Thursday, March 3, 2011

How To Celebrate Another Westboro Baptist Triumph

Yesterday's decision in the Supreme Court of the United States in the landmark Phelps v. Snyder represented yet another remarkable victory for America's most effective and successful small congregation, one that I think needs to be both honored and publicly recognized.

In most communities, the arrival of Westboro Baptist over the last several years has a consistent result.  There are counterdemonstrations.  There are lines of bikers and folks dressed as angels, placing themselves as a physical boundary between Westboro and whatever high-profile media target their governing committee has identified.  But in the light of this recent victory, we're now assured that Westboro will be able to continue their work, and I think that requires some different thinking in the communities blessed by their presence.

First and foremost, as I have argued before, the time has come for American communities to acknowledge the good work of Fred Phelps and his little family church. 

We all know what they're really up to, but just to be clear, let me enumerate:

1)  Calling Attention to Our Fallen Heroes:  As our long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have dragged on mostly outside of the public eye, it would be easy for Americans to forget the loss and suffering of families whose sons and daughters have died.  Only a small fraction of this country serves in the military, and because the military is increasingly a distinct subculture within our society, it grows easier and easier for us to just go about our lives as consumers and forget our duty as citizens to honor our citizen-soldiers.  The Phelpses single minded effort to call our attention back to that loss is truly a gift.

2)  Uniting Our Divided Nation:   We are increasingly a divided people.  Our public discourse too often descends into shouting and posturing, and it's a threat to our Republic.  But when Westboro Baptist comes to town, progressives and conservatives realize, suddenly, that we have common cause together as Americans.  We realize that for all of our shouting at one another, there are certain basic principles that we all share.  At a Westboro event, liberal students and GLBT activists stand side by side with law enforcement and biker veterans.  I've been to these events, and the sense of unity is overwhelming.  Who else has accomplished such an amazing thing?

3)  Challenging the Assumptions of Popular Theology:  Much of the ongoing discord in American society has to do with arguments about same-sex relationships.  Those arguments frequently are grounded in a set of particular theological assumptions about the nature of God.   Fred Phelps and his clan have artfully taken the theological assumptions against homosexuality to their logical conclusion.  In doing so, they have shown us that we do not really for a moment believe that God is a God of hate.  This is not the God to whom we pray on Sunday in church, or on Saturday in synagogue, or on Friday in the mosque.  Westboro makes us realize that the true nature of the Creator who blessed us with liberty is love, even for those with whom we disagree.  They have challenged our assumptions about how our Maker views those whose sexual orientation differs from the norm.  By making us aware of this, they have done more to further the acceptance of gays and lesbians in our culture than any other congregation in America.

4)  Defending the Right to Free Speech:  This is huge.  Absolutely huge.  What makes our Constitutional Republic noble and exceptional is our defense of the rights of unpopular minorities to speak their minds.  Phelps and his congregation have worked to defend this right, in a meticulous and systematic way.  By carefully studying the law, and maintaining a consistently legal and nonviolent posture, Westboro Baptist  yesterday delivered a Supreme Court precedent that will stand as a free speech bulwark for those we might silence in moments of nationalistic or politically correct fervor, for as long as our Republic stands.

Without question, then, Westboro Baptist is the most successful Queer Christian Performance Activist troupe in history.  The time has come for us to celebrate them, and to show them how much we appreciate their tireless work.

Let me share with you my vision of what that might look like. 

When they arrive for an event this year, ready for another performance, they would find not the usual counterdemonstrations.  Instead, there would be signs of welcome. 

They would read: "We Love You, Westboro Baptist!" "Thank You, Westboro Baptist!"  "Our Troops Salute You, Westboro Baptist!"  "GLBT's Thank You, Westboro Baptist."  "Westboro: Champion of GLBT Rights!"  I picture an Army band playing, while the combined voices of four Gay Mens Choruses sing Amazing Grace.

Chairs of honor would be prepared for the adults.  There would be lemonade and cookies for the Phelps kids.  Awards and certificates of thanks would be presented, from representatives of the local VFW and the local PFLAG chapter. 

The Phelpses would resist, of course.  They'd shout and carry on, and kick over the chairs, and throw the awards to the ground, or pretend to look confused.  Staying in character is important to them, and important to their art.  It's why they're so successful.  We must respect their commitment.

But we'd just give them a sly wink and say, "We know what you're up to.  Thank you so much for what you've done for all of us.  You are truly a blessing."

If we did this every time they showed up, perhaps...just perhaps...Westboro would be able to finally rest.   The work the Lord has appointed to them would be done.