Topeka, Kansas – Dr. Stephen V. Sprinkle has posted a new article on Huffington Post Religion. You can visit the original article here. Comments and shares from the Huffington Post site are appreciated by all the readers of http://unfinishedlivesblog.com.
Rev. Fred Phelps, Founder and former Pastor of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, is dead at the age of 84. Pundits and regular people are busily dissecting the story and social significance of one of the most venom-filled ministerial lives in American history, as well as the hate-mongering “ministry” the Westboro Church became notorious for doing since 1991. What, however, is the spiritual and theological import of the life Fred Phelps lived and the religious leadership he carried out for better than two decades? What does Fred Phelps teach us about God, and the service of others in God’s name?
Dare we even speak of Rev. Phelps as a “negative saint,” the polar opposite of all Christ-like saints, given the carnage Phelps left in the lives of countless queer folk, slain service members, and cultural celebrities he and his flock picketed and condemned to eternal damnation? “Saint-language” seems blasphemous when we apply it to a man’s life so rabidly committed to eliciting the worst from the human spirit and the Christian faith. Nevertheless, every life lived has something to teach us about ourselves and God, does it not? How can we not speak of Phelps as we must speak of ourselves and all others who stand need of the amazing grace of God? Allow me to explain what I mean.
We remember the epithets Fred Phelps reveled in. He made “God Hates Fags” a standard feature of modern hate speech. We cannot erase from our minds the images of Matthew Shepard, Billy Jack Gaither, and Diane Whipple writhing in the animated hell fire that Phelps installed on his web site, complete with a background soundtrack of groans and screams to drive home the message that nothing he could imagine could be worse than to be gay and lesbian. We will never know the number of fanatics Phelps inspired by his vileness, nor the multitude of LGBTQ people young and old who felt his criticisms crush their self-esteem and cut into their souls like knives. But we have seen his kind before: Pharaoh, and Saul, Ahitophel, and Judas, to name but a few oldies but baddies. Or Roy Cohn, Senator Joe McCarthy, and “Bull” Connor to name some near contemporary bad guys. I am sure you have your own personal list. Nevertheless, Phelps and his bad seed still wind up serving God just like the best of us. That is the theological sense Fred Phelps makes. His “negative sainthood” shows us that the worst wickedness is, in the end, powerless before grace and mercy.
Karl Barth in his Shorter Commentary on Romans (SCR) and throughout the Church Dogmatics (KD and CD) teaches that the Pharaoh of the Exodus who held the Hebrew children in abject slavery with a hard heart ultimately found himself broken upon God, who uses the story of Pharaoh’s human darkness to witness to divine mercy, standing right alongside Moses who testifies to God’s liberating justice. Barth writes, “Therefore Pharaoh too serves ‘the power of God’ (SCR, 73). Barth struggled against anti-semitism and fascism with a theological strength we need to deal with homophobia and transphobia. Like the contrasting pair of Pharaoh and Moses, Barth talks about Judas Iscariot and Jesus. Barth writes that Judas, the “rejected man,” is the best pattern he can find of a person who rejected goodness, going so far as to pronounce judgment on himself, and joining Jesus in death. Yet every “rejected one” remains a witness to God, who in the end shows that the very amazing grace upon which the future depends is also there for the “rejected,” too. Barth declares: “The rejected man exists in the person of Jesus Christ only in such a way that he is assumed into His being as the elect and beloved of God . . . With Jesus Christ the rejected can only have been rejected. He cannot be rejected anymore” (KD II/2, 502; CD, 453). Fred, too!
So, does that mean that Pharaoh, or Judas, or Fred get a pass on what they do, thanks to some sort of weak-kneed universalism, the idea that God saves everyone regardless? Barth denied such a possibility: “The Church will not . . . preach a powerless grace of Jesus Christ or a wickedness of men which is too powerful for it. But without any weakening of the contrast, and without any arbitrary dualism, it will preach the overwhelming power of grace and the weakness of human wickedness in face of it” (KD II/2, 529; CD, 477). Fred Phelps and Joe McCarthy and Judas Iscariot must, in the end, answer to the same justice and grace of God their words and deeds rejected when they refused to treat all of God’s children with justice and love. The deeds of the “negative saints” of God are terrible, and it is only right that they should somehow suffer. No one knows what Fred Phelps had to face from his excommunication or upon his sick bed. But Fred and Joe and Judas depend upon and bear witness to the divine mercy, also—just like Moses and Mary and Martin Luther King Jr.
Even a “Nemesis Saint” like Rev. Fred Phelps is a witness to the divine mercy. “Saint” Pharaoh, too. And “Saint” Judas. For all the saints, pro and con, testify to the grace and justice before which we are all alike in utter need. No one I know shows the impotence of wickedness or the need of divine mercy more than Fred Phelps. And in that way, at the very least, “Saint” Fred shows me something mysteriously awesome about the amazing grace of God.
