On March 18, 2014

God Loves Fred

““[When he heard the party] The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him.” -Luke 15 in the Parable of the Prodigal Son

Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer; nothing is more difficult than to understand him.  -Fyodor Dostoyevsky

youngfredphelpsHis name was Fred, and he was passionate about justice, he was passionate about equality and fairness. And so after Fred got his law degree, and became a civil rights lawyer. For years Fred served and fought for dis-enfranchised people who were being treated un-fairly. Eventually the NAACP gave him an award for the way he fought for the rights of African-Americans.

And then Fred Phelps left civil law and planted a church.

The Westboro Baptist Church.

As in the God-hates-fags-American-soldiers-and anyone-who’s-not-a-Phelps-church.

For years, the WBC has been picketing the most tragic of funerals, giving the most vile television interviews, and repeatedly talking about who God hates.

I’ve actually had to deal with the aftermath of some of Fred Phelps’ messes. Back in 2003, before people knew what a hate-monger the WBC was.  I lead a spring break campaign to San Francisco, to the Castro district, right after the WBC had been there yelling about God hating gay people.

For a couple of days we just hung out and handed out free water, telling people that Fred Phelps was wrong. We heard people’s stories, saw their tears and realized that some of these people actually believed him.

It was heartbreaking.

And now Fred Phelps is dying. He’s been kicked out (by his own family members) from the very church that he  started, and the hell that he helped create has started to envelope him.

And I’d like to tell Fred the same thing that we told those people he condemned. Fred you’re wrong about God, and that’s good news for you too.

A Graceless World

One of the things that is so central to Scripture but so foreign to our church cultures, is the idea that we create with our words. The Bible starts off with the famous lines, God said “Let there be Light.” And because God gets what God wants, light had no choice but to exist.

The point Genesis wants us to pay attention to is that God creates with language. He creates a world with words. The Bible tells a story in which the words we use with each other matter a lot.

We grew up saying that words can never hurt us, but does anybody really believe that? Our words create, they name, they can heal and destroy.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t say certain behaviors are wrong. But If we are Jesus followers than we need to create worlds, where no matter what, whoever you are, we welcome and see the image of God in you.

We’re not going to going to label and dismiss you. When we confront you it will not be because the world we have created is too small to deal with your sin, it will be because the world we created is large enough for you still.

Maybe you heard last week, that Mark Driscoll, the controversial pastor has once again done something controversial. He used a company that unethically helped him get his book on the New York Times Best-Seller list. When the news broke that he cheated a system to gain influence, everyone took to Twitter and Facebook to talk about it.

But over the weekend, Driscoll employed the most Christian of virtues…humility. He apologized, pretty robustly, and not many people in my social networks are talking about it. I think that’s a shame. We’re loud when we disagree and we’re silent when the wrong people do the right things.

We’ve accepted a polarized, binary view of the world and we don’t know how to be in community with people we disagree with.

We progressive Christians, the ones who used to be known for emphasizing the grace of God in the places you’d least expect it, don’t know how to forgive sin, or at least specific kinds of it. Or to use the language of the Prodigal son story, we don’t know how to let Mark back into the party.

Ministry of ReconciliationFred Phelps

I’ve noticed that for all the complaints against fundamentalism these days, we haven’t moved very far beyond it. It’s just now the fundamental foundation for many of my friends is a a kind of cultural narrative of progress.

We’ve been taught to think the world is slowly getting better, and with the right politics, organization, medicine and education we will usher in a better world. And anyone who stands in the way of that objective is vilified and written off.

I’m progressive, I want to help serve the world and my neighbor, I don’t want to have some kind of nostalgia about the past, I want to deal with the time I actually live in.

But the thing that drives me isn’t progressive politics/theology it’s reconciliation.

Here’s the thing that bothers me about the inability to reconcile with people we disagree with, even people who are blatantly wrong, and have done great evil….Do we realize the question we are actually asking and answering isn’t “Does God love Fred?” or “Should we forgive Mark Driscoll?”

The question we are really asking is “How does God view me in my sin?” In those places of my life where I don’t share with others, the parts of my heart that make me aware I’m not God’s solution to the suffering of the world, I’m also a part of the problem.

I have a hunch that forgiveness is best born out of awareness of our own sin and brokenness, and the people who are the most merciful are the ones who have received mercy in their most broken places.

