Five for Friday: the problem with Westboro

For those of us living in the Inland Northwest, there has been a presence among us that has dominated local news for the past couple of days: Westboro Baptist "Church."

They've been protesting various schools in the Spokane/Coeur d'Alene area, reportedly attracted to our corner of the world by NIC's production of The Laramie Project. I had the displeasure of driving past their debacle during my morning commute to work and friends of mine have been posting pictures and comments on face book from the various counter-protests. And wherever WBC activists go, the counter-protests are sure to follow. As one friend mentioned, "it's nice to see them bring so many of us together for the same cause."

And the counter-protests here have been noticeable: 1200 at EWU, 600 at Gonzaga, a few hundred divided between the two high schools in Cd'A, and the Human Rights Education Institute was packed full of people this morning.

It seems that most everyone can agree on one thing: the members of WBC are ugly and vile people whose message of hate contradicts the message of the God they claim to worship. What people can't agree on is how to contravene their despicable acts. There seems to be four camps in anti-WBC strategies: 1) Ignore and/or do nothing, 2) Mockery or parody 3) Confrontation with anger versus anger 4) Vigils or alternative rallies at sites removed away from the WBC spectacle.

I don't think we've yet figured out the correct way to protest whatever it is Westboro Baptist is trying to accomplish. Unfortunately, I don't know if there is a right way. How do we combat shameless and unabashed hate?

There's a dilemma when dealing with WBC. We are presented five distinct problems that complicate formulating an appropriate resistance to their animosity.

1. The law is on their side. While their signs and methods are the clearest available example of hate speech, it is protected by the first amendment. As long as they are doing their business on public grounds (which they always are) and they never physically provoke others (which they never have), they're within their rights. The same provision that gives the rest of us freedom of religion and freedom of press also allows them the freedom of religion and the freedom to be offensive. The only debatable issue is currently being weighed at the US Supreme Court - at what point do their rights to free speech infringe on another's rights to privacy. Since standing on a street corner outside a public school doesn't invade anyone's privacy, there are no laws that they've broken. To further endear them in our hearts, Phelps is a former lawyer and most of his kids are lawers. They know what the law allows them to do and they know how to legally push their limits. It's constitutionally protected harassment.

2. They do not use logic. Their reasonings for picketing the varied schools here followed no logical order. Gonzaga was to protest binge drinking, stupidity, and "rampant fornication," among other things. They protested Moody Bible Institute because the future ministers there are really false prophets (false prophets because MBI does not preach WBC's "God Hates Fags" message*). Students at Whitworth University (according to WBC) spend more time pursuing "drunken sins than their academic studies." They were at Rogers HS because flipping off God has consequences. Eastern Washington University is a "cesspool." Cd'A HS because the faculty teach students to be "vain, selfish, sinful, violent, lusty, God-hating, brats." Lake City High School to remind people that there is a God. And Synagogue Chavurat HaMashiach because they're Jewish. The reasons they posted on their website and the corresponding scriptures they used to support their conclusions are the most nonsensical gobbledygook ever written.

3. They are conscientious tyrants. They operate under a guise of morality and they are convinced that they are acting on the side of righteousness. In God in the Dock, C.S. Lewis wrote, "a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies... those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience."** Fred Phelps and his congregation believe they are morally superior and that they are commanded and compelled to preach their version of God's will. They have dozens of selectively chosen scriptures that support the idea to hate evil and to hate the enemies of God then they've twisted those scriptures to fit their convoluted purpose. And they are justified in their actions because the Bible says they will be blessed if people hate them. Nothing will ever convince them that they are either oppressive or tyrannical.

4. They are glory whores.*** They crave the media attention as it helps spread their message. The more obnoxious or combative the counter-protests, the more the WBC people will feel justified in their efforts to preach against America. If gays and lesbians are predominant and vocal in those protests, WBC will be further convinced in their mission to condemn homosexuality. Confrontation accomplishes nothing beyond bringing more undeserved attention to WBC's mission of malevolence. Even peaceful protests further their goals because the attention is still focussed on how wrong WBC is. It is as if Fred Phelps lives by the motto "I don't care what you think, as long as it's about me." It is this quandary that should be most disconcerting to Christians, as the Bible tells us to do all things to the glory of God - yet the members of WBC masquerading in feigned Godliness are doing all things for their own glory.

5. Doing nothing is not appropriate. JFK once said, "the only thing necessary for evil to triumph in the world is for good men to do nothing." As Phelps's gospel of hate and vengeance is diametrically apposed to what the church should stand for (love your neighbors, love your enemies, a ministry of reconciliation, reasoning together, becoming all things to all men, that God is love) I can think of no other way to describe the members of Westboro Baptist other than evil. If we do nothing, if we say nothing... They triumph. They succeed. They win.

So I'm at a loss. Reason and logic are ineffective. Confrontation won't work, but neither will ignoring them. And we can't restrict or prohibit their venom through law. How do we overcome their hateful themes?

* I apologize for the offensive language. I find their flippant use of the word "fag" to be abhorrent. Unfortunately, there is no better way to expose their villainy than through their own words.
** You can read the full C.S. Lewis quote in context HERE."
*** I am sorry for the crass language. I was just being honest.

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