Omaha, NE – Protesters picketing a military funeral in Omaha were assaulted by a man squirting pepper spray out his pickup truck window as he drove by them on August 28. The assailant, George Vogel, 62, was arrested and charged with 16 counts of misdemeanor assault, and one felony count because the pepper spray hit a police officer. A reporter was also affected by the spray. The motorist was also charged with child neglect since his own child was in the truck at the time of the assault, according to CNN. Police confirmed that Vogel allegedly extended his arm from the cab of the Ford 150 pickup truck, and discharged a “large can” of pepper spray at the Westboro Baptist Church protesters. The funeral was being held at First United Methodist Church for the late Marine Staff Sergeant Michael Bock, 26, who died in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province on August 13. The WBC protest at Bock’s funeral is part of Phelps’s strategy to publicize his campaign against gays and lesbians by targeting fallen U.S. servicemembers, since the United States has become a “fag-enabling” nation that is under God’s wrathful judgment. Members of the church at the Omaha protest carried signs reading “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “God Blew Up the Troops” and “AIDS Cures Fags.” The pepper spray assault occurred while nearly 600 members of the Patriot Guard Riders ringed the church to prevent the protest and counter-protest from disturbing the funeral services. No members of the Riders were affected by the spray. A major case involving a challenge to free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment has grown from a 2006 protest carried out against the funeral of a soldier from Maryland, in which the father of the deceased soldier sued Phelps and the church for 5 million dollars for harassing the family during the funeral. Albert Snyder, father of the fallen soldier from Maryland, accuses Phelps and his church of emotional distress and anguish. A lower court imposed a fine of up to 8 million dollars against Westboro Baptist, which was later reduced to a 5 million dollar award to Mr. Snyder. A court of appeals overturned the verdict, citing the protections afforded by the First Amendment. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the case in October of this year. Supporters of the Snyders have lined up against defenders of freedom of speech as the case goes to the high court. Phelps continues his schedule of protests with impunity. While the content of Phelps’s protests is so disturbing that high emotions can be readily understood, the larger issue of freedom of speech and expression takes center stage for the Unfinished Lives Project. We are under no illusions about the nature of Phelps’s work. He is the most notorious homophobe of this age, and if a link could be successfully established between his hate speech and violence against LGBTQ people, as we believe does exist, he and his church members deserve the punishment of the law. But freedom of speech is a defining right guaranteed all Americans under the provisions of the Constitution. LGBTQ people are vouchsafed the right of protest and speech under the same provisions of the law, and to surrender to emotion, no matter how justified it seems in the short term would be to gag and throttle the struggle for human rights in this nation. So, regretfully, the Unfinished Lives Project must support freedom of speech, even for one of the most noxious of our enemies. We must believe that the rightness of full equality will win out in the end, no matter how spiteful the opposition becomes. And, in the spirit of appreciation for the Snyders and all other families and friends of fallen U.S. servicemembers, we offer out sympathy and condolences.
Topeka, Kansas – Steve Drain, a member of Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church, is proud of his 7-year-old son Bo. Young Bo has learned to hate on a grand scale: Gays, “hundred and hundreds of Jews,” all citizens of the United States, are bound for eternal hellfire. ABC News 20/20 reports that from the cradle, children of the notorious, gay-hating Topeka church are taught that anyone who violates their interpretation of the Bible is bound for everlasting punishment. Gay people are particularly singled out in Bo’s young mind, thanks to the indoctrination he has received from his father, mother, and teachers at WBC. Bo sincerely believes gays by the millions are headed for damnation: “You get destroyed and you get put in hell. Hell is like a burning place where it can never be stopped, burning, and it can burn millions of people every day,” he said. Because the government allows diversity, and for the most part does not punish lesbians, transgender people, and gays, Bo has been taught that all Americans are de facto “fag enablers.” His father, Steve, was so impressed by the message of Phelps back in 2000 when he came to film a story on the church, he returned to Florida, packed up his family, and moved them to Topeka to join the 70-member congregation. He and his wife Luci live just outside the church compound with their four children. The allure of the church is not unlike other utopian, world-hating sects from the past: certainty based on a fundamentalist reading of the Bible and morality, security in a swiftly changing world, salvation from hellfire, and purity from the stains of sin and immorality. The Southern Poverty Law Center has highlighted this church before, and others like it because of the potential for violence that religious bigotry and hate speech breed. While the connection between indoctrination in hatred and physical violence is hotly debated, and courts have upheld the first amendment rights of groups like Westboro Baptist Church to protest at synagogues, LGBT churches, schools, and the funerals of fallen U.S. soldiers, there is little doubt that when fringe personalities act violently to harm vulnerable individuals and groups, “true believers” like WBC see the hand of God in the deeds. When the Drains take their children to picket the funerals of military service members killed in the line of duty, they and the other members of WBC praise God for taking the life of another “fag enabler.” According to ABC’s 20/20, Steve Drain, Bo’s father, said the church arrives at the funerals to let families know their loved ones are in hell because they fought for a supposedly damned country. “Remember what we all say: No God fearing man or woman would lift a finger fighting for a country awashed in sin like this,” Steve Drain said to his son. Though the Drains have an estranged eldest daughter, Lauren, who rejects the hatred her family and WBC has taught her, the younger children are content to protest, picket, and preach for hate, at least for now. Bo tells ABC News, “I’m preaching and I’m going with this church, and that’s what the church says. I’m going to go with that my entire life”—A sobering thought for Father’s Day.