Twice in my life I’ve been connected to people in various ways whose funerals were picketed by the people from Westboro Baptist Church. The first was Oral Roberts, the founder of my alma mater, and the second was Garrett Coble, a former professor at ORU who died in the plane crash last weekend that took his life and the lives of two other men I knew as classmates.
I don’t pretend to understand the logic of these people, who claimed that the plane was brought down by God as punishment. For one reason or another, they apparently believe that what they’re doing is important work. While most people look on them as unimaginably hate-filled and bigoted, some sort of twisted perception of the truth has somehow led them to believe that they are about the Father’s business, and, in light of that, I have a challenging word for everyone. Don’t worry if it’s hard to accept; it is for me too.
It’s easy to hate people who picket funerals of loved ones with signs that read “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” While their crimes are very different, it’s easy in much the same way that it’s easy to hate Joseph Kony or Ratko Mladic. They’re so unabashedly unrepentant in their wrongdoing that it makes sense, in fact, to hate them. It’s easy to hate Westboro in the same way that it’s easy to hate people who club baby seals, who set newborn puppies on fire for sport, or who let their children go hungry while squandering their money on drugs and booze. It’s easy because all strike us so viscerally in our souls and stomachs as wrong and because, really (really, really), they should know better.
Hate comes to human beings quite easily. It can be fed by and directed toward virtually anything and hatred that is both motivated and sanctioned by religion is among the most powerful of all. Its power is derived from the people who hate believing that their hate is not only justified, but mandated by some higher being. Islamic fascists hate the United States because it’s the incarnation of Satan upon the Earth. Anders Bering Breivick gunned down 77 young teens in Norway because he hates Muslims and multiculturalism. Violent clashes between Hindus and Muslims in India are common and countless people died in the religious clashes between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland that only ended in the past two decades.
Hate gets passed on from generation to generation like some sort of sick family heirloom. Hate knows no strangers and plays no favorites. Hate bombs abortion clinics with the same gunpowder that bombs terrorists. Bullets shot in hate pierce the flesh of black people, white people, Hispanic people, and essentially all people with the same deadly precision. Hate motivates more hate and counter-hate and counter-counter-hate in a runaway cycle that seems both endless and unstoppable.
Hate hides behind lots of different labels, like white supremacist, Islamic fundamentalist, anti-Semite, culture warrior, and so on. Hate is cancerous. Hate eats at the heart. Hate darkens the mind. And, most importantly, hate grieves the Father. What’s more, hate requires little effort. It is, in a word, easy.
At my hooding ceremony when I was graduating from ORU a couple of weeks ago, one of my favorite and most respected professors delivered the faculty response. In it, she challenged the graduating seniors to do more about injustice than to just get mad about it. We could “curse the darkness,” she said, or we could “light a candle.” Hating those who hate is perfectly logical, more than justified, and quite understandable. It makes sense. But, then again, hate is hate and there’s no escaping that fact. It is cursing the darkness in a very real sense.
As I recall, hate is not among that trifecta of beautiful virtues that will withstand the end of the age. “Three things will last forever,” said Paul. “Faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.” I think we all know what the Bible says about loving those who wrong us, caring for those who revile us, and praying for our enemies so I won’t get into that any further. I’m particularly leery of assuming a preaching tone since to do so would be hypocritical; hate has penetrated my own heart at various times and for various reasons. Indeed, I too have slept in the devil’s bed.
Hate is all around us. It occupies the airwaves, fills the opinion pages, and screams from the headlines. It creeps into our homes and churches, perverts our holy message, and makes us bedfellows with our enemies. The real question, I think, is what are we going to do about it? Curse the darkness? Or, light a candle? Make no mistake, in every way that hate is easy, love is, by contrast, extraordinarily difficult. In fact, it’s impossible for human beings to do on our own. And, bear in mind, we aren’t lighting a candle in a still and dusty attic; no, we’re doing it outside in a thunderstorm with gale force winds. Just a note in case you’ve never tried that, it’s hard to do.
Speaking about Westboro, I did hate hate them and the inclination to do so remains as strong as ever. But, that hate has mostly been replaced by pity, which, as I’m realizing, is impossible to feel without love. I pity them because they’ve believed a grotesque version of the truth for so long that they’re probably largely incapable of believing anything else. They likely have much in common with the Dwarves Who Refused to be Taken In from the final chapters of the last book in C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, whose “prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.” As Christ said in his Sermon on the Mount, “if the light you think you have is actually darkness, how deep that darkness is!”
If history is any indicator, hate begets hate in a vicious cycle that continues day in and day out. The only hope for change comes when someone introduces a new variable into the equation. To hate is to stand spear in hand; to love is to be vulnerable. For the most part, the earliest believers didn’t take up swords to defend themselves when Roman legionnaires came to carry them off to the arenas to be crucified or fed to lions. Many of the ones we remember as Saints went into the stadiums holding their heads high and making the sign of the cross as big as they could so all the spectators would know why they were there. That dedication to the truth is part of the reason why Christianity took hold.
As natural as hate feels to us, Christ’s call is to do something more. It isn’t easy, but my guess is that it’s probably worth it.