Westboro Baptist Church

Students kiss in front of Westboro Baptist Church protestors at Oberlin College in Ohio. Credit: Creative Commons/Wikipedia

A few years ago toward the end of July when I was serving as Associate Professor in the School of Education at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, led by their “pastor,” Fred Phelps, mounted protest rallies in three sites in Iowa: Waukee’s Jewish Historical Society, the Iowa State University Campus in Ames, and at the Marshalltown Community Theater, which was performing the play “The Laramie Project” profiling the life and murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard.

Phelps (before his recent death) and his followers travel around the country protesting funerals of fallen soldiers (most of whom are apparently heterosexual). They claim that these deaths are God’s punishment against a country that tolerates homosexuality. Phelps is also notorious for his 1998 protest of the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a college student from the University of Wyoming in Laramie murdered in a brutal homophobic assault.

On their websites godhatesfags.com & jewskilledjesus.com, Phelps and company directed their Iowa protests against “…the Jews…[who] arrested, falsely accused, prosecuted and then sentenced [Jesus] to death…” and protested Iowa because “God hates Iowa” for being “the first to begin giving $ to little [homosexual] perverts for no other reason than they brag about being little perverts.”

I wrote an editorial critical of Phelps and his followers in our local newspaper. Apparently, Shirley Phelps-Roper, Phelps’s daughter, read my piece, and she wrote me an email message before arriving in our town:

 Hello Professor.

Glad to see we got your attention with our upcoming good fig hunt in Iowa. You approached the issue with a veil on your heart, blind eyes, a hard heart, stopped up ears, and full of guile – because that’s how you – and all the rest of the apostate, reprobate Jews – roll. God did that.  His righteous judgments are wonderful!

PS:  Shall we put you down as one of the naughty figs?  You are definitely not sounding or acting like a good fig. I’m just sayin’.

Shirley Phelps-Roper

And in her editorial, which she submitted to our local newspaper and the editor rejected, Phelps-Roper in part ranted:

 The reason Jews belong in the same category as homosexuals is because they’re both vile sinners before God — period.  See www.jewskilledjesus.com for the facts.  There is not a group of people more sodomy-enabling in this world than the apostate reprobate Jews.

 Note: Phelp-Roper defined “Good Fig” in her editorial as the estimated “144,000 righteous Jews left, to be called and sanctified. They will mourn him whom they pierced, repent and obey.”

Issues of common decency and respect for human dignity suffered a serious setback on March 26, 2010 when the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that Albert Synder of York, Pennsylvania was unjustified in suing Fred Phelps and his followers for picketing the 2006 funeral of Synder’s son, 20-year-old Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Synder, who was killed in a vehicle rollover accident in Iraq. The court also ordered Synder to cover Phelps’s court costs in the amount of $16,510.

Before this ruling, Synder successfully won a lawsuit against Phelps. At the lower court trial, the jury awarded Synder $11 million, which the court later reduced to $5 million.

Synder has appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which has agreed to consider whether the protestors’ actions are within the scope of protected speech covered by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, or are circumscribed by issues of privacy and religious rights of the mourners.

Phelps and company, on their website and in their actions, in their own distorted way, continued the centuries-old linkage of the many clear and stunning connections between historical stereotypical representations and oppression against Jewish people and lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and trans* people (LGBTs). In my research, I have discovered that throughout history, many dominant groups have depicted or represented minority groups in a variety of negative ways in order to maintain control or mastery. I divided these historical interconnections into five primary categories:

1. Religious Condemnations: Throughout the ages, people have cited certain biblical passages to justify persecution and denial of legal protections of LGBT people and Jews, even though there is great disagreement among religious scholars over the interpretations of these passages.

2. Immature Developmental Stage: Jews and LGBT people have been represented as constituting an immature developmental stage: Judaism as an intermediate or immature religious stage on the way to Christianity — the advanced, mature faith — and the Hebrew Bible as only a prelude to the eventual coming as Jesus. And homosexuality and homosexuals as constituting immature human/sexuality development.

3. Immutable Biological Types: By the late nineteenth century, both Judaism and homosexuality had come to be viewed by the “scientific” community as distinct “racial types,” with immutable biological characteristics—a trend that increased markedly into the twentieth century of the Common Era.

4. Abuse and Recruitment of Children:  A crucial point in the psychology of scapegoating is the representation of minorities as subhuman forms that “recruit,” molest, and kill children of the majority, and accordingly, both Jews and LGBT people have long been accused of being dangerous predators of children.

5. Domination and Destruction of “Civilized” Society: While the dominant society has frequently been concerned that Jews and people attracted to others of their sex can “pass” without detection into the mainstream, they have also historically portrayed these groups as rich and powerful conspirators whose aim is to control, manipulate, and eventually destroy societies.

Beliefs are one’s rights to hold. However, the expression of those beliefs onto an individual or group of individuals I argue constitutes a form of oppression, especially when intended to deny anyone or any group their human and civil rights. By so doing, they are exerting power and control by attempting to define the “other,” with the intent of depriving people of their agency and subjectivity. They are attempting to control people’s bodies and their minds.

With religious rights come responsibilities, and with actions come reactions. Whenever clergy pronounce and preach their conservative dogma against any one group, they must take responsibility for the bullying, harassment, violence and suicides of those against whom they preach.

I am again struck by the ways in which the numerous forms of oppression — including racism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, classism, ableism, ageism, ethnic and religious oppression, and all the other forms — while oppressing members of minority groups, on many levels also hurt members of dominant groups. Although the effects of oppression differ quantitatively for specific minority groups and dominant groups, and though it cannot be denied that oppression serves the vested interests of some, in the final analysis, most people lose.

The meaning, therefore, is quite clear. When any group of people is stereotyped and scapegoated, it is ultimately everyone’s concern. We all, therefore, have a self interest in actively working to dismantle all the many forms of oppression.

Therefore, we have a right, no, an obligation to counter this destructive and, yes, oppressive discourse with all the voices, the energy, the unity, the intelligence, and all the love of which we are capable. And people throughout the country have been consistently speaking out and standing up to the Westboro Baptist Church.

At Matthew Shepard’s funeral service, his good family and friends, outfitted in angel costumes, joined side-by-side in a line and lifted their outstretched wings separating and blocking the view of protesters from mourners. And at Iowa State University, students organized a counter demonstration to thwart the hatred and the oppression.

In countering Westboro, people are practicing the Jewish tradition of Tikkun Olam — transforming, healing, and repairing the world so that it becomes a more just, peaceful, nurturing, and perfect place.

 

 


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