Sunday 1st September 2019 @ 12:14 pm
I am posting a long excerpt from Alan Jacobs brilliant book “How to Think” – I am posting a few thoughts on thinking next, but as they allude to this story, I thought you might like it. You can buy the whole book if this taster takes your fancy!
“A few years ago Megan Phelps–Roper, a member of West–boro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, a church founded by her grandfather Fred Phelps, decided to start using Twitter to spread the Westboro message. That message might be summed up by the statement most closely associated with WBC: God Hates Fags. (The church registered the URL godhatesfags.com all the way back in 1994.) As Adrian Chen reports in his New Yorker profile of Phelps–Roper, Twitter was a perfect venue for getting this kind of message across, thus this typical Phelps–Roper tweet: “Thank God for AIDS! You won’t repent of your rebellion that brought His wrath on you in this incurable scourge, so expect more & worse!”*
But there was something Phelps–Roper didn’t anticipate: on Twitter, people talk back to you. When she began tweeting at a Jewish web developer named David Abitbol—“Oh & @jewlicious? Your dead rote rituals = true repentance. We ?know the diff. Rev. 3:9 You keep promoting sin, which belies the ugly truth”—Abitbol responded with bemused humor. He would later comment that “I wanted to be like really nice so that they would have a hard time hating me.”
This kind of response threw Phelps–Roper off–balance. As she later told Adrian Chen, “I knew he was evil, but he was friendly, so I was especially wary, because you don’t want to be seduced away from the truth by a crafty deceiver.” We’re probably all subject to what the literary critic Gary Saul Morson calls “backshadowing”—“foreshadowing after the fact,” that is, the temptation to believe that we can look into the past and discern some point at which the present became inevitable. (“I should have seen it coming!”)* But it’s hard not to think that by engaging with Abitbol in a friendly way Phelps–Roper had already set off down the road that would lead her away from West–boro Baptist Church.
She started responding to others who shared Abitbol’s skepticism about her beliefs, and some of them also proved funny, or interesting, or kind. She told Chen, “I was beginning to see them as human,” instead of as the faceless Repugnant Cultural Other.
But it was the relationship with Abitbol—they even met in person, ironically enough, when Phelps–Roper picketed a gathering that Abitbol had helped to organize—that mattered more than any other. And that relationship became so decisive for Phelps–Roper largely because Abitbol took the trouble to look into what Westboro members believed and why they believed it. They claimed to base their views that homosexuality should be punished by death on the Bible, particularly Leviticus 20:13: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.” But wait a minute, Abitbol said: Didn’t Jesus say, when a woman was found to have committed adultery, that the “one without sin” should cast the first stone at her? And, by the way, didn’t Megan’s own mother have an illegitimate son, the product of an affair she had had in law school? Shouldn’t she “surely be put to death”? Phelps–Roper knew, and deployed, the standard West–boro response: that gays and lesbians attended Gay Pride parades—they were proud of their sins—whereas her mother had repented. To which Abitbol replied: How can gays and lesbians ever repent if you kill them? To this Phelps–Roper had no ready answer, and when she asked leaders of Westboro, they had none either.
Phelps–Roper had already realized that believing in the Bible didn’t necessarily require her to perform the hostility that most members of Westboro exemplified. (When questioned about her friendliness to unbelievers she replied by citing Proverbs 25:15. “By long forbearing is a prince persuaded, and a soft tongue breaketh the bone.”)
But now Abitbol was asking deeper and harder questions, not about whether the Bible was true, but rather about whether her community really bothered to discern and obey what they claimed was their supreme authority in all matters. Phelps–Roper’s response to this crisis in her mental history is fascinating and extremely telling. She took two actions.
First, while she continued to go picketing with other Westboro members, she stopped carrying the signs that read “DEATH PENALTY FOR FAGS”; and second, she ceased her correspondence with David Abitbol. This twofold response perfectly embodies the mental state of the person who has begun to think. She didn’t leave the church, she didn’t stop picketing; but she drew a line in her own mind that had the inevitable effect of separating her, to some degree, from the community which until that point had given meaning to her whole life. Which helps to explain why she took the second step: ending communication with Abitbol. On some level, if not consciously, Phelps–Roper had to have known that that one issue—DEATH PENALTY FOR FAGS—was unlikely to be the end of the story. If Westboro was wrong about that, then what else might they be wrong about? If the answer turned out to be “a lot,” then the result could be exile from the only world she had ever known, the only belonging she had ever experienced. So she closed the door from which she perceived the greatest threat. But it was too late; and there were many other doors, as long as she engaged with different sorts of people online. In the end exile was Megan Phelps–Roper’s fate.
“To think, to dig into the foundations of our beliefs is a risk, and perhaps a tragic risk. There are no guarantees that it will make us happy or even give us satisfaction”
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