Hazel McHaffie

Westboro Baptist Church

The price of fanaticism

Following on from Educated (which I reviewed three weeks ago), I was recommended to read Unfollow which tracks the life of Megan Phelps-Roper, the third of eleven children, brought up in the infamousĀ  Westboro Baptist Church, raised to uphold extreme religious views, and take part in public condemnation of everyone outside their community. Though they’re a family of well-educated lawyers, they become ‘the most hated family in America’, but the more vilified and persecuted by the world they are, the better pleased they become: it just demonstrates that they’re indeed chosen by God as his beloved. They and they alone are right; other churches are misguided ‘social clubs’ destined for perdition.

Reading it was not a good experience! I had to force myself to persevere.

The echoes of Tara’s experience in Educated soon began to ring ominously. Saturated in the doctrines of exclusivity and condemnation … terror that the evil within would bar them from God and his people for ever … re-writing history to suit the family’s image … a public show of piety and extreme zeal for God; a different story behind the scenes … an obsessive concern to show a united front within the fold; ready to cast to the dogs anyone who dared to leave it … accountable to no one outside their fences … Uncomfortable reading indeed. And I think, the more so because this family are educated intelligent men and women.

This text, they believe, was made for them and them alone:
But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged on no man. For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.

Watching this young girl, fortified by direct Biblical quotes, glorying in condemning all homosexuals, Jews, Mother Theresa, Princess Diana, the Swedish royal family, and her own deserting brother; revelling in the collapse of the Twin Towers and the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives in the 2004 tsunami; organising picketing at the funerals of young soldiers; chilled me to the bone. But she’s implacably set for the defence of the gospel, believing utterly in her myopic picture of a murderous and cruel and wrathful God, who’s bent on humiliation and punishment.

Clearly, the whole world was deceived – but we weren’t. How lucky we were to have the favor of God.

But the brutal elements of their way of life tell a different story, and Megan starts to connect the violence of her mother and grandfather with the church’s attitude to the suffering of outsiders. They actually rejoice at the demise of those people, their total destruction. And violence was how you taught obedience.

Then a lawsuit is filed against them for defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, arising from one of many funerals they picketed (a Marine in Maryland). Their response? To pray for the Lord to kill the father of that dead Marine and the lawyers filing the complaint! You couldn’t make it up, could you? Megan herself has her first serious wobble, questioning the behaviour she’s called to support. She’s twenty years old. But the multimillion-dollar judgement against them is eventually overturned at appeal, and they head in a ‘spirit of triumphalism and invulnerability’, for the United States Supreme Court – the highest in the land. It’s now 2010.

The level of insensitivity and obscene ridicule of others’ finer feelings, beggars belief, and yet Megan says she loved it, so confident was she that she was doing the Lord’s work. She travelled far and wide propagating the church’s message against gays, Jews, schools, Muslims, the Grammys, the Oscars … the list goes on and on.

But gradually, gradually she begins to feel sadness in response to the very tragedies her family celebrates. Her alienation is accelerated when self-appointed arrogant elders take over control of the church, making implacable demands for unquestioning obedience, showing a pernicious need for superiority and control, imposing draconian rules, punishing viciously former stalwarts and linchpins. And when her own relatives become the hapless victims, feeling their pain, she at last recognises, with horrifying clarity, that they had all been behaving in this way to outsiders. In humility and shame she realises their church, far from hand selected by God, are completely deluded and fallible people.

Doubts multiply, troublesome questions besiege her. She faces a terrible choice. But, after a lifetime in the protective embrace of family and church, how could she wrench herself away and face the hostile world she has consistently vilified? Whether she leaves or stays her prospects are bleak.

But increasingly she sees the arrogance and incomprehensibility of her former position:
the Bible was written thousands of years ago in languages no one speaks anymore … and somehow, Westboro alone has figured out its one true meaning?… Coming face-to-face with my arrogance, aggressive in its misplaced certainty, was a special sort of shame.

When she issues a public statement decrying her former life and affiliation to Westboro, and later, when she actually meets those she decried, she’s staggered by the generosity of spirit that forgives her and reaches out in friendship and compassion.

It wasn’t the desire for an easy life that led me to leave (my family). Losing them was the price of honesty. A shredded heart for a quiet conscience.

A searingly honest account of the price of fanaticism. And a sobering reflection given what such obsessive arrogance is wreaking in the world today. The redeeming feature is that Megan has made it her mission since to do all she can to be a vocal and empathic advocate for the very people she was taught to despise.

 

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