Two sisters have just left their church. Because their church is the tiny, savage, Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), this means they left their families, friends, occupations, and everything they ever knew.
The WBC, the shame of Topeka, Kansas, is notorious for flaunting aggressive intolerance. They famously picket funerals of gay soldiers and gay murder victims with signs saying GOD HATES FAGS, ignoring requests to go away. GOD HATES JEWS is another of their holy musings. Picketing is what they do, every day.
It consists of one ghastly man, Fred Phelps, his extended family, and a few converts. It’s not affiliated with any other church. It’s a cult.
If Wikipedia was right that WBC had about 40 members, the departure of Megan Phelps-Roper and Grace Phelps-Roper is a significant downtick.
They’ve written a fascinating statement about leaving the WBC, with yes, an apology. And Jeff Chu, who’s been reporting on this for a while, has done a great story about it for Medium. When Megan and Jeff Chu went to a church together, it was the first time she had ever been to any church but the WBC.
It started when Megan was explaining the simple sacred reasoning behind one of WBC’s signs, DEATH PENALTY FOR FAGS, to an interlocutor on Twitter (David Abitbol of Jewlicious). She was arguing that “it was a Levitical punishment and as completely appropriate now as it was then.” Abitbol quoted Jesus on throwing the first stone, and mentioned a WBC member who had done something that was also Biblically punishable by death. “I realized that if the death penalty was instituted for any sin, you completely cut off the opportunity to repent. And that’s what Jesus was talking about.”
She had an epiphany, and decided to stop holding that particular sign. She kept on examining church dicta and soon came up against another highly spiritual WBC sign, FAGS CAN’T REPENT. “It seemed misleading and dishonest,” the statement says. “Anybody can repent if God gives them repentance, according to the church…. It seemed a wrong message for us to be sending.”
Doubts and realizations kept piling up. Visiting a public library in Lawrence, KS, and noticing how much had been written about right and wrong by persons other than Fred Phelps, had a big impact. “The idea that only WBC had the right answer seemed crazy. It just seemed impossible.”
So the sisters left. They moved to a small town where they rented rooms and began trying to figure out what to do next with their lives. They’re spending hours reading and talking about right and wrong.
Which “raises the questions of regrets and amends,” says Chu. Repentance. Megan told him, “I definitely regret hurting people.”
The sisters’ statement says, “We know that we’ve done and said things that hurt people. Inflicting pain on others wasn’t the goal, but it was one of the outcomes. We wish it weren’t so, and regret that hurt.” It talks about the pain of being cut off from their families, and says, “We know that we can’t undo our whole lives. We can’t even say we’d want to if we could; we are who we are because of all the experiences that brought us to this point. What we can do is try to find a better way to live from here on.”
Finally it says, “We hope… that the changes we make in our lives will speak for themselves.”
It’s a weak apology. A few mentions of regrets for vague hurts. But I’m inclined to give them a pass. I think they haven’t had time yet to understand what things are like for people outside the WBC.
I also don’t know how much the sisters know about apologies. Does the WBC even do those? Denial of the possibility of repentance was one of the painful issues Megan Phelps-Roper wrestled with on her way to leaving the church.
My esteemed colleague Snarly says, “Maybe this is just the first step on the road to penitence. They want a relationship with their family, and maybe a full-throated apology means closing the door completely? (Which they will have to do eventually, I suspect.)”
I agree. Ordinarily I wouldn’t be impressed by the hope that if you’re a better person (“the changes we make in our lives”), that will do to show your regret. But Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper are making enormous difficult changes. They have quite a way to go. I think they’ll discover that more apologies will be among the changes they make in their lives. We should give them time.