Posted by: smstrouse | January 13, 2011

Why Fred Phelps Is No Christian

I do not say this lightly: Fred Phelps is no Christian.  I don’t say it lightly because I have often said that nobody can tell somebody else whether or not they are a Christian.  But I’m angry.

Back story:  years ago, I was listening to a neighbor talk about what she was learning in a class on cults at the Bible college she was attending, and was taken aback when she said, “I didn’t know the Catholic church is a cult!”   That conversation has stuck with me ever since and has informed my great reluctance to judge the religion of another.  Same thing with the Mormons.  How many times have I heard someone declare, with great authority, “Well, they aren’t Christians.”  Even among Lutherans, there are those who will determine who is really Lutheran and who is not.  So I do not, under ordinary circumstances, make a judgment like I have just done. 

But Phelps is beyond the pale. Fred Phelps, in case you don’t know, is the pastor of Westboro Baptist Church, an independent church in Topeka, Kansas.  His followers, most of whom are family members, picket events such as gay pride gatherings and political rallies. They protest at military funerals around the country, preaching that the deaths of  military personnel are God’s punishment for the tolerance of homosexuality. Their main slogan is “God hates fags” (I hate to even acknowledge its existence by typing it out) and is also the name of their website.

Recently, in the wake of the shootings in Tucson, Phelps has chimed in with his perverted perspective on that tragedy.  He calls Jared Lee Loughner a “soldier hero” who was following the will of God by shooting Gabrielle Giffords and 13 others at the Tucson Safeway on the 8th.  Then, to make matters even more abhorrent, he announced plans to  picket the funeral of the massacre’s youngest victim, 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green. Thankfully, those plans were thwarted, although the last I heard he planned to show up at the funerals of the other victims.  People dismiss him as a nut case, but he gets a lot of press – just like another ‘Christian’ pastor, Terry Jones, who threatened to burn the Qur’an on September 11th.
As a Christian pastor, I feel sick about being identified with these people in any way.  Now I know that anyone who knows me knows I’m nothing like that. Still, they give ‘Christian’ a bad name, and they make it very difficult for us to be in a public arena that does not always distinguish between ‘this kind’ or ‘that kind’ of Christian.  At First United we’ve even questioned using ‘Christian’ in our name because we realize the negative connotation it can have. We often wonder how to reach people who would love to be part of a welcoming, progressive, spiritual community – but are turned off by the name ‘Christian.’  In my opinion, Phelps and his kind are like a poison in the body of Christ. 
That sounds pretty harsh, especially coming from one who preaches that Jesus is all about unconditional love. But I’m just so angry about the hateful rants coming out of the mouths of these purported ‘Christians.’  And my question is: how do we take back the name?  DO we take back the name?  Many are self-identifying as ‘followers of Jesus’ as a way around the dilemma; is this the answer? 
I don’t know.  I do know that President Obama’s address on Wednesday, imploring us to honor those killed and injured by talking with each other “in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds,” is more of a Christian message than anything Phelps has to say will ever be.  And – I do know that there are open, loving, welcoming, inclusive, progressive Christian congregations like ours that will continue to preach, teach, and live Jesus’ message of extravagant love. And we will continue to oppose all messages and messengers of hate.   

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