Perhaps I have been hiding under a rock—maybe a good strategy, considering—but until today I was blissfully ignorant of the existence of The Westboro Baptist Church and its history of picketing rock concerts and a wide variety of funerals. Upcoming events include the funerals of the Arizona shooting victims and of Elizabeth Edwards. They are also infamous for picketing at the funerals of soldiers whose deaths they consider evidence of god’s wrath. Although the name of their website is http://www.godhatesfags.com/ it seems their god hates just about unconditionally, and hell is either overcapacity or infinitely expandable. Dante’s nine circles could never suffice for all the people the WBC believe the almighty has consigned to eternal damnation.
I tried to go to their website, just as I recently tried to visit Sarah Palin’s, to read for myself contents reported by the media. In both cases, my computer could not connect, although connection to other sites was no problem. I wondered at first (in paranoid Luddite fashion) if somehow those websites can screen people like me who want to spy on their activities or at any rate decry them. Then it occurred to me that maybe those sites are so trafficked that there is an impassible jam. Either explanation disturbs me.
My husband, who is a news junkie, just walked in and told me he had never heard of The Westboro Baptist Church, either. Unaffiliated with any recognized Baptist conference or association, the WBC was founded by Fred Phelps in 1955. According to the Wikipedia entry, its modest membership (71 in 2007) consists mostly of Phelps’ family. Since 1991 the church has been actively involved in the anti-gay rights movement. Now clearly they have become experts at exploiting the media and attaching themselves to anyone with celebrity, including Lady Gaga whom they likened to “The Beast Obama.”
Lady Gaga counseled her fans not to engage with the picketers. In Arizona people will assemble not as counter-protesters exactly but as human shields for the mourners. Meanwhile Arizona lawmakers are drafting emergency legislation to prohibit protests at or near funeral sites.
How to respond to unabashed hate speech is a more and more pressing question in a culture that is driven by headlines, sound bites, and spin. Sometimes I feel as though all of us, reluctantly or not, are slowing down and rubber-necking the wreck of our civilization, ashamed of our horrified fascination, moved by compassion or outrage, unsure of how to act. Do we stop and offer volunteer emergency services, do we move on and let the professionals handle it? I am caught in the crux of this dilemma even as I read and write about The Westboro Baptist Church. Would the Phelps be harmless if they had remained obscure?
It is the mission of those who hate, righteously they believe, to spread their hatred or at least make their voices heard. So must the lovers of the world. Their mission may be more challenging. They have to love the haters, too, or at least not hate them. After her picketed concert, Lady Gaga posted on twitter: "Tonight love and hate met in St. Louis. And love outnumbered the hate, in poetic thousands. Hate left. But love stayed. + Together, we sang." Lady Gaga (whom I confess I heard of only a few months before I discovered the existence of The Westboro Baptist Church) surely knows something about grabbing headlines herself. We non-celebrities may not have the same knack, but we can sing, just the same. We can sing.
It seems appropriate to close with this line from a hymn written by Robert Wadsworth Lowry, an American Baptist Minister: “Since love abounds in heaven and on earth, how can I keep from singing?”