On Friday members of Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church are scheduled to be in my city for a protest at the courthouse. A counter rally is scheduled to greet them. Pretty much everywhere they go around the country they are met with counter protesters.
The organization has gained notoriety for protesting at funerals and other places and for their hate-filled rhetoric, such as signs that say “God Hates Fags”. They don’t just come to a place to protest something peacefully, they come with incendiary signs and rhetoric and spew hatred, leaving its corrosive influence behind them.
Whenever these groups intrude themselves into my world, whether it is neo-Nazis, the Westboro Baptist Church, or others who carry hate-filled messages I struggle with what to do as a reaction. I am a Bill of Rights purist and I absolutely believe that they have the right to peaceably assemble and they have the right of free speech. In fact allowing them to speak is usually the best way to show how warped their ideas are and to expose them for what they are. I believe they have the right to say things that are ugly, wrong, or just plain stupid. On the other hand members of the community have the same right to peaceably assemble to speak out against them and to demonstrate that hate is not welcome here.
I understand that they are looking for attention and that they gain something when there is a large reaction, especially if it is negative or violent. In fact Phelps’ group has a reputation for inciting people in hopes of getting a reaction so that they can then turn around and sue. I don’t know if it’s true or not but I have heard it often. I understand that ignoring them may be the best thing to do.
On the other hand it is difficult to ignore them coming into my town and my conscience pricks me into action. It tells me that I need to be there and to counter their hatred in some way. What I don’t want to do is to go there and scream at them, swear at them, and bring myself down to the same level of venom and hatred. I want to counter their hatred with love. I want them to know that their hateful ways are not welcome in my community, but I can only do that by being present in love and compassion.
In Madison tomorrow Phelps’ followers are coming to support a minister who was convicted and sentenced to two years for encouraging child abuse through corporal punishment, instructing his parishioners to use wooden dowels when punishing children. According to the Westboro Baptist website, “you have a corrupt judicial system that loves to turn over children to fag & dyke couples, while putting preachers in jail when they say you should spank a child.” Again, they have the Constitutional right to protest that decision in a peaceful assembly. The problem is they do not just stop at that. Instead they bring hateful signs against gays, Jews, believers of Islam, and others.
Faced with this dilemma a lot of communities that have dealt with this group over the last several years have chosen to counter the hate with love and generosity. I have heard of communities taking up collections for gay causes when the group has come to protest against LGBT citizens. Because they are essentially coming here in support of child abuse the counter rally is intended to use their appearance in a positive way. There will be a rally, but there will also be a collection of food, toys, and school supplies which will be given to needy children. This is the kind of positive love-filled way with which hatred can be met and the way it can be defeated.
My hope is that the counter protesters all understand the purpose of the food drive and that hate can be won with love, not with more hate. If hate is not welcome here, then we can’t let hateful people drag us down into it. We must be there fully in love and peace. I look forward to welcoming them so warmly they may never want to come back.