‘Who is on The Lord’s Side?’ A thought on the death of Fred Phelps

So earlier today Fred Phelps, of ‘God Hates Fags’ Westboro Baptist fame, died at the age of 84.

Members of his church were featured on Russell Brand’s show, the video of which was linked to this blog’s Facebook page. The most interesting aspect was the way in which their bigoted so-called ‘Christian’ stance was shown up by Brand’s genuine efforts to ensure they had a fair hearing, and that they weren’t pilloried by the audience, or in other ways made to feel uncomfortable.

It’s interesting to see how a similar scenario is playing out in many cases following the death of Mr Phelps. Given that he and his church would cruelly picket funerals with any trumped-up association with being gay, it wouldn’t exactly be a surprise if gay people everywhere were now gleefully preparing to return the favour – if only a funeral were on the cards for Mr Phelps.

A number probably would be. But what really gets the attention – in line with the reaction of the gay guests on Brand’s show – is when those in Fred Phelps’ line of fire refuse to react in the same spirit.

George Takei’s (Star Trek’s Sulu, and gay activist) Facebook page today carried the update: ‘Today, Mr Phelps may have learned that God, in fact, hates no-one. Vicious and hate-filled as he was, may his soul find the kind of peace through death that was so plainly elusive during his life.’

And according to cjonline.com, Planting Peace, the group that painted their resource centre (across the road from Westboro Baptist) in rainbow colours to symbolize peace and change for LGBT communities, responded by sending their condolences, saying: ‘(Our) philosophy has always been to overwhelm hate with unconditional love.’

How ironic that the upsetting, hateful actions of a so-called church group should be answered in such a different spirit by those not even claiming to be Christian.

Earlier this week, I was asked whether a lovely young man I knew was ‘the Lord’s’. I find the assumptions behind that question breath-taking. And the actions of Fred Phelps v today’s grace-filled reactions of some of those he targeted remind me just why.

Something in the Air: Beyond Woolwich

We knew it would happen. Just as it did with the Oklahoma tornadoes and countless other catastrophes. The fundamentalist claim that the Woolwich murder had been orchestrated by an angry God for some imagined offence.

And it wasn’t long in coming… Westboro Baptist Church’s incendiary tweet, alleging that God sent the killers as a payback for the equal marriage bill that passed its third reading on Tuesday.

At around the same time, a radical Muslim cleric claimed that God destined British soldier Lee Rigby to die in the terrible attack.

Meanwhile, in contrast to the callous, gloating spirit of both of these claims, a small group of clerics representing the major faiths came together to denounce both the barbaric act and the violent reactions they sparked, and speak up movingly and authentically for an integrated community built on mutual respect and solidarity.

This outlook has been echoed most passionately on my Facebook Newsfeed by a Pagan friend. In all honesty, it’s been disarming to discover that I often find myself more in agreement with his updates than I do with some of the evangelical Christian ones.

Many of us grew up in ‘us and them’ Christian communities that honestly believed their expression of faith held the monopoly on the truth. But surely the real differences are to be found not between those of differing faiths, but between the well-intentioned of all faiths and none, and extremist fundamentalists of all faith backgrounds.

I’m not sure why this should come as such a surprise. The scriptures are full of accounts of good ‘God-fearing’ people who were neither Jew nor Christian… as well as a few give-away pointers along the lines of ‘by their fruits you will know them.’

And there are so many illustrations from our own day and age. A few years back I made a series of programmes with Canon Andrew White, ‘the Vicar of Baghdad’, who explained to me that a large proportion of his Iraqi Anglican congregation were Moslems who recognized that this community also worshipped God, or ‘Allah’. He spoke moving about his Ayatollah ‘brother’ who had suffered so much under Saddam Hussein, and with whom he shared a deep spiritual connection. He found it difficult to understand why Christians should even question the natural affinity between these religious groups.

Something is shifting in the spiritual world. Surprising things are being said by surprising people, and old models of divvying up the world just won’t do. And it’s going to take more than the odd modifying tweak here and there to really get it. A whole new paradigm… or wineskin, perhaps?

It’s always helpful to give an ear to those who have understood something of this paradigm and worked with it for many years. Talking of which, watch for an interview with Noel Moules on his explosive take on Shalom, coming to this site soon…

And in the meantime, hot on the heels of Pope Francis in the contest for Surprising New Religious Commentator award, I bring you Russell Brand’s reaction to the Woolwich tragedy: ‘Let’s look beyond our superficial and fleeting differences (and) instead leave flowers at each other’s places of worship. Let’s reach out in the spirit of love and humanity and connect to one another, perhaps we will then see what is really behind this conflict, this division, this hatred and make that our focus…’