Today I was walking by the UVA ampitheatre when something unusual caught my eye. A group of people looking like they had come straight out of Westboro Baptist Church stood, signs in hand and neon shirts in tow, squarely in the middle of the turf. There were about fifteen people in all: mostly women and children standing off to the side, dressed very conservatively with skirts all the way down to their ankles. One man stood preaching with a bright neon yellow shirt proclaiming “LOVE WARNS (Col. 1:28)” on the front and “FEAR GOD” on the back. In his hands, he held a small, leather Bible with the bolded words “REPENT OR PERISH” written on both sides. By the time I had arrived, there was a small group of about twenty students gathered around the top of the ampitheatre listening to the man preach.
Actually… I’m not sure ‘listening’ is really the right word to use here. When I really reflect on it, that’s almost the opposite of what these students were doing.
Ever since the incident last April in which a similar but much more intense situation occurred, (read about that here: http://wuvaonline.com/protesters-amphitheater-meet-student-opposition/) I’ve been thinking a lot about how justified many of us actually are when we see groups like these and immediately set them apart as one of “them”. One of “THOSE” groups, focused only on judgment and hatred towards other belief systems.
This was exactly how I first saw the group that came last April when they came calling all female UVA students whores and listing “The Five Ways to Identify a Lesbian”. I saw them only as hateful protestors who could find no better way to promote their particular ideology of Christianity than this loud, abrasive, forceful speech.
But then I went down and actually spoke with one of the protestors, the wife of one of the preachers. It was such a different experience than what I expected- rather than being met with more cold shouting, this woman was actually very warm and open to discussing her beliefs as well as her group’s motive behind their method of evangelism. It really made me re-think the way I had so comfortably categorized these groups based on their appearance. Same was the case when I spoke with the preacher himself one-on-one for a brief time today. In fact, the speech being made today from the ampitheatre was more like what one might hear in a typical Sunday service than you’d have thought by the way these people presented themselves.
Often when we take part in engaging these open-air preachers, we feel that it is the preacher who is the arrogant, hateful one. Unfortunately, I often feel that we reduce ourselves to the same level when we respond with a flip-side of the same intolerance. Both of us are at fault here, and I think there’s three striking similarities between the errors of both preachers and audiences:
1. Grouping people into categories based off personal preconceptions.
One thing I’ve noticed that groups like this tend to do is assume no one in their audience is Christian and that everyone disagrees with them. They sometimes will call out one member of the audience and accuse them of something without having sufficient reason. For example, today the preacher responded to a young man asking a question about sin with “Are you right with God? Probably not.” A lot of the people I heard chatting around me in the audience were in fact Christians who were simply appalled at the way this group was approaching ministry. This fact just seems to be ignored by the preachers as they indiscriminately pull out people from the crowd to accuse of sin.
However, we as members of the audience are guilty of almost the exact same thing. We often lump groups of this nature- “THOSE people”, “those picketing, sign-holding, flaming-shirt-wearing, homophobic, yelling haters” into the same category instantly. Many identify any group with any of these characteristics as Westboro Baptist Church followers. This is simply not the case. Neither the group last spring nor this group today identified with any denomination or even church. Today when I asked the preacher if his group had any affiliation, he replied that they were all simply like-minded individuals who felt called to share the gospel with us. Some groups are much less confrontational than others, and these groups hold different beliefs as well. We don’t usually take the time to actually figure that out, though, when we’re so quick to sort people into preconceived groups that we can’t hear what they actually are saying.
2. Assuming a common motive for everyone in the opposing group.
One of the signs toted by one of the younger girls today read in bold, yellow letters, “TRUTH IS HATE TO THOSE THAT HATE THE TRUTH.” The approach I’ve heard most open-air preachers take seems to assume that non-believers in the audience object to Christianity in a volitional way alone. If someone questions a doctrine taught by the preacher, he is more likely to respond that the questioner’s pride is getting in the way of his recognition of God than actually to answer the question. While some do hold volitional objections to Christianity, many peoples’ barriers actually are intellectual in nature. These people don’t need a lecture on virtue; they need to be shown that the Christian worldview holds up under serious discussion. This sort of anti-intellectual attitude demotes the spirit of inquiry and truth-seeking commanded in the New Testament (1 Thessalonians 5:21) and instead promotes non-biblical blind faith.
But again, we too are guilty of assuming all of these groups have the same common motive- spreading their hateful ideology to gain more adherents. This is far too simplistic a view. When I spoke with the preacher’s wife last year, it was clear to me that she really believed what her husband was doing was legitimately impacting people’s eternal destinies for the better. Undoubtedly, some may be motivated by pride, but many are motivated by love and sincerity. It’s uncharitable of us to assume that because these groups come off the same to us, they are all motivated by the same principles as well.
3. Lack of trying to understand the other side
“I used to be all into drugs- but I traded my marijuana for the Master, my alcohol for the Almighty, and my LSD for L-O-V-E!” the preacher shouted while shaking his finger at another young man in the audience. The man spouted cheesy-Christian-line after cheesy-Christian-line after cheesy-Christian-line until the audience would no longer take him seriously. He talked about being “washed in the blood of the lamb of God” and “ a believer in the power of the Cross”, perhaps unintentionally alienating and even scaring people who are not familiar with how these phrases are used in the Christian tradition. This sort of culturally irrelevant language only created distance between himself and the audience, and portrayed a lack of willingness to take on the attitude Paul modeled for the Corinthians- “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”
Of course, we haven’t exactly been earnestly seeking to understand their position either. During the time I spent at the ampitheatre today, I witnessed severe disrespect shown by many UVA students towards this group. Loud laughing hung in the background constantly as I heard the girl behind me make the comment, “Do these people have a college degree? Do they even make money?” There were also a few ignorant questions related to why the preacher did not observe certain Jewish ceremonial practices found in the Old Testament. It became clear to me that most people in the audience weren’t there to engage with the preacher, but to make a fool of him- and it only exacerbated the misunderstanding.
So next time we see a group like this, raising their neon signs and pounding their Bibles, I think we all ought to think twice before making all these assumptions. I’m not saying their method is correct or even okay. Maybe we’re right about them, maybe we’re wrong- but we owe them enough to at least listen before making a judgment. I think that’s what we’d want from them too.