For years I’ve heard of the terrible and notorious antics of the folks just up the highway at Westboro Baptist church. I have on many occasions been left with my head in my hands in disbelief whenever the stories of Westboro Baptist’s protests are told. Disbelief was usually followed by anger as I’d hear about them protesting a soldier’s funeral, or a gay kid who was beaten to death by his hateful peers. Anger would then lead to sorrow as I began thinking about the poor families being screamed at in their time of great grief. Sorrow also when I thought about the level of deception the people from Westborro must be under to justify screaming hatred. Following the progression of emotions, I began to grow bitter toward Westboro Baptist. Eventually that bitterness turned to hate. Hate turned into slandering them whenever I saw them on the news or heard about the legitimately horrible things they would do.
Most would find my hatred of Westboro Baptist completely justified as they are justifiably doing things to munger hate. However their was one person who wanted me to change my heart and attitude toward the infamous church. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, bless those who curse us, and give to those who harm us. I often teach these things, but just like anyone, have to follow through with what I teach. When I would go to pray after having talked trash about how much I hated Westbrro Baptist, I could feel that subtle prick from Heaven asking me to change my heart. No matter the sin they were in, nothing justifies joining them in sin, nor gives me the power judge them with slander. We don’t have to condone or stay silent in our calling them out in their error, but we have to do it from a place of love least we only continue the cycle of hate. In December at our annual Onething conference I was blessed with a chance to face my hatred head on.
Last year, for whatever reason, Westborro Baptist had decided to target our conference and stand outside in protest of it. The theme of the conference was “Jesus: Our Magnificent Obsession”. Every message, song and exhortation was centered around the theme of Christology, the person and work of Christ. Not even our Calvinist/ Cessastionists friends could have taken issue with this conference. Yet for what ever reason outside was Westborro Baptist with their notorious multi-colored signs, t-shirts and mega phones. I debated going down to talk to them for about 10 minutes, until I decided to just pull the bandaid off and confront them head on. Seeing them in the distance as I approached, I began to pray. “Jesus keep me tender, Jesus keep me tender, help me confront them in love, help me confront them in love.” I kept saying those two phrases over and over under my breath until I reached them.
Their message was confusing. Some signs said “God Hates Fags”, “Your Pastor is a Whore to $$”, others said “God Hates America”, “Stop Lying, God Hates You”, I couldn’t get a handle of what exactly they were protesting. Walking straight up to the leader he began screaming in my face “God hates you! God hates you!” over and over incidentally spitting on my face a few times. I suddenly felt a little foolhardy. Like I had decided to jump into the Hyena cage in hopes of taming them while they prepared to devour me. However I felt the need to persevere. I starred at the leader square in the eyes, calmly and patiently asking him if I could have 5 minutes of his time. The notorious founder Fred Phelps was not present, however his daughter and grandson were. His grandson was the one presently screaming in my face as I solicited a moment of conversation. After about 10 minutes he ran out of breath. Which to be honest was quite impressive in context. Screaming slander on the top of your lungs for 10 minutes without pause takes some serious pipes. He finally dialed down a notch or two and asked “what do you want?”
Trying to diffuse his energy rather than add to it, I asked calmly and quietly “What is it that you are protesting? You seem to be aiming in every direction.” Expectedly he launched into a tirade. “What are we protesting?! How about the fact that your church is taking millions of people’s money at this conference and whoring out the Bible. How about the fact that right now the leaders of this church are making money hand over fist from people without telling them about the coming judgement. How about the fact that you publicly support fags in ministry. How about that!” Genuinely, though not wisely, I snickered. My snickering only fueled another ten minutes of titration. I waited until he was done then I asked him the obvious question: “So you really have no idea what you are protesting or who we are do you? Because we are public about homosexuality being a sin, we are public about our belief in judgement, our conference is free, and we barely break even on it. So obviously you’ve been misinformed.” He stepped back and paused. He pondered another angle to come at us, then launched, “Well the leaders at this church are still living large while everyone else starves!” I snickered again and looked at him square in the eyes, “Sir I am one of the leaders here, and these are my only pair of jeans. If we are making a ton of money here it’s news to me.” I then proceded to laugh, honestly hoping to dial him down a even more. I coxed him along a bit, “Bro, you gota laugh a little bit. You gathered up about 30 people, printed signs and drove an hour to get here from Topeka only to find out you kinda wasted your time.” He snapped back, “But that’s not enough! You have to hate and publicly denounce gays or you’re going to burn with them.” I asked him, “What about those that lie on their resume’s, drink too much alcohol, or cheat on their taxes sometimes. Those are sins also, do those people need to be hated too?” “Yes!!” He yelled. “America is going to hell! God hates them!” Curiously, and with genuine compassion I asked him, “By that notion how do you plan to make it without going to hell?” This question struck his heart. For the first time in the conversation his face looked human. The tention and angst he was wearing disappeared. He hung his head and dropped his signs and mega phone to the ground. “I don’t know.” We stepped away from his still screaming crew and he began to open up a bit.
It was extraordinary. He told me that they simply go where they are told, that he actually never knows much about who they are protesting. He told me that they believe God is going to judge America with fire for it’s sins. He said they protest because they are terrified of being judged because of other people’s sin. He said he often lays awake in bed at night tormented by the idea that he is going to burn at the hand of God’s judgement. He felt that protesting is his way of screaming to heaven that he is not one of the sinners. He said it was a way of saying, “God don’t judge me! I’m not one of them!” Still not liking or remotely condoning anything they do, however for the first time I saw these hateful people for who they really were: broken. I offered to pray for him, and wanted to talk to him more, but he was teary-eyed and a little embarrassed about it. He gathered up his crew, they packed up their signs and left.
I wanted to feel victorious as I had taken on the most notorious protesters in the world and won. I wanted to walk triumphantly back into the conference and pump my fists bragging that I had gotten them to leave. Instead I was burdened for them. Having confronted my hatred I saw them for the lost and broken people they were. It doesn’t change my attitude toward their actions, but now when I see them on the news in a tirade of hatred I pity them. I pity them because they are trying to serve and represent a God they know nothing of. They are unknowingly agreeing with the voice of the darkness over the people they are protesting. And Sadly, they may even be headed for the very fate they are striving so hard to avoid.
They are still the object of God’s affections, the dream of his heart, and still have a chance at redemption. I pray for them regularly and I hope to run into them again.
Holy Spirit, enlighten the eyes of their understanding, that they may have their eyes opened to the truth and love of Christ.
“So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you towardrepentance?” Rom. 2:3-4