The pelican papers

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Westboro sectarians: ‘God is your enemy’

Posted by Ron George on October 10, 2010

I hadn’t given much thought to the church in Topeka, Kans., that pickets fallen soldiers’ funerals by the perverse logic that their deaths are God’s punishment for our society’s permissive attitude toward homosexual people. It’s hard to ignore these people now, though – and that’s probably been their goal all along – because their right to free speech is before the U.S. Supreme Court.

‘Compassion’ by Dale Wicks

What a fascinating tableau: The nation they say God hates for its tolerance, which presumably these church members hate as well, is historically disposed to protect their venomous, intolerably cruel message and method under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, a document composed by enlightened, 18th-century Founders who believed that political freedom for all, especially freedom of speech, would lead to the best of all possible worlds.

As a onetime journalist and Christian, I could not be more appalled by the vote I’m bound to cast in this case: Yes, members of Westboro Baptist Church have a constitutional right to express their hateful opinions in public, no matter whom it offends. They have a right to “desecrate” the American flag, which they do. They have a right to conscript their children, some as young as six years of age, for their hideous picket lines. Their young people have a right to tell their schoolmates, with a charming smile, that they’re going to hell. They have a right to wear T-shirts declaring, “God hates fags.” If Westboro Baptist Church has no right to express its despicable views, none of us are protected.

Christians tend to be in denial about this tiny church in middle America. “That’s not Christianity” comes quickly from the mouths of committed Christians confronted by news accounts of Westboro’s obnoxious outbursts. Denial, however, misses the point. Now that this miniscule sliver of Christian people have taken center stage before the world, Christians are obliged to apologize, which doesn’t mean to say, “We’re sorry” but to defend their faith against this mean little tribe of picketers. It’s an obligation not unlike that of devout Muslims to defend their religious tradition against jihadist terrorism. In both cases, extremists perversely interpret sacred traditions to justify harm to fellow human beings; and in both cases, they have made enough noise to become notoriously newsworthy.

The Offered Hand

The Offered Hand, by Dale and Darnell Wicks

The problem for both traditions is that they’re called into the fray on the defensive. The negative defense — “We’re not that” – simply will not prevail, and neither will engaging hate-mongers on their own terms. That just leads to shouting matches. Only positive defense prevails over the long haul; otherwise, we’re trapped in the endless cycle of condemnation and denial. A positive defense, though, is also the most difficult, because it challenges us to examine critically our assumptions not only about ourselves but about the other guy. This calls for compassion, and it means we have to listen and learn on our way to proposing an alternative view as forcefully as possible; otherwise, we’re just drawing battle lines.

It’s hard to have compassion for the haters of Westboro, but it does open our eyes to how pathetic these people are. Their pastor, Fred W. Phelps, has been spewing hatred in Topeka for a half century. His congregation  of 70 or so is composed mostly of members of his own extended family – children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Hatred apparently hasn’t sold well in Topeka, but it has produced four generations of a family steeped from childhood in a world-hating creed based on the Bible.

Their hatred is expressed in angry confrontation with the world they despise, and that anger is deeply rooted in fear – fear of hell, as one church member put it in a documentary film, fear that excludes from consideration any form of human relationship that does not conform to the narrow morality they believe comes from Jewish and Christian scripture. Westboro is an exclusive sect of Christianity, and its members believe in a heaven populated only by those who agree with them. What makes them worthy of our compassion is their unwillingness to let love cast out their fear. It’s their lack of faith that makes them vulnerable to the world and makes them hate it so. They are the lame and blind of Jesus’ compassionate ministry of healing. You have nothing to fear, he tells them. I have overcome the world. Still, the haters of Westboro will not listen to the truth that sets them free.

Where in the world are they coming from? Truly, we have met the enemy and he is us.

Caring relationships

Caring Relationships, by Dale and Darnell Wicks

Christianity was born in a world coming to an end. Its history is replete with apocalyptic movements, and Westboro is one of these. They believe the world will end soon, and that it is their role in history to warn sinners – individuals, societies, nations – that God will condemn them to hell if they don’t repent. This is consistent with themes running through Christian history from the beginning; indeed, Jewish scripture, too, is threaded with prophetic traditions that warn of dire consequences for unrighteousness and failure to hew to God’s law. Christians who abhor what the Westboro sect stands for must come to terms with the meaning of God’s judgment upon the living and the dead; otherwise, the field has been ceded to apocalyptic sectarians, and we can make no defense of our own faith.

The Bible is the basis of Westboro’s skewed theology, “cover to cover,” in the words of one church member. Again, they are not without precedents in Christian history. Christians have been hurling Bible passages at each other for two millennia, and it is true that the Bible is a compendium of excuses for almost anything. The Westboro sectarians are neither more nor less guilty than anyone else – myself included – of picking and choosing biblical passages according to their biases. Christians who would defend their faith against the Westboro sect must come to terms with the Bible, especially those pieces of it the sect claims in support of its bigotry but also any one of a number of texts that trouble the contemporary soul. (There are many.)

Twisted logic and perverse perspective aside, the Westboro sectarians are possessed of religious faith and a belief system they practice every day in every way they can. Of course they’re wrong; moreover, they’ve picked a fight they can’t win and they are despised by almost everyone. Sound familiar? Persecuted minorities reap interpersonal and communal strength from overwhelming adversity. It locks them on their mission in life and binds them to one another in a kind of love. The Westboro sect cherishes the world’s enmity and interprets it as God’s favor. It keeps them strong and makes them feel secure at home or abroad in the fallen world. This species of faith seems strange to most of us, as much as we’d like to think we’re committed all day, every day, to being possessed by the love of God in Christ Jesus. Is it plausible for Christians in defense of their faith to live it in a way that partakes of the strength but not the errors of the Westboro sect? Is it even desirable?

