Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Gospel of Fred Phelps

Supreme Ct. Rules 8-1 in favor of Westboro Baptist Church in Snyder v. Phelps!! Praise God!! U wanted us shut up - God wants us to cry aloud
Steve Drain, Westboro Baptist Church member

Jesus’ teachings about nonviolent direct action and love of enemies are also the acid test of true Christianity.
Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers (1992)

I hope you don't judge Jesus
By the things my friend will say.
He holds a bible like a dagger
And he twists it just that way.

David Wilcox, Good Man (2006)

30 years ago, the Christian theologian James McClendon teamed with atheist philospher James Smith to write a classic on Understanding Religious Convictions (1975), declaring that as we pursue deep convictions through study and dialogue, we ought to subscribe to "the principle of fallibility:"

even one’s most cherished and tenaciously held convictions might be false and are in principle always subject to rejection, reformulation, improvement, or reformation.

That's right: we are all wrong about some things...which inevitably means, quite frankly, our religious and political opponents are right about some things. The only problem is that we aren't quite certain where we err. This is the appropriate context for addressing Fred Phelps' Supreme Court "victory" yesterday. Both constitutional democracy and Christian truth seeking dictates that we must give space for all voices to be heard so that truth may find its way to our hearts and minds.

But Fred Phelps and his inbred church is surely he not? He openly a God who "hates fags" (this in not even in the ballpark of "love the sinner hate the sin," let alone a God whose Love is so unconditional it resulted in the death penalty), traveling as far as Baghdad to share this with others. But in the meantime, Phelps attends military funerals to condemn fallen soldiers for fighting wars for an immoral country that gives rights to homosexuals.

Here's how Scott from Mission Viejo (EY conversation partner and longtime friend)lamented to me in a Facebook message yesterday:

On one side, I feel secure that the highest court in the land is 8-1 in favor of the Phelp's protestors, because it means my future soapbox ministry on the corner of La Paz and Marguerite will be protected by the first amendment. However, the other side is more personal to me. To my friends, the Phelps' are Christian, and so am I.

I concur with Scott's sentiments. As a Christian and a deep democrat in the tradition of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Cornel West, I believe Phelps' voice needs to be heard and weighed (and, in the end, not agreed with). We must take seriously what James Madison wrote in Federalist Papers #10:

Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

American "factions" like the Phelps clan and the Ku Klux Klan must have the liberty to speak their minds so that the rest of us can decide just how lunatic they are. The more often and louder they speak, the crazier it gets. And on top of that, securing Phelps' freedom to speak jibberish guarantees that my own unpopular convictions (pacifism, vegetarianism, universal healthcare, anti-imperialism) can be voiced wherever and whenever they find listening ears.

The awkward and painful component to the Phelps drama is that he and his church of family members boldly bear the name of Christ, quoting Scripture all the way to infamy. No doubt, Christianity is a contested concept, but many lump all Christians together as a united family. When any Christian--James Dobson or Jeremiah Wright or Fred Phelps--speaks, in the minds of non-Christians, they often speak on behalf of the entire Body of Christ. But, as it turns out, Christianity is a deeply dysfunctional extended family.

This is precisely the same point we make when folks like Bill O'Reilly make statements about all Muslims in light of 9/11 and other vicious terrorist activity. It is also the same point that we make about fundamentalist Christians who claim that Christian faith is just "all about Jesus." When we are confronted with a distant Christian cousin like Fred Phelps, who worships Jesus and is "called" to a very different vocation, we must acknowledge that it can never just be "all about Jesus" since who Jesus is (and what it means to follow him) is itself a greatly contested concept. This exemplifies an essential Christian conviction that bears repeating thousands of times: there are many brands of Christianity, all brands are lived imperfectly and some brands simply are not legitimate (Jesus himself called his disciples to judge false prophets based on the "fruits test" in Matthew 7:15-20--do they live out the Sermon on the Mount?). Fred Phelps fails the test.

