As I continue work on The Goodness Project, I can't ignore the day's news: The Rev. Fred Phelps gets to make his case to the U.S. Supreme Court today. A friend noted this morning that all the media attention is probably a dream come true for Phelps.
I suspect she's right, but I've watched Phelps and the Westboro Church for 25 years now. I live quite close to them in Kansas. Whatever joy today brings, I think their dreams and their lives must be hell on earth. Let me explain.
Phelps claims to know the path to goodness -- a path that in his church twists through rage, hatred and delight over death and suffering. Phelps' fury at gays knows no bounds. His rage at anyone who disagrees with him is equally savage. His theology -- such as it is -- was once summed up on another blog of mine by one of his followers:
You cannot understand the love of God until you understand His hate. You must understand that certain (most people) people will be cast into Hell, and some (a very small remnant) will be saved.
This is the theology of God as a violently abusive father. Pitiful humans must learn the rules, toe the line, sit up straight, eat all their vegetables, never speak unless spoken to, never talk back, ignore their own experiences and life lessons and do whatever Daddy says, or face a righteous beating. The ultimate beating, of course, is Hell. This is theology stripped of all compassion, all love.
Can you imagine living like that? What terror that must spark. What if you misunderstand the rules? What if you can't force your mind into this narrow hole in the ground? What if you were, perchance and by God, born gay or transgendered or in any way different from what Phelps defines as right? And what if you retain compassion for the grieving families at the funerals you picket?
The Westboro Baptist Church is so tiny because it's largely Phelps family. People are born into this church, and to leave it is to leave one's family behind and be shunned. Several of his children have done so. I've been told that at least one had to climb out of a window to get away. I suspect that some of his grandchildren have also left.
Consider the choice facing a loving child or grandchild in this family. Forever walk away from your mother and father and the only life you've known, or stay, picket funerals and knowingly inflict suffering on others. Be shunned by your family or live in a slough of hate, fury and fear.
Phelps says he's doing right. As his follower explained to me:
You say we missed what Jesus had to say about love. Well, you are wrong. He said to love your neighbour as yourself, but you don't have a clue how to truly do this. You think this means to coddle people in their sins, don't you. It really means that you are supposed to rebuke your neighbour of his sins and warn him that his sins are taking him to hell if he doesn't repent...
And do as much as possible to bash your neighbors into submission? So they don't sin? As you sin by trying to torment them into goodness? How exactly does that work? Is it like a father who tries to beat the gay out of his son? And if that father doesn't use a baseball bat, but instead resorts to words by ridiculing, shaming, harassing, attacking, is that right? Is emotional torture OK?
I believe the First Amendment right to free speech is one of the greatest gifts ever bestowed. I have no idea what right and good decision the Supreme Court should make. All I know is that goodness isn't found in screaming at a grieving father that you're thrilled his son is dead. Even a quiet picket line has no speck of goodness in it. I don't think anyone's funeral should be picketed, not even that of the preacher Phelps.
This man and his followers claim to preach goodness. They claim to do good, but this isn't any goodness I recognize. All I see is tragedy. For the people Westboro pickets. For the people trapped in Fred Phelps' hellish church.