Now, an apology of sorts.

Christian apocalyptic was a dead end in the first century and is certainly a dead end now. The end times are not upon us, even though we seem hell-bent to destroy ourselves with bombs and the environment with hydrocarbons. In any case,  the end of history is not now and never has been about Jesus coming back from heaven to judge the living and the dead. That’s an outdated myth that has no meaning in the scientific age. Woodsboro sectarians are nothing more than a recent bloom of recurring end-times theology that goes back to Jesus himself. He was wrong and so are the succeeding generations of apocalyptic sectarians. Jesus was a human being, not a divinity born of a virgin into human flesh. While he was wrong about the end times, he was right about the power of love to transform human life. There will be no final judgment. We don’t have to be frightened into following Jesus; indeed, fear has nothing to do with faith – except that it be cast out.


Reunion, by Dale and Darnell Wicks

The Bible is not God’s word, and quoting it does not make one a prophet. The book is sacred because these human writings have been set apart for special purposes within the community of faith. They’re special in a variety of ways, and they’re truthful in many ways – but also harmful and repulsive. It’s unlikely that sectarians will ever stop abusing scripture. Christian apologists, however, do not have to wear kid gloves when dealing with the Bible. The bottom line is this: We must not be bound by ancient fears and superstitions about the nature of the world and the universe we live in, and that includes made-up stories about religious heroes to confirm their identity and strength. Ultimately, we may need to be content living with the mystery and paradox of God acting in history, but let it not be a matter of who can roll the biggest ball of yarn and call it God’s word.

The Westboro sectarians are my sisters and brothers in Christ; indeed, they belong to all Christians as members of the body. They have tried – unsuccessfully – to remove themselves from from that body; and frankly, Christian apologists tend to be happy to leave them there, but that is a horrible mistake. The Westboro sectarians are worthy of our love and our care for their well-being – and while we’re at it, let’s not forget the victims of their vicious spite. The sectarians and their victims are in need of deliverance from their fear, the healing of their anger and the calming of their souls. The world has been content to flip them off (see the documentary), but we who also are in it but not of it must resist that temptation and respond not with our guts but with our hearts.

Perhaps we ought to begin our Christian apology with that most irritating of Jesus’ teachings: How will I love those who despise me?


4 Responses to “Westboro sectarians: ‘God is your enemy’”

  1. Rod Clark said

    Thought provoking, Ron. Here are my thoughts:

    I wonder, how does a loving parent correct a child? Talking, time-out, spanking; both positive and negative reinforcement are tools for the loving parent to correct their children. Some forms of correction are more effective than others depending on the situation and the personalities involved.

    So, how do we love the hate-monger into correcting their behavior? Does love require me to accept every wrongdoing, or can I smack the devil out of them in a loving way?

    I like to consider myself an inclusive individual, which means that I must also give some kind of observance/allowance to differing viewpoints. That’s all well and good. I have no problem with other views. But, actions are a whole different animal. What they are doing is wrong. Can’t we love the individual and hate their actions? If so, then can’t we approach the issue with the same separation?

    “I really do love you Mr. Phelps, which is why I’m punching you in the nose! This really does hurt me more than it hurts you. But, I’m willing to make that kind of sacrifice because I love you(while kicking him in the crotch).”

    I have no problem loving those who despise me, but I do have a problem with allowing those who intentionally do harm to others to continue to do so. Accepting their behavior creates a problem doesn’t it? For, if I condone/enable their right to harm the families of fallen soldiers am I really loving everyone involved? This is where we could cite several instances from the Gospel, but I will refrain in consideration of your words above.

    Back to the parenting metaphor: so far we’ve given them positive reinforcement. We’ve upheld their right to free speech, we’ve given them media attention, as well as a thorough tongue-lashing. Should we start rewarding them for every funeral at which they don’t spew their hate? Or, maybe it’s time they receive the spanking that they deserve…

    I’m not claiming to have the answers; only questions.

    p.s. I agree that their Right to Free Speech should be upheld, but if a little bit of vigilante justice were served up, then I’d say checks and balances are in effect. Maybe I’m just not capable of Radical Love.

  2. Fred Capps said

    As usual, your comments are “spot on.” I fought to defend their right to act out their hatred. The fear mongers of our society continue to stoke the fires by fighting instead of loving others. Love is the only thing that matters and will, of course, trump fear because love is the only thing that truly exists. I know, you already said that–and eloquently. Thanks for the timely reminder to love my neighbor.

  3. Ralph Willis said

    Thanks Ron! As a retired Army pilot with three combat tours I am having great difficulty with this “Baptist” situation. Body bags are not political (or should not be) ammunition for what you so generously and in my mind mistakenly call Christian demonstrators. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe Christian doesn’t mean “Christ Like”. Maybe it is a generic discription of anyone who doesn’t fit in any other spiritual niche. I hope not.

    I don’t have any quarrel with your affirming their right to protest but I am not comfortble with their identification as Christlike people. Just a thought.

  4. Jean Willard said

    Thank you, Ron. You always give me food for thought. gjw

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