It’s 4:30 AM here in Germany, and I am being kept awake by my diligent reading of the Bible to ease my troubled mind. It’s a strange experience for me, since normally when I read the Bible it is always to escape into that fascinating world of history and philosophy that I love and respect the Hebrew and New Testaments for.
However… This morning I am not doing it in any leisurely capacity, but rather to directly and openly refute the religious philosophy of a group known as the Westboro Baptist Church. Operating out of Topeka, Kansas, USA, this group is a highly fringe, entirely localized sect of what they’ve understood as Primitive Baptists, and they also closely adhere to their own understanding of Calvinism. Many are familiar with them from their controversial and blunt stance on homosexuality, and the picketing of funerals for dead soldiers of the Iraq war. For my purposes however, their political history, as well as their individual actions, will be ignored, and instead I will focus on their theology as a whole. They ascribe to the King James Bible, a troublesome translation in that it was a translation of a translation (from Septuagint (greek) to Vulgate (latin) and into several English versions). I am sitting next to my own copy of the King James Version (henceforth KJ Bible), in addition to my New Revised Standard Version, and my Lutheran, German version. Essentially I’m sitting on three different variations of what has been called the true word of God, and you can discern from this point alone the direction I’m taking regarding the flippant, flexible denotations the writing of religious texts actually is.
To surmise, the Westboro Baptists contend that, like most hardline Christian groups, their message is the only true message that captures the word of God. This is common enough in Christian religious parlance, and is not particularly shocking to most of us. This group, however, fixates on several key words and party lines that can be gleaned not just from the KJ Bible but from the general consensus of philosophical Christendom. One of my outside sources comes from Louis Theroux’s BBC documentary “The Most Hated Family in America”, specifically because it features heavy content straight from the core of the church, and even footage of an actual sermon given by the Westboro’s pater-familias Fred Phelps.
I’ll begin on a personal note; I never found their message outrageous, nor have I found anything they’ve said to be particularly out of place in a religious context. I’ve heard supposedly Christ-like people say some downright abhorrent things, but I must qualify to those not quite as familiar that this kind of incendiary talk is simply an aspect of devout and secured belief in whatever faith they happen to cohere, and should not be reconciled with non-religious or humanist ideology. To do so would be like trying to defuse C4 with boxing gloves — the languages of both philosophies are entirely different both ethically and morally. I am coming at this kind of Christianity with Christianity alone, that is, I am directing my arguments solely with established Christian and Abrahamic theology as my primary sources.
That said, I should say immediately that while in a strictly ecclesiastic sense, these people have not shocked me, they are typical church goers in every sense of the practice, it is in my capacity as a linguist and an interpreter of biblical philosophy that I am simply gobsmacked. Not only have these people radical misunderstood Biblical sentiments, but they have also fundamentally ignored the very basic conceptions of Christ and of God the Most High.
"You’re gonna eat cha babies!" (Actual quote)
The central thrust of the Westboro Baptist’s theology is that all the actions on Earth are presided over, and implemented by God. While not altogether dissimilar from common Christian ideologues, their’s involves a far more dependent emphasis on eschatological doom-sayings. They are of the belief that, like St. Paul, the world is on the verge of destruction. They see that these times are the signs of the return of Christ and the salvation of mankind over death and the liberation of the soul to the holy seat in heaven. This is the completion of the Christian myth of the messiah, and is the envisioned end for all of Christian orthodoxy. This is perhaps one of the more obvious reasons they choose to exercise their message, since they see it as a service to mankind to inform the children of God that their time has come. What is also valued quite highly amoung the Westboro Baptists is an inclement urge to embrace this end-of-days epiphany as the source of their strength of faith. That is to say that their understanding of the delayed parousia (fancy Greek term for Second Coming) is the reason they insist that their version of Christianity is correct.
So far, I have described a group that appears not at all that far removed from typical Christian congregations, and that they seem, just by this limited description alone, just as entitled to Christian belief as all others. However, they critically, and resoundingly fail to understand what I like to term the ‘psychology’ of belief, and more importantly, the psychology of the Christ message.
