The very mention of the name, ‘Westboro Baptist Church’ induces a fierce anger in the best of us. An acrid taste at the back of the throat. These are the group who carry around the ‘God hates Fags’ posters and who picket funerals, including an attempt to picket the funerals of the children of the latest shooting tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. They are obstinate in their bigotry and hatred of gay people. They are certain that their cause is right and they justify their approach with wild interpretations of out-of-context verses from the bible.
I am angered and saddened by such groups. Part of me simply wants to punch them in the face. Part of me questions that anyone this embedded in hate could ever change.
And yet, today I read a recent blog of 27 year-old Megan Phelps-Roper. She is the granddaughter of Westboro founder, Fred Phelps. The blog is a statement about her and her younger sister, Grace’s, decision to leave the church. To leave what it stands for and, in doing so, to leave all that they have ever known. She writes, “This is my framework. Until very recently, this is what I lived, breathed, studied, believed, preached – loudly, daily, and for nearly 27 years. I never thought it would change. I never wanted it to. Then suddenly: it did. And I left.”
What a conversion! To move from the world of Westboro Baptist out into the unknown would require an immensity of courage. The two girls have been cut-off by the family. They have betrayed that which they stood by for so long. The world they have always clung to is no more. What a glorious freedom and a profound sadness that must trail along with them at this time.
This whole story reminds me of one of my favourite sayings, ‘A fish in a bowl doesn’t know that it is wet.’ A fish, like Megan and Grace, has been surrounded by its environment for as long as it has been a fish. Swimming in blindness to the way the water shapes it’s existence. It has not known the existence of dryness, so how it could it know its own wetness? The water is both its habitat and its master. The entirety of its world. It’s reality. Until suddenly the fishbowl cracks. Megan and Grace recognise the water they have been swimming in was toxic. They leap from the fishbowl in search of a larger ocean. A better way to do life.
I have swam in many fishbowls in my lifetime. They have come in all shapes and sizes and yet all filled with waters that at once immersed me and so infilled me and so shaped who I now am. It was the air that I breathed. It was the entirety of my world. I swam around in the fishbowl of family, of school, of the media, of my church, of middle-class culture, of my friends, of masculinity. I swam and I swam and I grew and I grew. I did not realise the wetness of the water and how it affected me. If I had grown up in the Phelps family I too would have taken on a world immersed in bigotry and hate. If I had lived 200 years ago I too would have thought black people were less than human.
Are we not all fish. Are we not all shaped, since our birth, in worlds not of our own making. The fishbowl is inevitable and inescapable. This is how it was meant to be. Growth always happens in a social context. We are shaped in a certain way by those around us. They are our mirrors of how we too should be in the world. The problem comes when we are not willing to recognise such. When we demand that our reality is THE reality. Each of us can end up like the Phelps family without even realising it. Not even in what we consciously say that our lives are on about, but even more so in how we live without realising it.
I cannot help but now ask the question. If a fish in a bowl doesn’t know that it is wet, and a Megan in Westboro baptist church doesn’t know that she is bigoted, then a McKerrow in his white, middle class, rich, media-saturated, consumer world doesn’t know……..?
May such a question crack the fishbowls of our existence. May we all have the courage to look inside at the water that has shaped us. May we all have the courage of Megan Phelps-Roper and her sister Grace. What a fitting thing. That Megan would now walk this journey away from her fishbowl, hand-in-hand, with a sister of the name, ‘Grace’. Indeed Bono had it right, ‘Grace makes beauty out of ugly things.’
Joel McKerrow is an author, speaker, performance poet and educator from Melbourne Australia. He has, for the last five years, been on faculty at Tabor College Victoria is the founder of ‘The Centre for Poetics and Justice’. Joel is a regular host on ‘indiefeed performance poetry podcast’ (the most well known spoken word podcast in the world) and in 2012 was the third ever Australian to represent his nation at the Individual World Poetry Slam Championships. He is the author of Beyond Rhetoric, Writings in the Tradition of Kahlil Gibran and is passionate about discovering a new way to live outside the system of the Empire of Greed and spends much of his time trying to match his actions with this belief.