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.
Arlington, Virginia – Klansmen joined in a counter-protest attempting to screen military funerals from a Westboro Baptist Church picket at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day weekend. The Fred Phelps-founded protestors, made infamous by their “God Hates Fags” campaign and their more recent demonstrations at the funerals of fallen United States military servicemembers, found themselves confronted by a number of members of the Knights of the Southern Cross Soldiers of the Ku Klux Klan, a racist KKK cell based in Powhatan, Virginia, according to the Hatewatch post of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Including the KKK, 70 counter-protestors waved American flags and held up pro-USA signs, blocking the funerals in progress from the demonstrators holding signs brandishing such slogans as “Fag Nation,” “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Pray for More Dead Soldiers,” and “Thank God for IED’s,” typical of the anti-American message propounded by the Topeka, Kansas Baptist church in its continuing opposition to “homosexual lifestyles.”
Dennis LaBonte, spokesperson for the Knights of the Southern Cross Soldiers, said that their counter-protest was in defense of freedom of speech and in support of the U.S. military. LaBonte told reporters that it was the military in this country that fought to defend the rights of groups like Phelps’s Topeka, Kansas church which recently successfully defended itself before the U.S. Supreme Court against a suit brought by the parent of a Marine killed in combat–a soldier whose funeral had been picketed by the Westboro zealots to condemn the “fag-enabling ways” of the nation. “It’s the soldier that fought and died and gave them that right,” LaBonte said. Responding to the Klan counter-protestors, Abigail Phelps, an attorney as are many of her siblings, complained to CNN that people should not “idolize” soldiers who died in national service, or anyone else who died in an “unrighteous cause.” When directly asked about her reaction to the presence of KKK members in opposition to the Westboro Baptist demonstration, she told the reporter, “They have no moral authority on anything.” According to yourblackworld.com, Phelps went on to say, “People like them say it’s white power … white supremacy. The Bible doesn’t say anywhere that it’s an abomination to be born of a certain gender or race.”
Nationalism makes strange bedfellows, indeed–enlisting bigots in competing demonstrations against other bigots. No one in the LGBTQ community is under any illusion about the feelings of the KKK toward them, however. As the SPLC points out, the Klan hates gay people only slightly less than they hate Jews, African Americans, and “mongrel races.” As one blog commentator wrote, “On the one hand, this could be laughable, but it is not. One could also [take this news] with a grain of salt. Neither side are LGBT friendly. Let them fight among themselves.”
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.
Topeka, KS – Alexander McQueen, renowed gay fashion designer, died on February 11. That same day, Fred Phelps, founder and chief screed-monger of Westboro Baptist Church, issued an announcement declaring that WBC would demonstrate at McQueen’s funeral “in religious protest and warning” (see WBC web site graphic to the left). Alexander McQueen (1969-2010) was a genius in the fashion industry who was named British Designer of the Year four times, and most recently was honored by Queen Elizabeth II with the rank of CBE (Commander of the British Empire) in 2003 in recognition of his lifetime achievement. His obituary in The Times of London notes that he was formerly head designer at Givenchy and then moved into partnership with Gucci. The shock value of his designs drew attention to his genius, and he counted Rihanna, Björk, and Lady Gaga among his more famous clients. McQueen’s sexual orientation was no secret throughout the fashion world. Phelps announced that his church was picketing McQueen’s funeral because he spent his life “teaching rebellion against God” and “committing crimes against God,” presumably by living openly as a talented, notable gay man. Phelps also used the moment to slam Lady Gaga, calling her a “proud whore” who had “blood on her hands” for wearing McQueen’s creations. Though Phelps and his independent Baptist Church are engaging in protected speech under the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights, their scramble for contributions and attention goes beyond innocence when they lambaste fallen U.S. servicemembers, synagogues and churches,LGBT people, and celebrity figures under the banner of freedom of expression/freedom of religion. It would be a mistake to underestimate the effect of this brand of hate speech on the gullible and impressionable–when direct links between hate speech and violence can be established, the full force of law must be brought to bear in order to prevent harm and loss of life. The link between hateful speech and hate crimes continues to be hotly debated, but though Phelps may not be guilty of hate violence yet, he and his followers have made their brand of religion look silly. Should anyone take him seriously? Alexander McQueen may rest undisturbed by the rantings of the likes of Phelps. If anything, Lady Gaga can bask a bit in the knowledge that she has made WBC’s “Anti-Christ List” along with so many other worthy people. The King James Version of the Book of James 3:11 reads: Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter? Phelps twists the goodness of religion turning it into a bitter hate-filled caricature that sours what it touches. Exponents of Good religion, the Golden Rule/Great Commandment kind, must work overtime to repair the damage to faith communities that Christian jihadists like WBC do in the name of God.
Kansas City, MO – In a report issued by the Kansas City Police Department, the story of a straight man who wore pink to aid breast cancer charities was gay bashed by men at a Kansas City Chiefs game in October 2009. The victim, Sean McGarrigle, a father of three, had volunteered to wear pink clothing to draw attention to National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. He was vending pink ribbons, shirts, hats and other items to raise money for the cause, and had been successful at the Chiefs game that day, raising in excess of $900, the most of any volunteer at the stadium. It was the third quarter when McGarrigle decided to go home after a good day full of pleasant contacts with the fans. The Kansas City Star reports that as he was leaving Arrowhead Stadium, two men who appeared to be drunk began harassing him because of his clothing which clearly bore the breast cancer logo. They used homophobic slurs as they badgered him, demanding that he take off his pink hat and shirt because it offended them. An onlooking fan tried to get the two men to leave McGarrigle alone, but they would not relent. Finally, McGarrigle turned to confront them, saying, “Listen, I’m doing this to raise money. You guys are giving Kansas City a bad name.” He turned to down a grassy embankment to his car when he heard footsteps overtaking him. The two men caught up to McGarrigle, and one of them punched him in the face. The second man grabbed him in a headlock and threw him to the ground. Both of them laughed as they kicked him in the ribs. McGarrigle managed to escape them, he told police, and hid in his car. His assailants continued to search for him in the rows of autos in the parking lot. McGarrigle got his car out on the road, only to be pursued by his attackers who raced behind him in their car. They followed him onto Interstate 435 all the way into Kansas, pulled up even with his car, and shouted slurs at him as they sped down the highway. McGarrigle slowed down until they passed, and he lost them. He suffered a bruised face, sore ribs, and an awful fright. Under other circumstances, the hate attack could have turned out much worse. KC police report that they have recorded triple the number of hate crimes in their city for 2009, over the same period in 2008.