The BBC documentary was excellent in proving just how far distanced these people are from Jesus Christ. In one of the more heated moments, Mr. Theroux quite aptly points out to Steve Drain, an influential church member, “news flash, brainiac, Christ WAS Jewish”. And Mr. Drain’s response — “Christ was God” — and as a rather one dimensional, and narrow retort, and the preceding rhetoric that follows: “Jews killed God”, “Jews hate God”, “You think the Jews worship the same God I worship?” are all symptoms of a classically circular Christian antisemitism. It was the same for Luther, who objected to the very grounds Judaism as “kein thema” and that “Die juden muss immer wandern” (Jews must always wander). It begins here, and it was at the point that I began to see where the disillusion of these people begins.
Later, the Westboro Baptists picket a Synagogue (which they call chidingly ‘Jew Church’) and continue their ‘protest’ of what they see as institutions that support and abet the downfall of mankind. They arrive with signs that read “Jew Fags” and “Temple Beth Sodom” and additionally with alternative signs reading “Fag Troops”, “God: America’s Terrorist” and the now obligatory “God Hates Fags”. I might perhaps be reading too much into just this one moment, but this random collection of signs for their ‘Jew Church’ picket suggested to me that those few with relevant signs, that is, signs pertaining to Jews, were the only ones that actually knew where they would be standing that day, and that those others in attendance were told “oh just grab any old thing and get in the van”. This inconsistency in their content is presented earlier in the film, when Theroux picks through the Westboro groups now massive collection of picket signs. Theroux remarks “there doesn’t seem to be any logic in who appears on these signs” and Drain’s response “There is plenty of logic” is qualified by his rhetorical, party-line silliness about how each person has in someway supported the “flithy Fag agenda”. These haphazard, knee jerk responses from both Drain and the rest of the group surround the entirety of their screen time, and while it is fair to excuse their inconsistency as being caught on the spot and forced to explain far reaching topics in a few sentences, I take it that a group that compounds their message so virulently requires a far less primitive, barely accommodating, stream of consciousness to explain their position satisfactorily.
Which leads me, inevitably, to one of my more obvious strikes against this group — There is no Biblical explanation for their actions. Sure they cite countless verses of scripture and claim to have an elevated understanding of the Biblical word, but the fundamentals of their position are predicated more on the physical, lived-in hatred of their enemies than on the espoused ‘logos’ of their God, and communicates to me, if nothing else, that they have mistaken the words of Christ and the Apostles as a linear, unilateral endorsement of their own agenda. This is interpreting the Bible with a decoder ring. This is being mad at your sister about pushing you in a puddle and using a manual on the conduction of electricity to prove to her that, under the right circumstances, she could have killed you.
I will give them credit for one thing though, and it is that the Westboro Baptists do not do what so many other corrupt religious folks do — pick and choose. The Westboro group are quite aware of all that the Bible has to say, but it is, in my sincerest opinion, a perversion of the very spirit of meaning that the Bible happens to contain. What I mean is, that while they possess a knowledge of the Bible, they completely misdirect the lessons taught therein. To illustrate this, I am going to play alittle game I’ll call “Bible vs. Bible” where I take verses from the Bible and interpret them firstly how I would, and secondly how the Westboro types would. All of these are taken from the KJ Bible that the Westboro group take as their mandate.
"Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and show my people their transgression" Isaiah 58; 1
Me: Isaiah, living during the time of the kings of Judah, saw the subjugation of peoples by foreign kings. He employs a plea of sanity to his fellow Jews, and laments to God that he hopes one day the insanity of these power hungry men will see that their oppression upon a free people is unjust and unbecoming of his contemporaries. He asks, “shall we hear the voices of dissent?”, and fasts with his brethren that they may speak about it with him.
Westboro: God wants us to yell aloud, to spread our message. God is demanding we be loud and direct our message at you. God is encouraging us to picket the dead. God wants us to get in people’s faces and tell them truths
"Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ, and shall deceive many" Mathew 24; 4-5
Me: Christ, addressing his attending Jews, responds to the question “How will we know the signs of the end of days?” His answer is that many will claim to be acting on my account. Many will try to tell you what those signs are, and they are likely to succeed for some. Christ says “take heed that no man deceive you” insisting that this is a game of rumours and suggestion, and soothsaying and hypothesis, and that this is to be expected. In short, liars are convincing.
Westboro: The Fags of America, with their presidents and secretaries, are deceiving you. They are deceiving the world into accepting damnation.
