Friday, February 8, 2013

What Happens If Westboro Baptist Shows Up?

The following was written for the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ.

            Since our church made national news last week because of our advocacy of the Boy Scouts of America to lift its ban on gays and bisexuals, numerous church members have expressed their pride in our church’s public stance for God’s love and justice.  Some have also expressed concern over what kind of negative response we might receive, specifically what if the folks from Westboro Baptist Church show up?  That’s a fair question, since we aren’t that far away from their headquarters in Topeka.
            Let me first say that I have no knowledge of Westboro planning a “protest” at our church, and I suspect that protesting outside our church wouldn’t give them the type of publicity they hunger for.  They are very savvy about choosing locations for their protests that garner media attention and controversy—for instance, they were in Kansas City this week outside the Sprint Center to protest the Lady Gaga concert.  Similarly, when they protest the funerals of soldiers, they do so to get attention—the more the better. 
            Another one of their goals is to make people angry enough to confront them physically in one way or another.  Then they can sue their attackers along with the local government for failing to provide them with adequate protection.  Their church and cross-country protests are funded by the proceeds from such lawsuits.  The greater reaction they get then the more they accomplish their goals of spreading their hate-filled message.
            So, if Westboro did show up at our church, what would we do?  The worst thing we can do—not to mention the least Christian thing we can do—is to respond to hate with hate.  By mirroring their behavior, we not only play right into their hands, but we compromise our own principles of faith.  The best thing we can do is ignore them.  They will not do us physical harm; they are very aware of the limits of the law and hope others are not.  Their signs, songs and chants are horrible, but why should we care what people like that think about us?  Personally, I would consider a protest by Westboro Baptist at our church to be a badge of honor and a sign that we are doing something right.  We would get more publicity than they would if they showed up. 
            I have read about various groups staging their own counter protests of Westboro, but all that does is increase the likelihood of a confrontation between groups.  I have also seen plenty of pictures on-line of people mocking Westboro members with their own signs (my personal favorite is one that says, “God Hates Figs.”)  I’ve also heard of groups offering songs and prayers in response to the Westboro protesters.  My own thought is that should Westboro ever show up outside our church, our folks should just walk into church like normal and deny such a group the attention they so badly want.  Once inside, perhaps we could hold a fundraiser and ask people to give a certain amount of money for every minute Westboro remains for their protest.  Money raised could be given to our denomination’s coalition for LGBT ministries!
            After the press coverage we received last week, our church did get a nasty e-mail or two, some negative remarks on Facebook and one crude voicemail message (the caller made sure to wait and call after our office was closed).  That response is pretty paltry in my opinion; I’ve gotten worse in the past.  Again, I feel like such hostility is a sign we are doing something right, and besides the messages of support we received are far greater in number.  One of our volunteers took a call one afternoon this week from a gay man who had been kicked out of the Boy Scouts years ago.  He called almost in tears just to thank us for standing up for people like him.  Calls like that one make it all worth the effort.
Whether or not a group like Westboro ever shows up at our church, each of us in our own personal lives inevitably must deal with people who treat us badly.  As Christians, we are always confronted with the choice of responding in kind or responding as Jesus taught us to do.  We get to choose whether the negative behavior of others defines us or if God’s love for us does.  If we choose the latter, then our response to those who hurt us can be loving.  There are plenty of ways we can maintain our own dignity without responding in kind to those who hurt us.  Loving those who act like enemies towards us is never easy, but doing so with God’s help ensures that we do not allow the hurtful people in our lives to control us.
            Interestingly, before the media coverage last weekend, our church’s General Council had been discussing looking over security policies and meeting with the police to get advice on how to respond to a group like Westboro.  We will continue to do that work and let you know what we find out.  In the meantime, let us follow the example of Jesus and respond to hate with love trusting that the God we serve is far greater than the prejudices of human beings.

Grace and Peace,

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