Woe Unto Basingstoke

I have to say I'm thrilled to learn - via the Telegraph - that hate-fuelled fundamentalists from the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas are on their way to Britain. If a statement on their website is to be believed, Friday evening will find a delegation from the church standing outside Queen Mary's College in Basingstoke, where performers "plan to further enrage the Living God by putting on the farce known commonly as The Laramie Project."

"We will picket them, and see if they actually believe those lies they tell about how tolerant and accepting Brits are."

For too long we in our grey, conformist, PC-ravaged island have been spared the full-bodied confrontationalism of that renowned ecclesiastical body. British Christians are so mealy-mouthed. We have Christian Voice, it is true, which is currently campaigning against Kent Police's sponsorship of a school essay competition connected with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Month. The other day Stephen Green thundered,

I have no respect for police officers who wish to corrupt young children by insinuating into them the idea that there is nothing wrong with homosexuality. I spent part of this morning mucking out a cattle yard. It brought home to me that a man who indulges in sodomy cannot be paddling with both oars in the water.

But all his lot ever do about the such outrages is stand around singing hymns. The concision and expressive force of the Westboros' seminal slogan "God Hate Fags" is sadly absent from Green's windy imprecations.

The Westies (in case you didn't know) are the followers and - mostly - the descendants of the Rev Fred Phelps, although nowdays their effective leader is his daughter Shirley. Their doctrines boil down to the belief that everyone apart from themselves will go to hell, although they have a particular obsession with homosexuality. They are most famous for picketing the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, but they'll turn up to any event they can portray as revealing the depths of depravity to which the United States has sunk.

Until now we in Britain have had to make do with TV documentaries by the likes of Louis Theroux and Keith Allen. So the prospect of seeing their legendary placards is alluring, almost. But it's rather mysterious why, of all the British debauchery and homosexualism they might wish to protest about, the Westies should choose to picket an obscure sixth form college in, of all places, Basingstoke. They must be among the first people in history ever to go there voluntarily.

And they have a coruscating message for us:

Just because you rage against God and make laws that say you cannot use "hate speech" (a/k/a - you may not speak of the Bible standards) in the UK does NOT mean you will not get the message that God Almighty intends for you to get. God Hates England; Your Queen Is A Whore; You Hate God; God Hates You; You're Going to Hell; Matt Is In Hell; Hell Is Real Ask Matt; God Hates Fags (Buggers); Obey God, etc. Some of the best Bible preaching in the history of the world came out of that dark dismal land, but now it is full of all abominations! God will shortly destroy the UK and the world, but not until they have gotten the plain, clear message so that they will be WITHOUT EXCUSE!

The Laramie Project, put on in Hampshire by a gay theatre group, tells the story of Matt Shepard, a gay teenager tortured and murdered in small town America in 1998. The Westies have been picketing the play wherever it has shown in the States, reassuring theatre-goers that its hero is burning in Hell. So the Basingstoke campaign is in one sense merely an extension of that. But it also seems to mark the beginning of a new push to alert the whole world to its doomed, "fag-enabling" sinfulness. They are also visiting Melbourne, where they plan to inform Australians that God caused the recent bush fires that claimed so many lives.

The election of Barack Obama, who they are convinced is the Antichrist, has convinced them of the imminence of the End Times. Next month they will be protesting outside Chicago Law School:

They let that fraudulent freak teach "Constitutional Law" in that place. They let him hone his oratory skills (little tricks of the trade like he keeps shifting from one foot to another and swiveling his head and darting his eyes back and forth so everyone in the room believes he is speaking directly to them - so very clever, don't you know?)! SHAME ON THIS PLACE! God has sent them a strong delusion and caused them to trust in lies and LIARS!