"There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus" Galatians 3; 28
Me: St. Paul is being very frank and earnest here; “We’re all the same, we all love Christ.”
Westboro: If you don’t love Jesus you’re a Fag, Fag enabler, Jew Fag, or some kind of Fag Pirate type.
All I’ve done is employed the Westboro Baptists own rhetorical non-sense as a biblical interpretation. When done so, any verse of the Bible is mangled with their own groups insular misreading of Biblical tenets. But here’s the kicker; if someone from the Westboro Baptists actually read my impressions of their interpretations, not only would they call them afoul, but they would assault me with additional ‘corrections’ that would just corroborate their own agenda. My point is, that they simply hijack the Bible and claim that their interpretation out of a million is simply the most correct. They do this without proof, without adequate representation, without any historical context or understanding, without any soul. They rip from the pages of the KJ Bible their own psychosis, and they stack upon it their internal anger at the world they’ve either given up trying to live in with a Christ-like capacity, or that they have tried and failed to live in.
The whole doctrinal line begins and ends with Fred Phelps, the ancient, dried skeleton of a person who’s personal life was no doubt fraught with dateless nights and sad, sad eyes. I break from my academic tone just alittle, because I honestly feel that he is simply a sad, lonely man. I only partially agree with Theroux’s evaluation of the man, that he is a ‘rageaholic’, and instead choose to think that he was forced throughout is his life to comply, comply, comply. His life must have circled around authority figures he resented in the utmost, and it triggered this impulse within him to not just rise above authority, but to condemn the very nature of authoritative relationships. In so doing though, he becomes the very paragon of it, and demands that the members of his family adhere to his doctrinal hardline or be rent from his sight indefinitely. He is the retired Pharaoh that has chosen to be buried alive in his tomb with all those subjects willing enough to rot in the Earth with him. Everyday he sits in his pulpit/chair with his hobbled, classically geriatric gait and welcomes a comparison to Death itself. He is the very image of a coot, and whatever charisma and tact he had in his youth are the only shards of legitimacy visible to his permanently disabled family.
Upon his chair sits many supporting cushions, the opening words to his sermon, as depicted in Theroux piece; “same sex marriage, by any name, civil union or otherwise, is the ultimate, smash mouth, in-your-face, insult to God all mighty.” and continues with this line about the Iraq war “God duped you!(Bush) into starting a war, so he could punish you. And any preacher who tells otherwise is a lyin’ false prophet!” and it is at this point where I thought to myself… What was it that Christ said about deceivers? Succeed for many? Are we to believe that this daffy old man is an incarnation of Christ? Which he would HAVE to be according to Christ himself if he is to be believed by anyone? You see what I’m doing Westboro Baptists? I can use your own toxic, rhetorical idiocy against you just as easily.
In his finest moment however, and I put my academic cap back on, is his refusal to answer a question that I thought Theroux was simply waiting to ask; “Y’know isn’t it an act of presumption on your part when you don’t know all the information on all the other churches to assume that you have a privilege to grace?” Theroux simultaneously invalidates Phelps AND demonstrates a knowledge of Biblical lexicon in one sentence. Theroux’s use of the word ‘grace’ is absolutely spot on, since it is by this term, “Grace” (Gnade to Luther) whereupon a Christian extrapolates his measure with God. Phelps betrays humility with his half-response; “I know all there is to know about it” and when Theroux presses him further he ends the interview for fear of having to explain his erroneous theology to someone who may actually be able to disseminate and criticize it, and not blithely bat their eyes at him because they either need a place to live (Drain) or because they have no other choice but to believe it (the rest of the fucking family).
"Saddle up partner, I’m a fucking psychopath!"
Ultimately, I can say nothing about these people that someone else couldn’t say better, and with more consideration to the sheer, mind-numbing insanity that is this congregation. However, I hereby issue a challenge to any Westboro party member to respond to me in any such capacity should they feel I’ve not done their words justice. There are ground rules though:
In finishing, I want to speak to the Westboro folk from the heart.
I know your God, and he is weak. I do not fear your God, I have exposed him, and I have conquered him. Look within yourself, look into the core of you that makes you emote off camera and feel unsafe. Look into that part of you that feels there is some other recourse to God’s word… and you’ll find me there staring back at you.