We are using the wrong strategy to put down Fred Phelps.
This morning in The Kansas City Star newspaper the lead article was about fallen United States Army Cpl. Jacob R. Carver who was killed in Afghanistan, and an estimated two to three thousand citizens, patriots and neighbors who lined the funeral route attempting to push Rev. Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church (Topeka, Kansas) far away from the soldier’s family funeral at Harrisonville, Missouri’s Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church (refer to “A Human Buffer Against Hate” The Kansas City Star Wednesday November 24, 2010, page A1). Phelps believes God is punishing America for the sin of condoning homosexuality, thus the death of Cpl. Carver.
If someone wants to challenge and change a culture they must interfere with the culture’s totem. This what Phelps is doing. That is what Jesus did 2,000 years ago, and Jesus changed the world. Totem is a culture’s common ancestry, its rootedness, which is so important to a hodgepodge melting pot people like America. Totem is an “idol” of the culture. I don’t mean an idol like a fake god, some object carved out of wood or soapstone. I refer to the ritual use of metaphors, symbols and idols as a culture’s totem. These idols embody the unspeakable consensus and conscience of a culture. Totem allows a culture to make sense of things like death, fear, freedom, God and injustice. Funerals tap into a culture’s totem. Funerals are cultural totem. Warriors are totem. The U.S. flag is totem. The U.S. Constitution (particularly the right to free speech) is idol even though it might appear at first to be legal code, the Constitution actually functions more powerfully as idealism and symbol. And the Bible is totem for America – even those who don’t subscribe to it.
Fred Phelps has stumbled into a perfect totem juncture of our culture. Grief must be ritualized to help us make sense of life and death. Fallen warriors are heroes because they sacrificed their lives for the common mandate, which reinforces and speaks validation into a culture, what values they should protect and why their particular way of life must go on. That’s powerful totem. America believes it is the world’s ideal embodiment of private individual freedom. Everyone should have a vote and some property. Americans come together to ensure individuality. Nothing speaks louder for the rights of individuals than the “right” to a private funeral for one’s son, and the right to worship (funeral rite) as one wishes. The words I write are superseded by totem’s force: nothing says ‘freedom’ like the icons of flag and Bible.
Yet, the binding totemic power of the Constitution allows Phelps the freedom to speak his horrific hatred against American culture. Throw in the Bible and U.S. flag for good measure and one has a brilliant Totem. The American people know and feel its power. They are inescapable metaphors for who we are as a people. At this point someone could stack all these symbols up like a Pacific Northwestern Native American “totem pole” and then stand back and declare, “There! There’s the whole Phelps and Flag issue in an easy to view totem pole.” Just to be ridiculous, let’s say it’s just a matter of time before someone produces little six-inch tall Phelps and Flag totems suitable for hanging from a car’s rear-view mirror. Available at QuikTrip checkout counters for $5.99 each. ‘One dollar per totem goes to our fight against hatred.’
Two thousand years ago Jesus did the same thing Phelps is doing now. One of the major differences between Phelps and Jesus, however, is Jesus knew exactly what he was doing when he challenged the totem of Temple, Sabbath, Torah, Kosher and Land. Jesus brilliantly changed the meaning of the all these, including Messiah, through metaphor and story. He never tells us directly what the kingdom of heaven IS, but rather what it is LIKE… ‘the kingdom of heaven is like… a mustard seed, yeast, weeds, a pearl, or a net.’ Jesus never tells anyone who he is but rather tells them what he is like… ‘I am the good shepherd, I am the light, I am the gate…’ Jesus sought to expand the tight narrow black and white definitions of Temple, Sabbath, Torah, Kosher and Land. He elevated the conscience of the Jewish identity to a new level beyond the Pharisees’ ever increasing narrowing and restricting moralistic worldview. Jesus traded up human identity. Yesterday’s prostitute is now whole and the new ideal “Lover” (Mary Magdalene). Yesterday’s traitor and extortionist is now the “Giver” and found, the new Insider (Zacchaeus instead of the Pharisees). Jesus rises above the quid pro quo world of Pharisees.
Phelps, on the other hand, is attempting to “tighten” the national conscience, down to a specific identity he’s chosen, using the Bible as his indisputable totem (his big stick) – and Phelps is using the right to free speech (the Constitution big stick) to pound his agenda into America’s collective conscience. Brilliant. Why write an article or make a speech or be interviewed on Larry King Livewhen you can mess with the unspeakable symbols and rites of a people? This hits people in their blind gut, not their head, even though they attempt to combat it with their thinking powers. It won’t work. The only comeback is totem against totem, in this case, Bible and Constitution against Flag and Warrior. That works beautifully for Phelps’ cause. This is how Phelps gains notoriety.
