Bullying in the Name of Jesus

Gay bashing, picketing funerals, condemning people to hell and other ridiculous things Christian extremists do.


Fire. Red hot flames licking the air and burning as far as the eye can see. The suffocating heat. It’s so hot, no thermometer could possibly measure the misery. You search for relief, but find none —Only more flames and heat. Your mouth is unbearably dry, but there is no water to quench your thirst. There is no one else around. You are all alone with the agonizing screams of other poor souls trapped in this world on fire. This is your fate. This is your eternity. Congratulations, you’re going to hell.

At least, this is what many churches and so called followers of Jesus Christ would have you believe if you fail to conform to their arbitrary values. There are Christian extremist groups that condemn people to hell on a regular basis. Certain sins, these groups say, will get you a one way ticket to hell — two of which are homosexuality and divorce.

WBC member protesting Pope Benedict XVI outside the United Nations in New York City, 2011.

Bullying is a hot button topic right now. It involves an imbalance of power, either real or perceived, and can have lasting effects on both the bully and the victim. It is no longer tolerated in many schools, and there are several states with both policies and laws against the hateful practice. Bullying involves the use of threats, intimidation, blackmail and other devices in order to manipulate someone’s actions or feelings. Coincidentally, these are often the tactics used by some Christians to coerce people to follow their interpretation of The Bible.

There are several Bible verses Christians use to support their claim that God hates gays. One of the most popular, Leviticus 18:22, says, “You shall not lie with a male as a woman; it is an abomination.”

The Westboro Baptist Church, a Christian extremist group based out of Topeka, Kan., is likely the most well-known anti-gay Christian group. The church is notorious for picketing at nearly every event they possibly can, including the funerals and weddings of gay people. The group is armed with signs that read “God Hates Fags” and other phrases that would make equal rights activists cringe and the church’s website, Godhatesfags.com calls the statement God Loves Everyone “The greatest lie ever told.”

The Westboro Baptist Church’s FAQ page states that homosexuality is the sin at the forefront of the nation.

The WBC maintains that America is being punished for its acceptance of homosexuality and as such, pickets not only the funerals of gay people, but the funerals of soldiers, murder victims, mass shooting victims, and victims of other national tragedies, such as 9/11, thanking God for His wrath.

Reverend Fred Phelps, the late founder of WBC, and his congregation famously picketed the funeral of Matthew Shephard in 1998, a demonstration which attracted the attention of the nation. Shepherd, a homosexual, was the victim of a hate crime and died on Oct. 12 1998 in Fort Collins, Colo. Children and adults alike picketed, holding signs reading “God Hates Fags,” “No Fags in Heaven” and “Matthew in Hell.”

The church also picketed the funerals of the victims of the 2011 Norway shooting, the 2011 Tucson, Ariz. shootings, and, according to the new Twitter handle of Phelps’ daughter, Shirley Phelps Roper, @wbcshirl2, Twitter’s headquarters last August. The WBC’s official Twitter account was suspended on Tuesday, and Phelps Roper insists the suspension is a result of that protest.

The WBC maintains that it pickets funerals in such a shocking manner to warn the living that they will end up like the deceased unless they repent.

“When people go to funerals, they have thoughts of mortality, heaven, hell, eternity, ect. on their minds. It’s the perfect time to warn them of things to come. Is it mean, hateful, and [lacking compassion]? I’m sure it is, according to your standards. However, according to my standards, it would be infinitely mean, hateful and [lacking compassion] for me to keep my mouth shut and not warn you that you, too, will soon have to face God,” the WBC’s website states.

This is the same tactic that stereotypical schoolyard bullies use to torment their victims. Scare tactics, threats, and insisting that they are the innocent party. Sound familiar? In this sense, the WBC, and churches who use similar, albeit probably slightly less extreme, tactics have not matured past the elementary school bully who steals lunch money for fun.

Although the Westboro Baptist Church is probably the most infamous anti-gay congregation, they are far from the only church that preaches against homosexuality.

The Abiding Truth Ministries, based out of Springfield, Mass., is a Christian organization with similar values as The Westboro Baptist Church. It’s founder, Scott Lively, has recently preached that homosexuality is, in the eyes of God, worse than mass murder.

