‘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…’

Controlling or Controlled…?

Over the last few days, the issue of gay marriage has acted as a touchstone for an avalanche of strong emotions from Christians with widely-differing viewpoints. Comments and disagreements lie strewn across Facebook, sometimes reasoned and courteous, at other times more barbed, graduating to the downright insulting and apoplectic.

Christians who shout down the idea of gay marriage, or gay sexuality in general – often peppering their views with Levitical texts – are usually perceived to be harsh, controlling characters. Sometimes they are. I was once stalked in my media career by a ‘Christian’ spokesperson who believed that the reason we had such a homosexual ‘problem’ in the UK was that we refused to take the Old Testament seriously. So what was he proposing, exactly? ‘String them all up’ he bellowed, ‘and the problem will disappear overnight!’

Hate-filled extremes exist. But I often find myself focusing on ‘controlled’ church members, rather than ‘controlling’ ones… those who, hand on heart, would dearly love not to stand in judgement on anyone, but have been convinced that this is what the bible demands of them. Caught in a cruel double-bind, they believe that keeping quiet would not merely threaten their own eternal destiny, but potentially those of others, too.

Fundamentalists are so often trapped in a life and personality-cramping fear of hell. I know – I experienced it. For many years there were two of us slugging it out in my body: the real, flesh-and-blood me, who instinctively resonated with people from all walks of life and longed to respond to them warmly and spontaneously; and the fearful legalistic side of me that felt weighed down with responsibility for their ticket to eternity.

As, mercifully, I finally clawed my way out of this angst-ridden black hole, I found myself drawn to others trapped in the same crippling mindset. One of the earlier encounters still lives with me. I was speaking at a church on ‘colouring outside the lines’ – on the impossibility of reaching the limits of God’s love – when I noticed one of the visitors shaking, almost imperceptibly. I had spotted her immediately – a serious-faced girl with long blonde hair and ethereal model looks, enigmatically dressed in shapeless nondescript clothes. I started multi-tasking, trying hard to stay on-message while also keeping an eye on her as she variously welled up with tears, sat upright suddenly, and glanced knowingly at her husband, continuing to shake gently throughout.

It transpired that the couple were from the US; they belonged to a strict fundamentalist church where pretty much everything that wasn’t compulsory was forbidden. Somehow the girl had discovered Rob Bell’s ‘Velvet Elvis’ and was riveted, her soul sensing the promise of liberation. Her husband shared her excitement – but they had been conditioned to be wary: what if this was all just too good to be true – a ‘snare’? With hell always snapping at their heels, there was just one thing for it – they decided to consult with a church leader.

Unsurprisingly, the rug of hope was swiftly yanked out from under them as they were set straight: engaging with Rob Bell’s deceptive message, they were told, would hurl them onto the slippery slope towards Liberalism and ultimately an eternity without God.

So near and yet so far. The girl confided that at that point she had felt herself sinking into utter hopelessness. But her spirit had been too stirred to let go entirely. She informed God that she would indeed steer clear of Rob Bell – but asked that if there was any truth in his message, that somehow this would cross her path another way.

The couple prepared to visit their friends in England, where they accompanied them to their church – and were amazed to hear a very similar message. Since Rob Bell’s book had just been published, they assumed I had drawn from it for my talk. The fact that I hadn’t heard of him seemed to encourage them – this must be bigger than Rob Bell! As the girl sat, wondering at just how quickly they were hearing the unfamiliar message of God’s unconditional love yet again, her soul soared, and she described how she shook as she felt the sensation of bonds snapping off, liberating her from the harsh, legalistic spirituality that was all she had known.

Conforming to church teaching her entire life meant she would have come across to her non-church friends as a dour, judgemental kill-joy. Yet part of her motivation in taking an uncompromising stand for her beliefs was to save others. It’s an irony that the most sensitive people can be the very ones liable to take such a stand – the predicament of others is of far more importance to them than their personal popularity.

With the backdrop of my own experience and this girl’s dramatic personal story, I was maybe less surprised than some to see earlier this week that even in Westboro Baptist church, people can be more complex than they appear.

Megan, the daughter of the notorious Fred Phelps, who regularly turned up to carry placards on their obnoxious, high-profile ‘God hates Fags’ demonstrations, and twitter her extreme religious views, has apparently made a dramatic theological u-turn, extricating herself from both her family and her father’s church. In an interview, she explains how she finally woke up to the deep flaws in their beliefs and practices. But why had she aligned herself with this group for so long, harassing gay people and the churches that supported them? She had just wanted to use her life for good. Now that she and her sister are free to think for themselves, they are taking time to process their recovery, and consider more positive, loving ways to make their lives count.

A timely reminder that sometimes even the most apparently opinionated, intolerant and judgemental may just be idealistic, well-meaning people cruelly skewed by a harsh, controlling theology…