Fred Phelps RIP

Fred Phelps died.

And now words are getting spilled. I will add a few letters to the end of this era.

Like all responsible mainline Protestants, he outraged me. He said what? How dare he! He was giving Christians a bad reputation.

On the other hand, Christians were already doing that.

I would get angry, imagine my own counter protest, invent signs in my mind.

Once I grew tired of my own outrage, it became clear Westboro Baptist Church was barely a church. It was a family business. Nor were they in any sense effective: their outrageousness forced other Christians to moderate their equally pernicious language.

Marriage equality continued. Possibly, because of the utter ridiculousness of his project, faster.

I can’t think of a single religious person I know, or even one I do not know, who would want to be identified with the antics of Westboro Baptist.  

So all that anti-gay protesting? Theater. Not that WBC thought they were performing, but they definitely were.  They were playing a part in orchestrating a response, one that was deliberate and scripted.

I began to experience reading about Westboro as if they were a travelling sideshow. I found my own personal, perpetual, outrage morphing into a deep sense of incomprehension bordering on entertainment. I didn’t understand what they were saying or doing. They were a spectacle speaking a completely different language, whose intentions were obscure.

And so the best responses to Westboro were ones that treated them like performance art. Counter “protestors” wrote signs like God Hates Figs. God hates Signs. God hates Little Tiny Fuzzy Kittens. When faced with hyperbole, go with it. Can I add a few? God hates low fat yogurt and toe fungus.

Sometimes I feel WBC was a huge diversion. Many other groups not only teach the same beliefs, but they organize and lobby. That’s where we should be resisting. But it’s hard not to watch the circus.

The internet asks for prayers, to not get caught up in returning hate for hate. Such a view is faithful and reasonable. But the ease for which I can do this is because, to be honest, I was never harmed by the man. His outrage was never my own. He was tired, angry, sick. He was pitiful.  In the end, the play was outrageous, so he got what he wanted: attention. I gave some to him. But I’ll looking forward to the moment I don’t care.

As our country forgets how to fear gay people, he will become a curio.

Rumors abound that Phelps had gay tendencies himself. It fits what Episcopal Clergy have known: the closet is the most violent place for a gay person. That rage turns inward killing the soul; and it turns outward wreaking its own havoc.

My real sympathy lies with his children and the abuse that they experienced first hand. I admire their resilience.

So my wish? In heaven, he’s out of the closet, and enjoying himself for the first time. Let him become, instead, an angel who liberates others from the self-hate they find being inflicted upon others.

I’ll let others bless the man. I neither celebrate nor mourn – the family and his enemies can do that. The rest of us? Now, to more important matters.

God Loves a Bully

Over the last few weeks, several teens over the last few weeks have committed suicide.  The pundits and the prophets have been reflecting about the problem of bullying.

To some, the current discussion seems different than the everyday cruelty of a group of teenagers or children testing out their power, their desire to determine who is in and who is out.  It may be how easy technology connects us to each other and makes harming others easy.  Give a teen ager a cellphone, a twitter account and Myspace and it’s hard to avoid the potential for taunting, teasing and emotional brutality.

Most of us have experienced fickle friendships, inconvenient infatuations, and the occasional betrayal, and  the disinvitation to a party.  It’s not just those who played Dungeons and Dragons and ran the math team; the awkward, poor and pudgy.   Even the talented find themselves harassed by the envious and resentful.

But bullying isn’t just a confined to high school or prisons.  A waitress related the story of a internet tycoon who threatened to have her fired waving around a couple dollars, declaring his superiority; the unemployed are taunted by those who shout at them, “can’t you just get a job?”

The teased are offered advice:  walk away; ignore the bully; say “thanks for sharing” and roll your eyes.   But when these become impossible, the victim becomes both enraged and powerless, at which point they turn upon themselves.
The heart of the Christian story is about bullying, although a more academic word could be “scapegoating.”    The victim takes the place of the rest of the class, who is terrified of breaking the rule of power the bully has.    One person bullies and the others follow.

And the consequence of standing up for oneself, or for others, is intrinsically risky.  It requires being strong enough to tell the truth; to resist manipulation; to take the side of someone who is defenseless.   That strength is learned, and it is fostered through love, the encouraging support of family and friends who can’t always be present.

Christians have themselves been bullies.   Our anti-semitism, gay-baiting and alliance with racial supremacists have enabled sorts of Christians to justify all sorts of cruelty.  And yet, it would take a certain kind of blindness not to see that how progroms, gay-bashing and lynching are analogous to the cross.   The cross signifies this:  we scapegoat people, and it does not have to be that way.  Any religion that denies the brutal fact of this all too human tendency also denies our own inclination and power to hurt others, if only to protect ourselves.

There are good reasons for us to turn away from the cross.   To be so humiliated, diminished, embarrassed is to suck the life out of someone; to render them ashamed and powerless.     This is one reason the cross was so offensive to imperial religion.  Jesus remained weak and powerless – all too human.  What kind of God is this?  A bullied one.  And nobody wants to be on that side.

His response, of course, was remarkable.   It was not to punish those who crucified him; rather, he instead said, “peace be with you.”   The mark of those who follow Christ would be fearlessness in standing against injustice; and reconciliation with those who killed him.  We need not be afraid of the bully; we may pity them.  Instead of fear, a transformation – and an offering of mercy.

On Rick Warren and Uganda

Filed under Late than Never. Warren condemns the Ugandan Law.

There is a good reason people are confused: Warren is speaking to two audiences. First, his own. The homophobes. If he gets too liberal he loses credibility.

Second, non-homophobes who don’t trust him. He wants them to know he’s not an idiot.

Warren is a little different than other evangelicals: gay people are a second or third order issue. For most of the Christian right, homosexual fervor is a way of raising money. For him, his view of homosexuality is a code for “I still have moral authority.”

His own feelings are probably a bit conflicted. He’s committed to the traditional idea of marriage, yes, but he’s honestly not interested in killing gays. He has enough of a conscience to be offended by a law that executes gay people. If he were to change his mind, he’d probably lose 90% of his people. I’d be happy if he just gets them to be distracted by other issues where we can agree on, like climate change or female genital mutilation.

Could he be the person who opens up some space for safety among gays in Uganda? Warren is like a rock star there. His books are second only to the bible. He could pull it off. And I’d be happy if your average Ugandan gay could just not be killed. They listen to him because he’s an effective moral authority for them. Still, it comes at the expense of his desire to have authority here in the US as well.

Maddow, however, does expose Warren’s attempts to have it both ways. Still, the media might not let him. Remember – most of the media doesn’t understand religion as language: they see it as a series of intellectual propositions that have to calculate.

Father Jake discusses: The Ugandan Trade: Death Penalty for Conversion Clause

The Manhattan Declaration

An obscurantist piece of theological and historical illiteracy, featuring a who’s who of the old time religion, including the man who wants to be the mostests, Fr. Duncan.

God Bless Them. May they be called to repentance.

Hugo says it’s cheap.

The Rev. Dr. Christian Troll is thinking strategically. Fr. Tobias would rather be in the Bronx.