I rode a motorcycle, I'd be right there with them! While I don't doubt the sincerity of the beliefs held by those protestors, I can't help but question their brand of Christianity. How can they possibly justify the intentional infliction of additional pain on those mourners?

  13. A lot of blogging is about keeping things light and airy. Kudos to you for addressing important issues such as this one. Thanks for discussing the outrageous events in Westboro! Julie

  14. When I first saw your topic for today I wasn't sure that I really wanted to hear more about Westboro, but know that it was you writing... I was curious to see what you had to say. I'm very glad that I kept reading because this awareness of the two sides of the coin (linear and spatial) helps me make sense of my own reactions to Westboro and what happened in Brandon...

    I do also like the inclusion of Clan into the vocabulary, as well. :)

  15. @Susan I'm well-aware of those bikers, but couldn't fit them into the flow of the blog. I tried... And they're not alone. What I'm impressed with are the people who are stepping up and making a non-violent stand in this situation. It's beautiful to watch unfold.

    @Julie You can almost be guaranteed that my blogs will never be light and airy! LOL Fun? Sometimes. I've gotta write what I feel. Thank you so much for being here! I really enjoy seeing your smiling face each day. :)

    @Becky You're very welcome! (I'm catch up with you via email a little later.)