I have a concern for my progressive brothers and sisters that is just as deep as my concern for my more dogmatic siblings, I don’t think we have replaced the old fundamentalists’ Gospel, we’ve just changed the labels on the categories. That is we no longer think it’s orthodoxy that earns God’s love, it is our love for justice or compassion as we define it.

If the Gospel is good news it has to be good news for the KKK and the African American civil rights workers, it has to be good news for the Westboro Baptist Church and the communities they’ve condemned.

If this is shocking to you, it might be helpful to remember just who was in the early churches. Slaves and Slave owners, pacifists and Generals, Zealots and Tax collectors. It was a community of reconciliation, the kind of community only God can create.

Because the problem at the heart of all of this is sin, and how we sin against one another in a million different ways. The part the Fred got wrong wasn’t how bad sin was, the part he missed is how good God is.

Not that God is okay with the evil of the WBC or Fred Phelps, not that he’s okay with slavery or racism or sexism or any of the ways that we have carved up the world to suit our own ends. But that God, at His core, is good.

As Fred Phelps lays dying, I know plenty of people have been hurt and hated on by this man who did so much evil. I know the natural thing to do has to be to want justice. To seek out revenge. And if you are not a Christian, I can’t imagine a reason in the world why you wouldn’t want to.

But I believe Dr. King was right, to fight the monster with the monster’s game plan is to eventually become the monster. To hate Fred Phelps and to claim God does is to invoke his idea of God and just replace the villains.

The part that Fred Phelps was wrong on wasn’t that God hates sin (and not just the sin that Phelps picked out because he doesn’t deal with it) but the universal human tendency to screw up everything.  God hates the way we destroy and use each other, how we pillage the creation, sex trafficking, corporate greed, religious self-righteous sanctimony…God hates lots of stuff.

But God never hates a person. Not Mark, not Fred, not me and not you. That’s the answer to the question we’ll all be asking when we hit bottom, and we will believe the answer we give right now about someone else, to the worst of people.

What the world needs now isn’t just pure justice and retribution. That as a sole pursuit, will eventually turn ugly (just ask Fred Phelps), what the world needs now, is what is has always needed in a world of sinners.

Grace.

P.S. If you want to tell a story that’s better than who God hates here’s a Facebook page. 

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  • Kevin Huddleston

    Thank you for these powerful and unsettling words of grace. God’s grace really is amazing and the Gospel really is good news for everyone!

  • Danny Gill

    “If the Gospel is good news it has to be good news for the KKK and the
    African American civil rights workers, it has to be good news for the
    Westboro Baptist Church and the communities they’ve condemned.”

    Well said, Jonathan. The Gospel is for everyone. This works many ways. I often use what I think of as The Subsistence Farmer in India test when I examine theological ideas. I ask myself, “Is this as true for a subsistence farmer in India as it is for a prosperous American?” That tends to separate the wheat from the chaff.

    This is an excellent article, brother. I think you only get one thing wrong. You say,
    “The part that Fred Phelps was wrong on wasn’t that God hates sin (and
    not just the sin that Phelps picked out because he doesn’t deal with
    it) . . .” This idea that Phelps or anyone else only picks out a sin to preach against because it’s not his own sin is a fallacy. It owes a lot more to popular psychology than to theology. There are many reasons to hate a particular sin (and focus on it), some bad, some good. If you carry this idea to its logical solution, you could not preach against rape unless you struggle with temptation to rape.

    Regardless, this is good stuff, Jonathan.

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  • Joe

    “We grew up saying that sticks and stones can never hurt us, but does anybody really believe that?”

    I think you mistyped that.

  • Jen

    Jonathan,
    I believe in a very scandalous grace – one that reaches into places that we can’t even imagine.

    Here and especially now, I wonder if it is a place for the church, especially the place of straight Christians to listen rather than speak.

    I lived within 90 miles of Fred and worked for a church that served in this context. The town was a military town (40% of the population) and were subject to his harmful theology. I have LGBTQ friends who have been targeted by his protests and I have been in multiple communities where he showed up to protest. Yet, as a straight woman, I was never a direct target. In these days, I am trying to listen and learn from my friends who did suffer at his hands. Maybe this is a time to be slow to speak.

  • Scott L

    Hi Jonathan,

    I just wanted to offer a few thoughts on the post. So that you’re aware, though you may remember me from Harding, I’m an out gay man and I work for the Episcopal Church. I believe deeply in a God of love, grace, forgiveness, and hospitality, and I have learned firsthand the importance of radical forgiveness, both of myself and of people that have harmed me. Forgiveness, properly understood, is central to the life of faith as I understand it. So I appreciate you engaging the topic, but I think you’ve perhaps failed to take a few things into account.

