Lessons from Westboro

25 Sep

Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) has become (in)famous for its political activism, protests and in-your-face-offensive signs at said protests such as “God Hates Fags.”  Led by the iconic Rev (?) Fred Phelps, the church and the Phelps family (almost one-in-the-same) represent the extreme right wing of Christianity.

It is easy to dismiss Phelps and his flock as crazy, extreme, hateful, evil and as a 1-trick pony in the world of hate speech. But an article by author and journalist Jeff Chu, profiling the only Asian American congregant of this Mid-western church, brings a human face to the often one-dimensional picture you get in most of the press.

It is worth reading Jeff’s article for several reasons… it is well-written, it offers an inside peak at the real people that are part of the WBC, and I think it forces us to actually deal with these folks as real people.  It also, I think, offers an interesting picture of how the conservative church approaches homosexuality. You can read Jeff’s article here.

This article is part of a book project that Jeff is working on.  The book is an exploration of Christian attitudes towards homosexuality in America, and is due to be released sometime next year.  I recently had lunch with Jeff and it was interesting hearing about the book and some of the profiles he is working on. I first connected with Jeff through my sister and we have talked extensively about my own story/experience as well as the general issue of homosexuality and Christianity.

There were a couple of real take-aways for me from the article/excerpt… I would be curious to hear what you thought…

1. The problem of “OTHER”.  I think we (and by we, I mean all humans) have a serious problem of exclusion.  We need to exclude people from the group and we do so by making them “other”.  This need for “other” is almost universal.  Even those of us who get all self-righteous about being labeled “other” (and as a Jewish evangelical gay democrat, I have been labeled “other” for various reasons at various times in my life), are quick to make others “other”.  And to exclude… to “make other”… is really to dehumanize someone, to make them less-than-human and one-dimensional.  Most of us have done this to the folks at WBC… we have made them other.  But Jeff’s article helped remind me that — like them or not — these are complex human beings with complex emotions, stories, motivations, etc.

2. The dangerous mixing of religion and politics.  If it weren’t for their political activism, WBC would be like many ultra-conservative fundamentalist churches in America… and we would probably not even know who they were.  And, with the exception of those within their immediate flock, they would be pretty harmless.  But when you inject conservative politics into the mix and add a good dose of media attention, all of sudden you have an explosive situation.

3. Church history and theology matters.  I believe in local governance of churches, I believe in idependent churches… at heart, when it comes to church governance I am a congregationalist and baptist.  However, I think it is important to understand church history and the broader theological landscape.  One of the things you get from reading this article is that while these folks may be savy (in terms of marketing and social networking), sharp and even educated (Phelp’s daughter successfully argued and won a U.S. Supreme Court case for the church), these folks are theologically shallow and simplistic.  On the one hand they are hyper-Calvinist, yet strongly baptist… the theological contradictions here are huge, but don’t seem to bother them at all.  These folks are not deep thinkers nor interested in theology… and that can be dangerous.

4. They might not be that extreme — at least in their theology.  Yes, their methods are extreme and offensive, but, at least when it comes to theology and message, I am not sure they are as extreme as we like to think.  Much of what they say about America being cursed by God (through 9/11, wars, natural disasters, etc) are things that people like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and others have also said.  Yes, Robertson and Falwell are both fundamentalists and ultra-conservative.  But given their influence on mainstream evangelicalism (at least for the thirty years from 1970 to the turn of the century), I am not sure you can call them “extreme’.  And while many conservative Christians are uncomfortable with the theological claim that “God hates fags”, I am not entirely sure that — from a theological or practical perspective — this is that much different than the claim that “God loves homosexuals… but condemns them to eternal hell.”  My sense is that trying to parse the difference between those two positions (the first being WBC’s position, the second being one that many non-extremist conservative Christians hold) is like splitting hairs.  So while many may be uncomfortable with the harsh language, the theology — and undergirding hermeneutic — is actually pretty close to each other.

5. For better or for worse, if you take away the political activism and the signs, WBC would look a lot like 1000’s of churches throughout America… that may be scary, but it is true.

6. While I disagree with almost everything they stand for and proclaim — and think they are 100% wrong in their reading of and application of the Bible — they are still (possibly) my brothers and sisters in Christ… and that is a hard pill to swallow.  It is tempting to dismiss them as false prophets that are not really believers… that may be the case, but it is not for me to say… anymore than it is for them to say about me.  My guess is that they are as uncomfortable with me being a brother in Christ to them as I am with the idea that they are brothers and sisters in Christ to me… such is family, I guess.

Those are some of my thoughts after reading the article… what are yours?

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Posted by on September 25, 2011 in Uncategorized


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