In answer to this question, one is tempted to ask rhetorically, “Where to begin?” Westboro Baptist Church, as my Wikipedia friends tell me, is the independent Baptist church in Topeka, Kansas that has become famous for (in the words of Wikipedia) “its extreme ideologies, especially those against homosexuality, and its protest activities, which include picketing funerals of American servicemen and desecrating the American flag". A Google search easily reveals their abundant use of protest signs, which declare, among other things, “God hates fags”, “Pray for more dead soldiers”, “God hates you”, “God hates Jews”, and “Israel is doomed”. There is more, but you get the idea. The general message is one of hate. Given this insanity of what is essentially a cult, it is not surprising that Baptist organizations such as the Southern Baptist Convention have taken pains to distance themselves from them, and to stress that they have no connection with Westboro Baptist.
Westboro Baptist is part of the American culture war. As a Canadian, I am happy to sit out the culture war raging south of my border, though I sometimes find myself being read as if I am taking part in it. By “culture war” I mean the highly politicized dichotomy in America, which pits conservative against liberal, Republican against Democrat, and insists upon dividing all people into one of these two camps on the basis of certain issues, such as their stand on gun control or gay rights. In this war, if one says something against gay marriage, for example, it is assumed that one therefore votes Republican, opposes public health care, and belongs to the NRA. As a Canadian writing in a very different environment, I resist such a dichotomy, but often am still slotted into one of the two opposing camps. This in itself sometimes makes me want to write next to nothing, and only offer up recipes for making prosphora. But my mandate as a preacher and presbyter compels me to speak the truth according to our Orthodox Tradition, even if my words are sometimes misunderstood as contributions to a political quarrel in which I am happy not to be involved. It means looking at many things in our culture, trying to understand them, and to offer an Orthodox perspective. So, what’s the deal with Westboro Baptist?
Their main message seems to be that America is involved in sin, and that therefore God will judge the nation for it. It is true, of course, that God does judge a nation for its sins, and that events on the international stage represent in some way the outworking of God’s judgments. We see this is Scriptures such as Amos 9:7: “Have I not brought up Israel from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Syrians from Kir?” That is, God was not only involved in the fortunes and founding of Israel, but also in the fortunes and establishment of the pagan Philistines and the pagan Syrians. He was thus not only the God of His covenant People Israel, but also the God of all the earth, and whatever happened on the world stage reflected in some way His over-arching purposes.
Moreover, the prophets declared that the judgments and disasters experienced by Israel were the result of His judgment on their sin. Isaiah declared, “Your land is desolate, your cities are burned with fire, your fields—strangers are devouring them in your presence...If you consent and obey, you will eat the best of the land, but if you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword” (Is. 1:7, 19-20). It is true, therefore, that God does judge a land, any land, for its sins. The prophets have said so.
This is just the problem with the Westboro Baptist sign-carriers: they are not prophets. Amos, Isaiah, and the other prophets could declare to Israel that this or that disaster was the result of this or that sin, because God had told them so. They could declare that the Assyrian victory over Israel was the result of northern Israel’s idolatry and Baal worship, because that was what Yahweh had said. They could declare that God had brought the Philistines from Caphtor (i.e. Crete), because God told them that He had. They could declare the Word of the Lord, because they were prophets, and had received the Word from the Lord. But so far as anyone can tell, the Lord has never spoken a word to Westboro Baptist as He spoke to His prophets, and so they have no inside track on whether or not (for example) the deaths of American soldiers abroad represent the judgment and punishment of God. They only have their own private opinions, and cannot presume to speak for God about matters of international or national judgment. It seems to this writer that the Westboro Baptist people are expressing not the inner counsels of God, but rather only their own right-wing frustration with certain events taking place in America. Rather than public protest, I would advise private (very private) prayer, and perhaps switching to decaf.
Westboro Baptist in fact offers us all a cautionary tale. Our task as a Church and as members of it is to proclaim the Gospel, by word and deed. And the Gospel is not “God hates sin” (though He does), but rather “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life”. Our basic message to the sinner and outsider is, “Jesus loves you.” All are called to embrace this Gospel message through repentance and faith, but the focus of our preaching is not on the heinousness of sin, but on the love of the Saviour. All sin is sin, but who is to say whether or not God finds the sins of the homosexual in Hollywood more grievous than the sins of the greedy on Wall Street? Not being a prophet myself, I have no idea, and the question itself has, I suspect, no meaning. For the whole point of acknowledging the heinousness of sin is for me to repent of my own sins, and to help those committed to my pastoral care to repent of theirs. As St. Paul says, “What have I to do with judging outsiders?” (1 Cor. 5:12). Our task is to tell the outsiders that God loves them, that His kindness may lead them to repentance (Rom. 2:4) and that they may join us and become insiders, and heirs of the love of God.