Back from a lovely family vacation, and I learn online and from local media that the Westboro Baptist Church (no, I will not plug them with a link!) plans to visit my fair city next week. On September 1, Vermont’s equal marriage bill goes into effect, and so the hate-sign toting anti-gay ignoramuses from the WBC in Kansas plan to protest this by standing outside the Montpelier High School.
The folks from WBC are not known for their brains. They’re known for their offensive signage, and their penchant for drawing media attention by picketing at funerals for soldiers and at high schools, because they know these are places where people will be most likely to get defensive and protective and yell back. Who wants some freak yelling at their teen, calling him or her a beast-child?
So the high school students at MHS have come up with a creative and loving response to the hate group. They call it “Westboro Baptist Church Hates; Montpelier High School Donates,” and they are asking people to pledge $1 for every minute the sign-wielding hatemongers are outside the school. The money raised will be given to GLAD (Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders), New England’s leading legal rights organization dedicated to ending discrimination based on sexual orientation, HIV status and gender identity and expression. WBC’s website says they plan to picket for 20 minutes, so a nice round $20 will do, although I think it might be fun to have the funds in singles and pass a hat every sixty seconds. Pile on the hate, folks, because for every minute you do, GLAD makes another hundred dollars or so! If I had lots of disposable income, I’d pledge a further dollar for every use of a derogatory term the WBC picketers spout. Sadly, I don’t think I have the funds to exchange that much hate for love.
Kudos to our local students for being proactive, and for finding a creative way to turn hate speech into an act of support and solidarity for the very people the hatemongers are trying to intimidate and harm! They are leading the way on this one, and I wonder if their creativity and compassion will be actually enough in itself to dissuade the WBC picket from even showing up. One can hope, right?
Then the WBC people will move on to protest outside the statehouse, the location where our legislators voted this spring to make equal marriage legal, and voted again to overturn Governor Douglas’s veto, making Vermont the first state to provide equal marriage through a legislative process rather than a court ruling. Then they move on to city hall, where the staff there will be largely minding their own business like any other day, except they will now have a new form to hand out for marriage licences. Yep, they’ll get a dose of WBC wrath too.
What is a Christian response to this garbage? Really Fred? Yelling at teenagers? Harassing city hall workers? (I’d say protesting in front of legislators, but that’s part of what it is to be in the legislature, and I take full advantage of my free speech and access to the state capitol, so that doesn’t bother me as much). It’s clear what they hope to accomplish: media attention, intimidation, and more media attention. But what do I hope to accomplish by opposing them?
I have to admit, I get a little thrill of righteous adrenaline rush at the thought of standing toe to toe with some of these people, but the fantasy kind of stops there. Nothing I say or do will change their minds at all– you have to open your mind and your heart if you are ever going to have it changed. Any way in which I respond is likely to stoke the fires of their media attention, and only serve to give them what they want.
And yet. And yet. I don’t think I can let them speak on behalf of God without response, even if that response is a sign that says “God is Love,” or the simple visual statement of a person in a clerical collar standing on the other side of the fence. It seems to me that it needs to be clear that the voice of Fred Phelps and the WBC is not the voice they claim it to be (God’s voice), but a voice that is antithetical to the very love and grace of God. Further, I personally would like to show my support to our courageous high school students, legislators (regardless of their position, as they each voted their conscience and with respect to their constituents), and our city hall staff, and just be sure that I am there as a shield or a person standing in solidarity.
So I will come to Montpelier High School, in my clerical collar, with my twenty singles for GLAD. And then what? A God is Love sign for the statehouse? A hug for a legislator or city hall worker? Stand shoulder to shoulder with other counter-demonstrators to shield folks from the sight and sound of the WBC’s jeering, as so many have done at funerals? Write a letter to the local paper, voicing an apology on behalf of the Body of Christ for some of our more radical and hateful self-proclaimed ‘members’? Take up my sign for the “God Hates Shellfish” campaign outside Red Lobster in an attempt to reveal the arbitrary foolishness of singling out one Levitical code over another? Bring coffee and doughnuts for the WBC folks in an attempt to overcome evil with good (because that heaps coals on their heads?– ahem, not thinking of that!)? I just don’t know.
I do know this. I believe that God is in fact love. I believe that God loves every person, and has certainly not called me to stand outside schools or public buildings with hate in my heart and violence on my signage. God has not called me to respond, even to the most vitriolic hatepseech, with hatred of my own, but with a grace befitting God’s own grace.
God loves Fred Phelps. God loves the people of the Westboro Baptist Church. I have to admit, that boggles my mind. I can’t even begin to fathom how or why, but I do believe it to be true. It is my ‘fundamental’ belief. I like to think of myself as a loving and accepting person and pat myself on the back, but in the face of this, in the face of God’s love for people who twist and distort the Gospel of grace into a weapon of hatred, violence, and condemnation, I am stripped raw. I am overcome. I am driven, almost literally, to my knees. I am forced to confess my own shortcoming, my own failure to love as I have been loved, my own ignorance in what God asks of me or that God could ask anything of me at all.
I am, in short, convinced that I need to pray more. And so I’m going to start there.