Fred Phelps and the Redeeming Possibilities of God’s Love

The media has given an inordinate amount of attention to Fred Phelps and his Church, Westboro Baptist Church (I can’t link directly to the site since my Internet filter blocks it), in Topeka, Kansas (USA) in recent years. This is solely due to his pronouncement that God hates. It started with homosexuality as the object of God’s hatred and, lately, has evolved into a broad ‘God hates America‘ campaign.

He is best known for his recent practice of picketing of the funerals of dead soldiers, proclaiming that this is what will happen to American servicemen because of America’s failure to see gays as God sees them (according to the Bible interpreted by Fred Phelps.)

Most recently he revealed plans to picket the funeral of 9-year-old Tuscon, Arizona shooting victim, Christina Green. This was prevented because of a radio station graciously offering Phelps free airtime in exchange for his absence at the funeral.

It is interesting to note that two of Phelps’ adult sons are now atheists, rejecting the faith of their father and distancing themselves from the family cesspool of hate. Fred himself, who is shown to be spiritually, emotionally and physically abusive towards his wife and children by both sons’ written accounts, has nothing to say about their defection from his brand of ‘the faith’ and considers his sons as enemies of God and no longer amongst ‘the Elect.’

Nate Phelps tells his story on his website under the title The Uncomforatble Grayness of Life. He shows how the abuse suffered at the hands of his father turned him from God (after all, how could you believe in an angry, hate-filled, vengeful God like his?). After many years, he found refuge in an atheistic worldview.

His words give a sense of what Fred Phelps is all about:

My father is a self-styled Primitive Baptist, adhering to the teachings of John Calvin. The acronym TULIP defines the basic tenets of this branch of Protestantism.
“T” stands for “Total Depravity”
“U” stands for “Unconditional Election”
“L” stands for “Limited Atonement”
“I” stands for “Irresistible Grace and
“P” stands for “Perseverance of the Saints”

But the heart of Calvinism is the doctrine of absolute predestination, which posits that in the council halls of eternity past, an omniscient and omnipotent god preordained who would be saved, and who would be damned.  Mankind would have no say or choice in this, since they are dead in their trespasses and sin.  If you are selected you gain eternal life.  If you lose, you suffer the most extreme physical and mental anguish forever. My father has simply refined Calvin’s doctrine to the point where the vast majority of us are going to hell.  And he and his followers are among the privileged few chosen  by God.

This doctrine is very important to understanding the Westboro Baptist Church.  My father, and those who follow him, are not preaching to try to convince people of their truth.  Unlike street evangelists, who are trying to convert people, my father has no intention of converting anyone, since conversion is impossible.  You’re either chosen, or you’re not.  To illustrate, in the mid 90’s my father was a guest on a radio talk show hosted by a popular Christian apologist named Rich Buehler.  Mr. Buehler suggested that my father’s failure at bearing any fruit from his evangelizing efforts might point to some error in his theology.  With typical aggresion my father barked back at him:  “That’s not the test!!  The test is fidelity in preaching!”

Although Calvin’s teachings were used as a general foundation for my father’s faith, he was more than willing to make “adjustments” wherever he felt necessary.  One of our earliest exposures to his personal revisions was his absolute rejection of, and intolerance towards, Christmas. The doctrine of “Sola Scriptura”, or “By Scripture Alone”.  argues that any doctrine or belief not taught directly in the Bible is false.  From that my father concluded that since the Bible makes no reference to Christmas, or celebrating the birth of Christ, the real children of god would not participate in such a pagan ritual.

In practice, this meant that not only did we not celebrate Christmas, but that we had to actively reject anything connected to it.   So, for example, if they sang Christmas carols in class at school, we had to leave the classroom and go to the library.  One of the effects of his policies – at least partially intentional — was to isolate his children and make us feel different. As he would say, “I got Bible for that”: In First John 2 the writer admonishes: “Do not love the world or anything in the world…” My father was never one to act passively or even moderately to biblical instructions.  If he was instructed not to love the world he would actively hate it!
Throughout the years of my youth, he systematically expressed his hatred for each of our neighbors, and for the entire community – usually directly to their faces.  For him, this had the effect of isolating us further…just as god had instructed.

We learned that every thought and deed was laced with moral implications, that every decision was a decision for or against god’s will.  If a judge ruled against one of my father’s clients, his raging eventually and inevitably became a righteous rant about the judge defying god, and attacking his people.  Our father explained to us over and over about how our hearts were deceitful and desperately wicked.  Our education about the world was profoundly colored by this fundamental assumption.
One of my earliest doubts about our faith rose from the question that if, in fact, the Adamic race is so thoroughly cursed with this moral corruption, how is it that we so willingly turn to the writings of corrupt men to find our salvation?

