Marine Lance Corporal Philip J. Martini, 24, died in combat in Iraq from a gunshot wound. The mortal wound came during his second tour of duty in the country. Yesterday he was laid to rest in a Chicago area funeral, surrounded by family, friends, protestors and counter protestors.
The protest, like those at nearly every funeral of late for soldiers killed in Iraq, was staged by small (75-persons by some accounts) Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. Their spokeswoman Shirley Phelps-Roper told reporters yesterday, "This nation is being punished by a raging mad God." She went on to say, "I am the only patriot standing here. I am the only one that has enough concern for the soul of my nation and wrath of God pouring out on her head to tell you what you need to do to fix it."
Phelps-Roger said of the corporals parents, "They raised that child for the devil." Her few fellow demonstrators all agree that God is punishing our soldiers because of our nation's tolerance for homosexuality. Their signs read "God Hates America," "Not Blessed Just Cursed" and "God is America's Terror."
But the family and friends were shielded from the message of hate being spread by Westboro Baptist by nearly 200 members of the Patriot Guard Riders. The Riders are a morotcycle club who came for the purpose of staging a counter protest whose only purpose was to block the view of Westboro's slogans from those gathering to remember a soldier who paid the ultimate price for his service to our nation.
And if you thought, "There ought to be a law against that kind of thing" you are not alone. 27 states have either passed or are working on legislation aimed at stopping the Westboro Baptist protests at funerals while working to not unduly infringe on free speach in the process.
Of course, not everything Westboro's spokespersons say is counter to the beliefs of Christians. For example, Phelps-Rogers was also quoted as saying yesterday,
We're here to remind these people that there's a God. He set his standard in the earth and He expects his creatures to obey it. If you will obey the commandments of the Lord your God, He will bless you, if you will not obey the commandments of the Lord our God, He'll curse you, his promises are as good as gold.
I doubt you could muster much disagreement in Camden County from pulpit or pew alike on the statements that there is a God and that God has expectations. However, the protestors seem far too certain that God's love is for them and God's wrath is for others—people who are "other" than them. This makes it that much easier to side with the love of the bikers shielding the family than the hatred of the Westboro protestors.
But what about the larger issue? What basis do I have for taking exception with the (if nothing else) very dedicated members of Westboro Baptist? Certainly scripture tells of judgment. There is no doubt about that. But when I read of Jesus' life, ministry and teachings, the only strong words of judgement and harsh actions I see are aimed at the holier than thou set. Jesus never held back from taking the self righteous to task. That's what I read in the Gospels and it informs how I view the protests and counter protests.
While I hope the opportunity never arises, I would have to count myself among the human shields before I could ever stand in hatred with the protestors. And it is some comfort that this is a common Christian viewpoint. As much as we can be divided at times, I hope it is reaching out in love that draws Christians together, for the Bible teaches that God is love. It is in acts of love, not hatred, that we side with our Lord.
The Rev. Frank Logue, Pastor + King of Peace Episcopal CHurch