How to respond to homophobic preachers

 

Question & Answer

 
Maria from Wichita, Kansas writes:

Question:

What can we do about a preacher in our state whose website is “Godhatesfags.com” and who is constantly harassing churches that seek to be open to new knowledge about homosexuality?

Answer: Rev. Roger Wolsey

Dear Maria,

First, I hear your pain. I hear how embarrassing it is to have such a ministry in the state that you live in. I hear your desire to try to do something.

You’re no doubt referring to the Westboro Baptist Church that, until recently, was founded and led by the late Fred Phelps. I actually met him. Spoke with him. Was yelled at by him. Yelled at him. And … had communion with him.

The way you worded your question suggests to me that you primarily want to “do something about” that church. Understandable. With that in mind let me remind us that we have freedom of speech in this country and if we were to somehow censor their preachers or ban that ministry, that sets up a dangerous and unacceptable situation whereby we could be censored or banned by others in the future. There are limits of course to free speech such as inciting to riot, threatening violence, or urging others to commit violence. Many of the members of that congregation are attorneys and they know how to avoid crossing that line. Indeed, a case can be made that they are so savvy that they actually hope counter protestors who show up take swings at them – so they can sue their pants off and further fund their hateful ministry.

That said, there are certain helpful things that have worked in various communities around the nation “when Westboro comes to town.” One tactic is to seek to enact local ordinances, or even laws at the state level, whereby protests of any sort are not allowed within 500 feet of local churches, cemeteries, etc.

Another strategy is to do as Soul Force has done; i.e., to amass large groups of volunteers standing between the hateful Phelps clan (and their “church” largely consists of their family members) wearing very large angel wings to prevent grieving families from seeing the ugly signs held by the Westboro gang.

And, several communities have informed the Westboro thugs that for every minute that they protest in their town, $500 or so will be donated to the NAACP, the ADL, Reconciling Ministries Network (organizations that they loathe). Such funds and pledges are secured days before the Westboro gang shows up – and… there has been a marked reduction in the frequency of WBC showing up in other states as a result.

We can also take a page out of Jesus’ playbook by engaging in radical hospitality. In the same way that Jesus invited himself to share a meal with a hated tax collector, we can seek to interact with the members of that church, ideally one–on-one over coffee (holding warm beverages helps), to learn why they think the way they do. Help them feel heard. Validate how that may have made some sense in the past – well, any small part at least. Normalize things by sharing how we too have had certain tendencies toward bigotry and prejudice in our lives (and we all have if we’re being honest). And then share “and yet, I can no longer think in that way as I’ve come to know X, as I’ve come to experience Y, as I’ve come to know and be in relationship with Z..,” etc. Zacchaeus changed, so apparently did Fred. Never write anyone off as “irredeemable” or “beyond hope.” To do so would be to deny Jesus and our faith.

I would invite us to go beyond scheming about “what we can do about them” and consider how we are like them. It is often the case that we humans seek to turn some ugly group or person into a scapegoat to exorcise us of the parts of ourselves that are like the person/group we seek to kill or banish. It is a truism that we criticize most in others that which we struggle most with ourselves. In fact, given the insight that “the people who annoy us the most are our most important spiritual teachers” there can even be much merit in considering how the WBC are one of our best spiritual teachers. And we do well to take seriously Nietzsche’s observation “Beware that when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster, .. for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.

And, there’s something to be said for the notion that the best response to encounter with the bad, is intentional commitment to the good. Please know that the WBC does not define the good people of Kansas. We tend to think of y’all as wholesome and reasonable. We know that WBC is an embarrassing outlier. Be the best Christians and the best Kansans that you can be.

If you clicked on the first hyperlink that I posted above (me having “communion” with Fred Phelps) you’ll see how the Holy Spirit intervened in a truly unique and unexpected way. For those who don’t click on it, I’ll share the ending of it here:

Fred, human history will not remember you kindly. There are reasons for that. I thank you, however, for sharing that moment in the Sun on that plaza that day. I thank you for having cookie communion with me. I thank you for your prayers – and for that fleeting glimpse of your higher self – your true self – the loved, forgiven, accepted Child of God – who loves, forgives, and accepts others. Perhaps that’s the true self that allegedly got excommunicated by the hateful “church” that you created. Their loss is heaven’s gain.

~ Rev. Roger Wolsey

This Q&A was originally published on Progressing Spirit – As a member of this online community, you’ll receive insightful weekly essays, access to all of the essay archives (including all of Bishop John Shelby Spong), and answers to your questions in our free weekly Q&A. Click here to see free sample essays.

About the Author

Rev. Roger Wolsey is an ordained United Methodist pastor who directs the Wesley Foundation at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and is author of Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity; The Kissing Fish Facebook page; Roger’s Blog on Patheos “The Holy Kiss”

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