One can tell Phelps’ inadvertent strategy works because people in The Star article make conflicted statements: “This soldier died so (Phelps) could do what he does, as stupid as that is.” And “I just don’t get why he (Phelps) has to do it at funerals.” Phelps does what he does at funerals because it works. I say ‘inadvertent strategy works’ because I do not think Phelps’ black and white moralistic dualism is of the same consciousness-level as Jesus. Dualism is all about who’s in and who’s out, judging, picking who we like and who we don’t like, insiders and outsiders, exclusivity and tribalism. For someone like Jesus to widen the cultural norms, one must be inclusive and very open. One must conceive of prostitutes and tax collectors radically different, not against the prevailing morality, but against a new measure, now as viewing the unacceptable as acceptable. Phelps is not inclusive but exclusive. I think he just stumbled into his success. At best he reacted intuitively from the gut. If one messes with the totem they will be successful – for good or evil.
Phelps cannot be overcome with laws and rulings. Speeches and articles like this will not change things. A better more powerful totem must be raised against him. I suggest the church create a ritual for decommissioning soldiers. But before I describe the rite, I have to file my caveat. Militarism goes against my convictions as a Christian. Personally, I do not like America’s militarism. According to The Economist, last year (2009) America spent 4.7% of our gross domestic product on the military (The Economist, Nov. 13, 2010, page 28). This is more than any other nation. Some might counter, “Well, yes we spend so much because we have so much to protect and lose.” But I’d simply say, ‘We spend so much on military because we have so very much.’ Affluence creates fear not freedom. At his first inaugural address President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke those famous words ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’ The country was in the middle of The Great Depression. Americans had nothing to loose. Why not lose your fear as well? But when a country is at its peak, when a country is top dog, then anything and everything is loss – all we have to fear is everything!
The soldier’s decommission rite does not need to endorse or condemn the military’s violence and aggression. The idea of a decommission rite would restore a man or woman’s true identity as a human being and not a killer or as killer-support. It is not human to kill. The rite should tell the soldier ‘we don’t need you to kill anyone for us anymore.’ The rite should thank them well. The rite should allow the warrior to express their gratitude that they got to come home – some don’t. The rite is needful to heal the damage war does to the soul.
I got this idea from Richard Rohr, O. F. M., who heard of it from the Japanese who have just such a decommissioning for warriors. Rohr says it is called The Loyal Soldier ritual in Japan. Rohr says our country keeps soldiers “at war” by calling them veterans. In our attempt to honor those who sacrifice for the nation we never release them from this calling. I think of the HBO mini-series, Band of Brothers, and where Lt. Winters walks off into the dark by himself at the end of D-Day, grateful that he is somehow alive and he prays that if God will allow him to make it through this war he promises to become a man of peace and find a quiet place out in the country and never fight again. At the end of one day, war has lost its appeal. Winters just set up his own decommissioning rite – and God was present. That’s why this is the church’s role – even if we adamantly disagree with violence and militarism. The rite fulfills the role of peacemaking and re-humanizing our young adults. I think of my own brothers, one who when he left the Army he was so angry and jaded, that he wanted to burn his uniform in the back yard. My mother stopped him. The colorful language he learned as a soldier came in handy against all things Army. My other brother just never wanted to talk about it. Vietnam is a shadow. So much unresolved pain and anger in our warriors. We need a Peace Ritual, one where we sing America The Beautiful rather than The Star Spangled Banner, where we give thanks for what we have, rather than re-live the battle. Against such a ritual I believe Phelps would have less leg to stand on. Our country would be healthier.
Use the totem. That’s the right strategy. It is a shame to let Fred Phelps get the better of use of it, especially in the name of God who came to us as Jesus and made himself nothing, taking on the very form of a servant, and humbled himself and allowed us to crucify him, death upon a cross – the Self-Emptying God. There is no more powerful totem than the cross. We should use it to subdue hatred just like Jesus did.
by Rev. Dr. Daniel C. Wilburn
I just purchased “The Essential Johnny Cash” music CD. I’ve always been a Cash fan. I am drawn to his melancholy brooding, his angry and all that Black. I like his bold pointed lyrics, including the songs he chooses but didn’t write. I am thinking Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt.”
Cash is a prophet. All musicians are supposed to be prophets (instead of rich superstars). Poetry and lyric are the tools of prophets, so says Walter Brueggemann in his old work, The Prophetic Imagination. The prophets like Jeremiah bring down the hegemonic king with weeping, with symbols like baskets of fruit and plumb lines, shattered clay pots… while sitting in dung and ash. Moses defies Pharaoh and wins over the powers with “Thus says the Lord…” and then Moses brings on the gnats. Pharaoh’s magicians can’t fake the gnats. Pharaoh is brought down by gnats. Go figure. And figure Brueggemann and Cash do.
