I think in all the recent attention to politician Christine O’donnell, we’ve overlooked another equally important news story, one that hasn’t just appeared out of nowhere but that has been an on-going plague of religious fundamentalists protesting at the funerals of U.S. veterans for years. At the moment the Supreme Court is reviewing a case concerning free speech as it applies to a lawsuit filed by Arthur Snyder, father of a deceased soldier against one of those groups: the infamous Westboro Baptist.
So just who or what is Westboro Baptist? The church, headed by Fred Phelps, is primarily comprised of a rather large family clan and is situated in the Topeka, Kansas area. As abcnews described it in one of their reports from a while back: “Westboro preaches that because our country tolerates homosexuality, abortion, and divorce: all Americans are going to Hell.” (Obviously they mean the Christian definition of punishment and suffering, and not the Heathen Hell.) Having protested at more than 200 funerals of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan across the nation, any grieving family can be accosted by their protests when they go to bury their beloved dead soldier (regardless of their religion, race, or sexual orientation).
Up until now, the only line of defense at these funerals has been a tremendous outreach effort on the part of various Veteran groups, or groups like the Patriot Guard Riders that while comprised of Veterans may also have non-Vets in the ranks. They volunteer their own time to show up and provide as much of a barrier between the protesters and the grieving friends and family at funerals as they can by carrying American Flags to act as a screen, and by using motorcycles or singing patriotic songs to drown out the protesters. Their outreach to soldiers and their families goes far beyond just this task, but they are also known for reaching out to soldiers and their family in a myriad of ways: deployment ceremonies, volunteering at Veterans homes, visiting wounded veterans in the hospital, assist families with financial or housing arrangements, and the more joyous affair of welcoming home returning troops.
While I have no idea if I saw the Patriot Guard Riders myself, I have witnessed first-hand a similar group shielding a funeral at one of the cemeteries near my house. They stood side by side, their bodies acting as a physical screen with American flags inbetween them (similar to the picture below). If I hadn’t already been running late for work that morning and a meeting… I would have pulled over so that I could thank each and every one of them, because I knew why they were there.
Military service has been a part of my family for generations. Anyone who has every had a family member in harm’s way knows that’s a constant stress and worry, but to imagine that the worst has happened and you’ve lost them, to only then be confronted with such hate-mongering at a funeral is beyond my capabilities to adequately describe the abomination and horror I feel.
As a heathen, we honor our dead. When they die they go to our afterlife: Hell. Our religious identity is wrapped up in honoring the Gods, honoring our dead, and honoring the wights (or land spirits). Such behavior in antiquity would have been deemed unfrithful, or a breaking of the peace, and would have resulted in either some monetary or property based penalty, if not exile or execution. Even beyond our beliefs, many world cultures and customs have traditions that to in any way cross the dead, either by speaking ill of them, going against their will, and/or disturbing their graves was a very, very bad idea because those dead had the ability to somehow impact you negatively. A heathen might see and interpret this as damage given to one’s luck.
The problem of course lies in the fact that we don’t live in ancient times where the religious identity was the same as the socio-political identity. Instead, we live in a melting pot of a nation with many religions represented across our borders. So even while I would say it is human decency and common courtesy not to be so disrespectful of the dead… I also understand that the items that help to make our nation work as a melting pot, concepts like the separation of church and state, as well as the freedoms of both speech and religion make the issue complicated on the government scale. These are not easy issues that our legal system is deliberating over, rather they are nuanced jurisprudence.
If the Supreme Court rules in the favor of the grieving father, would this then open a crack through which our concept of freedom of speech can be weakened later down the line? While I might rejoice that these grieving families would receive some relief, would doing so impact other freedoms of speech I hold dear somewhere later down the line? As always, when the Supreme Court hears a case they do not just think about the ‘now’ they look at the far-reaching implications of the decision.
While the Supreme Court, as well as other law courts deal with the legal nuances of these affairs, let us call attention not to the villains, but rather those who have fallen, their grieving friends and family, and those who reach out to support them not because they must, but rather because it is the right thing to do. In this time where my pagan cousins prepare to honor the dead with their celebration of Samhain, and many of my heathen brethren may also make ready with disir blots as part of our Winter Nights celebration, let us join together with solidarity. Let us pray, because prayer DOES make a difference. A Heathen would see prayer as having the ability to turn the tide of luck in such things. Beyond even this, we consider sacred one’s gefrain, or the reputation you are known by (during life and the legacy of your memory and contributions that are recalled once you pass from this life). Both remembering those who have fallen is to my mind a sacred duty, and while groups like the Patriot Guard Riders may or may not have Heathen or pagan members in it’s rank, what they are doing is undeniably right. Their spirit of generosity, while standing up for what they believe in, earns them their own good renown and gefrain. There is a reason why our religious ceremonies symbolically link bank to the well of memory afterall. Prayer and actions have power. And if you’re in a position to do more than just pray, then please do reach out directly to see how you can help.
Do you happen to be a trumpeter? Do you realize that many of our Veterans are now being buried to a tape/cd recording of Tapps, instead of a live musician? Imagine what a world of difference you can make to a grieving family and in honoring the spirit of someone who served by volunteering your time and services as a musicians via a Veteran’s association or local funeral home. We make impacts not in being the loudest most controversial kids at the party like the rabid fanatics from Westboro Baptist, but rather we make lasting, positive impressions in small ways that may mean so much more.