Sunday, December 12, 2010

What Westboro Baptist Church Can Teach Us About Peace

This semester in my Composition classes, the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) was often the topic of conversation. In a unit on rhetorical analysis, I used their website to teach analytical tools. From the upside down flag to the music, page layout, words and blatant appeal to emotions, the WBC people seem like a cartoon because they are so overdone.If you don't know what the WBC is, they are a small group of people- mainly the family of the leader, Fred Phelps, who came to national attention for their protest of the funeral of a young man killed in a hate crime in Laramie, Wyoming. Matthew, a gay college student, was lured into a truck with two men whose sole intent was to rob him. They drove him outside of town, beat him, took his wallet and shoes and tied him to a fencepost. Eighteen hours later, he was found by a bicyclist who thought he was a scarecrow until he saw the chest moving from Matthew's labored breathing. Matthew later died in the hospital and both perpetrators are still in prison. The WBC put a counter on their website- back when the world wide web was gaining popularity and not all bumper stickers had a website address on the bottom- with the "number of days that Matthew Shepard has been burning in hell" for being gay. The WBC bases their gospel and teaching on sex, mainly that it's the worst thing in the world to be gay and most of the bad things that happen are because of either being gay or supporting those who are gay. The church also discusses the opposite of love, which they claim is hate and decided to protest Matthew Shepard's funeral. This caused a national outpouring of opposition. Then Westboro decided to picket all sorts of events, from Fred Phelps is an attorney and he does do a good job of defending his group and winning challenges under the auspices of Freedom of Speech. These days the group focuses on homosexuality and soldiers killed in combat.

This makes the group easy to discuss from a rhetorical standpoint so I use them. You can imagine the reactions, ranging from outrage to a desire to shut the group down and discussions of burning at the stake and large caliber artillery. Then come the thoughts on
the differences between morality and democracy and decency. Once students get past their emotions, which can take some time, we attempt to discern the true purpose of the group and how powerful they really are.

The WBC has been active in Oklahoma this year, staging numerous protests against homosexuality and those who accept what I know to be a naturally occurring phenomenon. They decided in November to picket in McAlester, Oklahoma, at a funeral for a young man killed in combat. The unit on rhetorical analysis was over, but my students brought the protest to my attention. They asked for extra credit for attending the counter-protest, which is a common practice anytime the WBC people show up anywhere. Sure, I'll be happy to give you chump change as an excus
e to go see some real life up close and personal. Go right ahead and jump outside of your comfort zone. Four students went to the protest and reported back on the six prot
esters from WBC - including two children- and the thousand or so counter-protesters. The police had to surround the protesters to protect them from the citizenry. Lots of news and media hype. Someone slashed two of the tires on the church van, and nobody in town would fix the flats so the WBC had to have their van towed to a nearby Walmart. The students were giddy. We had discussions in class about the ethical dilemma of free speech and slashing tires (or worse).

I offered that if I had been there and had the opportunity, I would have endeavored to stop anyone from causing harm to the WBC people. No way, said the students. They got what they deserved.

But there are reasons and deserve has nothing to do with it. Chief among these reasons is that I remember the life and teachings of Dr. King. When effecting social change, we have got to follow the four steps of direct action and always act peacefully, taking full responsibility for our actions. It's cowardly to sneak up like a guilty thief and slash someone's tires. It takes no responsibility and works agains
t peace. How? Because in doing so, we justify the hateful actions of that group. They now have something to point to in order to further their own argument. He who angers you, controls you. And in taking a non-peaceful action, you negate your own efforts to restore sanity and serenity in the world.

Unless sanity and serenity and peace are not your primary intentions. In that case, go nuts.

The WBC decided to hold a couple of protests in Norman last weekend. The first was at Harvest Christian Church to protest women speaking in church and women pastors. The second was at Trinity Baptist and the third at Journey Church, to spew the regular hateful rhetoric. I put out a call on Facebook for friends to join me in counter protest. Three ladies showed up, one with her two little girls. We took our signs and attended the counter protests.

The first one was fine. There were only five or so WBC people and about fifty of us, including some bikers, some high school kids and assorted feminists. Women were the most prevalent, and we concentrated on slogans of peace and love and acceptance for all, and in enjoying the fellowship. At
the second protest, there were a lot more people, from bikers and Army wives and children to Zombies holding signs proclaiming "I was promised brains". The mood was almost prurient, with many people getting too close to the protesters and emotions running very high. I brought two dozen donuts and passed them out as though we were all at a picnic. I used the opportunity to diffuse emotions and met a friend I only knew through FB. Mr. David Slemmons, outlaw poet and peaceman extraordinaire. Another friend, a former student, attends Trinity and was glad to see me. I was glad to see her too. The thing is that the WBC people feed off of negative emotions. That's why they carry offensive signs, wear upside down flags that they walk on and sing ridiculous songs about death and destruction. They are easy to hate and they want that hate. I'm certain that they don't even believe their own rhetoric. Today on their website they had slogans proclaiming their gratitude for breast cancer. Huh?

This group is not that powerful. They are only fifty people strong, if that. They are easy to resist because they are so ridiculous. It's just like anything in life: an exercise in not taking it personally.

One of my students called me from Bowlegs, Oklahoma. Yes, it's a real place. The semester is over, but the WBC was coming to his town to protest the funerals of three of his friends killed in a car accident. In a car accident. Why does this require a funeral? Same reason they wanted to protest the death of a little girl who died in a house fire: retribution for slashing tires. There are always consequences of our actions. My student commented that he thought there would be a rumble, since "everyone in Bowlegs is armed." Perhaps with this one, the WBC has bitten off more than they can chew. They may have the legal right to protest, but eventually their luck will run out and someone is going to get more than a slashed tire and a punch to the face. They have already had their church attacked (from which they drew much media attention) and he worried that there would be even more problems.

I advised him to attend the counter protest if he wanted but to suggest that people focus on drowning out the WBC and keeping the attention where it needs to be- on the family of his friends and their time of grief. I knew that the bikers would show up to drown them out and that others would come to join hands and somehow create some peace from the chaos. I reminded him of Dr. King and how in his letter from Birmingham Jail, he said that "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." I think this experience will stay with him for some time. I know it will stay with me.

In times of great inequity, injustice and blatant disregard for what is right, it matters what we do and how we act. Our children will follow the example we set since they will ultimately enact our principles.


No comments:

Post a Comment