How to Increase Your Influence
Megan Phelps-Roper grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church carrying signs from a very young age that say God hates Jews, America, Muslims, and gay people. They tell many people that they are going to hell, claim Billy Graham is in hell right now, thank God for breast cancer, and identify themselves as bearers of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The pages of history are full of cruel acts committed by religious people, but we all know Love when we see it. One candle in a dark room draws us toward its light and shows us the way out.
Here is her story of how she made the decision to leave her church and family and her journey in seeing the world differently.
THIS IS HIM is about knowing the real Jesus better. I want to learn not just what He said, but how He lived. How did He treat people? What was his approach with people who seem totally misguided and hateful? How does He want us to treat each other?
Jesus told us to love and forgive each other.
Like most people, I struggle with the approach of the Westboro Baptists. They claim that God hates America, carry signs and banners that say “GOD IS YOUR ENEMY,” and celebrate human tragedy and the deaths of U.S. soldiers. One of my biggest fears is losing a child, and I can’t imagine being at the funeral of one of my children and having a group of people there to celebrate their death. I think that their approach is much different than how Jesus taught us to treat others. Though their doctrine is woven with scripture, their faulty emphasis on following rules, condemnation, and hate does not feel like good news at all!
That said, I believe that each person in the Westboro Church is worthy of love and adored by their Creator. Despite a hostile strategy, they want to warn their fellow man to fear God, obey His laws, and avoid destruction. So, where does that leave us? How do we know the will of God? How do we love people who offend us? When in doubt, look to Jesus.
According to Megan, the practice of celebrating human tragedy at funerals felt cruel and wrong to her, but it was all she knew.
Something or someone caused Megan to leave her church.
I like the approach of a guy named David Abitbol, the author a blog called Jewlicious. He disapproved of the Westboro Baptist Church and spoke up on Twitter. I’m not a Jewlicious follower and, honestly, don’t know too much about him. I don’t know how David feels about Jesus. I only know that, according to Megan Phelps-Roper, certain relationships caused her to rethink her beliefs and eventually leave her church. David’s Jewish community modeled a powerful strategy that Jesus Himself taught us for treating people with whom we disagree.
Let’s start at the beginning. Megan’s church going family loved her very much. Because they were sincere in their beliefs, they taught their daughter the same values. All of us hold sincere beliefs, but are they all true? Where does our truth come from?
For me, I return to the gospels. The Bible is the best selling book of all time and no matter how many times it is burned, banned, and destroyed it continues to survive and reach more people worldwide. The study of major themes and historical context of passages is extremely important so that one verse is not plucked out of context. Major themes of the Jesus’ teachings include love, trust, justice, generosity, humility, truth, grace, redemption, and forgiveness.
Jesus did not teach us to hate.
Along with her family, Megan attended protests and carried signs and also believed that “GOD HATES FAGS” and “GAY PEOPLE ARE GOING TO HELL” and to “THANK GOD FOR DEAD SOLDIERS.” They believe that God is the enemy of the United States, gays, and the military. From what I’ve gathered, they teach that when a gay person dies God laughs and that God is against America because of our tolerance of homosexuality.
Megan had never read in the Bible that God hates gay people or that God hates United States, because IT NEVER SAYS THAT! There are places in the Old Testament that describe God’s hatred of evil and wicked people. Megan thought she was doing the right thing by speaking to warn others, and Paul teaches that because of our sin we were all separated from God. Rather than a message and focus that is condemning and polarizing, Jesus wants to bring all people to Himself. Jesus often told people that they were forgiven, not hated. The cross was God’s sacrificial love reaching out to restore our broken relationship. Jesus called us Friends.
god was reconciling the world to himself through christ, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that god was reconciling the world to himself in christ, not counting people’s sins against them. 2 cor 5:18,19
God’s anger and wrath over the sin of all mankind was poured onto His own Son, who took the punishment in our place.
since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from god’s wrath through him?… for if while we were god’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his son, shall we be saved through his life! romans 5:9
I have a lot of questions.
What is it like for God to look down from heaven and see a sign that basically says I hate you, directed at a person that He adores, created, and breathed life into?
