Beyond 'not in my name': 7 ways to engage seriously with hateful heretics

Pastor Steven Anderson addresses demonstrators protesting his sermon outside Faithful Word Baptist Church on Sunday 7 December.Ryan Van Velzer

'God hates fags.' 'Thank God for Dead Soldiers.' 'Got AIDS Yet?'

The infamous placards held by members of Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church are not only incomparably offensive, they're also about as far as you can get from revealing the true heart of a loving God. The same can be said of the email sent by self-proclaimed 'Baptist pastor' Logan Robertson, who called a gay Christian author a "filthy child molesting fag" and said he 'prayed' the man would commit suicide, and of the Arizona pastor who is unrepentant about his claims that AIDS could be ended if all homosexuals were executed.

These words – and the views and theologies that they represent – rightly shock us. To those of us in the mainstream church, where theology and doctrine have been policed and wrestled with for centuries, they speak of a God that we simply don't recognise. As Andy Hunter points out in his thoughtful debunking of the extremist position, these people demonstrate a shallow understanding of love, the Bible and the wrath of God. They're driven by hate, when the gospel is actually all about hope. They aren't just outliers at the distant edge of the body of Christ – their hateful perspectives belong firmly outside it.

When views like these are expressed, and inevitably have petrol poured on them by the scandal-hungry media, moderate Christians like me are quick to distance ourselves from them. 'Not In My Name', we declare, channelling our repulsion and outrage into a social media soundbite. And while that's useful, I fear it's just not enough. Media coverage turns the hateful views of a few individuals into a tsunami of influence – which of course, is exactly what the proponents of those views are hoping for. In response, we tweet and blog. We're trying to repel the tidal wave with a small bucket.

Why do we need to do more than that? Because shocking news travels faster than good, and because these few individuals are managing to significantly influence the average person's view of Christians and the God they follow. They're legitimising the straw men of Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists; they're filling newspapers with the idea that Christianity is a religion of hate, not hope. If we want to limit their influence, then we simply have to do more. Here are just seven ideas for what that could look like for us as individuals, and as a united body:

1. Speak out every time. These stories appear often, and we may feel that we don't want to draw attention to them. The truth however is that if you've seen it, your next-door neighbour probably has too. News pieces about homophobic 'pastors' are intriguing click-bait and I believe we should always take the opportunity to debunk and decry the views they report. So despite my reservation that doing so in itself isn't enough, always share the true Christian response, that this isn't orthodox theology, and that the Bible is a narrative of love and justice.

There are a broad range of views on issues like homosexuality which can still be argued – respectfully – from within an understanding of that narrative. What the hate preachers do is take a verse or passage way out of historical context, and then try to apply it angrily to modern life. If we look at the master of interpreting the Old Testament text – Jesus himself – we see that he simply never did that. He told the woman caught in adultery in John 8 to 'go and sin no more' – but he loved and respected her as he did so.

2. Redeem language. For somewhat obvious reasons, words like fundamentalist and radical have become tarnished in recent years. The problem however is that Jesus was a radical fundamentalist. He turned the world upside down and yet was so religiously compliant that he never ever broke the law. We're called to be radically different in our culture – that's a biblical idea (Matthew 5:13-16) – and we should never lose sight of the fundamentals of our faith. So when we talk about these preachers, we need to make use of a different language register: words like corrupted, heretic and false teacher.

3. Engage directly. Talk is cheap. A statement of rebuttal from a church body achieves very little on its own, besides reassuring its own members. If we want to see real change, then church organisations and denominations need to engage in direct conversation with the hate preachers. Questions are often raised about why 'moderate' Muslim groups don't do more to stop terrorists like Islamic State. Yet Christians seem no better at this. We talk, we make statements, all from the safety of our own HQs. What would happen if the major evangelical leaders got to know the folk at Westboro Baptist Church?

4. Recognise the difference between love and hate. We like to get very hot and bothered in the church about whether certain leaders and teachers have veered too far from orthodoxy. Yet Love Wins author Rob Bell and Arizona pastor Steven Anderson are not in the same league of misreprentation. One has asked questions about whether God's love could be even bigger than we imagined; the other is reducing God to a spiteful monster – outright blasphemy. Quite frankly, why should any Christian be bothered about the content of Bell's latest book when the hate preachers are having a much bigger impact on the perception of the faith?

5. Tell better stories from around the church. Rebuttal is good; replacement is much better. In our conversations with friends, family members, neighbours and people we meet at the Tesco checkout, we have opportunities every day to talk about the amazing things the church is doing – from your local foodbank to fighting the spread of Ebola. So let's regain the urgency of that mission, knowing that we do so not only to spread Good News, but also to pass on an antidote to the stories they'll surely hear of how angry and hateful God apparently is.

6. Picket and protest. If you can't beat them, join them. Or at least, turn their methods back on them. It was fantastic to read of how Christians led a peaceful demonstration outside Anderson's 'Faithful World Baptist Church.' As this link proves, counter-protests like this are so surprising, they're just as newsworthy. The idea of Christian picket / protesting is definitely something in dire need of redemption – so let's protest expressions of hate with love – spreading positive messages, modelling community well, and giving out free stuff!

7. Pray for the haters. This is the most vital, the most potentially transformative, and of course, the most difficult idea on this list. Of course it's difficult to pray for people who spew hate – especially if we're the target. But the only one who can truly change hearts is God – and I wonder if we spend enough time asking him to do that. That's surely a better use of our time than posting angrily to Twitter.

This matters. Toxic things are being said in Jesus' name – and it's our job as his followers to speak up for who he truly is. Otherwise, how is the rest of the world going to know the difference?

Martin Saunders is an author, screenwriter and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. Follow him on Twitter @martinsaunders