Britain is also ripe for their missionary activities, being notoriously irreligious and sinful - the best efforts of Stephen Green notwithstanding. Check out our UK page at www.godhatestheworld.com, they suggest. So I did. The entry for the UK singles out our "filthy manner of life", illustrated by a picture which appears to show Prince Charles fondling the breasts of a female army cadet. According to the write-up, there are "more annual fag-sponsored events in the U.K. than there are in Doomed America". And it helpfully lists some of them, including "Bear Pride" (you mean that isn't for children who love their teddies, or even politically-aware ursines?) and EuroPride in Stockholm, the mention of which raises doubts about the Westies' sense of geography. "There is also a highly-coveted annual “Pink List” which lists the top 100 fags in the United Kingdom." (So there is; it's compiled by the Independent. The Labour-loving, intimately-pierced Today presenter Evan Davis was at number 1 last year - I imagine next time it will be Mandy).

The United Kingdom is fully given over to fags, and proud of it – they are grevious sinners before their God like ancient Sodom, and they shall receive the same firey end. They roundly declare that what God says is an abomination is in fact an innocent lifestyle to be aspired to and rewarded.

Peter Hitchens himself couldn't have put it better.

In the States, the Westies are widely loathed but tolerated: it is in the robust American tradition of free speech. They even managed to get away last year with publicly burning the Koran. Our own tradition of free speech is rather less robust these days. In 2001 the elderly street preacher Harry Hammond was arrested and fined for holding a placard which read "Stop immorality! Stop homosexuality! Stop lesbianism!" - mild stuff compared with the kind of slogans the Westboro Baptists like to hold.

And now, of course, under the Geert Wilders principle no-one with vaguely controversial views must ever be allowed into this country, ever, just in case they say something and someone listening is unable to contain their offence. Apparently the local Conservative MP Maria Miller has contacted the Home Secretary to "see what action the Government may be considering in relation to possible attempts by the Phelps family to enter the country". She condemned the church's "highly inflammatory language and behaviour" and said the young people who had worked on the play would not be intimidated by threats.

"The most important thing is that a production that is trying to promote tolerance goes ahead and that's what I'm focusing on achieving," she said primly.

Well sod that. What's she expecting, a riot? We're a poor excuse for a country if we can't handle a few deluded nutjobs standing outside a theatre with placards. Ben Summerskill of Stonewall has more sense when he says that banning the Westies would merely give them more undeserved publicity. They've already sent Miller an open letter demanding

a written guarantee of safe passage for all our missionary members... who are prepared to journey, at our own expense, to preach the gospel in the UK. We have a commission from the Lord Jesus Christ... We trust that you are not prepared to counteract the Lord Jesus Christ.

Indeed not. Let them come. Let them be laughed at. Let them depart. Why should Americans have all the fun?



valdemar said…
Oh, I do hope you're right. People need to be exposed to the broad range of Christian thinking, not just the woolly Kumbaya stuff.

Father Weep, how come the Westboro Baptists read the same Bible as you (unless there's a special Triple XXX version for fundies) but seem to find in it only hate, not the beauty you clearly think is there?
Anonymous said…
Stephen Green 'thundered' did he? You probably meant to write'whined'.
Heresiarch said…
To be fair, Valdemar, the Westies are pretty far out even by Bible Belt standards - Daddy Phelps thinks even Billy Graham will go to hell. But to some extent they say what others think. Jerry Falwell, who was the most influential fundamentalist of all for several decades, blamed the 9/11 attacks on "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle", all of whom "make God mad".
Edwin Moore said…

“Both read the Bible day and night,
But thou read’st black where I read white.”

God what an unsavoury lot - but westies are of course badtempered wee ankle biters!
Unknown said…
I rather wish they would stop protesting at funerals - it's such bad manners and rather uncouth. Otherwise, I will be delighted to see them. There's nothing like your out and out, loony, fundamentalist to open people's eyes (and put a smile on the face). Old "birdshit" Green doesn't cut the mustard when compared to this lot.

Falwell was a different kind of animal - a repulsive, evil, rip-off merchant. I doubt very much that he believed what he preached but he knew where your wallet was.
Olive said…
a written guarantee of safe passage for all our missionary members..

Why do they need a guarantee from Maria Miller if they have the protection of Jesus? Sounds like their faith in God Jr is a bit lacking.

I for one welcome the mad little bastards. Got to be the most interesting thing to happen in Basingstoke this century.
WeepingCross said…
Where do I start? They manage to find a God whose fundamental characteristic is hate:

a. Because they've been badly brought up.
b. Because they want to hate people.
c. Because they've been separated from the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church too far for too long.
d. Because private judgement on the Scriptures means you end up recreating God in your image rather than being remade in his.

