Tomorrow, for the only day in the foreseeable future, the temperature is supposed to reach 670. And a week from tomorrow, my mother will have been gone for five months. We buried her on one of the last beautiful days of fall—on All Saints’ Day 2013. Though I grieved then and grieve her still, I am grateful for that one beautiful 700 day on which my siblings and I were able to bury her at the top of a stunningly beautiful mountain in West Virginia.
The day stands out in my memory for the unexplained gifts we were given—a beautiful day when the forecast predicted chilly rain, a gracious woman pastor in a cemetery where no woman had ever performed a service, and strangers who stood at attention and saluted as the funeral cortege passed.
I thought of the grace of strangers this week as I read articles reflecting on the passing of Fred Phelps, the fundamentalist preacher who died on Thursday after years of organizing ugly pickets at the funerals of American veterans. At this point his family, fearful of those who might retaliate, have said that they do not plan to hold a funeral for him.
I cannot imagine having the ugly signs Phelps and his adherents carried present at my mother’s funeral. Nor can I imagine not having a funeral for my mother.
Those are the two extremes. But I have been heartened this week by the number of op-eds in which journalists, who reported Phelps’ protests in spite of their revulsion for his actions, have encouraged us not to respond in kind should there be a funeral service for this man.
Phelps was an aberration. For the families who had no choice but to deal with his incredible stupidity and his unfeeling protests, he caused great pain. And those of us who believe in a moment of divine judgment have faith that he will be asked to give an answer for his reprehensible actions.
Almost every journalist who has written about him has acknowledged that his behavior was not the norm. He in no way represents mainstream evangelical Christians. So why did he get so much attention in the press?
It is easy to refute someone so on the fringes of acceptable behavior. When we argue against him, there are few people who would disagree that he was out of line. Debunking his view of the world is a simple argument, one that even the most sophomoric of debaters could easily win.
But what of those who share his view but lack his nuttiness? When Timothy Miller, a religions professor at the University of Kansas in Phelps’ home state, was asked about Phelps this week, he said, “If you took away his flamboyant style, you’d find that quite a lot of people share the point of view.” And so, what do we say to such people—mainstream Americans who quietly espouse the views that Phelps so loudly proclaimed?
Unfortunately, too often we say nothing. We speak loudly against Phelps when it is an easy argument to win, but we say little to those who believe as he does. Why? I’m not sure. Perhaps because it’s harder to refute someone who isn’t overtly offensive. Perhaps because most of us don’t know enough about what the Bible does and does not say to realize that those who agree with Phelps often interpret holy texts completely outside the context in which they were written. And perhaps, because we believe in religious freedom, we don’t want to point out the lack of logic, even when that lack of logic is, at the very least, uninformed and at its worst, completely illogical and ignorant.
As anyone who has even a passing understanding of the New Testament knows, Christ would never have carried offensive signs at a funeral. Nor would he have allowed any of his disciples to do so. When one of the disciples cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant who came to arrest Jesus, according to two of the Gospels, Jesus reprimanded them and healed the man’s ear.
What are the implications for us? Most obviously, we should never behave as Fred Phelps behaved. But what of Peter, who loved Jesus enough, according to the Gospel of John, to cut off the ear of the one who would lead Jesus toward crucifixion? Though that is a more complex argument, Jesus was clear even then that we are to act only in love.
My mother knew this. Though she was brought up in a church much like Phelps’ church, she knew that the greatest commandment was love. She rejected the church of her childhood, though she spent most of her life fearing that doing so would condemn her to hell. But ultimately, she somehow listened to the still, small voice that told her to love her children and teach us to look beyond hatred and condemnation.
In the months leading up to her death, my mother told me that she knew that what she’d been taught made no logical sense. And though she offered grace to everyone she met, listening to preachers like Phelps made her fear for her own salvation. Few people ever assured her otherwise. As she lay on her deathbed, I sang hymns to her and assured her that God would sing her to heaven. And I have to believe that she heard that.
So, for all those Christians out there who believe that the Phelps of the world are frauds, what shall we do? Almost everyone knows that Phelps was completely lacking in logic and love. So what is your command?
What about those quieter ministers who stand in pulpits every Sunday and preach the same beliefs without the flamboyance and abrasiveness of Phelps? What will we Christians do to refute them? They may stand behind the shield of the First Amendment, but they do not stand behind that greater law of Christ—the command to love God with all our hearts and souls and minds and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
So how will we use our minds to answer them? How will we ensure that people like my mother know that when God is with them, no one can stand against them?