The Cornerstone Festival, which my family attends every summer, often gets protesters. Because we typically arrive early we seldom encounter them, but a few years ago we did have a lively time as we were slowly driving toward the main gate. There were many signs and a bullhorn and some accusations about Mr. Right’s fitness as a husband and father, since he was bringing his family to such a pagan debauch. I was more intrigued than upset, but it confused the kids and visibly rattled the father driving the minivan in front of us. Mr. Right could see that the dad ahead was upset, weeping even, and put our car in park long enough to run up and say an encouraging word. Mr. Right has a good heart.
After we’d set up camp I went back to the front gate and approached one of the protesters; not the obnoxious guy with the bullhorn, but one of the gentlemen who was just standing quietly with a sign. I wanted to find out what was motivating them, and also to get a better view of some of the signs. A word to protesters: text-heavy signs are not as effective as something pithy. They’re too difficult to read while on the move. So I approached a reserved looking man holding a sign with a long list of things which are (if I am to believe the sign) an abomination unto the Lord. One of them was “rebellious women”, and friends, I very nearly called this blog Rebellious Woman. That’s how much I liked that one. I said “Hello,” to the sign holder, asked him where they were all from, asked what they were doing, and was answered very courteously each time. I left that conversation with the impression that the protesters were sincere fundamentalists actually trying to save all of us – the thousands of happy Cornerstone campers – from the fires of hell. I thought then (and think now) that they were wrongity-wrong-wronger, but I didn’t feel any particular malice toward them. They were doing harm, but I think not intentionally. They weren’t hatemongers.
The folks from Westboro Baptist are another matter. They have been around these parts often – they do get around! – most recently to protest a military funeral, and to protest a proposed limit on funeral protests. I have seen them in person once, though I was again on the move. I was driving to McDonald’s and rather obliviously forgot that it was the exact time of the funeral for Fred Winters, the pastor of Maryville Baptist Church who was shot and killed during a service in 2009. Yep, the Phelps crew was there, protesting across the street from the church. I drove by and saw two of the signs on display: “God Hates America”, and “God Sent the Shooter”. You see how well I remember those signs? Pithy. And so very evil. Responding with all of the grace and maturity I’ve accumulated over a lifetime as a Christian, I burst into tears and screamed several colorful swear words.
I will admit that I am a Westboro Baptist watcher. I am irresistibly drawn to trying to figure them out. I’m not getting any closer to understanding their motives, but the longer I read about them, the less they remind me of the Cornerstone protesters. Fred Phelps and his family (I refuse to think of it as a church) are not sincere fundamentalist Christians trying to woo the lost. What they do is not even really protesting, as far as I can tell. It’s political theater, and as such, requires only an audience to be considered a success. For that very reason many news outlets give minimal coverage to the WBC when it shows up. If this evil feeds on attention, we should starve it, right?
Except that’s not easy. We’ve been told, all of our lives, that all evil requires to triumph is for good persons to do nothing. And to ignore WBC when they invade a community with their hatred, to remain completely silent in the face of it, feels like a betrayal of our moral center as a people. The problem is that our impulsive response is to respond to WBC’s manipulation with rage, just as I did when I saw them in action. It’s understandable, but it’s 1) not helpful; 2) just what they want; and 3) not faithful to the gospel. That third point may not matter to some, but it has to matter to me, as a follower of Jesus. Christians are instructed not to “overcome evil with evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). Here’s a thought experiment: Westboro Baptist often uses children in it’s protests – sometimes very young children. I have seen video of counter-protesters screaming and swearing at WBC groups that include small children. In that scenario, where does the evil end? Who has been caught up in it?
I won’t get into the legal issues surrounding funeral protests because I don’t feel up to the task, to be honest. I don’t know what the proper response is when Westboro Baptist exploits the pain of a grieving family for their own twisted purposes. But apart from funerals – when they protest at courthouses, churches, campuses, corporations, conventions….I believe there is a better response than this:
I’m not saying the angry, flag waving response is wrong, exactly. But it seems to depend on the same weapons that Westboro Baptist is using: not just attention, but fear, force, power, and rage. And when some angry counter-protester takes those elements too far and strikes out at one of the WBC activists, Phelps and company get the payoff of filing yet another lawsuit.
The subversive response seems better to me. Like Terry Jones, Fred Phelps is a small man who has made himself large in the eyes of the world through shock and manipulation masked as religion. He has the power that we, as a society, have given him. If we can’t ignore him, why not take that power away through other means?
One of my favorite counter-protests took place outside the Twitter office in San Francisco last year. You may have seen some of these images already, but if not, here are a couple of my favorites:
Also responding in some very creative ways were the folks at Comic- Con this past summer (Yes, WBC protested Comic-Con, with signs saying that “God hates nerds”). It’s a hardly a surprise that a bunch of geeks came up with such clever signs, is it?
My absolute favorite image comes from the Twitter protest, and has since been repeated at protests elsewhere.
That’s right, WBC got rick rolled, and the sign holders expressed the gospel in a more powerful way than angry voices or flags ever could.
I share all of this (which is admittedly old news) because today I stumbled upon a new response to WBC, and I think it’s fantastic. The movement is called God Loves Poetry and their strategy is simple. They black out words in Westboro Baptist press releases in order to create poems. Here’s an one example:
And another, crafted from Westboro Baptist’s press release following the shootings in Tuscon:
Does it matter to WBC? They seem impervious to every strategy used against them. But I think it does have the effect of changing the climate of distress that Westboro Baptist helps to create. The website for God Loves Poetry contains a statement more powerful than anything I’ve said in this post – and a good deal more pithy: “Art, humor and love are three of the most powerful tools used to combat hate.” BEAUTIFUL! CAN I GET A WITNESS?!?
Okay, I’ll quit yelling now. Not only are art, humor and love powerful, but I believe they are powerful against hate and evil precisely because they reflect who we were created to be. We were created in the image of God, and as for what He is really like, I’ll leave the last word to one of the writers from God Loves Poetry.
your evil imaginations.