Praying for former Westboro Baptist pastor Fred Phelps is no easy task
This is a man who not only preached hatred but spread it, more among his enemies than among those he thought his friends
Pastor Fred Phelps pictured in 1998. 'Phelps has damaged the credibility of any sort of God.' Photograph: Berman Nina/Sipa/Rex
Wednesday 19 March 2014 01.30 EST
The hashtag GodhatesFredPhelps appeared on Twitter soon after one of his estranged children posted on Facebook the news that the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church was dying. Perhaps more surprising was the news that he had been excommunicated by the church he founded.
It has drawn exactly the sort of angry, hate-filled gloating you would expect. Many readers may share the sentiment, despite their instinct to draw back from condemning someone who is, after all, an elderly and very ill man. But news of the excommunication is worth marking; Phelps, I think, did more than Richard Dawkins to make atheism seem a moral and intellectual imperative.
The pastor and his church were probably the most disproportionately famous and influential group of Christians since the rather different figure of Mother Teresa. She, of course, became an icon of charity: he became an embodiment of its opposite. It's a rather nice thing about the human race that whereas tens of thousands of people volunteered to help Mother Teresa, very few signed up to Phelps's church and still less travelled halfway across the world to work with him.
If there is a God, he clearly had a purpose for Fred Phelps, which was to show just how repulsive his ideas about man and God really are, and to warn us off them. But mostly, Phelps has damaged the credibility of any sort of God.
His fame also shows how uncomfortable we now are with the idea of a God who hates anything very much. The Bible shows no such squeamishness. God is forever smiting there: nor has this tendency much diminished in the past 2,000 years. The world around us shows unfathomable suffering. If there is any kind of agency responsible then it hates its victims. But where once this seemed to show that God was not someone to be messed with, most people now deduce that there is no agency responsible for the horror of the world. They believe perhaps in a benevolent God, and in some kind of supernatural agency that works for the good, but this of course is philosophically incoherent: at the very least an omnipotent God can't escape responsibility for evil.
But in this instance, theological incoherence is clearly better than the kind of demented and hideous consistency that seems to characterise the Westboro Baptist Church. In fact, the only consistency was emotional: it was driven by a lust for power and exclusion.
The expulsion of Fred Phelps himself from the church he founded shows the way that totalitarian systems will always consume their servants, as does the horribly unctuous tweet from the church a couple of days ago to which they gave the hashtag comfort: "All God's elect strive against pride & pray for - & ultimately receive - humble, broken hearts".
This is a man who not only preached hatred, but successfully spread it, more among his enemies than among those he thought his friends.
So I suppose the task for Christians, as they think of him dying an outcast, is to get down on their knees and pray for him. Pope Francis asked in his homily on Monday morning "Who am I to judge?". The case of Fred Phelps shows just what a counsel of perfection the pope's kind of Christianity really is. All of us find it easy enough not to judge the people just like us.
-- http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfre ... ?CMP=fb_gu
Perhaps an ideal object for one's metta.
What do you think?