    First, I think it’s important for you to remember that you approach this conversation as a straight man. You are not the target of WBC’s protests. You are not the victim of their theology. You didn’t grow up keeping your sexuality a secret while Phelps said things publicly that your family and friends and church said privately. You’ve likely never wondered if you’ll suffer physical violence because you don’t love the right person. You’ve likely never worried about excommunication from your denomination because you fell in love.

    Second, it’s important to remember that you are a minister in a denomination that has an absolutely horrible record on LGBTQ issues. In fact, in many ways, the attitude of Churches of Christ toward LGBTQ people is distinguishable from WBC in tone only. LGBTQ people are still regularly subject to abuse in Churches of Christ. We are still excommunicated and cut off from families. We still hear hate preached in pulpits, and we still hear ourselves discussed as though we’re just another ‘issue’.

    I found one sentence in the post particularly galling: “I’ve actually had to deal with the aftermath of some of Fred Phelps’ messes. Back in 2003, before people knew what a hate-monger the WBC was. I lead a spring break campaign to San Francisco, to the Castro district, right after the WBC had been there yelling about God hating gay people.” There are at least two problems here. First, back in 2003 *a lot* of people knew what a hatemonger the WBC was. Queer people knew. The fact that you encountered this mess only in 2003 is a sign of the blindness that comes with straight privilege. Phelps protested Matthew Shepard’s funeral in 1998, and had been harassing gay folks long before that. Second, the fact that you passed out water and told people that Phelps was wrong doesn’t mean that you dealt with the aftermath. Phelps’s victims, victims not only of Phelps but of broad, entrenched, institutional homophobia, are the ones that dealt with the aftermath. You simply witnessed some of it.

    Keeping in mind your social location as a straight man pastoring a prominent congregation in a homophobic denomination, your place in this conversation isn’t to tell people how to respond to the news of Phelps’s impending demise. Not that you are necessarily wrong in your assessment: I believe in a God of love and pray that Phelps will rest in peace and rise in glory. But it simply isn’t your place (or mine) to tell Phelps’s victims how to respond. Your job is to listen. Listen to how LGBTQ folks respond. Listen to how Shepard’s parents respond. Listen to the response of families of soldiers whose funerals were protested. Some may be ready to forgive, some may need time to process, some may respond with rage, or there may be any combination of responses. The responses will be as varied as the personalities and histories of the people involved. By listening first, though, you might learn something unexpected about victims of this sort of abuse. You might learn something about the homophobia in the institution you work for. You might learn something about yourself, and you might learn something about God, even (and perhaps especially) if people don’t respond in the way you expect or think they should.

    To push people too quickly into forgiveness cheapens it and can actually reenact the abuse. I am a fan of forgiveness (who’s not?), but to rush into grace without first acknowledging the very real pain and suffering caused by Phelps makes for shallow theology and shallower relationships. Beyond that, it is not up to straight people to develop theologies of forgiveness for LGBTQ communities. That is the task of queer folks: we are the ones who have to figure out what it means to forgive people and institutions that have terrorized us (that includes the Church of Christ, by the way).

    I would encourage you to take on a posture of listening first where LGBTQ folks are concerned. You have access to a prominent pulpit, and the stakes are too high for those of us on the margins of the church.

    Peace,
    Scott Lybrand

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Hey Scott, I do remember you! I don’t have a response to your well-thought out comment right now that’s not defensive or flippant, but I wanted to get on here and acknowledge it so that you know I’m not ignoring you, and I don’t want any of my readers arguing with you/defending me. I’m glad you felt safe to push back here. Hope you’re doing well friend.

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Jen, I know you do (believe in a God of grace)!

    I get where you are coming from, and think you have a valid point.

    My intention here isn’t to speak on behalf of the LGBT community, and in fact since there are so many different perspectives within Christians/non-Christians who deal with same-sex attractions, I’m not sure anyone could articulate a universal response to any given situation. But I think you know me well enough to know I’m listening. I even sent this to a few gay friends before posting it. I’m sure there will be better thought our responses, and I welcome them.

    My point here wasn’t to respond on behalf of LGBT communities, anymore than it is to boycott the hundreds of families of soldiers or the churches that the WBC has boycotted. My point was to speak on behalf of responding to hate, and to the moment where this lightening rod of a man is passing away.

