Westboro Baptist – Gas in the Hatred?

Robert V. Taylor

Robert V. Taylor

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.  

Matthew Shepard

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.

Westboro picketers

Westboro picketers

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. 

Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu

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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2 Comments

  1. Robert – I so agree. It does seem, looking at history, that people who call themselves Christian, have shown humanity its worst behavior as well as its best. Don’t intend to give examples here; there have been many in the past, evil done in the name of Christ, as well as such good.
    I am glad that the Supreme Court stood firm, They have not always over the past decade on other contentious issues. I feel sad for the Westboro Baptists; such hate cannot be healthy, nor can it make them happy people. What a horrid example for their children too. Praying for them is all that we can do right now.
    I do find that as I have become older it has been easier to put down my anger and practice tolerance and compassion.

  2. Robert – I too have been picketed by Fred Phelps, his family and the Westboro Baptist Church – And I so agree with you – Freedom of speech is too sacred to each of us for anyone to squelch – The gaseous hatred expounded by this group is so apparent to everyone that it deflates itself – I do pray for them – and although my initital gut emotion is alway anger – I quickly move to compassion for indeed they are living in their own fear – in their own limited world – in their own lack. As more of us move into prayer and compassion for this group – We change their consciousness and bring them more inline with the rest of the Universe.

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