“God calls this practice toevah, an abomination, or detestable practice. That’s his determination to make — I’m just the messenger,” Lively said.

Allyson Walker, 26, a lesbian, grew up in a small town in the South attending a church that preached hatred for gays.

“I’ve known that I was attracted to women since I was a kid,” Walker said. “I grew up in a very Christian family, in a small church that told me God hated gay people. I remember being so heartbroken. I loved God, and according to the church, it seemed he loved everyone but me.”

Walker said she tried for a very long time not to be gay.

“I dated boys,” Walker said. “I was a cheerleader in high school. I was really involved in the Bible club at school and youth group at church. I did everything I thought stereotypically straight, good Christian girls were supposed to do.”

On the surface, Walker said she appeared to be the perfect heterosexual teenage girl. But no matter how hard she tried, deep down she knew it was a lie.

“I had everyone fooled. Everyone except myself.”

Walker cites the Bible as part of her reasoning for deciding to come out.

“In the Book of Proverbs, it says that a lying tongue is a sin,” Walker said. “I was committing sin every day just by not being myself.”

During college, Walker decided she couldn’t lie to herself and everyone else anymore.

“I was so afraid to tell my parents. I knew their church said I was going to hell. And you know what? At that point, that was fine with me. I’d spent my whole life trying to be someone I wasn’t and I was just tired. But I couldn’t live with the thought of my parents hating me.”

Luckily, Walker’s parents loved her unconditionally.

“When I told them, my mom took my hand and said, ‘Honey, your dad and I love you no matter who you love.’ I started crying, because I was just so relieved.”

Although her parents were accepting, Walker said most of the people she knew from church were not.

“My pastor told my parents that I was no longer welcomed at church services. And my best friend that I had known since I was two told me that she couldn’t be associated with someone who had chosen such a despicable lifestyle.”

Walker and her parents were alienated from their community. She went to college at home, so she had no escape.

“My parents lost all their friends, as did I. My parents and I couldn’t even go to the grocery store without being stared at or avoided. As if homosexuality is some kind of disease you can catch by getting too close.”

So, when Walker’s father was offered a job in California, he took it and she and her parents relocated.

“Eventually, I found a church out here that accepts me for me. They don’t openly endorse homosexuality, but my pastor says that only God can judge and as Christians, it’s our job to love all sinners no matter what the sin is —not condemn them,” Walker said.

Amanda Rubio, a Christian who attends Calvary Chapel Golden Springs, which is located 30 miles east of Los Angeles, Calif., says it seems as if Christian extremists are following a completely different God than the one she was taught about.

“Nowhere in the Bible did Christ stand at crowded events with an oversized sign reading ‘I hate sinners!’ and then expect people to follow his teachings,” Rubio said.

When Rubio was a child, she saw protesters standing in the streets of Los Angeles with signs that read ‘You’re all going to hell!’ Frightened, she asked her parents who those people were and was shocked when they told her the people with the signs were Christians.

Rubio was confused and wondered why these people were scaring people away from loving Jesus.

“This is the exact opposite of what Christians are supposed to be doing here on Earth,” Rubio said.

Rubio aims to let others know that not all Christians are like the Westboro Baptist Church and other extremist groups. Unfortunately, however, these extremists are who are receiving media coverage, and therefore what many associate with Christianity.

Homosexuality is one example used to tell people they’re doomed to hell. Getting divorced and remarried is another common topic Christians use to condemn others.

Even though more than half of all U.S. marriages end in divorce, the Christian religion teaches that divorce is hated by God and therefore looked down upon in the faith. Christians generally cite specific passages in The Bible as evidence of God’s distaste for divorce and as reasoning for why divorce is wrong. For example, Matthew 19:9 says, “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” Adultery goes against the Ten Commandments, and is usually a byproduct of lust, one of the seven deadly sins.

Because divorce is prohibited by The Bible, many churches do not recognize divorce as a means to end a marriage. According to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta, Catholic spouses must marry within the canonical form of marriage. To do this, the spouses must attend premarital counseling in order to fully understand what a marriage is, and they must intend for their marriage to be a lifelong partnership. The website says that it is impossible for any human to break the holy bond of marriage; and therefore, when the canonical form of marriage requirements are met, the church will not recognize a dissolution of marriage, even when it is recognized by the government.