The family metaphor is helpful here. Phelps is a black sheep in the great American Christian family. He is invited to come to the family reunions, but he refuses the invitation every time. He is insular and provincial. To be a part of the Christian family is not to agree on all the same doctrines and practices, but to participate in open, loving dialogue about these issues (Matt 18:15-20; Acts 15; I Cor 14:29).

We will see this intensify in the coming weeks inside of Evangelical circles with Rob Bell's release of Love Wins, which questions the idea of a loving God sending people to hell (a topic that we obviously believe should be asked loudly and considered with the utmost seriousness). Popular fundamentalist pastor and author John Piper already made his decision last week (before he even read the book): "Farewell Rob Bell." I am not equating Piper and Phelps, but they share a common provincially arrogant ethos that is inherently unChristian. When we witness this kind of behavior within the Body of Christ, we must clarify (with love, gentleness and humility) that, no, this kind of behavior cannot possibly reflect the life and teachings of Jesus (just as millions of American Christians expected, indeed demanded, that "moderate" Muslims denounce the actions of al Qaeda). Love and humility are rooted at the very heart of what it means to be Christian.

Fred Phelps has been on my radar for the past 15 years. Back in the mid-90s, he’d show up on campus while I was at the University of Kansas (Westboro Baptist is only 30 minutes from Lawrence, Kansas) to remind our gay and lesbian students that God hated them and that they were going to go to hell someday. During one such appearance, the roommates and I seriously considered recruiting the biggest baseball player we could find to slam into them “accidently” while jogging (while the others were in a car filming the whole thing). (un)Fortunately, we never had the guts to carry it out. 11 of Phelps' 13 adult children have law degrees. They wield the Bible like it is a dagger and they are on a mission to get every American to hate them (and they've mostly succeeded). Quick: name one other person who hates homosexuals and the US military. Exactly.

And, by the way, this is where the national government needs to finish off the freedom trifecta. If the military industrial complex has the freedom to spend vast billions on war games and revenge and Fred Phelps has the freedom to set up shop at military funerals and gay rallies, then should our gay brothers and lesbian sisters not have the freedom to marry their life partners? If Phelps and his children (his church is basically only his family) can say these sorts of things at a military funeral, then every gay and lesbian should have the full freedom to say “I do” at the altar. But I digress.

Phelps, in an 8-1 Supreme Court decision, secured his freedom to continue berating the parents, families and friends of fallen soldiers during the funeral proceedings. This secures a tremendously important freedom to say whatever the hell we want to whoever the hell we want whenever the hell we want. This is a decision that I agree with, but only with shrugged shoulders with my head down muttering “I guess so.” I am a devout Anabaptist. I do not believe in revenge, but nonviolent, creatively strategic displays of love to win over the other side. However, on the day Fred Phelps dies, I’ll be tempted to book a plane flight to Topeka to join the throngs of gays, lesbians and soldiers that march on his funeral to "celebrate" what David Wilcox calls "a good man in the worst sense of the word." What a day that will be.


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  2. Great thoughts and great selection for the book award, Brother Fabian!

  3. If the court can rule to protect the rights of Fred Phelps and his family's expression of H8 then it's time for the courts to rule on the side of love and for the rights of same gender couples who are denied over 1,100 federal benefits enjoyed by opposite gender couples who marry.

    Same gender couples deserve the same human rights that most Americans take for granted: the right of protection with basic legal rights and safeguards like Social Security, health insurance and the unquestioned right to visit one another in the hospital.

    I look forward to the day that will likely throw Fred Phelps into a tailspin...the day that the courts rule that the love and commitment shared by two people regardless of gender has equal rights across this land. Let him stand lonely on the street corner and spew one is coming to his party.

    There's going to be a better party to attend...a wedding...and I'm guessing that Jesus will be doing what he does best...transformation... turning water into wine!

  4. So blessed by all three of my prophetic brothers above... (one more than a brother thanks to my constitutional right to marry). Amen to all your beautiful words celebrating and promoting love and deep democracy over hate and narrow provincialism.

    Gavin, Spence is going to play even better bball next year after reading that work of brilliance by Brother West! And Ty, that will be the one instance of wine (and dancing!) I won't be able to resist getting in on! ;) Longing and praying for that day....