I know about Westboro Baptist Church. I’ve been picketed by them twice for being gay. The New York Times is correct – the Supreme Court ruling protecting their freedom of speech is a good decision. Maggie Phelps of Westboro may believe that the Court’s decision gives them an “international megaphone” for hatred. But there’s no gas in the hatred.
In an 8 – 1 ruling the Supreme Court on Wednesday protected one of the most cherished American rights of freedom of speech. Their “God hates fags” message is a violent assault. My first reaction was to feel outrage at the ruling. Yet I would not have the court rule differently. If Westboro’s freedom of speech were curtailed so might yours or mine be. Would you or I want that possibility?
In 1998 Fred Phelps and his family, who comprise the membership of this tiny church in Topeka, Kansas, picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard. Matthew was tortured, beaten to death and strung up on a fence in Wyoming for being gay. As the Billings Gazette reports, it was their first taste of serious media attention for their homophobic venom.
Westboro has escalated its protests, picketing the funerals of hundreds of US soldiers killed in combat. This public intrusion on grieving families is motivated by their belief God is judging America for being too inclusive of LGBT people. The lack of compassion and respect for the dead and the grieving is beyond comprehension. No wonder the American Legion provides motorcycle brigades to shield grieving families from the church’s picket signs.
When Westboro protested my leadership as an openly gay leader their website was replete with cartoon images of me burning in hell fornicating with animals. Each time they protested, the congregation I served was filled to capacity with those who came to express a different spiritual perspective of oneness and inclusion.
Media attention garnered for Westboro at each of those protests might have led you to believe that the Phelps family church spoke on behalf of a vast constituency. In reality the media coverage shone a light on hatred that led people to say, “They do not speak for me.” Free speech should always be illuminated by the light of day. Even the most noxious free speech helps to clarify our thinking.
I still believe that the humanity of those like the Westboro picketers is to be honored. Hating those who hate only imprisons the hater, no matter the “righteousness” of the issue. When I’m silent about the exclusion or denigration of another person or myself I give power to the hatred and exclusion. When I intentionally practice compassion as a way of life, I join with you and others in creating a different narrative of the human story.
As a teenager in South Africa I was astounded to discover that the framework of apartheid was a theological for justifying the hatred, violence and degradation of people based on race. The vast resources deployed to enforce that view were no match for the spirituality of compassion, oneness and inclusion that people like Desmond Tutu invited people into.
Hatred was not conquered by silencing it. The voices of hope refused to be silent. Those who claimed the free speech of a fuller vision of what it means to be human were on the winning side.
So it will be with the Phelps family church message. Free speech invites us to consider our values. It invites us to consider what it means to be part of the human family and who this family includes. It is up to us to be proactive free speech missionaries pointing to a richer, more just vision of how we all belong together.
There is no gas is the Westboro hatred. To be defined by what we hate is to live in a prison. When my free speech and actions find delight in those who are different I am reminded that we all want the same thing – to be loved, happy and honored for who we are. That is high octane fuel that propels us to speak and act on behalf of our oneness.
Conflict, even conflicted feelings about the Supreme Court ruling, invites us to work for the well-being of all. That is the real meaning of peace.
I am hopeful because of the Court’s ruling. The real question is how we will nurture speech and actions that are about the extraordinary value of every human being. What does it mean for you to be a vocal voice of hope?
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