    The key sentence to me in this post was this: But God never hates a person. Not Mark, not Fred, not me and not you. That’s the answer to the question we’ll all be asking when we hit bottom, and we will believe the answer we give right now about someone else, to the worst of people.

    I believe this whole heartedly, this is not something I’m wanting for Fred, it’s for the oppressed just as much as the oppressor. I want to be patient with people as they heal, and if I was sitting with Matthew Shepherd’s family I sure wouldn’t tell them this…I’m not able to pastorally speak to every situation, but generally speaking I whole-heartedly believe this is true…and good news. Like medicine, it must be applied to different degrees and different ways, but if healing is to happen it must be applied.

    Anyway, hope that clarifies what was behind this. Thanks for weighing in.

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Joe, I totally did. I had to read it several times before I realized what they typo was! Thanks for pointing that out.

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Thanks Kevin!

  • Jen

    Thanks for responding.

    For me, this impulse here for active listening, is in part rooted in the church’s struggle (both historically and the church today) and resistance to say God loves gays. Or to say, God loves LGBT people. [We have had a much easier time saying ‘God loves our military’.] At best, the church has added an asterick – God loves gays*.

    I agree with you that words are performative. However, I don’t believe the church, especially in this conversation, gets to speak ahistorically but should consider the ways they have contributed with language.

  • Jen

    [Sorry Disqus was getting persnickety and so I had to start a new comment.]

    To use your point: But God never hates a person. I think the church has a bad track record in regard to sexual orientation. Through word and action, it had shared the message that God hates gay people. For some, it might be easier to see grace extended to Fred rather than LGBT individuals. For me, our collective sin, draws me to listening to others in this moment. The more I listen, the more it may lead me to confession and seeking forgiveness.

  • http://www.thecreativebridge.com Jon Owen

    Hi Scott. First of all I’m not here to argue with you/defend Jonathan or anything of that sort. I agree with your assessment of listening and allowing time to process, heal etc… After I had wronged someone and poured out a confession, he said a very wise thing to me. He told me he didn’t want to try to comfort me in that place of brownness, because he didn’t want to get in the way of what God was doing in my heart by means of conviction, forgiveness, dealing with me in brokenness etc… I’ll never forget that perspective. Time is a beautiful gift. However, as much as I agree with you, I have to confess a tension that I feel in this area. Forgiveness, to followers of Jesus, is not something to be worked into, but rather a command. I know it’s a command that broken hearts are easily and ready to follow, but the Spirit of Christ in us can empower us. I also know in my life, forgiveness has been part of the sanctification process. I think Jesus command for forgiveness and reconciliation is better understood as prescriptive than directive. Knowing that Jesus has our best in mind, he calls us to release ourselves from the burden of grief. It’s a ridiculously difficult command and one I don’t understand, but again, I think the Spirit of Christ in us is the only way to carry that out.

    I am not saying the LGBTQ community needs to buck up and follow this. Not at all. But for professed followers of Jesus, this will constantly be a tension we have to wrestle with. How can I forgive? Only by the power of Jesus at work in me.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I really am with you. I agree with you and Jonathan about the treasure of forgiveness, both giving anMay God d receiving. (I think this is one currency where it is more blessed to give than to receive.) But for all of us, this is not an move and there will be more discussions on this, I’m sure.

  • http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/ Richard Beck

    Hi Jonathan,
    I read this sermon (link below) today–“Fred Phelps and Our Offensive Gospel”–preached by the Rev. John Russell Stanger, who is gay and ordained in the Presbyterian church. His sermon reminded me of your post here.

    http://pluckypresby.com/fred-phelps-offensive-gospel/

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Wow! That was great! Thanks for sharing that Bro. Richard!

  • Jason Carpp

    Hi. How are you? This is the first time I’ve read about Fred Phelps (Sr.) since he passed away and (in his words) entered Hell. I’ve never met the man, or his group of Nazis he calls the Westboro Baptist Church. However, he did visit Seattle, Washington several years ago to protest against churches that support gays and lesbians.

  • Jason Carpp

    Hi. How are you? This is the first time I’ve read about Fred Phelps (Sr.) since he passed away and (in his words) entered Hell. I’ve never met the man, or his group of Nazis he calls the Westboro Baptist Church. However, he did visit Seattle, Washington several years ago to protest against churches that support gays and lesbians.