Leaving Westboro

If you haven’t already, read Damsel, Arise: A Westboro Scion Leaves Her Church. It’s the story of how Megan Phelps-Roper left behind her life as an active, vocal member of her grandfather’s notorious Westboro Baptist Church. Westboro, which is primarily composed of Phelps’ extended family, is best known for picketing military funerals and public events with signs like “God Hates Fags” and  “Thank God for 9/11.”

Her confidence in Westboro’s doctrine–that God hates all sinners, especially gay people–had already started to crack over a year ago, when conversations with an Israeli web developer she met over Twitter began to expose holes in her theology. He asked why the church supported the death penalty for gay people and not for offenders of other sins, some of which had been committed by Westboro members. She says:

He said, ‘But Jesus said’—and I thought it was funny he was quoting Jesus—‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.’ And then he connected it to another member of the church who had done something that, according to the Old Testament, was also punishable by death. I realized that if the death penalty was instituted for any sin, you completely cut off the opportunity to repent. And that’s what Jesus was talking about.

Now she attends a Reformed church in Brooklyn and is trying to unpack her spiritual baggage, examining each piece to determine which are worth keeping and which are not. It will be a long process, I’m sure, especially with so few people around who can really relate to her situation. (She has been essentially ex-communicated from her family, all of whom are part of the Church.)

“I wanted to do good!” she says of her Westboro activism. “I thought I was. And that wish hasn’t changed.” When I think of Westboro Baptist Church, I think of people who want attention, people who feed on hate, people who want to feel better about themselves by making others seem worse. I never considered that some of the people marching those picket lines could genuinely be doing so because they believed they were loving the people on the other side. But if one thing is clear from Megan’s story it is that she truly cares about other people, and the truth, and wants to do right by both in everything she does. What she did is remarkable. It’s really, really difficult to walk away from beliefs you hold as core to your being. It’s really, really difficult to even consider the possibility, let alone allow yourself to engage questions without regurgitating the easy answers you’ve always accepted. But that’s the thing about truth, and about love–if you really follow them, I believe you end up closer to God, who is the source of both.

Megan’s clear, albeit for some time misdirected, love for people surfaced another painful truth. I have been guilty of looking at the Westboro Baptist folks the same way they look at my gay friends: hopelessly sinful, damaging to our country and the name of Jesus Christ, incapable of and unwilling to hear truth. I’m not saying we should celebrate Westboro, or give them a free pass on the destructive work they’re doing, just because some of them might have good intentions buried way deep down underneath some crazy messed-up theology. But perhaps we should show them the love we wish they would show others, the kind of love that believes change is possible. If there’s one really crazy and also amazing thing about the gospel of Jesus Christ, it’s this idea that we can ask for forgiveness for all the ways we’ve hurt other people and ourselves and actually get it, and even be restored as though that darkness was never even a part of us. It’s easy to embrace this truth in our own lives; it’s difficult to extend it to others.

So that’s my surprise for today. I never thought I’d say it, but Westboro Baptist Church actually changed my mind about something.

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