Friday, April 3, 2009

The Cultic Echo Chamber

What amazes me most about Westboro Baptist is just how "successful" they've been by cult standards. Like most psychotically insular communities, they honestly don't care about convincing anyone of their position. Instead, the purpose of their demonstrations is to gather attention for themselves and affirm their sense of "chosenness."

Their sense of self-importance and of being a central player in some great cosmic struggle requires constant collective ego-massaging. As the communities into which they forcibly insert themselves recoil in horror at the cruelty and small-mindedness of their message, that recoiling is interpreted within Westboro as an affirmation of their righteousness. The whole world is evil. They are the righteous elect. From that perspective, every creatively multisyllabic curse shouted from a passing car is another sign they must be right. Every Holy Finger of Rebuking raised in their direction reassures them that only they know the truth, and everyone else is hell-bound.

By setting themselves in a consistently adversarial position against everyone who is not part of their incestuous fellowship, they strongly reinforce the bonds within their community. They share in the "hardship" that they themselves have created, and in doing so, they create a powerful and deeply internalized bond of shared suffering. They know they are pariahs. They embrace their "alienness," and rejoice in it.

The danger here, of course, is that the bonds of self-inflicted oppression that unite Westboro Baptist are not all that conceptually different than the bonds carefully nurtured in other corners of the Christian world.

The human beings who go from homeschool to youth group to Christian college to young adult ministries to family ministries are taught a deeply embedded sense of otherness. The world is evil. It does not understand us. So we close in on ourselves.

On one level, that's because a society reared on greed and onanistic self-obsession can't grasp the deep grace and love of Christ.

But it's not always the fault of the culture outside. Sometimes, the message can't be conveyed because unlike the apostles, we choose to express it in ways that mean nothing to folks who aren't part of the inner circle already. We see this in many threads of the evangelical community, like the "Way of the Master" scripted evangelism of Ray Comfort, where every person offended by his message of hell becomes an affirmation of his rightness.

That we're not all Westboro Baptist doesn't mean there aren't lessons to be learned from their example.


  1. Seems for me, at least, most every time I know with by-God certainty that I'm right and the rest of the Universe is wrong, that I got it, I GOT IT!... I don't got it.

    There are two kinds of people in the world: those who are humble and those about to be humbled.

  2. I read an interesting take on Westboro Baptist last week (I'm sorry, I'm wracking my brain for where, but it escapes me).

    Their analysis was that the street theatre by Fred Phelps and company was very carefully honed to provoke certain reactions in those engaging them. The idea was to use your language very carefully so that those defending their home territory would take what Phelps people said as a personal insult and consider it fighting words, though it was actually couched in terms that would make it legally general statements, not specifically addressed to the person taking umbrage.

    Once they had a response that went over the line, the Phelps lawyers would be able to file a lawsuit, and collect handsomely. The author seemed to be saying it was an effective way of monetizing their productions.