Anonymous v Westboro: Unappointed arbiters, justice, and the dangers of repaying evil with evil

In the past, Anonymous, the anonymous group of hacktivists, were reportedly set to lock horns with Westboro Baptist – the hatemongering group who protest at the funerals of dead soldiers and the victims of tragedy, shout slogans outside concerts around the US, and target other churches. They also recently appeared on Russell Brand’s TV talk show.

The problem with being an anonymous group is that you’re pretty easy to imitate, and the group initially denied targeting Westboro – but claimed they were watching, and then hacked their website for the lols.

Now. Anonymous is getting serious.

After Westboro announced they were going to picket the funerals of the victims of the Newtown school shooting (note – not a particularly Christian response to tragedy), Anonymous acted. Circulating contact details for the members of the church around the internet, and posting this ominous video on the Westboro website.

Just be warned – there’s a pretty shocking high pitched noise at the end of the speaking, that might make you jump.

Anonymous – Message To The Westboro Baptist Church from @kyanonymous on Vimeo.

Here’s a snippet of the script – which you can find in full on the Vimeo page.

“Your pseudo-faith is abhorrent, and your leaders, repugnant. Your impact and cause is hazardous to the lives of millions and you fail to see the wrong in promoting the deaths of innocent people. You are self-appointed servants of God who rewrite the words of His sacred scripture to adhere to your prejudice. Your hatred supersedes your faith, and you use faith to promote your hatred.

Since your one-dimensional thought protocol will conform not to any modern logic, we will not debate, argue, or attempt to reason with you. Instead, we have unanimously deemed your organization to be harmful to the population of The United States of America, and have therefore decided to execute an agenda of action which will progressively dismantle your institution of deceitful pretext and extreme bias, and cease when your zealotry runs dry. We recognize you as serious opponents, and do not expect our campaign to terminate in a short period of time. Attrition is our weapon, and we will waste no time, money, effort, and enjoyment, in tearing your resolve into pieces, as with exposing the incongruity of your distorted faith.”

Anonymous may or may not have orchestrated this petition to have Westboro’s tax exempt status withdrawn by declaring them a hate group (perhaps a more useful petition than the bid to build a death star). That petition has passed the threshold required for a response from the White House.

Part of me really wants Anonymous to succeed. I love the idea of hacktivism, especially when it’s directed at such an insidious group who do real harm to people, and to the gospel of Jesus.

It’d be nice to have the power to do something when tragedy strikes. When there’s someone who is clearly in the wrong – be they directly involved, or a parasitic third party.

But another part of me worries about a society where censorship is dictated either by the consensus of the majority, or the activism of a powerful, and hidden, minority.

It presents another dilemma – given that Anonymous is anonymous – and completely not accountable to anybody but themselves – unlike duly elected representatives of the state – this classic dilemma, is expressed in this manner in Latin:

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Or “who watches the watchmen?”

Who watches those who appoint themselves as gatekeepers for society? The moral arbiters? Especially if they’re vindictive, and have something that approaches unlimited power to wreak carnage.

The society anonymous seeks to prevent, at least if it’s really channeling V for Vendetta – which the Guy Fawkes mask they own as their own would suggest, is a totalitarian society driven by tyranny, where opposing views are silenced.

There’s something disturbing and ironic about Anonymous appointing themselves as the totalitarian regime, potentially enabling lynch mobs through the publication of contact details of a widely hated group.

There’s a tension here. Words have consequences, and speech is never really free. There’s a problem when “free speech” means you can say anything to harm anybody without the fear of consequences. But there’s an obvious problem, too, with preventing people from speaking because you disagree with what they’re saying.

I hate what Westboro do. I hate that they stand outside funerals and compound the grief of the grieving. I hate that they claim to do it in the name of Jesus. But I’m not called to hate the individuals who make up Westboro. I’m called to love them. I’m not called to silence them. I’m called to speak truth to them. With love.

There should be consequences for Westboro’s hate speech. And they shouldn’t be allowed to say what they want to say wherever they want to say it (namely, outside funerals). But if they want to preach their abominable gospel from their abominable pulpit, and from their website – then they should be free to do it. We get into dangerous territory if people can silence views they disagree with, rather than simply having equal opportunity to speak against them, and let the market decide.

But the Anonymous campaign goes further than that – it aims to silence the group.

