Inherently Changeable

By Kersley Fitzgerald

There's a new study out in the journal Child Development that describes research conducted at the University of Texas at Austin, Emory University, and Stanford University. Basically, it concludes that teenagers who are taught that people can change react less aggressively when insulted or harmed. I'd have thought it would be the other way around — that the teens would have more empathy if they thought the aggressor couldn't help themselves. But no. Teens who think that people don't change see an aggressive act as a categorical identifier of personal character. In other words — if someone insults you, they are a bad person; if someone is nice to you, they are a good person.

Maybe this is all Captain Obvious to you, but it's kind of wigging my brain here. It accounts for so much behavior I've seen (and indulged in). How we judge people by a single action or comment. How we are so quick to write people off. How a single momentary impression informs the relationship for years.

We're not really taught to consider changeability when faced with annoying or dangerous people. Once we get past the "how does it affect me" stage, we're encouraged to consider their situation and their past. "He had a right to steal that bread — his iguana was starving!" "I have to sleep around/eat too much/drive too fast/listen to polka! I have congenital hunrgy-mungyitis!" "Well, yes it was terrible that he knocked down your sandcastle, but did you hear about his ingrown toenail? Studies show that ingrown toenails affect the chi and make people aggressive toward sand and soil in unnatural positions." Strange how knowing the background can enforce the belief that people cannot change. But could it be that changeability is more significant than background and prompters and "whys"?

This article comes on the heels of the revelation that two of Fred Phelps's granddaughters have left Westboro Church. Dev is from Topeka. We once passed Westboro's picket lines at the ballet. We are former military. We know about how they picket the funerals of soldiers — and about the awesome bikers who shield the families from the protestors. And I'm a sci-fi fan, so I'm well aware of the anti-protestors at various cons ("God hates Jedi" anyone?). Bashing Westboro is a common pastime in my circles. Their message is evil, they don't understand Jesus, and they are verbally abusive to the very people Jesus came to talk with. We have no more Nazis, but we have Westboro. Right?

Even after knowing the story of Fred Phelps's son, Nathan, how he left the night of his 18th birthday with great fear and trembling, I've been guilty of the same sin as those unthinking teens. I categorically condemned them and refused to consider that the people wrapped up in the lies and brainwashing could change.

Owning that — the belief that everyone can change — really does make a difference. It changes the aggressor from a two-dimensional demon into a real flesh-and-blood creation of God. Corrupt, but still the image of God. Changeable. Redeemable. Reconcilable.


In need of God's grace and truth in love — not verbal abuse and spiritual abandonment.

We Christians love to vilify, though. It's so much easier. We love to separate the goats from the sheep, conveniently forgetting that a sheep is just God's grace on a goat. Hope is hard. Praying for change in an enemy's heart is much harder than praying for change in a political or social situation. Don't like the president? Holler about his short-comings so that he gets voted out. Don't like a celebrity? List her sins so you can feel superior. Don't like a bunch of protestors? Joke about them until their message becomes irrelevant.

Until they are irrelevant.

I don't think Megan and Grace Phelps were ever irrelevant to God.

And, as much as I hate to say it, I don't think Fred Phelps was either. Or is now.

I have a friend who was raised in a sect that doesn't teach the complete truth of the Bible. Throughout her time there, God protected her from hearing their unbiblical teaching. All she knew was God's grace. When she came to our church, it caused problems with the social aspect because her sect was categorically condemned. But she noticed no change in the theology.

Similarly, it was the Bible truths Megan and Grace had learned in Westboro that led them to leave. Megan didn't abandon God; she compared the God of the Bible to the signs at the protests, then chose God. All along, her personal actions were motivated by the desire to do what God wanted, not hate. How did God shield her from the hate? And how arrogant were we to lump every member of Westboro into the category of irredeemable "bad guy"?

I hope that, unlike their uncle Nathan, Megan and Grace can accept God as He really is and not abandon him out of disillusionment. I suspect a lot of that will depend on the believers who come into their lives now — will they accept that someone from evil Westboro can change ?

But that question goes beyond two young women. When applied to the political arena, things get tight. Do we harp on the issues until our friends block our Facebook posts? Or do we pray for those in the "enemy camp" to make a decision to change?

The U2 song "Peace on Earth" has a lyric that really stumped me for a long time. After listing names of people who had died during an IRA bombing in 1998, it says, "Their lives are bigger than any big idea." Surely not, I thought. A big idea can influence millions (see Roe v. Wade). A regular person doesn't make nearly as big an impact. I think I understand it a little better now. God doesn't save causes. He doesn't redeem politics. And He doesn't give salvation to nations. Jesus came for individuals. Issues like legalized abortion are important, but the conversion of Norma McCorvey (a.k.a. "Jane Roe") had angels cheering.

Likewise, the Westboro Church will continue to shout hateful messages, and bikers and sci-fi con attenders will continue to hassle them. But if Megan and Grace can change, maybe their aunts and uncles and parents and grandparents can too. Maybe there is hope for everyone else who works publically against biblical truths. But we can only be witness to that change if we believe God is powerful enough to make it happen.

Image Credit: Chris Waits; "This tree changed majors a couple times"; Creative Commons

TagsChristian-Life  | Current-Issues  | Science-Creation  | Witnessing-Evangelism

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Published 2-18-13