Wednesday, April 23, 2008

From the Archives: Hate Theater

Back in 2006, my friend Phil Wiese and I were working together on a photojournalism project, in which we were instructed to take pictures of an outsider group. We ended up choosing, as our subject, the Westboro Baptist Church, an anti-...well, pretty much anti-everything hate group. This is an edited account of the trip, written on the way back to Evanston.

Phil and I cut through Chicago and smoggy Gary, Indiana to end up in Ann Arbor. A local theater group had decided to put on a production of The Laramie Project, which dramatizes the murder of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man. The Laramie Project has advanced beyond the realm of mere storytelling and become one of those things that sends people into a frenzy.

Fred Phelps is a preacher and lawyer, formerly a practicing attorney in civil rights cases around the middle of the century. He’s a wiry man with big teeth, a former Golden Gloves boxer fond of wearing a humongous cowboy hat. His flock is the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. Counts vary as to their numbers, but a young man I talked to from the church says there are at least seventy. Most of them are related to Phelps. He has 13 children and 54 grandchildren. Eleven of his children are lawyers. Four no longer speak to him.

“What is happening now, is that this country is in the midst of a Jonah situation,” said Sam Phelps-Roper, 27, one of Phelps’ grandchildren, who quite clearly still speaks to the old man. It’s early evening and the Mendelsohn Theater is host to two productions tonight. Sam is in front of the theater with ten other members of the church. Two are children. Fred's not here tonight, but he doesn't need to be. They have their own area on the sidewalk, surrounded by yellow police tape. About five hundred Ann Arborites, University of Michigan students, and others have essentially surrounded the church members. Those closest to the church are yelling, and the church members have responded in kind. Sam has taken some time out to talk to me about the purpose of his group.

He carries a sign that says “God Hates Fags”. It’s neon green with a little bit of orange. The other side says “Thank God For AIDS”. Are they, I had asked, attempting to save souls, or merely warning them of their damnation?

“Do you know who Jonah is?” Sam asks me. I do, at least to some extent. Swallowed by a whale, right? Converted to Christianity afterwards?

Sam looks at me like I insulted his mother. Lack of scriptural knowledge is a big no-no amongst Phelps’ flock. “He didn’t convert to Christianity. He already was a Christian. Afterwards, he preached to the city of Nineveh that God was displeased with them. They repented and were saved, but he did not tell them to repent.”

So you’re trying to tell them they’re going to hell?

“Everyone here who does not accept the word of God will go to hell. He is not a forgiving God. The spiritual man judges everything.”

The Westboro Baptist Church, in one form or another, attends approximately 2500 of these protests per year. Their message is simple; America is a godless nation and is therefore condemned to be cast into hell.

Their main complaint with America is its tolerance of homosexuality; as one sign puts it, God not only hates Fags but also Fag Enablers, who are equally condemned. God hates those who do not follow his scripture to the letter. Women who cut their hair are condemned. Those who drink and party are condemned. I would imagine those who eat shellfish are also condemned, as Leviticus puts it, but I didn’t see any “God Hates Cephalopods” signs.

Recent events give the church all the proof it needs of God's wrath. Hurricane Katrina was sent to punish Godless New Orleans. 9/11 was sent to punish Godless New York. Even roadside bombs in Iraq are evidence of condemnation; how else, Sam asks, could a soldier from the most powerful army in the world be killed by a simple explosive? “Thank God for IEDs” is a more recent, popular sign, and the church uses it when they demonstrate at the funerals of U.S. servicemen killed in Iraq.

Not ten feet away from us, Charles Hockenbarger is arguing with Lee Chrisman. Hockenbarger is a bull-faced man with earmuffs and the sign informing Fag Enablers that they will etc. etc. Chrisman is a freshman, majoring in acting. Their conversation is set on a loop.

“You can’t even quote for me the correct verse! You don’t know anything about the Bible,” Hockenbarger yells. His voice is very strong and can be heard easily in a crowd. “How can you argue with me, you moron? You hate God. You hate him.”

Chrisman is a Roman Catholic, a group for which the church saves special disdain. “I don’t hate God! I love God, and I love you too! You have to realize what you’re doing is wrong! God does not hate! God loves everybody.”

Again, says Hockenbarger, Chrisman is ignorant of scripture. “Haven’t you ever read Psalm 5:5?” he screams. “It says that God hates Esau! God does not love everybody. And how can you say you love me when everybody here has been threatening us? Why do we need these cops here?”

In internet-speak, a troll is someone who posts on a message board with the specific purpose of riling up its inhabitants. Skilled trolls will take an outlandish position, present it as nonchalant fact, and watch as the board blows up in aggrieved response. The Westboro Baptist Church is both the best and worst kind of real-life troll. Their positions are outlandish, but sincerely believed. They have message discipline; no one strays off the basic God Hates X theme. They are deliberately provocative, as children as young as eight stand, bundled against the cold, holding these signs.

They've set it up so they're in a no-lose situation. You can't argue with them as the Bible disproves you. You can't judge them as your sin is infinitely worse. You can't even join them. That's what makes the group unique among fundamentalists--no converts are necessary or wanted. The church just wants to taunt. To provoke. To infuriate

Their law degrees come in handy whenever they provoke a bit too much. A middle-aged woman records the proceedings on a handheld DiviCam, focusing on any particularly intense arguments. If a fight breaks out, they will use the footage as evidence in a court of law. Likely they’ll win; they never start physical confrontations, but they know how to profit from them.

This nearly comes to a head as the church members pack up their signs and leave. Phil and I had been allowed complete access behind the yellow line up until this point. The police officers asked us and anyone else not carrying a sign to back up, so we did, despite protests. Hockenbarger and Phelps-Roper called everyone together into a tight clump, where they deposited their signs into a small green bag. As they begin to leave, a few young guys wearing Michigan sweatshirts begin to run toward them. The crowd starts to cheer, although the perceptive ones realize that this is exactly what the church members want, and yell at the others to stop. They do, but only because the cops have formed a protective wall in front of the church members.

Everyone disperses. The play outside is over, and the one inside is just beginning. There is nothing here for anyone. The church hasn't convinced anyone, but they never wanted to. The protesters didn't prevent the church from coming, but they never wanted to either. Our pictures will later reveal that, aside from a few heated arguments, most people in the throng surrounding the church members were smiling, or ignoring them.

A good time was had by all.

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