They say:

We will not allow you to corrupt the minds of America with your seeds of hatred. We will not allow you to inspire aggression to the social factions which you deem inferior. We will render you obsolete. We will destroy you. We are coming.

Everyone is equal.

They mean everyone is equal – except Westboro. It’s all very animal farm – and they’re the pigs. Again, a subversion of anti-totalitarian literature…

There’s a little bit of recent form for this – Anonymous also targeted the advertisers who were prepared to continue advertising with 2Day FM after the recent tragic outcome of a prank call. Blaming the network for the unfortunate, and unforeseeable, outcome of the broadcast. YouTube has canned the videobut you can still see it at The Australian (you may need to google it to get behind the paywall).

“We have studied the facts and found you guilty of murder. You have placed yourself in an untenable position. You have placed your advertisers at risk – their databases, their websites, their online advertising.

We are Anonymous and hereby demand you terminate the contracts of Mel Greig and Michael Christian. We will not listen to any more excuses. We will not let you escape your responsibility. You have a funeral to pay for. We are Anonymous. We are legion. We are amongst you. Expect us. This is not a prank call; this is no laughing matter. This is your one and only chance to make amends. You have one week to do so.”

They’re Judge. Jury. Executioner. Pretty totalitarian – the separation of powers is one of the checks and balances modern democracies use to prevent something of the situation we’ve seen in the past.

Westboro’s idiocy, their evil, their hate – it doesn’t dehumanise them. It just makes them stupid, evil, hatemongers.

My inner idealist would just like to see people continue to be able to sustain the distinction between Westboro and the rest of the people in the world who call themselves Christians, without the need to even talk about them when they do stupid stuff. But their hateful message is powerful because people are always on the look out for an other to hate, and a cause to belong to. We have skinheads. Gangs. Anonymous web terrorists.

I can’t help but think that a much better – particularly if you’re a Christian – response to Westboro (and to Anonymous) is to respond with unexpected love, bizarrely – this is just what Russell Brand did. And what Mars Hill did when Westboro came knocking at their church doors.

Doing this properly requires two things of us.

First, we’ve got to believe that there’s a just God waiting at the end of time to punish wrong doings, and judge justly. The sins of Westboro will not go unpunished. No wrongdoing will.

And this takes the need for us to act as judge, jury, and executioner out of our hands. Leaving us to love. Romans 12 says it best:

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

That’s the first bit – and already it takes some of the wind out of the sails of the Anonymous campaign (and it’s something Westboro should be taking note of too – but they’re not particularly adept at reading the Bible).

The second factor, perhaps more important. Is to remember that not only are we Anonymous – wanting to run things our way. To decide right and wrong for ourselves, and judge others by our standards. We are Westboro. We are the radio DJs whose poor judgment spiralled out of control. We are sinners. We are subject – by right – of judgment, by a perfect juror, and the execution that comes as a consequence.

Only, if you’re a Christian, Jesus took that judgment for you. Who are you to judge, if this is the case. The (potentially apocryphal) story of the woman at the well is a story worth heeding at this point, from John 8.

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

11 “No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

At this point Anonymous finds themselves in the dangerous position of being the Pharisees – those opposed to Jesus – who miss the spirit of the law, and the true nature of humanity – rather than the righteous. They’re not claiming to be Christians – but they are claiming to be the righteous judges who serve a higher calling than mere mortals.

But what do I claim? What can I claim?

I am Fred Phelps. I am a hater. I am a sinner. My heart is a factory of pride, and my pride always comes at the expense of others. I need Jesus to step in for me. How can I do anything but offer love and grace to other sinners?

That’s the most worrying thing about Anonymous taking control – not only did we not choose them as the moral police, not only do they lack any of the accountability required stand in judgment over other sinners, they seem unprepared to treat those they oppose as humans. With love.

Nathan Campbell

Posts Twitter Facebook Google+

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His Daughter. His Son. Coffee. And the Internet. He is currently a campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of the last 8 years working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Where is Jesus in the Kermit Gosnell trial or the Boston Bombing? | St. Eutychus - April 16, 2013

    [...] sort of thing makes you wish that Anonymous would make good on their threats to remove the cancer that is Westboro Baptist… Even if that’s not real justice. And even if there’s a little of the hate (or at [...]