Who wants people to hate God and go to hell? Satan and Westboro Ba*t*** Church, that’s who.
The thought occured to me a few weeks ago that, objectively speaking, the activities of Westboro “Baptist” Church would turn people away from God by so badly misrepresenting Him. Their primary misrepresentation is that God hates people (or at least some of them) and wishes them ill. Remember that they first became infamous for the website grotesquely named “God hates fags.”
As a result, I formulated the notion of referring to them as “Westboro Bastard Church” because God obviously was not their real Father. (Well, actually, the order of things is probably reversed there. I probably thought of calling them bastards even before it occurred to me that God truly was not their father. I never said I wasn’t a sinner.)
Having arrived intuitively at the thought that their activities were repulsive and would drive people away from God, I was not entirely surprised to hear an NPR story that unmasked this repulsive “church” and revealed that, through a twisted worldview bolstered by some Scripture-twisting, driving people away from God and into hell is exactly what they want to do:
Shirley Phelps-Roper, the church spokeswoman, says the members want God to punish Americans for tolerating homosexuality. They picket funerals to make people angry, she says: They want people to reject God and be condemned to hell.
“Our job is laid out,” she says, in comments sprinkled with biblical references. “We are supposed to blind their eyes, stop up their ears and harden their hearts so that they cannot see, hear or understand, and be converted and receive salvation.”
Words almost fail me, but words I shall add.
First, if NPR has that quote correct (NPR is apparently its first appearance), I do not hesitate to call it “demonic.” Most churches, however screwed up they may be in manifold ways, understand that they are to evangelize, calling people to conversion. Some pursue it so relentlessly and calculatedly that it’s reminiscent of a Lothario with notches on his bedpost, but that’s another topic.
Second, Proverbs 6:16-19 talks of “abominations” that gets a little less play these days than another one:
These six things doth the LORD hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him: A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, An heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, A false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren.
Sound like any Topeka “church” you’ve read about within the last 30 seconds? (If you think it sounds like me, hold on.)
Third, God is so notoriously forgiving that a certain Old Testament figure ran away from the command to go preach to wicked Nineveh because he was just about sure that they would respond, be converted, and then he’d look like a fool. So he got on a ship headed the other way, and ended up encountering a great fish.
Puked up on shore, he took himself by the scruff of the neck, went to Nineveh, told them to repent because God was going to overthrow their city in three days.
And they did repent. And God relented. Jonah was really honked off, having been made to look the fool.
Nobody’s going to make a fool of Fred Phelps and his band of 6-fingered followers. They’re going to Nineveh and telling people that God is hateful and nasty and causes Ninevite soldiers to die because Nineveh is too damned cozy with Sodom. “Curse God and die” is their tacit message.
Fourth, the Westboro Bastard view of the world is, oddly, quite congruent with a prominent thread in America’s religious history. Somehow, in my childhood faith (which consciously commenced so early that you might think I was lying if I told you), I had little doubt that God loved me. My earliest memory of that is my sense that something I had just done “disappointed Jesus” — not that it infuriated him or made him want to send me to hell, but that it disappointed him. You can’t hardly disappoint somebody who hates you.
But somewhere along the way, as I grew up and got intellectually sophisticated, I lost that. The God who loves me subtly morphed into Jonathan Edwards “Angry God:”
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince ….
I am aware that such thinking, a reflection of the society of despotic and prickly nobility in which it was hatched originally, is the tacit teaching of the most rigorous forms of Calvinism. The influence of Calvinism on the Puritans, which echoes still today, is why Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of of an Angry God” is rightfully a part of our American literary canon.
Indeed, I ruefully acknowledge that I was an ardent Calvinist who seriously flirted with those most rigorous forms. It created a sort of impervious if tautological system whereby to make faux sense of the ways of Him whose ways are beyond our limited understanding. Edwards again:
“There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God.” — By the mere pleasure of God, I mean his sovereign pleasure, his arbitrary will, restrained by no obligation, hindered by no manner of difficulty, any more than if nothing else but God’s mere will had in the least degree, or in any respect whatsoever, any hand in the preservation of wicked men one moment.
“Mere.” “Sovereign.” “Arbitrary.” “Unrestrained by obligation.” Ours obviously is not to reason why.
For more than 2000 years, dating back to Plato, it has been known that the views of God we hold shape the kinds of people we become. There were certain myths that consequently were withheld from the hearing of children, depending on how they portrayed the gods.
Fred Phelps is Jonathan Edwards on steroids, only less eloquent. Keep thinking of God as Edwards thought of God, and you, too, could become Fred Phelps some day. He once was pretty mainstream and merely wanted to clean up a park.
Fifth, I have little hope for the salvation of those who think like the Westboro Bastards. If you’ve adopted, or wandered into, a Christian tradition that thinks or talks like Jonathan Edwards, even a little, you need to get out. There is another, more wholesome, way to think about God.
Our newspaper has a “Rapid Response” question from time to time that elicits 50-words-or-less on matters of topical interest. (Lots of people read the paper for the opinions page, including seeing what their friends and neighbors are saying in letters and rapid responses.) I take “Rapid” seriously, and don’t labor more than 5-10 minutes on a response if I make one. Of the Westboro Baptist victory in the Supreme Court, I opined that there’d likely be a higher proportion of Westboro Baptists in hell than of American soldiers.
I believe that. We know that the Westboro Bastards are by self-selection a band of depraved haters. If ever we doubted that, their admission revealed by NPR (“NPR,” I repeat, for those who want to defund it as just another news source among many, although they were channeling an intrepid newspaper religion reporter) should lay doubt to rest. We don’t know that about American soldiers. Not by a long shot.
I’m even going to be so bold as to suggest that that there likely will be a higher proportion of Westboro Baptists in hell than of American gays and lesbians.
You heard me right. I don’t care if the Westboro Bastards have every one of them “prayed the ‘sinner’s prayer’.” So have many gays and lesbians. And many gays and lesbians have far better internalized the prayer of the Publican and “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” than has, apparently, anyone from Westboro Bastard. You just don’t hear from them because they’ve not delusionally turned their same-sex attraction into a virtue to be trumpeted, or over which to confront anyone who disapproves.
As I became Orthodox, a phrase from the benediction in the liturgy and other services captured my heart and drew it back into childlike trust. After invoking God’s blessing, the benediction adds “forasmuch as He is good and loves mankind.” Another motif is that God is love in the most radical sense because the Holy Trinity is, and always has been, triadic, and thus capable of love in a way a mere “monad” is not.
That wasn’t what consciously led me to Orthodoxy, but it’s part of what keeps me there. It’s sinking into my bones and marrow. I have a lot of trouble with “us versus them” thinking as a result.
And so, finally, despite my visceral reactions, I must admit that God even loves the Westboro Baptist Church members, hateful and demonic though their behavior may be. In a sense, they’re still His children — the work of His hands — and he wills them to repent and be saved.
They may be sorely deluded. They may require exorcism. They may go to their graves in the smug Pharisaic glow of not being like that fag over there in the other corner. That’s their choice.
But I’m going to do my part:
Dear Westboro People:
Repent! Four of Fred’s family have fled already! It’s not too late! The Bridegroom comes in the middle of the night (if the kool-aid doesn’t come first)!
If they take me up on that, I promise not to go pout under a plant.