What is it like for God to see a “church” who claims to represent Him eagerly tell someone else You are going to hell, when the Bible says that God wants everyone to have eternal life? Romans chapter 10 tells us not to worry about trying to figure out who is going to heaven or hell, but rather that our message should be: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Salvation relies on trust in Him, not in ourselves.
since they did not know the righteousness of god and sought to establish their own they did not submit to god’s righteousness. christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes… the righteousness of faith says: “do not say in your heart ‘who will ascend into heaven?’…or ‘who will descend into the deep?’ but, what does it say? the message concerning faith that we proclaim: if you declare with your mouth ‘jesus is lord,’ and believe in your heart that god raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
How does God feel when people use the book He inspired as a way to show His love and goodness to the world as a hateful weapon?
What is it like for Jesus, who was was recorded to have broken down weeping more than once at a funeral, to see a sign that says He laughs when someone dies? The Old Testament tells us that God laughs at evil because it will not triumph, but He takes no pleasure in death, even in the death of the wicked.
What was it like for God to long for His beloved child, Megan, to be freed by grace and love instead of trapped in the condemnation she was taught? How unfortunate that the agenda of her religious duty to spread hateful speech was so opposite the main theme of the gospels and greatest commandments, to love God and love others as ourselves. Jesus said that the world should know we are His disciples by our Love. If we aren’t known for our love, we are probably doing it wrong. Then again, none of us are perfect.
There is a reason that this website is called THIS IS HIM.
I am trying to point to the only perfect person who ever lived and that is not me or any of us. I think that the first step in knowing Jesus is taking time to understand Him by watching and listening to what He said and did.
Make sure to research the real Jesus.
We have to be so careful. We can come to believe so many things that are not true. Sometimes we learn bad theology at our own church or in our own family. Sometimes we make up our views about God to create Him in our own image, an image we invented.
Jesus said: “If you really know me, you will know my Father as well.” According to Jesus, if we want to know the Father we need to know His Son.
Know Jesus, know God.
Here are a few things to notice from the gospels. Let’s look at the types of things He said when He encountered people like the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, paralyzed man, blind man, leper, bleeding woman, demon possessed guy, prostitute, and a hated tax collector. He was recorded to have said things like this over and over:
“Friend, your sins are forgiven.”
“By your faith you are healed.”
“Did no one condemn you? Then neither do I.”
“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
“Come to me all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.”
“People will know you are my disciples by your love.”
Not only did Jesus NOT demonstrate cruelty or hatred, he showed love by feeding, healing, teaching, forgiving, and defending others. After his close friend Peter denied Him, Jesus went to him and cooked him breakfast. To the despised and lonely tax collector Matthew, He asked if He and His friends could come to Matthew’s house for dinner. Jesus wasn’t focused on Matthew’s behavior; He was more concerned about his heart. He saw that Matthew needed acceptance and friendship. Jesus is cool with accepting people, not for all their actions, but for their worth as a person.
Jesus showed us that there is a time to speak up. Once Jesus angrily overturned tables because people were selling livestock and using the temple to make a profit, rather than for prayer and worship. He drove their cattle away with whips, told them to Get Out, and scattered their coins. I don’t know how Jesus would have reacted if He was attending the funeral of His loved one and Westboro Baptists showed up to “celebrate,” but He is described as a Lion AND a Lamb. Based on this example of clearing the temple from the Book of John and his interactions with the Pharisees throughout the New Testament, I suspect that he would have spoken up and said or done something to confront them. Jesus was tough AND tender. He was not afraid to take a stand, and I like that about Him.
I suspect that the meanest people are also the most unhappy.
Megan’s church taught her that their job is to, “Tell others how unclean they are and why they are headed for damnation.” Here is the problem. I can’t find that pattern or command for us in the gospels. Where did Jesus ever tell US to tell our neighbors that they are going to hell????? Sure, He taught about hell. But, He never told us that it is our job to try to decide who is going there. God wants us to point people to Jesus, who embodies His love, because in Him is found eternal life.
