Thursday, March 20, 2014

Why Hatred Cannot Go Unchallenged

Fred Phelps, founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, has died at the age of 84. Over the last few days, the responses have ranged from contempt to compassion. I want to address the latter.

We've all heard of the phrase "hate the sin, but not the sinner." Its origins date back to St. Augustine, but it is more commonly and accurately associated with Gandhi. The meaning should be self-explanatory. It is the sin which must be condemned; it is God's place to judge the sinner. To Christians, it is a stern warning. Since we are all sinners, in that we fall short of the standards set by Jesus, who among us is fit to judge another's sin?

In the marvelously redemptive song, "Down There By the Train," Tom Waits writes, "There's no eye for an eye, there's no tooth for a tooth, I saw Judas Iscariot carrying John Wilkes Booth." Imagine a scenario in which two people with such sorted and despicable histories could still find forgiveness and peace. To many, it seems impossible. And yet the reality is we really don't know. All we can proceed on is what is at hand.

The Westboro Baptist Church is a church in name only. What it really is is a den of hate-filled mongers posing as Christians. As such, what it represents should be despised and detested by anyone with a shred of decency, regardless of religious persuasion. As its founder, Phelps played an integral role in spreading its poison over the populace. That he left the church several decades ago does not excuse his conduct, nor erase the damage it caused. Hence, his legacy in this world will forever be tarnished.

I confess that I am in a bit of a conundrum here. My faith tells me that Tom Waits is right; that everyone has a chance at redemption. But the part of me that is appalled at the "sins" of some people often has its way with me. I applauded the killing of Osama bin Laden when many of my Christian brethren abhorred it. To me it was a fitting end for a mass murderer and I felt completely justified in my belief. I still do.

When Andrew Breitbart and Bob Grant died, I wrote scathing pieces tearing them to shreds.  I believed then and still do that both men were responsible for deeply dividing an already divisive nation.  In essence, they were no better than an arsonist who pours gasoline on a raging inferno. Fred Phelps was no different, except in his case it wasn't merely a country he was attempting to burn down, but an entire faith.

That is why I fervently believe that hatred in all its forms must be exposed and confronted head on. It cannot go unchallenged. I'm not suggesting we should return evil for evil (an eye for an eye); that is the playbook Phelps and his disciples embrace. But we shouldn't be timid either. Jesus certainly wasn't timid when he entered the Temple and threw out the money changers. While it was true that Christ was a loving and compassionate man, who instructed us to forgive our enemies, his outward displays of anger and contempt are often overlooked, even by some of his most devout followers. Witness the exchanges he had with the Pharisees. He called them as he saw them.

Too often Christians are loathe to call out the behavior of people whose conduct is egregious. There is a tendency among them to go from A to C, without the obligatory stopover at B. Like it or not, B comes before C. Glossing over human frailty is not a virtue, but an excuse. Yes, Jesus said to the mob that was about to stone an adulterous woman, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." But, later, he also said to that very same woman, "Go and sin no more."

What is the purpose of redemption if there is nothing to be redeemed? I honestly don't know whether Fred Phelps made his peace with God before he died, but I know this much: what we do on Earth survives us when we leave it. Maybe Iscariot and Booth really did make it into paradise, but before they did, the former betrayed his Lord and Savior and the latter put a bullet into the head of a president. And there is absolutely nothing in this world that can undo that.

God may forgive, but history never forgets. Nor should we.

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