This is the third post in this mini series of “Reflecting on the Newtown Tragedy at Christmastime.”
As if we couldn’t loathe the behavior of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Clan enough, the news of them planning to protest the Newtown funerals had most of us saying, “Enough already, something must be done.” In fact, it accounted for a new set of headlines and another wave of anger and frustration in already emotionally charged scene. Fortunately, they didn’t show up. Still, we wrestle with the question, what can we do about them?
First a few thoughts on Fred Phelps and the Westboro Clan. Personally, I never apply the terms Baptist or Church to them. While Baptists come in all shapes and sizes, I won’t recognize them as such because I simply do not recognize the as a church in the Christian sense and I never use the term in a non-Christian sense so they won’t get that honor from me. And they are actually located in Topeka. Really, they are a “clan” from Kansas. Most of them are related to each other and those that are not blood-related seem to share some type of bizarre connection.
Here’s the 101 if you don’t know too much about them. Fred Phelps calls himself a lawyer (though he’s been disbarred) from Kansas (though the Sunflower State doesn’t want him) and according to his Wikipedia entry:
“Phelps’s followers frequently picket various events, such as military funerals, gay pride gatherings, high-profile political gatherings, university commencement ceremonies, performances of The Laramie Project, mainstream Christian gatherings and concerts with which he had no affiliation, arguing it is their sacred duty to warn others of God’s anger.”
Again, I do not recognize them as a church, but a group of despicable people who have no sense of shame and are blinded by their legalistic, hateful and judgmental attitudes. They use the name of God and even passages of the Bible to defend themselves but everyone from the Nazi’s to the Devil has believed in God and quoted Scripture so let’s not fall for that line of thinking.
They have been described as extreme and passionate Christians, but make no mistake, they are not Christians. They are a severely misguided group of emotional terrorists who find satisfaction in making tragic situations even worse. These people remind us that evil is perverse and knows no bounds.
So what do we do with them?
Option 1: Ignore them?
I used to think that was an option. I used to think the media would get tired of covering them, and though I still wonder how sustainable of an organization they can actually be, I’m not sure ignoring is an legitimate option.
Like with any cult-type of gathering I like to imagine the frustration expressed in their staff meetings. I like to picture a naive newbie saying “I know that these wicked people have no choice but to hate what we are doing but I cannot believe we’ve never seen a single repentance at this point. We just have a bad track record.”
Another calmly says, “There, there, we’re not here for repentance we are to announce God’s vengeance.”
To which the naive newbie replies, “But doesn’t the Bible say, ‘Vengeance is mine says the Lord.’”
“Uhh, I’m not sure, doesn’t sound right, better to stop reading that thing and just listen to what tell you. Are you getting weak? Are you falling away? Perhaps you want to experience the same torment of the other deserters – they will face the same wrath and fury as …”
To which the naive newbie looks for the door or is beaten severely before a successful exit.
Some have said that there numbers have are in decline. And an interesting piece of news was released by the estranged son of Fred, Nate Phelps, who is a LGTB activist and advocate against child abuse. This week he said, “…church is “running out of money, its reach is limited, and providing it with free media only helps the group. By allowing them this luxury, they get free publicity with no effort or expense on their part, while potentially traumatizing a much wider audience than those strong enough to stand against them in silent but effective counter-protest.”
So it would be great to say ignore them, don’t give them any coverage, don’t write blog posts about them, but “trolls” don’t always go away, sometimes more has to happen for them to be stopped.
Option 2: Stop them, fight them, just get rid of them?
As frustrated as we can be with the ridiculousness of Phelps and the Westboro clan, it’s important for us as Christian to actually know that we cannot wish for any physical harm done to them – not even secretly. You know those sermons where the preacher says he’s preaching to himself just as much as he is to the congregation … this is among them.
Every time I see one of their signs that says “God wants more dead soldiers” or their signature “God hates fags” signs, I literally think to myself, “What kind of a person does this?” I find that behavior almost irredeemable and it’s not long until I dehumanize them along with the traffickers, rapists, and the rest who have sold their souls to the demons of greed, power, and self-worship. If it weren’t for the Scripture’s teaching that all people are created in the image of God and to love our enemies, I think I would (wrongly) make the case that it is our duty to hate Phelps and Westboro.
We can’t hate them, we can’t wish physical harm to them and while I admit that I am humored by the cyber hacking attacks of Anonymous, even that is wrong legally and morally. When Anonymous hacks into Shirley Phelps-Roper’s’ twitter account and says, “Pray for the victims of Newtown” that is the equivalent of breaking into someone’s home, creating a sign and posting into the ground – you just can’t do that. I will say that Anonymous showed an incredible amount of restraint to only post what he/she/they did.
This is a free speech debate, one that the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of Westboro. While, some have tried to explain that this is what makes our American society great – that a bunch of fools can demonstrate and yell the garbage that they way they do, it seems also that another mark of a great society would be to take out the trash. How do we as Christians do that?
Option 3: Respond Christianly
It seems appropriate that we pray for that we could see them as God sees them. I have virtually no idea how that is and confess that I need to pray more.
Second, I wonder if there is anyone in Phelps life that he would listen to. It’s likely that he has cut off all relationships that have not supported his hate but if I’m going to hold the presupposition that he is human, then he must still have some trace of conscience. Is it possible that he can be influenced? You might think this is my weakest and craziest argument but it seems fitting for a crazy world.
Again, what can we do? I love how the Patriot Riders have responded and simply stand in between the hateful protesters and the mourners. I like how some are lobbying to classify them as a federal hate group. And I like some of the other creative ideas that have been tossed around the blogosphere.
It turns out that the Westboro clan never made it out to Newtown. Is Nate right, they didn’t have the money? Did they rethink it – I mean how does anyone with a soul protest at a child’s funeral? Did someone talk them out of it? Or did the Westboro clown van break down and couldn’t be fixed in time? Who knows.
It doesn’t appear they’re closing their doors any time soon. So perhaps the best thing we can do as Christians is to lovingly and consistently live out the Christian faith. The story of Christmas is God coming near to redeem humanity. He loves the world, mourns the evil, and offers grace and salvation to all who desire to enter into relationship with Him. If we as Christians were known for reflecting that same unconditional love, more would know that Westboro is not really a church and fewer would be bothered by their behavior and they’d become even less newsworthy. That seems to me what we ought to do. Grace and strength for the journey.