Jesus usually didn’t mention even a person’s most obvious sins or worst behavior, but chose to focus on making them feel cared for and accepted. The only people He was harsh and direct with as a group were the religious leaders and Pharisees because they were always looking down on everyone else and claiming to represent God with their self righteous posture. Even when Jesus publicly rebuked the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, he was kind to Nicodemus, who was a Pharisee that sought Jesus out and came to ask him questions under the cover of night. We can stand against the teachings of a group while still being kind to its members individually. We can do this.
Here is a modern example of showing kindness to an enemy.
David and his friends reached out to Megan and began to build a relationship through Twitter. They treated her with dignity, as a human being, and engaged in dialogue. David disapproved and disagreed with the Westboro signs that Megan held in her hands, the protests, the hateful way they treated people. Yet, he talked to her even as she held a “GOD HATES JEWS” sign in her hand. He brought her food at a protest. I don’t think it hurt anything that Megan was gorgeous, but still. Maybe Jewlicious David thought she was Megalicious Megan.
She was eventually invited into the home of a Jewish Rabbi whom she had protested earlier with a sign that said, “Your Rabbi is a Whore.” Side note. How awkward!! Can you imagine being invited to someone’s home that you called out, bashed and protested?! To have the man you called “Whore” cook you dinner? I’d be eyeing my kosher cuisine for boogers or worms in my food. Just sayin.’
This is a Beautiful story.
Not the Whore part, the forgiveness part.
The Apostle Paul said, “It is kindness that leads to repentance.”
There is such a beauty in forgiveness and giving a person the benefit of the doubt. When a person demonstrates love in the face of hatred it brings healing and unity. Kindness is the only force that brings about true repentance. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have coffee with our enemies and bring them dessert than to hate and complain about them?
Do you want to be right or do you want to love?
Truthfully, I would often rather be right than to love. Especially when I’m offended or hurt, reaching out to a person who said unkind things about me or my family is not my first instinct. But, I am so inspired by people who love their critics even when it is difficult and personal.
“It was a relief and a privilege to let go of the harsh judgments I had against people… I needed to listen. I needed to learn,” Megan said. Listen closely. That person who acts so hatefully may actually be trapped in their own terrible prison or pain. Maybe our kindness could help them get free. Maybe they need us to LOVE them, not judge them.
I am so happy for Megan’s new sense of joy and freedom! Though I don’t know her, I am proud of her courage and the bravery it took to leave that religion and tell her story. She rebelled against doing things that did not feel true to values. By acting in bravery, she now inspires change in the world and in the way we treat each other. She gained more influence and impact in the world now that she isn’t holding those outrageous signs and seeing everyone as an enemy who believes differently. In fact, in addition to her Ted Talk, Megan has been interviewed by Sarah Silverman, Morgan Freeman, and NPR, among others— and her story inspired an upcoming movie called “This Above All,” in which Phelps-Roper will be portrayed by Reese Witherspoon.
There is a better way to live.
Megan found out that there is a better way to live than believing that it is “us” versus “them.” We don’t have to be enemies with people who believe differently! “We have to talk and listen to people with whom we disagree with,” says Megan. We don’t abandon our beliefs; we let go of our animosity and intolerance, possibly earning the right to be heard through relationship.
“At Westboro I learned not to care how my manner of speaking affected others. I thought my rightness justified my rudeness,” Megan said. I have done the same thing and for those times I am sorry. I hope that YOU don’t miss out on a relationship with Jesus because of the failures of His followers.
When the soldiers were mocking Jesus, beating Him, spitting on Him and hurling disrespectful insults as He hung on the cross, He said: “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” That is Jesus. That is God. That is Him.
Jesus enjoyed conversation with non-religious people, skeptics, and those of other religions. He wasn’t always soft spoken; there were times when He stood up boldly to wrongdoing and bullies. His mission was to seek and save the lost. Heal the sick. Befriend the outcast. Be a father to the fatherless. Love. That is God.
He loves you. He loves me. He loves Megan, Jews, soldiers, straight people, gay people, Muslims, our messed up families, United States, people battling breast cancer, and Westboro Baptists. If we want to reach people, let’s take a lesson from people like David and the followers on Twitter.
We will have so much more impact and joy by doing things in love!
I love you. Jesus loves you more.