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