Sharon Hernandez, 34, is a Catholic whose divorce was not recognized by the church.

Hernandez was married at 18, right out of high school. She says she and her husband were both members of the Catholic church and were married in the Catholic church, like both of their parents before them. Hernandez and her ex had a daughter almost exactly a year after they were married and a son 15 months after their daughter’s birth.

“It was a good marriage. We were together for 10 years. But, after awhile, when I would wake up in the morning, I would roll over, look at the man lying next to me and think ‘who are you?’” Hernandez said.

Hernandez read once that a person changes the most in their lifetime between their 20th and their 30th birthday. She says her husband was not the person she married anymore, neither in looks nor in personality, and she was no longer the same girl who had promised to love him forever when she was too young to even have an idea what she would be like 10 years down the line.

After months of trying to save their union in marital counseling, Hernandez and her ex decided that it would be best for them and their children if they went their separate ways.

“At my wedding, two crazy kids in love got married,” Hernandez said. “When I signed on the dotted line 10 years later, two strangers got divorced.”

Hernandez’s divorce will never be recognized by her faith.

“According to Catholicism, a marriage is an unbreakable bond between a man and a woman created by God. In the government’s eyes, I broke that bond. In the church’s eyes that bond can only be broken by God.”

Hernandez said the priest who performed her marriage ceremony even went as far as asking her how her husband was on multiple occasions after mass, even after he knew the two were no longer together.

“It was weird. But in his eyes, my ex and I are damned. I have remarried and he’s in a committed relationship, but according to the church, we are still married to each other. Which makes us adulterers for sleeping with other people. And if your a Catholic, adulterers certainly don’t make it to heaven.”

Hernandez said it hurts to feel like she is being shunned from the faith she grew up in. As a result, Hernandez no longer attends church and is not raising her children to be religious.

“The church is going to tell my children that their father and I are going to hell. They don’t need to hear that, especially from people who are holier than thou during Mass and do as they please the rest of the week.”

Hernandez reported that she felt pressured to leave the church. She said it was clear that the priests all thought she was going to hell, and she couldn’t bear to listen to their judgmental sermons that made a habit of damning all sorts of people.

“It was pretty much their way or the highway. Repent. Do as we say or be damned.”

The Westboro Baptist Church wrote an open letter to country singer Blake Shelton, who is divorced and now remarried to fellow country star Miranda Lambert, on Sept. 30 2013. In the letter, the group told Shelton that his new marriage was a sin and that he was committing adultery. “Unrepentant adulterers do not inherit the kingdom of God. God has given you space to repent (Rev. 2:21–22), and you have repented not,” the letter said.

Unfortunately, the philosophies regarding divorce adopted by both the Catholic and the Westboro Baptist church exclude a large group of people from their congregations. In doing so, they violate the teachings of God. Mary Beth Bonacci, a Christian speaker and author, maintains that Christians are supposed to share their knowledge and love of God with others.

“We were not put here to ‘hide our light under a bushel’ as scripture says,” Bonacci said. “We were meant to shine our light up on a hill, where people can see it. We’re supposed to be good examples of Christians and lead people to Christ.”

There are instances of Christians leading people to Christ all throughout the Bible. In fact, in the Bible verses Matthew 28:19 and 20, Jesus says that it is the duty of Christians to lead all people to Christ. Jesus does not say that anyone should be excluded from the Lord’s teachings. By excluding a portion of the population from church, Christians have failed to do what the Lord advised. If Christians are truly motivated to bring others to Christ, telling those who are divorced, gay—or have committed any of the multitude of sins churches have excluded people for—that they are not welcome goes against what Jesus preached as the Christian religion. Therefore, in violation of the word of God, it is sinful not welcome certain groups into the church.

Abortion, is yet another popular way to be sent to hell, according to most churches. It has long been debated when, exactly, life starts — at conception, or at birth. Most Christians believe life begins at conception, and therefore abortion is murder.

Surprisingly, abortion is never directly mentioned in the Bible, but the Ten Commandments state “thou shalt not kill.” The Bible does not make any distinctions between a fetus and a baby, implying that they are one in the same in God’s eyes. Therefore, deliberately terminating a pregnancy is a violation of the Ten Commandments.

