Being a civil libertarian in the context of community.

On Saturday, May the 18th, Westboro Baptist Church is planning a picket on The Campus of The University of Alabama. Like everything planned by the Westboro Baptist Church, this picket will be targeted against social diversity and will probably attempt to blame social tolerance for the tragedy of the April 2011 tornadoes. Although it is disgusting and sad, and everyone should sign any petitions to this effect, I believe it is very important that they be granted legal permits for this event.

Wise citizens of Tuscaloosa are planning a counter-protest (you can learn more here), which I plan to attend with my kids. Because the most important part of civic education is not the part that occurs in the abstract- it’s the part that occurs on the streets when we are confronted with intolerant ideas and ideologies.

Little people who aren’t equipped to counter the hate in the flesh will not recognize it when it calls their name.

In his prophetic book,The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry expresses concern about the rising, career-oriented elitism and its effect on the ties that bind local communities and fellowships. He notes correctly that learning ideas in the abstract prepares us for resume-building and sycophancy but does not enable to actually understand and participate in the civics of everyday life. Berry warns:

It must not be forgotten that, divorced from the practical, the liberal disciplines lose their sense of use and influence and become attenuated and aimless.

Towards the end of the book, Berry hones in on the importance of an “intelligence” which is holistic and experiential- based in life as it has been lived rather than life according to the text-based guidebook- rather than an “intelligence” based on access to constantly-changing facts, statistics, and experts. Since I have been guiltier than most when it comes to consulting the guidebooks, this observation is especially important to me. Berry describes the current notions of intelligence (obvious even in the way we test children in schools and train them for fact-oriented, regurgitative “thinking”) as follows:

This intelligence protects itself from the disruptive memories and questions of experience by building around itself the compartmental structure of the modern university, in which effects and causes never meet. The experential intelligence is a tyrant that is saved from the necessity of killing bearers of bad news because it lives at the center of a maze in which the bearers of bad news are lost before they can arrive.

But it is imperative to understand that this sort of intelligence is tyrannical. It is at least potentially totalitarian.

A book-bound, abstracted form of “intelligence” is not a good breeding ground for ethics. Unlike calculus, ethics must be lived to be meaningful. Ethical intelligence requires habituation and habitation- a feel for the soil and ecology of life and community. When Westboro (or any form of ugliness and hatred) comes to town, you look them in the eye and say, “I firmly disagree”.

As those who dissent under totalitarian governments know, there is some comfort to be drawn from humor. What is tendered by extremists as “sacred” is very vulnerable to satire. So reading Landover Baptist’s critique of Westboro reminds me that both extremes are silly. In a talk forum following the talk forum about how “Pregnancy through rape is a gift from God”, “True Christian” shares a video from Westboro and writes:

Just look here what these liberal so-called “Christians” has to say about God’s nr. 1 favourite country, you could almost think they are from Chechnya or something. God does not hate America, God LOVES America, the best and most Christian country in the world.

Of course, Landover Baptist’s disclaimer (scroll down to the bottom of the page) makes it clear that fundamentalist extremism cuts across every divide of major religions:

The information presented here is Biblically accurate. Opinions concerning the technical difficulties, fitness requirements, safety, and ratings of self-crucifixion, flagellation, stoning, destroying enemies of GOD utterly, without mercy, and other activities inherent in Christianity are subjective and may differ from yours or others’ opinions; therefore be warned that you must exercise your own judgment as to the difficulty and your ability to safely protect yourself from the inherent risks and dangers. Do not use the information provided on this site unless you are a True Christian ™ who understands and accepts the risks of participating in these activities. Landover Baptist Church makes reasonable efforts to include accurate and up to date information on this website, errors or omissions sometimes occur, therefore the information contained on here is provided “as is” and without warranties of any kind either expressed or implied. Viewing, reading, or any other use of the information contained within this web site is purely the voluntary will of the viewer or user. You, ‘the viewer’ or ‘user’ shall not hold the publisher, owner, authors or other contributors of The Jesus Experience responsible for any incidents related directly or indirectly to the Experience. Landover Baptist Church, et. al., assumes no liability or responsibility for your actions.

Not being a trade-marked True Christian spares me the seriousness which accompanies said views. Perhaps there is something to the statement that “if babies had guns, they wouldn’t be aborted”- but the something is far more evil and twisted than anything Larry Flynt might dream up. Ultimately, my kids won’t truly grasp the consequences of extremism unless they see it for themselves. And I’d prefer that their first experience be one in which there is caring, sober adult present to point out why it is so very, very ugly and so very, very wrong.