And so on.

The Bible is ambiguous in all sorts of ways, but not so ambiguous that you can just dispose of 'God so loved the world', 'God is love' stuff in the specious and dishonest way they do. They don't make me laugh. In fact, I can barely express how upset I am about them, because they say that someone I love and to whom I have given my life is in fact a hate-filled, vicious sadist - and they claim to know him better than me.

Still, thanks to this post and my reflections on the Westies I now have a far better sense of the way the word 'kosmos' is used in the New Testament, and exactly why Paul employs the imagery of Jacob and Esau in the ninth chapter of the Letter to the Romans. It's some relief to find that they don't know what they're talking about.
Unknown said…
Hi there!
I am writing a series of posts on God concepts and I was wondering if anybody is interested in playing the devils advocate – since all the comments I get are one sided and it just doesn’t make for a good debate. So if you are an intelligent individual that can respect different opinions and would like to pitch in a thought or two stop by :)
Thank you!
Anonymous said…
Labour's LGBT group is also asking for the Westies to be banned.
Olive said…
They manage to find a God whose fundamental characteristic is hate

I assume you're familiar with the Bible, Mr Cross? Even you must admit god spends a fair amount of the book being very grumpy.
WeepingCross said…
I just wrote a brilliant exposition and the computer froze, so this will be crap. I put it down to demons, meself. I write not to outrage the secular sensibilities of Heretics, but for myself as much as anything else.

Olive, there are two problems in what you say, the words 'book' and 'grumpy'. The Bible isn't a book, it's a miscellaneous collection of writings spread over at least ten centuries: its revelation of God is progressive, and the Israelites gradually learn more about him. He introduces them to the concepts of holiness, sin, justice, sacrifice, and love, which is how he ends up coming across as so bad-tempered, because they're discovering what he does and doesn't like. Finally he turns up personally in Jesus whose words and actions contextualise and interpret the whole story up to that point. The trouble with fundies is that, ironically, by emphasising the literality of the text they miss what it's actually about, and what it's about is Jesus Christ (if they called themselves 'Biblians' rather than 'Christians' we might all be happier).

God certainly hates things. But when Jesus is challenged to discriminate between different sets of sinners, he refuses. He states 'no one is good but God'. He declines to draw causal lines between particular sinful acts or people and particular events. He calls special attention to the sinfulness of pride and self-regard. And when Jesus's followers decribe God, they insist explicitly and without reservation that 'God is love'. If there is 'good news', part of it is that Jesus is what God is like, and that he is not an arbitrary tyrant, like the pagan gods (could be).

If God's essential nature can be described as love, then things are sinful not because he has arbitrarily taken against them but because they breach, perhaps in ways we find difficult to perceive, the universal law of love. God's feelings are not those of a distant ruler whose dignity is slighted by disobedience, but of a passionate parent who is wounded by sin because he can see it hurting the children he loves. If he didn't love them, wrath would make no sense. The word gives us a start, but it's more accurate than 'grumpy'!

I only go on about this because the misconceptions run so deep and because the fundies' presentation of Christianity is such a violent degradation of the Scriptures they claim to respect though, as you say, not one which has no sense in it at all. I think one interesting reflection is that their worldview would make a great deal of sense at most stages in human history, and yet the Biblical texts consistently undermine it.

But yes, let them in and let them shout. They've sharpened up my thinking, anyway: I had to go back and do a good deal of checking to make sure that brutal ultra-Calvinism is indeed the bollocks I thought it was. Perhaps I should write and say thank you. :)

(Yes, they do tend to like clergy to be tolerably familiar with the Bible, even in the Church of England).
Edwin Moore said…
Well argued WeepingCross. I get a bit lost on the wilder shores of Calvinism, but there's a whiff of Hogg's Justified Sinner (or some kind of antiomianism) about these guys - they are certainly far removed from the Christians I know, whether prod or pape!
Heresiarch said…
A problem I have with your theory of progressive revelation, Father W, is that it presupposes and extraordinary stupidity and moral perversity on the part of the ancient Israelites: that in order to be taught that they should love their neighbour, they first had to take on board the vital news about the sinfulness of shellfish. The procedure, which you must imagine to have been decided by an intelligent, wise God, is Darwinian in its wastefulness and amorality. And the result is - what? - that a Christian church is established which may have a perfectly adequate message but which has shown itself over the centuries incapable of getting even Christians to follow it. Even the Church of England owned slave plantations. You could argue - I would argue - that Christians only really started behaving like "Christians" after the Enlightenment had come along and showed them the secular, humanistic truths of universal morality.