It is not uncommon to see Christian groups protesting outside of abortion clinics. Recently, officials have been trying to find a balance between protecting protesters’ first amendment rights, and protecting the rights of the women visiting the clinics. In June 2014, the Supreme Court struck down a bill that would have required anti abortion activists to confine their protest to a buffer zone, at least 35 feet away from the entrances of clinics.

Legally, the protesters have to keep their activities peaceful. They are not allowed to touch or harass the women who enter the clinic, or the doctors and staff who work there. However, these laws are much harder to enforce than requiring a buffer zone probably would have been. While most of these protests are, in fact, peaceful, there are some that have taken a tragic turn.

In 1993, Doctor David Gunn, who performed abortions at a clinic in Pensacola Fl., was shot three times in the back as he got out of his car at the clinic by a male protester. Gunn died during surgery from his injuries.

More recently, Dr. George Tiller of Witchita, Kansas, another physician who performed abortions, was gunned down in 2009 outside of his clinic by an anti abortion activist.

These doctors were murdered by those who were, ironically, claiming to protect the lives of others. The violence of these protests is not restricted only to physicians, but many women have been attacked while attempting to access healthcare at these clinics.

In the year 2000, Emma Magdeline, now 30, was a pregnant 16 year old, seeking information at an abortion clinic in Los Angeles, Calif.

“I was young and scared,” Magdeline said. “I hadn’t told my parents yet. I hadn’t made any decisions. I wasn’t going to the clinic to get an abortion, I was just going there to get information. Maybe talk to a nurse or a doctor.”

Magdeline was approached by protesters upon her arrival at the clinic.

“Most of them were harmless, they just shouted things like ‘this is not what God wants!’ and ‘it’s not too late to make the right decision!’ I just said, ‘I haven’t made any decisions yet,’ turned around and headed for the entrance. That’s when this woman grabbed my shoulder and violently jerked me around. She said, ‘it’s not a goddamn decision it’s a baby! Why can’t little sluts like you respect that? If you don’t want to get pregnant close your legs!’

Magdeline said she was taken aback by the woman’s words. She told the woman to leave her alone, but the woman got even more belligerent, calling her a slut, a whore, a murderer, and finally, the woman pushed her. That’s when the woman at the clinic’s front desk, who had been watching the confrontation, came outside, threatened to call the police on the woman, and ushered Magdeline inside.

Ultimately, Magdeline decided to keep her baby and now has a 14 year old daughter.

“I love my daughter more than life and I wouldn’t change my decision for anything,” Magdeline said. “But that was a decision I needed to come to on my own. I was 16. I didn’t do anything to deserve what that woman did to me. She was there to protect the lives of the unborn, but she seemed to forget that I was a human being, too. No person should be treated like that, especially not by people who are supposedly serving God.”

Homosexuality, divorce, and abortion are just three of the reasons churches tell people they’re going to hell. However, the reality is that there are so many things that are considered sins in the Bible. Even if you’re not gay, previously divorced, have never gotten an abortion, committed one of the seven deadly sins, or have not broken one of the Ten Commandments, (which, lets be honest, is nearly impossible not to do) you’re still probably sinning every day. There are verses in the bible that prohibit wearing clothing of two different fabrics, men from shaving their beards, getting tattoos, eating a ham sandwich, gossiping, and a slew of other mundane things.

In James 2:10 it says, “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.” According to this verse, if you commit one sin, you are guilty of all sins. All sins are equal in the eyes of the Lord. Consider how easy it is to commit a sin just by going about your everyday life. As demonstrated above, we are all sinners. As so, those who follow the Bible are not in a position to judge and say that one sin is greater than the other when the Bible states the opposite.

Matthew 6:14–15 says, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” It’s not a Christian’s duty to tell someone that their sins will lead them to hell, it is their duty to forgive and love, as all sinners are God’s children; and therefore equal in the eyes of the Lord.

Header image by Cynthia Schroeder

Substance is a publication of the Mt. San Antonio College Journalism Program. The program recently moved its newsroom over to Medium as part of a one-year experiment. Read about it here.