"God hates fags." "God hates Jews." These signs and others like them were held up by a group picketing my synagogue on Sunday morning.
In response my congregation held a nonviolent, peaceful prayer vigil. Our signs read, "We are ALL created in God's image". We prayed. We sang. We asked people to pledge money for every minute that these messengers of hate were at our doorstop. We raised $10,000.
Many had argued that we should ignore the members of Westboro Baptist Church who picketed us today: "They are fringe." "They don't represent a large group." "They don't speak for Christianity." "They should not be given the benefit of any attention at all."
I believe we cannot afford to ignore them.
Dr. George Tiller and Officer Stephen Tyrone Jones, the security guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, were both killed by men who professed "fringe" ideology. Other members of the same "fringe" groups try to distance themselves from those heinous acts of murder: "We didn't mean for our words t o convince anyone to murder, our words were simply an expression of our beliefs," they claim.
The line that divides rhetoric and words of action is too easily blurred, especially in times like these, when more states stand poised to recognize the right of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens to marry, and the president of the United States supports an end to unjust laws like "don't ask, don't tell" and the Defense of Marriage Act and will sign hate-crimes and nondiscrimination legislation for the gay community. Perhaps it is because of this emerging societal shift that those who sit on the fringe have been pushed to seek retribution through violence.
Some years ago, a woman left messages on our synagogue's answering machine. She called in the middle of the night for several nights in a row during the High Holy Day season. The messages were all in "yeshiva" Hebrew. The woman said that she had been taught that while the members of my synagogue could do teshuva -- could repent for being gay, I, the rabbi, could never be forgiven because my avera -- my sin was encouraging and recruiting people to be gay. Therefore she was going to come to services on the second day of the holiday of Sukkot and kill me.
Needless to say, the NYPD was present at those services, inside and outside our sanctuary and eventually tracked down the woman. Her family pleaded with me not to press charges against their daughter or her rabbi. They argued that although the rabbi had indeed taught the law their daughter had quoted in her messages to me, neither he nor anyone in the congregation meant to incite someone to kill me. Their daughter was disturbed, they said, and needed psychiatric help.
Of course, the woman who threatened to kill me was mentally ill. And perhaps so were the killers of Dr. Tiller and Officer Jones. But whose words were they listening to? It may be comforting for some to think that the words of hatred that come from parts of our society, like the Westboro Baptist Church and others like them, are fringe and therefore somehow less dangerous. But we are seeing the consequences in our society of ignoring this face of hatred, especially in these times of change.
Words have power. And hate speech can lead to murder.