God Hates You

The Westboro Baptists have a message for South Florida

Nothing happened.

So here we are, two hours later, standing at New Birth Baptist, a few miles away, and still not much is happening. There are some angry folks inside, and one congregant even wanders out to engage in some low-key theological parlay. His name´s Ted, and he wants Marge to know that, hell yes, God sure does hate fags, but this ain´t the way to go about preaching it.

Marge: ¨Your words are neither timely nor topical.¨

A few minutes later, an older gentleman in a gaudy blue hat comes tearing toward the church entrance in a pissed-off powerwalk, and the bouncers get in front of him. He´s yelling; they´re trying to calm him down: ¨Langford! Calm down! You just calm down!¨

Langford: Roar, roar, roar.

¨Langford! I am not playing with you! You just get on inside!¨

Marge, facing the road, mumbles to herself: ¨Might Langford be a fornicator?¨

She pauses, considering. She says it again, a little louder. Then, to me: ¨I wonder what filthy little sin Langford is sucking on.¨

She seems to make up her mind about something. Tilting her signs at angles to her head to project her voice over the assembled cops and congregants, she turns and yells: ¨Oh Laaaangford!Might you be an adulterer? That is the only very pertinent question right now, Langford.¨

This or something sparks laughter from behind the gate.

¨Guess that hit home,¨ she tells me. Then, cocking her head: ¨Or not. That laughter may have been totally unrelated.¨

I crack up at the seriousness with which she says this, but Marge is not laughing.

In a few moments, we will leave this place to stand across the street from St. Mary´s Catholic Cathedral, where Marge will reprimand several sets of parents for bringing their children to this place, where, she says, they may be raped. She will say: ¨Look at your hands! What you see is the rectal blood of all those raped altar boys! What you see is the blood of every soldier killed in Iraq!¨

The families will look on blandly, and eventually Marge will tell me: ¨It occurs to me right now that I may be facing an audience that does not understand English.¨ She will shrug. ¨Oh, well,¨ she´ll say, hoisting her signs a little higher, ¨they´ll still get the message, one way or the other.¨ Then Marge and her nieces will sing: ¨The pope! The pope! The pope is on fire! He don´t need no water! Let the pedophile burn!¨

It won´t have been an especially eventful morning. I will wonder if it´s even worth writing about. And I will decide that it is, in fact, worth writing about. Because in all of their activities -- in their protests, on their website, in Fred Phelps´ Sunday sermons -- what Westboro Baptist Church is really doing is posing a question: Who is a Christian?

Westboro´s dogma comes unsweetened from a very old book of Middle Eastern origin. It is the most widely owned book in the world and one of the least frequently read. The Westboro Baptists have read it, and they found a book filled with rage and smiting and violence; a book outlining an extraordinarily strict code of behavior, demanding swift and savage punishment for those who don´t comply. They found the book Jonathan Edwards wrote about in Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, the book of Cotton Mather and John Calvin. Which means the Westboro Baptist Church is not an aberration. It is a reminder of what real religion and real belief look like, divorced from the influence of secular culture.

The atavistic believers of Westboro are frustrated: Either take the mean old God of Abraham seriously or don´t, they say. You´re either for the kingdom of man or you´re for heaven, and if you´re for heaven, you´ve got some very heavy summer reading and a lot of tricky thinking ahead.

They want us to pick a side: The Book or the world. And it´s heartening to realize that, whether we know it or not, we already have.

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