Cash’s beat, that drivin’ walkin’ doin’ time kind of beat drills deep into the settled comforts of affluent America. Brueggemann says the Powers will pretend to not notice – they need do nothing and the prophet will not have any affect. But still they hammer on, the pronounce, they walk on, they smash symbols in front of us suburbanite Pharaohs… “Thus says the Lord! Some day you who care not about the poor and oppressed will be judged! Someday you who are comfortable will trade places with the garbage scroungers, with Lazarus! You will burn with unquenchable thirst – ‘just a drop!’ Woe to us for turning away.’
We should listen to Cash and weep. For the most subversive One did: Jesus wept. The Judge became the Parent. The Great One became the Servant – and then turned the world over upside down. With every quarter beat and alternative thumb Johnny Cash keeps drilling that into me. He makes me afraid. I am forewarned. Now that is power.
by Rev. Dr. Daniel C. Wilburn
“All Saints’ Day” – the day of the hallowed ones, the saints.
Here it is again, the scary decorations, the kids are out having fun trick-or-treating, and I get to stay home and manage “the bowl” – the candy handouts. I decided this year I wanted to try to ACTUALLY celebrate All Saints’ Day – some kind of declaration or decoration. In our church tradition we don’t have a Mass or even a prayer. Nothing on November 1st. I never have liked this free-church deficiency. Each year no celebration of All Saints Day bugs me because so much is put into celebrating the demons, devil or scary ancestors. It’s just unfair – and telling about our society. But the demons’ time is up.
The demons are not scary as much as scared. They know their day is done. They thrive off of chaos, fear, competition and compulsion. Demons are most like hyenas I think; nervously laughing, snapping, crushing – skittering about. They’d kill each other if they could get by with it.
I read the news today, O boy. The demons should be feasting. Tuesday November 2nd is election day and politicians are mud-slinging and avoiding content as usual. Nothing will change, just the names. The economy is at a snail’s pace to “recovery.” Venezuela started a “currency war,” the Economist states. China, the EU, USA – all attempting to control the markets and massage their bottom lines – everyone is attempting to create money without exchanging goods. There’s some chaos and fear for you demons to munch. Economics and Politics – the perfect demon treats!
Some would say All Saints’ Day is hopeless, a day of bygone days. The Halloween-hyena-frenzy won the day long ago. But I’ve read the other story, the Jesus story. Jesus won, Jesus wins. A judgment day is coming – yea, has already begun. That’s why the demons are in a panic. The demons are about to be cast into the abyss forever. Evil will be judged. Not just demonic evil but human evil. Justice will be served. The past will be corrected and restitution made to all those saints and martyrs who died for Jesus and his cause of love. A prayer for All Saints’ Day celebrates “known and unknown saints.” All Saints’ Day celebrates the no-account saints, the lowly unknowns… I have a church full of them.
The common saints of today are fighting oppressors in Kansas City’s inner city, reparenting at risk kids. Others are standing along side the innocent families in Juarez Mexico (Anapra). Others mow vacant lots in the inner city. Others hold babies and play with orphans in Haiti. Others preach the good news. Others scrub toilets. Some lead small groups. A few give money to the leaders in the persecuted underground church in the PRC (China). Another is on her way to Liberia to serve outcast suffering women with fistulas. Another shares her story with others who want out of the sex industry.
-wait a sec, I gotta get door for the trick-or-treaters (like ten times!)
Anyway, all us unknown saints are not wasting our efforts. We are stockpiling the building materials for Jesus’ kingdom for use when he returns. (1 Corinthians 3:10-15) Our fearless job these days is to face the evils of the world and do what Jesus did. All our good counts and is saved up. The good you do will come back to you… “well done good and faithful servant. Enter in the joy of your Master.”
For these saints as well as the most famous, Perpetua, Jerome, all the others – tomorrow I will hang out a simple white cloth on the front of my house. Why?
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. 10 They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” 11 Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed. – Revelations 6
A white robe for the waiting martyrs – that’s the idea behind the white cloth.
Also for All The Saints on their Day, a prayer:
How shining and splendid are your gifts, O Lord
which you give us for our eternal well-being
Your glory shines radiantly in your saints, O God
In the honour and noble victory of the martyrs.
The white-robed company follow you,
bright with their abundant faith;
They scorned the wicked words of those with this world’s power.
For you they sustained fierce beatings, chains, and torments,
they were drained by cruel punishments.
They bore their holy witness to you
who were grounded deep within their hearts;
they were sustained by patience and constancy.
Endowed with your everlasting grace,
may we rejoice forever
with the martyrs in our bright fatherland.
O Christ, in your goodness,
grant to us the gracious heavenly realms of eternal life.
Catholic Prayer, Unknown author, 10th century
by Rev. Dr. Daniel C. Wilburn
I did it! Yes, I hung a white ribbon over the front porch today, this banner day, this day of the Holy Saints – Hagios Santos. I love it when I follow through on the little things.
Man, it bugs me when people leave up Halloween decorations on All Saints’ Day. It’s like leaving up Good Friday decorations through Easter and on into Monday, Tuesday, etc. What a downer.