An Open Letter to Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper

[Note: Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper were members of Westboro Baptist Church, a fundamentalist "Christian" family-based group famous for protesting things like soldiers' funerals, and holding signs that said things like "God Hates Fags." Recently Megan and Grace (sisters) left. You can read Megan's blog in which she made the announcement here.]

An Open Letter to Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper
From a Christian who Wants You to Know that the Christian Faith is Much Bigger and More Beautiful than Westboro Baptist Church

Dear Megan and Grace,

Obviously you don't know me, but now I, and a whole lot of other people, know you; or at least, we knew of you and your family, and now we know of your courageous decision to leave, to strike out and find a new context and be honest with yourselves about your doubts and your questions about the things you always used to take for granted.

You've probably figured out right now that the vast majority of people are very supportive of your decision. I am too. I think you will find life to be better, in many ways, outside the boundaries set by the Westboro community. One of you is named "Grace"; I think that you will find there is an abundance of that for you.

I imagine that at this point you are knee-deep in the uncomfortable process of sifting through your past. You will take bits and pieces, probably in small increments, and hold them in front of your mind, and wonder whether you should hold them close or thrust them away. I hope that you are able to do this from within the context of a Christian community - a community made up of people who love one another and love you and are transparent and unafraid of doubt and willing to acknowledge weakness.

It is on behalf of Christian communities, actually, that I write to you now. If I were in your position, I think that I would become very angry with the people and traditions of Westboro. I would probably come to feel that a large part of my life was stolen from me and wasted, and even badly used, by people who ought to have known better, who ought to have let me figure out for myself what I believed about the world before making my life into what was basically a spectacle. (I am not saying that this is how you should feel; just saying that it is very probably what I would feel were I in your place.) Megan, in your post on Medium you emphasized that you and your sister can never not love your family. I admire that. But it is possible for great love to exist alongside great anger.

This anger would probably lead me to try and distance myself from everything I could about my past. I don't know if you're in this place or not. I want to plead with you, however, not to leave behind Christian community. I want to plead with you not to leave behind the Christian faith. I want to plead with you to never lose your fascination with, and love for, Jesus.

On one level I am pleading with you about this because, very simply, I believe Jesus is true. On another level, however, I am pleading with you because I am convinced that the mistakes made at Westboro Baptist Church weren't made because of too much Christianity; I think those mistakes were made by too little of it.

Tim Keller, in an interview at the Veritas Forum, communicates well what I'm trying to say. He's asked by Martin Bashir about whether all the terrible things done by Christians over history don't actually act as prime evidence against the truth of Christianity. After all, if God is real, how is it that he allows his people to do so many horrible things?

Keller admits that, yes, this is in fact the strongest argument against the truth of Christianity. And then his response is that Christianity has self-corrective mechanisms built in. Those people who do terrible things in the name of Jesus - or even just mediocre, discriminatory, misguided, or needlessly smothering things - are actually not following Jesus, and this can be discovered by simply reading, say, the Gospel of John. The answer to this problem is not less Christianity, but more Christianity.

Westboro has, for many Christians, become sort of a byword, a go-to example of ways that Christianity becomes distorted and damaging. "You know the worst part of holding any position?" my cousin Andy once asked me. "Someone else holds it too, and they suck." Rightly or wrongly, your family has become a stand-in for the worst distortions of the Christian faith. I plead with you: keep your eyes on Jesus.

You might have doubts about whether the Bible is worth anything. (Read the works of Wright, Hays, and McKnight.) You might wonder whether God really does, in fact, exist, or whether Christians have any business claiming exclusive religious truth at all. (Read Keller, Willard, and Plantinga.) You might wonder how it is that a loving God could allow a family to become so hateful that it sincerely believes protesting soldiers' funerals is a biblically-supported act. (Read David Bentley Hart on how to think about God and evil - his focus was the Indian tsunami of 2004, but I think you might find much to resonate with.) Maybe you wonder what relevance God still has to personal or public life if it's possible for his messages to be so distorted. (Read Volf. Or spend some time with a community of Christians doing work with the poor somewhere like rural India; I've got a friend you could contact if you're interested.)

Maybe you haven't had any of these doubts. Maybe you are able to separate the way the Christian faith was handled and practiced in your family with the way the best examples of historic orthodoxy have practiced the faith. I just know that if it were me, I'd have a hard time doing that. And that would tragically cause me to lose sight of the grace, love, and truth found in Jesus.

I wake up and follow Jesus every day because I am certain he was raised from the dead. This certainty does not make me a bigot; it does not prevent me from loving, learning from, and enjoying the company of those who may disagree with me profoundly about religion (or anything else for that matter). And this certainty does not prevent me from having some fairly serious ongoing doubts and struggles in my faith, like the problem of evil, or the idea of hell.

I don't think it's "certainty" that's the problem; rather, there is a way of being certain that loses sight of the way Jesus is supposed to shape everything about our lives, and I think that's what happens at Westboro.

You now have the chance to discover what a life lived in the fullness of the freedom and grace of Christ can look and feel like. You have the freedom to explore the great richness of the historic Christian tradition and wrestle for yourselves what it looks like to live out the Christian faith in all sorts of life contexts. You have the freedom and the joy of thinking richly about vocation, mission, community, love, service, sacrifice, disciplines, witness, identity.

My prayer for you is that you move forward in the knowledge that Jesus is real, that Scripture is trustworthy, and that human distortions of the Christian faith do not have the final say on what the Christian faith is, whether it is true, and whether it is beneficial.

My prayer is that you can wrestle with these things with people around you who love you, who encourage curiosity and questions, who worship with you, who pray with you, who show you grace, and who are interested in helping you to live thickly into your identity in Christ.

If you do this, I suspect that your sorrow over your past will grow, and your frustration with all that is wrong in the world will increase. Both have happened to me.

But I also suspect that your joy will be greater than anything you've ever known.

I hope we meet someday. Until then, I wish you the best.

Sincerely,

Rory Tyer