The Phelps family and Westboro Baptist Church members who hold pickets with this kind of sign didn’t have a good day in court on June 7th. In Baltimore, a federal judge failed to dismiss a defamation lawsuit against two members of the church filed by a father of a marine who died in Iraq. The story can be read here. In Nebraska, Shirley Phelps-Roper was charged with flag desecration when she allowed her 10 year old son to step on a US flag. Read about that here.
The people of Westboro Baptist Church believe that God is punishing the United States for its embrace of homosexuality by causing disasters like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the Iraq war. Their publications are full of language I’d never use in public. They have been protesting in places guaranteed to get an audience.
(When things go against them, why isn’t that God punishing them for their sins)
I spent about 30 minutes listening to them about 6 years ago (pre 9/11) on a street corner in Indianapolis. I walked away feeling the same way as when I did after listening to the KKK at a rally. I felt dirty, embarrassed, and amazed at the power of an idea taken to an extreme, even when held only by a handful of people. The particular perspective consumes and influences absolutely every breath and act they take.
Our preferred methods of debate in this country (avoidance and confrontation) just don’t work in these instances. Both strategies play into the hands of the Phelps family and Westboro Baptist Church. In fact, they invite confrontation because it keeps them in the public eye.
They do much damage to Christianity and at the same time they issue some important challenges to mainline Christianity. How do we talk about God’s wrath and judgment without going overboard? When does our understanding of God’s grace become “cheap grace”? Do we spend more time at funerals honoring the dead than pointing to the promises of Christ?
And just what is the Christian response to Westboro Baptist Church?