Westboro Baptist and You
The notorious church has picketed funerals and praised natural disasters. But such hostility wasn't born in a vacuum.
“There’s a special place in hell for baby killers.”
“You might not be guilty now, but wait until God gets a hold of you!”
These are actual quotes from my Facebook feed on the day Casey Anthony was found not guilty. I must admit, my sentiment wasn’t very different. The supposed image of Anthony duct-taping her 2-year-old daughter so she could go out partying seems like a microcosm of the young Americans we love to hate, who ditch regard of others for momentary self-absorbed pleasure.
Of course, we’re just as likely to vilify those who don’t get away with their wrongdoings. “He had it coming,” was my first thought when hearing that Ryan Dunn (of Jackass fame) drank his BAC to twice the legal limit and crashed his Porsche at 130 mph, killing himself and Zachary Hartwell.
And I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.
The now notorious Westboro Baptist Church announced plans to protest Dunn’s funeral, and embraced their right to free speech with this pithy comment: “[The] drab pervert hawked … filth to get rich off a perverse generation. … In His wrath, God cut off this young man in the prime of his life, because he made a mock of sin, and taught his fellow man to grievously sin against God!”
It’s tempting to excuse our own thoughts on tragedies like Dunn’s and be outraged by Westboro’s public, harsh responses. After all, aren’t they extremists, maiming the message of the God they claim to love? But whether or not we march outside funerals of those we disagree with, we’re guilty of the same. Our intentions may be pure, our bottom line may be biblical, but the ends don’t always justify the means.
We’re All Members
I’m not going to try and pull the old bait-and-switch and tell you that all of us are just as bad as baby killers or drunk drivers so we have no right to comment. Nor am I going to try and say we should squelch our zeal for justice. Rather, I hope to point out the value of “I-Thou” relationships and reject the “I-It” objectification so embraced by Fred Phelps and his crew.
This leap from “person” to “object” is the one Westboro has made to justify their public, insensitive and often irrational protests of everything from pop concerts, to shuttle launches, to memorials for military deaths. But it’s the same leap that all too many of us make when it comes to judging others. We lose touch with the person we’re ready to stone and instead turn them into an “it” that represents a reprehensible and immoral idea or action.
On a larger scale, it’s the leap made when the people of Africa become slaves; when homosexuals become detestable; when women and children become sex slaves; when Ryan Dunn becomes an object lesson on stupidity for the masses and Casey Anthony becomes the punchline of condemning bumper stickers.
True, we make our own comparisons so we can uphold morality, proving to ourselves and those we influence that we all reap what we sow. We do it so we can teach a lesson to youth who idolized Dunn. We go above and beyond to avoid praising clearly unacceptable behavior, in our Facebook statuses and our lunch break conversations. We eagerly pull down the celebrity cult to show the splattered blood of America’s gods.
But in the end, by turning a person into an object lesson we cross into the dangerous territory that’s traversed by Westboro time and time again. How can we be critical of a situation, however awful it may seem, while still being sensitive to those involved?
As a funeral director, I daily tread ground that’s been hallowed by tears that represent the sacrifice of love and death. The casket is handpicked by the family, the body dressed with clothes that present the deceased at their best, the casket interior is strewn with pictures and tokens of remembrance, flowers are placed above and around the deceased. All who attend the viewing are dressed appropriately, with solemn faces and hearts. Grief is holy, and I’m privileged to enter the sanctuary—to enter the story.
Recently, we buried two young teenagers who were killed when one of them lost control of the car he was recklessly driving. He not only killed himself and two others, but marred the lives of all they left behind, who will live out the rest of their lives with the instability that tragic deaths inevitably cause.
We all too easily could think: “Those stupid kids got what they had coming to them when they were horsing around, driving like they were invincible. Let this be a lesson to you kids to be responsible.” You can say stuff like that when you don’t see the tears; when you don’t see capillaries that have ruptured around the father’s eyes from weeping, or the haggard, hollow look on the mother’s face as she sees the body that used to house the life and love of her now dead child.
These are people. Ryan Dunn is a person. Casey Anthony is a person. Here’s a twist: Even the individual members of Westboro, with all their startling missteps, are people.
That’s what we miss when something becomes publicized or scandalized. We miss the humanity, we miss the story that brings color, texture, dimension and heart to the person. We see the lesson, and forget the life.
Rescinding Our Membership
There is no excuse for inhumanity committed by humans. But when we allow ourselves to see person, justice becomes the extension of love, rather than objectification and worship of law. When we see person, justice finds purity, impartiality and action.
When we see person, we begin to leave Westboro Baptist Church.
It is not our place to see others as reasons for God’s judgment and catalysts for our weekday sermons. It is not about separation of sin and sinner, nor a combination of the two. It is about a willingness to lose our fixation on “the other” as an object, and a realization that “the other” is just as real and human as you or me—whether they’re behind bars, beneath the ground or beside a picket sign.
Photo credit: Jessica Riehl