But to return to your "progressive revelation" point: He introduces them to the concepts of holiness, sin, justice, sacrifice, and love, which is how he ends up coming across as so bad-tempered, because they're discovering what he does and doesn't like.

Likes: cows without blemish, the sweet smell of burning offal. Doesn't like: mixed fibres, homosexuality, prawns.

Seriously: is there any rational explanation for why the Jews had to go through all this to learn about divine love?

The Buddha didn't need eleven centuries to enunciate the truths of Buddhism - which are just as profound as the truths of Christianity. Much developed after his death, of course, but the basic idea was there all along. No need for "progressive revelation" there. Why is that? Is it because generations of Israelites were thick?
WeepingCross said…
Well. As for universal humanism, it's not so much God you have to argue with as the Marquis de Sade. But leave that to one side.

Buddhism starts from a different place. It says, 'The world is miserable' and asks 'How do we escape?'. The solution is a set of philosophical propositions and psychological techniques for lessening the pain of things, which includes not causing any pain. This is all well and good, but it's so remote from the trajectory of Judaism or Christianity as to have no bearing on the matter.

I don't know why God didn't simply turn up right at the beginning and tell everyone what to do, any more than why creation is evolutionary and progressive, as the account in Genesis very clearly states. The likelihood is that nobody would have listened, as nobody listened (or understood) when Jesus had a go. But you are right, the Israelites were indeed working this out for themselves. In fact, the Old Testament doesn't give us the progressive self-revelation of YWHW, it gives us their reflection on that self-revelation, often at the remove of some centuries. They start off with what are probably in origin just practical regulations for a bunch of desert nomads and, that stage passed, discover that all that stuff about shellfish and mildew embodies something more important, and that the storm god who their ancestors brought from Aramea is a bit more. And from a Christian point of view, the process culminates in Jesus, so it's seen in the context of him. Whatever we may think he may have been, his life and teaching wasn't just a reiteration of the accumulated wisdom of the ancient world, or 'saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change'. He, or at least the people who wrote down his story, claimed that the cosmos functions by completely counterintuitive rules: that victory is found through defeat, strength through weakness, selfhood through surrender, that the centre of everything is sacrificial love. All the blood and offal-burning is a dim reflection of that and a preparation for it. Did anyone else come up with ideas that crazy and yet that resonant? Knowing better than God, one might have thought it wouldn't be necessary; but the continued utter stangeness of the ideas suggests otherwise.

So it isn't the answer to a question, just an assertion: that the world is beautiful, and human beings its pinnacle, capable of tremendous grandeur; we may not look it, but reflected in the eyes of Jesus Christ that's what we become. Do you see the difference?

This is supposed to be my bloody day off. If you'll go and do something else, so will I.
Heresiarch said…
Always a pleasure to spoil your day off, Father W.

My comparison with the Buddha was relevant, I think, because he, too, came from a culture which had a long-established and rather legalistic religious tradition. The Vedic religion which he inherited was in some ways equivalent to the pre-exilic Judaism that was roughly contemporaneous. But the Buddha didn't say, "I come to fulfil the Vedas", nor do Buddhists find in necessary to contextualise the Buddhist message in that way, or indeed to read the Vedas themselves. Buddha's ideas were Buddha's ideas - he must have drawn on what went before, but that hardly matters, because what he said has universal applicability. (And is "the world is miserable" quite so different a starting point as "the world is fallen"?)

