Sunday, 10 February 2013

Escape from Westboro

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The Westboro Baptist Church is known all around the world for its hateful messages, and almost as well-known for the humanity that is revealed when entire towns (or outlaw motorcycle clubs or even the KKK) turn out against them. Failing dismally in spreading their perversion of Gospel, the WBC now appears to be collapsing from within.

Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper have escaped from the Westboro Baptist Church. This is a very good thing.

Of course, they probably didn’t have to escape in the physical sense. It’s unlikely that anyone chewed through ropes or scaled a wall. But I suspect that their escape was no less harrowing, for the Westboro Baptist Church is a cult. It may not necessarily look like it from the outside, but I have little doubt that it is.

One of the things that most cults have in common is the way that members are coerced to break ties with non-members, in particular families.  This is unsurprising, as families are often the people that are most likely to try and draw a person away from a destructive force like a cult. As the saying testifies, blood really is thicker than water.

The Westboro Baptist Church never had to worry much about family pressure, as many of the adherents are family members. In fact, the vast majority of the 40-odd members are in some way related to Fred Phelps, the overbearing head of the church.

For a group of only 40 or so people, the Westboro Baptists have for years attracted incomprehensibly heavy media attention. There can be little doubt that this the precise intention of their protests – not only targeting the funerals of homosexuals and soldiers (for whom they bear a semi-coherent animosity) but just about any high profile death.

That is to be expected. People love someone to hate, presumably because seeing awful people makes viewers and readers feel better about their own failings. The church actively broadcasts in advance their intention to protest at high-profile funerals, the media swings into action, massive counter-protests are organised, the church’s protest is “thwarted”, the media reports the triumph of mankind over evil, and everyone has a good feel.

Of course, the media attention means that the dozen or so people on the side of the road have had their protest smeared all over the world’s media, increasing their reach by many orders of magnitude, but that seems to escape everyone’s attention.

As well as news networks looking for an easy story, multiple documentary makers have visited the church and produced reports that have been, to say the least, confronting. Speaking personally, the most shocking part of those documentaries has been how utterly normal most of the members of the church seemed.

If you muted the TV (and ignored the placards), one would have no hint of the filth spilling from the mouths of the church attendees. It’s so easy to regard hate groups as being all but a different breed – when one realises how distressingly similar to us the members of some hate groups seem, one is forced to reflect on how fine the line is between such people and the rest of us.

Megan Phelps-Roper featured heavily in many of those documentaries. As well as being in many ways one of the public faces of the church through documentaries and news reports, she was the first to join twitter, and until October last year tweeted regularly (at @meganphelps) about scripture, politics and her family. That was until she suddenly disappeared.

Earlier this week, through a blogpost she linked to via her first tweet since October, Megan announced that she and her sister Grace has cut ties with the church.

One can barely imagine the emotions those two young women are experiencing. Leaving a cult is harrowing enough without knowing that the world’s media are taking an intense interest in your defection. It is impossible to know what psychological scars remain after their life in the church.

What their actions show us is that it is possible to flee a lifetime of conditioning to hate. It teaches us that the line between an (apparently) loyal adherent to a hate group and a terrified refugee can often be finer than we think.

Most of all it provides a true good news story. Forget communities banding together to drown out those controlled and lied to since birth by their own families. Never mind a media desperate to give us someone to revile, to despise for their abhorrent views.

In Megan and Grace, we have two young women who have overcome a lifetime of being taught not only to be suspicious of the world, but to hate it. Who, since infancy, have been conditioned to detest and fear the world and to make themselves a regular target of derision and ridicule.

Two members of a vile, destructive cult have, of their own accord, been saved. This is a very, very good thing.

Andrew Tiedt

Andrew is a criminal defence lawyer from Sydney. 

Follow him on twitter @mrtiedt