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.