Now there are clearly many passages in the Old Testament that are of eternal relevance, mostly to be found in the Prophets; but others that testify to a tribal viciousness that have nothing whatever to say to us. When God orders Saul to smite the Amalekites, for example, and then gets very upset when Saul doesn't smite them with sufficient thoroughness or enthusiasm, what is a Christian committed to some form of respect for divine Scripture supposed to think? Or a Jew for that matter. That there's some deep moral lesson somewhere in that horrid story? When God said "Smite the Amalekites" he really meant "make the Amalekites a nice cup of tea" and Samuel mis-heard? Surely God had nothing to do with it, and was being used to justify genocide. But that's a very sophisticated interpretation, directly contrary to the plain meaning of the text, which states that God wanted the Amalekites to be exterminated. Nor does the book of Samuel represent the Israelites reflecting on divine self-revelation: it represents the Israelites glorying in the destruction of their tribal enemies.

Whatever we may think he may have been, his life and teaching wasn't just a reiteration of the accumulated wisdom of the ancient world, or 'saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change'.

That's true of any great teacher or moral exemplar, surely: true of Socrates, true of Buddha. There are, as I'm sure you know, older rabbinic sayings which do something to take away Christ's claims to absolute originality, but I take the point. Jesus, as presented in the Gospels, is a revolutionary, subversive figure. "All the blood and offal-burning" is of no more relevance to his message than the blood and offal burning of the Greeks would have been, frankly. Have you read Euripides' Bacchae? There's more prefiguring of Christianity in that one play than in the whole of the Torah, I would argue.
Olive said…
@Weeping Cross, an erudite response, unworthy of the facetious comment that precipitated it. A queston for you:

The Bible isn't a book, it's a miscellaneous collection of writings spread over at least ten centuries

Leaving aside the wisdom of using a 1000 year old collection of folk tales and fairy stories as an instruction manual for life, do you think that the bible could do with being revised?

Down the centuries texts must have been added and removed, sections edited for clarity etc, a process that ended (I assume) with the King James version.
Elephant said…
Stephen Green: "I spent part of this morning mucking out a cattle yard. It brought home to me that a man who indulges in sodomy cannot be paddling with both oars in the water."

This was the best laugh I had today. What, in the name of all on Zeus' green earth, is he talking about?
WeepingCross said…
Heresiarch, I see your point, and can't answer it. As I conceded, I don't know why God should have chosen this process of developing relationship rather than simply laying it all out in one go. The same goes for the business with the Amalekites, which I've always struggled to find some relation to: though General Gordon always used to call the sins he 'offered up' when he took Communion as his 'Agags'. Yes, those narratives belong to some of the earliest strata of the O.T. I accept them as part of the story, but have no clear idea of how they fit. Luckily that hasn't come up in the Lectionary when I've been down to preach ... The Westies' vision of God as a vicious shit does appear more consistent in some superficial respects, but I contend it causes huge problems in others.

My point about the Buddha was that his ideas were a philosophical response to a philosophical question, which is why they have such appeal for modern secular-minded people. The appeal of the Judaeo-Christian account for individuals may well begin in a sense of fallenness or dissatisfaction with things, but it's more a history than a philosophy; people find the answer located in the story. That's much more difficult for secular people to get a handle on, because it's not essentially a set of propositions that you can examine and debate.

No, the blood has some relevance to Jesus. His comparison of himself with the Lamb of the Passover, all the imagery of the Eucharist, depends on it.

I have the Bacchae somewhere, but my reading scheme hasn't got that far. Instead I offer you Old Thrashbarg the prophet from 'Mostly Harmless':

'This was exactly the sort of thing that Old Thrashbarg didn't like happening. He hadn't foretold it, not even slightly, and although he would be able to wrestle the whole thing into his continuing story somehow or other, it really was all getting a bit much to deal with.'

Olive: I remember us talking about this at college, and we decided, yes, the Bible could be changed if there was ever again a General Council of the Church, given that the councils of the early centuries decided what was in it (but given the divided state of the Church there can't be a Council everyone accepts, which gets us off the hook). I've changed my mind. If Jesus was God incarnate, then the revelation of who God is is complete: and the scriptures as the witness statement to him are complete. Perhaps we don't understand it all yet, but there's nothing left to say.

Popular Posts