March 12, 2011

Why the Supreme Court Got it Right About Westboro Baptist Church

It’s hard to describe the conflicting emotions I felt when I saw the headline: Justices Rule for Protesters at Military Funerals.1 If I’m honest, my first reaction was very human: disappointment. As a Christian, I’ve been dreadfully embarrassed by the religious sideshow that is Reverend Phelps. No matter how you parse the words of the Bible, it’s hard to conceive of Jesus – who wept at Lazarus’ tomb – picketing a funeral as a publicity stunt. He simply never cashed in on human misery. 
The day news hit, I happened to have a little time to reflect on the case leisurely and ask myself some hard questions. Why, exactly, did I feel disappointed? Did I want the Supreme Court to bring its iron fist down on the folks at Westboro Baptist Church (WBC)? If I’m perfectly honest, I’d have to say yes. It was hard to watch such hard-hearted vitriol get the green light from the highest court in the land. When I hear WBC protestors express themselves on the public airwaves, my brain reflexively screams: would you PLEASE shut up??? You’re making all of us look bad!
Almost anyone with a Christian background can recognize the not-so-subtle distortions in the Westboro Baptist Church’s version of the gospel. Their tone is unChristlike, their antics seem self-serving, and their caricature of God’s loving character is grotesque. As they try to publicly humiliate grieving families, waving the banner of Jesus, the more combative part of our nature wants them silenced. We’d love to stop cringing over the evening news, imagining our non-Christian friends and coworkers watching the same shameful theatrics and mentally filing us all together under “c” for “crazy.”  
2011 1506 page33It’s easy to convince ourselves that God Himself would be ecstatic if the Supreme Court silenced the WBC, because at long last the religious kooks have been kept from sullying His reputation. But Solomon says otherwise about God’s attitude:
Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles. Proverbs 24:17 NKJV
I honestly believe that a little soul-searching is in order at the Westboro Baptist Church. Somehow, they’ve missed the big picture when it comes to Jesus. They’d likely feel embarrassed if they could watch their protests through the eyes of angels. But how would my feelings about them stack up among heaven’s spectators?2   
It’s one thing to want God’s work to move forward, and for God’s real character to be revealed to the world. But when I catch myself hoping to watch WBC fall flat on its face, perhaps I need to do a little soul-searching, too. God pleads with lost sinners and sheds tears over them3, and my life is supposed to reflect His character. While I’m not pleased that the Reverend Phelps may feel emboldened to step up his efforts, I need to ask myself whether or not I would have gloated – even a little – if the decision had been different.
I need to have faith that God’s plan to vindicate His character will play out in the end. He doesn’t need to enlist the Supreme Court to do it for Him. In fact, that’s the point of the Great Controversy: God knows that the devil will ultimately be exposed, through his own misguided efforts, for the liar he is. I need to understand that God places higher priority on people arriving in the kingdom than He does on defending His character by silencing those who get it wrong. You can tell, because Jesus was so quiet in the judgment hall. He prioritized our salvation over a verbal or legal defense of His character, knowing, of course, that there would be no stronger case for His character than the path of Calvary.
As Seventh-day Adventists, we bring a  unique perspective to the inevitable debate over the Court’s decision. Christians at large will be divided over what happened. Some will rejoice that they have been given a more secure opportunity to publicly decry the sins of their neighbors. Others will cringe that wacky fringe groups have been emboldened.   But among Christians, Adventists should have the broadest understanding of why the Supreme Court’s decision was a good one.  
We shouldn’t overlook the fact that many of us want the WBC to go away because we feel it is not representative of genuine Christianity. It is a fringe group–an oddity. But the moment is coming when those who “keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus”4 will also be considered a fringe group, at odds with the broader aims of the last-day religious world. In the early days of the New Testament church, Jesus warned His disciples that “the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service.”5   The apostles were a fringe group, albeit the right one, and those who wanted them gone sincerely thought it was in God’s best interests to get rid of them.
The ongoing embarrassment of the WBC is the price we pay for the freedom to proclaim our distinctive last-day message. It’s a hedge against the erosion of our religious liberty, as distasteful as their public stunts might be. And the longer that hedge exists, the better we can accomplish our task as a church. 
The devil has mastered his art over thousands of years. He knows precisely which causes to adopt in order to cast God’s kingdom in the worst possible light. Those who have little appetite for their Creator, because they have a distorted picture of Him, will find further cause for ridicule and unbelief in the actions of misguided Christians. But he only wins if believers fall silent because we fear being tarred with the same brush. By stirring wrong attitudes among some Christians in an effort to embarrass God’s cause, Satan has (perhaps unwittingly) helped establish the legal boundaries that protect and enable it. 
Was the Court’s decision a good one? It was. And I don’t suppose the Justices fully appreciate what they have done in behalf of God’s work as they grudgingly give WBC the constitutional right to badger the public. When the books of heaven are made available to us, we may discover that God Himself overruled our human instincts in that courtroom. But be warned: the hedge is a temporary reprieve, and it will eventually come down. So “work the works of Him who sent [Jesus] while it is day; the night is coming when no one can work.”6
1 NYT: March 2, 2011

2 1 Corinthians 4:9
3 See Ezekiel 18:31, 32, for example.
4 Revelation 12:17
5John 16:2
6 John 9:4

Shawn Boonstra, former speaker/director of It Is Written, writes from Southern California.