Many Sunday sermons were spent poring over the nuances of Old Testament stories where Yahweh had brought his people to the point of despair then delivered their enemies into their hands with some violent, miraculous intervention.  While it was clear that god was unyielding toward his enemies, it was equally clear that he seemed quite willing and even eager to violently strike down his appointed ones at the slightest provocation.

This violence was a fact of life in our home, and is interwoven from my earliest memories as a child.  Already facing the responsibilities of a wife and 13 children, my father made the decision to go to law school.  The physical and mental demands led him to take prescription amphetamines to keep him going.  Barbiturates were soon added to the mix to help him sleep at night.  The combination of stress and this chemical cocktail fueling his system meant that his temper was quick, violent, and indiscriminate.

Despite these problems, my father graduated from law school near the top of his class; but getting admitted to the bar was an entirely separate challenge, as nobody in the legal community was willing to vouch for him.  Within a few years of starting up his practice, he was brought up on ethics charges that led to a 2-year suspension from the State bar.  Of course, this was all interpreted by him as the actions of god’s enemies trying to destroy him and his church.

Currently, images of my nieces and nephews carrying signs with hateful messages flash across the media.  All of these young children deliberately placed in harm’s way, by those who are charged with their safety.  It reminds me of some of the events that followed my father’s suspension.

The suspension meant the loss of our family’s primary source of income; so my father came up with the idea of having the children go out and sell candy for the church.  At first, it started as an interesting challenge to see who could sell the most candy to our neighbors; but that market soon dried up, and we still needed money.  Soon, we were making weekend trips through the Midwest, from Omaha to Wichita to Kansas City.  During summer holidays we would spend 15 hours a day, with10 kids at a time, canvassing large territories, and generating thousands of dollars in candy sales.

It didn’t take us long to figure out that one of the easiest ways to make money was to hit the bars in the evening.  Friday and Saturday night would find 10 to 12 year old children working their way through dark taverns, selling their candy while strippers performed a few feet away.  More than once, the violence that is inevitable in such places resulted in direct injury to one of us.  Yet in spite of this obvious danger, we were required to continue this for over seven years.

Ironically, twice on every Sunday we’d present ourselves before the lord, as our father identified and railed against the rampant evils of the world. (read the full story here. Read Mark Phelps’ story here.)

It’s so easy for me to sit back in my more liberal-minded arrogance and point the finger at Fred Phelps and his misguided congregation/family.

Too easy. I daresay it comes naturally.

I could even blame the media for creating such a monster by their constant attention to such a person, giving him and his cause celebrity status.

I may even blame the Christian Church in America for historically creating a climate in which extreme fundamentalism is seen as acceptable or normal, or even encouraged.

It’s too easy to point the finger because I, like Fred, have moments when I also have a disdain for certain ideas, teachings, people, interpretations, or organisations. By drawing attention to him, I console myself that there is someone out there who is filled with more (or stronger) hatred than I and is more worthy of people’s distrust, fear, and anger.

Truth is, the only thing that keeps me from becoming a ranting lunatic in these moments is a constant gratitude for the grace of God in my life. You see, at some point in my life I came to understand that, left to my own devices, I could become very bitter, angry, and hateful (just ask my rommates in College–I was the ultimate caustic letter-writing machine!) But when I understood–not in my mind as in some intellectual knowledge, but in my heart as a real experience–the absolute and unconditional love of God for everyone God has created, that’s when the animosity, the bitterness, the feelings of repulsion, the fear of being overcome by evil, melted away.

There are ocassions, when I revisit stories such as Nate’s and Mark’s, that hte old flame of evil-for-evil is fanned.

But at such times, I look at the cross of Jesus and, in my heart, I know he died to heal this as well.

St John wrote: ‘There is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out fear.’ We could take the word ‘fear’ and substitute any one of those diseased emotions: hatred, bitterness, anger, envy, jealousy, malice. God’s love is so big that in a heart filled with God’s love there can be no room for such things.

My prayer is that God will continue to fill my heart with that perfect love, so that all that is not love will be squeezed out, smothered, and die.

Then I will be able to say to Fred Phelps and those like him, ‘What you’re doing is so wrong, and against what I know to be the nature of God. In spite of this, you are worthy of God’s love and have value as a person God has created. Because of my unswerving belief in the redeeming possibilities found in the love of God, I love you and want you to experience God’s love in your life in a fresh, meaningful, and restorative way. Peace be with you.’

(Even while I write that prayer, I hesitate . . . because deep down I still feel the resentment of the older brother who, in bitterness and unforgiveness, refused to welcome the Prodigal back into the family. God help me.)

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