Westboro Baptist Church: Modeling Empathy on the High Road

Instead of following WBC's example, counter-protesters can model a better way.

Posted Mar 23, 2014

Even before Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps died last week, reports of his failing health inspired people throughout the Internet to recommend organizing a group to protest at his funeral because of all the funerals where WBC members have protested. Phelps was a hateful man, proudly so, whom the Kansas Supreme Court saw as "not satisfied with the hurt, pain, and damage" that he inflicted upon others. His estranged son Nathan called him an abusive man who'd created a church as an outlet where he could vent his anger and rage. Nathan loathed "the idea that they can take something so private and personal and painful and be so hurtful about it. I categorically dismiss what he's doing and am appalled by everything he says and does."

Monitored by the Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center monitor as a hate group, the Westboro Baptist Church protests in a variety of settings and at many different events, including military funerals and the funerals of murder victims like a Winnipeg man brutally killed on a Greyhound bus. They intrude upon the grief of others, even people who have nothing to do with the issues to which the WBCers object, to draw attention to themselves and the message they claim they need to spread. Instead of matching anger and hatefulness with more anger and hatefulness, though, some people have found a better way.

When Westboro Baptist Church members pop star Lorde's concert, counter-protesters raised a sign saying, "SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS."

Asked for his thoughts about this compassionate member, long-time WBC member Steve Drain answered, "I don't even know what they're saying."

Maybe Drain will never understand. Maybe someone else in the church will come to get it, though. When met with the anger and attention they expect, WBC protesters received positive reinforcement that can fuel their efforts. When with compassion and concern for them as human beings, especially if it will happen repeatedly, some might come to feel shame and some might try to understand what their seeing and learn from new role models. Nathan Phelps is not the only member who ever left that flock. A few of them, dragged into this by family long ago, might benefit from seeing what empathy looks like. Maybe they'll consider scriptures other than those that focus on giving them excuses for hatefulness. Maybe they look longer at John I 4:8 ("Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love"), Romans 13:10 ("Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law"), or Corinthians I 16:14 ("Let all that you do be done in love").

I once witnessed a Westboro Baptist Church protest. Having learned that Westboro Baptist Church members planned to protest outside San Diego Comic-Con International in July, 2010, a colorful counter-protest pulled together. Cosplayers dressed as superheroes and sci-fi heroes, along with many people not dressed for cosplay (costumed play) mocked the WBCers with signs parodying the messages espoused by the few WBC members on hand. In that instance, counter-protesters met hatred with humor. They put a positive spin on things and had fun with it all. When you can't send hatemongers any other message, surprise them with something they don't expect. Puzzle them with peace. Throw out the script they appear to be trying to get you to follow. Cast yourselves and maybe them, too, in a better story.

Across the street from Comic-Con, a counter-protest forms to answer the WBC.
But look how few Westboro Baptist Church members were actually there.