Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Westboro, Motown, Sesame Street, & Tiny Tim

I will start by acknowledging that the title of this article is a bunch of obscure pop culture references scattered throughout the post. I will not, however, apologize for it - it makes me smile.

So that we're all on the same page, here's the beginning of the AP wire report regarding Fred Phelps & the Supremes (not on Motown Records, btw):
The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a grieving father's pain over mocking protests at his Marine son's funeral must yield to First Amendment protections for free speech. All but one justice sided with a fundamentalist church that has stirred outrage with raucous demonstrations contending God is punishing the military for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality.

The 8-1 decision in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., was the latest in a line of court rulings that, as Chief Justice John Roberts said in his opinion for the court, protects "even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate."

The decision ended a lawsuit by Albert Snyder, who sued church members for the emotional pain they caused by showing up at his son Matthew's funeral. As they have at hundreds of other funerals, the Westboro members held signs with provocative messages, including "Thank God for dead soldiers," `'You're Going to Hell," `'God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11," and one that combined the U.S. Marine Corps motto, Semper Fi, with a slur against gay men.
More specifically, here's the conclusion of the majority opinion (written by Chief Justice Roberts) in Snyder v Phelps:
Our holding today is narrow. We are required in First Amendment cases to carefully review the record, and the reach of our opinion here is limited by the particular facts before us. Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and—as it did here—inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker.

As a Nation we have chosen a different course—to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate. That choice requires that we shield Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case.
All of which leaves me flopping about emotionally (and otherwise). On one hand, I'm glad that the Supreme Court made such a clear stand for free speech (esp. in dealing with a religious group) . On the other hand, I'm think that the religious group in question (Westboro Baptist Church) is reprehensible in their behavior. I'm also convinced that their theological elevator doesn't go to all the floors.

Noam Chomsky Is Right (about at least one thing)

"If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all."
Whether it is the neo-Nazis marching through Skokie, IL, (the first "free speech" incident I remember as a kid) or the Phelps family antagonizing people in the name of God, I have to acknowledge that their freedom to be ungodly & bigoted protects my right to be "speak the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15) without free of government reprisal or legal entanglements.

Please don't misunderstand me - I feel sick at my stomach that this kind of anti-grace, anti-Jesus rhetoric is foisted not just on our country but also on the mourning of those who simply will help get Fred Phelps more attention.

One of These Things Is Not Like the Other

A quote from the Associated Baptist Press report pretty much covers it:
George Bullard, general secretary of the North American Baptist Fellowship, said Westboro Baptist Church is not affiliated with any of the member denominations related to the North American Baptist Fellowship or its parent body the Baptist World Alliance."

"The word 'Baptist' is not owned by anyone,” Bullard said. “It is available to everyone. This means that even churches such as Westboro, which does not represent the positive spirit of freedom and grace that characterizes so many of the church denominations related to the North American Baptist Fellowship, can use the name 'Baptist.'”

Bullard said most Baptists in North America are “appalled at the position and tactics” of the Phelps clan.

"In spite of their use of the word 'Baptist,' the Westboro church does not represent the position of any free and faithful Baptist congregation or denomination we know in North America," Bullard said.
Yes, I know that Fred Phelps was ordained in 1947 by a church in my denomination (the Southern Baptist Convention)... but because SBC churches are autonomous local bodies who voluntarily affiliate with the denomination, only the church who ordained him can revoke his ordination. That doesn't stop me, a Southern Baptist pastor, from declaring loudly that Fred Phelps & his church are hatemongers who radically misinterpret the Gospel.

Tiptoe Through The Tulips

According to the Oakland Tribune (Nov. 4, 2002):
Phelps and his followers call themselves "primitive Baptists." They believe in predestination, the idea that God already has selected those who will go to heaven and that everyone else is irreversibly doomed to hell. Their mission, members say, simply is to spread this news.

"We don't strive to change your hearts or minds," Phelps wrote in a letter to the Capital-Journal. "Even if we wanted to, we couldn't make you believe the truth."

"Every person who is predestined for hell will remain in darkness."
It's very important for me to note that Calvinists (no matter how many points of the TULIP they ascribe to) in general would reject this incredibly anti-evangelistic stance. (J.I. Packer's excellent book - Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God - is an excellent resource on this question. There's a great outline of the book on Andy Naselli's blog.)

And when they're described as "Primitive Baptists" it's not like the Westboro folks live in mud huts and/or have just discovered the secret of fire. It's a particular set of theological & methodological beliefs that typify a particular group of churches.

Once again, we turn to the ABP report for insight:
Bill Leonard, a Baptist historian who teaches at Wake Forest Divinity School, said he has not studied the group carefully but they clearly represent a “stem family” church, where everyone is kin and related through only a few intermarried families.

“Because of Baptist polity, anyone can start a church, baptize by immersion, have some kind of congregational polity, require believer’s baptism, and go from there,” Leonard said. “This is clearly the radical, radical right wing Baptist fringe combining fundamentalism, literalism, separatism, anti worldliness and a strong belief that we are sinners in the hands of a very, very angry God.”
So What?

This is how I end most of my sermons - I mean, it's fine that you've listened to me for the last 30 minutes but what difference does this actually make?
  • Pray for these folks. Really - if the Worldwide Church of God can move from the cult-flavored teachings of the Armstrongs to evangelical Christianity, the same could well happen to the folks involved in Westboro Baptist Church.
  • It's OK to say "They're not with us." If Jesus can tell Peter to "get behind me, Satan," (Matthew 16:23), we're "in bounds" to say "the Westboro folks don't speak for me... or for 99.9% of the evangelical church."
  • Live out the grace of Jesus Christ. When dealing with people caught up in sexual sin (whether it's homosexuality, adultery, sex outside of marriage, pornography, or a host of other ways to mess up the wonderful gift of God), we need to show the same love that Jesus shows the woman caught in adultery in John 8.
  • Use your free speech rights for more than putting bumper stickers on your car. Talk about what you believe & why. Ask questions of those who have other belief systems... and LISTEN to them. Build real relationships with people - not simply turn them into evangelism projects.


Jay said...


Do you in your capacity a a "professional Christian" and Evangelical have any insight into why these people are the way they are?

Mary Elaine said...

Good points, Mark.

It breaks my heart that people like the Westboro church are some people's picture of Christianity and our denomination in particular. Helps explain why my own church changed the Baptist part of its name to Community several years back (we're still affiliated with the SBC, but we don't advertise that in the community anymore).

Mark (aka pastor guy) said...

Jay - I'm working on a post/reply to your excellent question.