The past two Sundays I have felt compelled to include a prayer “for our enemies” in the Pastoral Prayer section of worship. This is not unique to my style of worship–I often do this. But during Lent it seems doubly important to remember that God’s grace and the gift and sacrifice of Jesus Christ isn’t just for people who sin most similar to us, but is for all people.
And then I came home from church yesterday to my Facebook and Twitter feeds buzzing about Fred Phelps.
Fred Phelps, in case you don’t recognize the name, is the founder (and long time face) of the Westboro Baptist Church. That is the church that pickets high-profile funerals, like those of fallen soldiers (or closer to home for me, the funerals of coal miners who have died tragic deaths) with the message, “God hates fags.” They claim the unfortunate deaths were caused by God to punish us as a nation for our “tolerance” of homosexuals.
In seminary, I once wrote a paper about cults, and selected the Westboro Baptist Church as my topic. This sent me to their website, which I found troubling on many levels. The welcome page was nothing more than a long list of verses taken out of context that painted the image of God as a God filled with hate, striking down whatever he didn’t like, and if he took out the innocent with the guilty, so be it. All the better to drive the lesson home.
I felt so sick to my stomach that I actually found myself writing a blog posting (on a blog I no longer maintain) about the reason why my internet search history included so many results and sites for such a volatile hate-monger.
If anything happened to me, if anyone ever had a reason to dive into my search history, I didn’t want them thinking I was experimenting with this sort of twisted and angry rhetoric. I didn’t want them to assume I had an interest in homophobic hate. I wanted the world to know that I had written a paper about the dangers of this sort of manipulation of religion.
Here I am, several years later, and I’m not totally over my weird obsession with Fred Phelps or the Westboro Baptist Church. Everytime they’ve traveled to West Virginia, I’ve found myself obssessing on them and encouraging others to counter the acts of hate with acts of love.
“Don’t fight them,” I’d say, “That’s lowering ourselves to their level. Don’t engage them, that’s what they want. Their hate is evil–be the good you want them to be. Be the love you believe God is.”
When Lauren Drain wrote her heart-wrenching memoir: Banished: Surviving My Years In The Westboro Baptist Church, I read it. And I saw some hope… but also some discouragement. Lauren had been excommunicated for questioning the church, and now that she is out of the fellowship she has come to understand God’s love more fully and to see the folly of persecuting a group of people. But reading her story of her family’s “conversion” and how hate and fear became every day facets of their lives, my soul was troubled. I had nightmares of being trapped in the Westboro cult after reading the book.
But still–I preached countering their hate with our love. Show them what God is really all about.
That is, until I came home to the Facebook and Twitter topics of Fred Phelps imminent death.
Rumor has it, he has been excommunicated from the church he founded. There is no confirmation from the church (only the word of one his children who had been excommunicated many years before). There is no reason being made clear as to why he has been excommunicated if that turns out to be true.
And as I read the reports of how Fred Phelps had been moved to a place where he could be watched so that he “wouldn’t harm himself” and the reports that he is now in hospice care, not eating and not drinking… I could muster no sympathy.
I, a person who is vocal about removing the stigma of mental illness, particularly that of depression and suicide–I, a person committed to making others aware of depression and suicide in an effort to lessen it’s grip on people like me, who have struggled with it for years–I couldn’t find any sympathy for a person who reportedly is suicidal.
That should have been wake-up call that I wasn’t living into that
“show him love” message I’d been preaching for so long.
I wasn’t meeting all the years of Fred Phelps’ hate with love and grace–I wasn’t being the image of Christ I had insisted we must be when we are confronting men like him. No, I was meeting his past of hate and violence with my own indifference. With apathy.
And then I read this article from the site: The Gay Christian. And I was ashamed of my apathy.
I am a middle-class, white, heterosexual woman living in the United States of America. Sure–there are some things about me that cause people to get riled from time-to-time: I am a woman ordained into the clergy, I am a liberal in a red state, and I am unapologetically tattooed (and sometimes I have pink or blue or green hair) in the pulpit.
But those things just rile people up every once in a while. They haven’t led to my persecution. The Westboro Baptist Church isn’t counting down my days until I burn in hell (they actually have a counter on their web page that counts the number of days Matthew Shepherd, brutally tortured and murdered for being gay, has “been in hell”).
But here is a young man, called to ministry and denied the opportunity to do so because of sexuality–someone the Westboro Baptist Church would picket–someone who has been rejected and who is not welcome in many churches–and he is able to meet the news of Fred Phelps’ pending death with the love and compassion I have long preached but haven’t been able to muster.
If anyone had a right to be angry about the attention Fred Phelps’ is getting on his deathbed, it would be this guy. If anyone had the right to secretly smile and say “good riddance”, it would be this guy. If anyone had the right to feel apathetic and refuse to live the Christian love he is bound to, it would be this guy.
But this guy, over at The Gay Christian, is showing love and compassion. It’s me–the person without that right–who is shrugging it off as though it doesn’t matter.
But it was one line in the post that really set my heart on fire and brought tears of shame to my eyes: “I wish hell upon no one, because I want all souls to encounter the true love that God has to offer.”
That one simple sentence reminded me of something that had happened in seminary, something that made me vow to never meet hate with hate because of how ugly and damaging it is to this world: Jerry Falwell had just died of a heart attack. My New Testament class was just wrapping up in the big classroom (where most of the required classes were held because it was the only one big enough for that many students) and another class was waiting to enter. One of the first students to come through the door told those of us who were gathering our things the news: “Brother Falwell is dead from a heart attack.”
For a moment there was stunned silence. Then came laughter and cheering. Yes. Cheering.
The Iliff School of Theology prides itself on being extremely liberal, so needless to say, the theology of Jerry Falwell and the theology of the average Iliff student would clash (remember, I was one of the “conservative” students at Iliff).
I–who often defended the conservative Christian voice while in attendance at Iliff–was blown away. This was a human being. A man with a family and friends who loved him. A preacher with a large following who cared about him. And he had died suddenly. Shouldn’t we be compassionate to those who are hurting in the wake of his loss?
More than that–if we believed he had failed to really understand the true nature of Christ’s love, forgiveness, and grace, then shouldn’t we be mourning the fact that he had lived his whole life in this world and never experienced it? Shouldn’t we be saddened that there would be no future opportunity for him to experience it in this world?
That day I swore I’d always be the voice of reason, reminding people to meet their enemies with love and grace.
But yesterday I couldn’t meet Fred Phelps’ with that love and grace… not until an unlikely voice popped out of nowhere and reminded me that we can’t reduce ourselves to that level–That we have to be the very image of Christ in this world so that when others see Fred Phelps’ hate, it will be overshadowed by the love, forgiveness and grace of Jesus Christ.
I’m going to go spend some time in silent reflection, now–try to sort out my soul and make sure I’m reflecting Christ and not something else, so that maybe when Mr. Phelps’ does pass from this world, I can fill the voids he left with love and compassion rather than apathetically leaving them there for someone else to fill with more hatred.