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Monday, March 24, 2014

Passing Thoughts on Fred Phelps

Fred Phelps, renowned pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas has died at age 84. I doubt that many people are ready to cry much about that. According to The Independent, he rose to national notice after becoming the subject of the Louis Theroux documentary The Most Hated Family in America (2007). But for most, he is the man remembered for showing up at the funerals of dead homosexuals to exhibit a sign reading “God Hates Fags”.

Speak Well

Whatever the man himself may have practiced in life, I think we’d all agree that in general we ought to try follow the Latin axiom, De mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est — “Speak only well of the dead”. For all Christians, I think that the realization that “we must all stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ” should alone be sufficient to counsel in us humility.

However, in this case nil nisi bonum may not quite do the trick. Whatever you think of the guy’s agenda, you really can’t admire his methods. He was a fractious man, to be sure. He loved to be gratuitously confrontational. He sought out every opportunity to create offense (as if that in itself were proof of faithfulness) and he seemed to love to present himself as a lightning rod for public anger. Certainly he seemed, at times, to lose touch with the idea of loving the sinner while hating the sin, and to forget that “the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God”.

But my point is not to criticize Mr. Phelps, particularly after his death: I shall leave that to the popular press, who will no doubt be quite eager to take up that charge. No, I want to ask the opposite question:

What should he have done?

Now, even if they wouldn’t expect him to contribute a float to the annual Topeka Pride Parade, our modern liberals would doubtless say that he should have joined them in celebrating the homosexual lifestyle. Barring that, he should have at least maintained a dignified deference to the sexual preferences of others. And if he couldn’t manage that, they would probably be content with his silence.

But what if he really felt, on the basis of Scripture and hence, of Divine Authority, that to capitulate to the idea that homosexuality is just another “lifestyle” or “preference” was actually wrong? What if he genuinely felt he needed, as a religious leader and in good conscience, to signal his moral exception? How could he have done that in a way acceptable within our current political ethos?

It’s really not easy to say. So far as I can see, there is no allowance in our modern political rhetoric for anyone to take principled exception to homosexuality.

The “Love” That Dares Not Speak Its Shame

This is odd. Why should it be the case that we can argue two sides of all kinds of controversial issues, but not this one? We argue all the time about abortion, euthanasia and capital punishment. We debate the treatment of animals, global warming and universal health care. We can cavil about Crimea, agonize over Afghanistan, natter about North Korea and moan about the Middle East. It’s all fine. But no sooner does someone indicate any kind of rejection of homosexual practices, then he or she is immediately branded “homophobic”.

It’s as if this issue is so shiningly clear that there simply can be no “other side”. No one can take issue with “gay” practices for any reason — say, on the basis that they are dehumanizing, unhealthy, unnatural, or physically and socially destructive. All the rational possibilities simply have to be ignored in favour of a spirit of totally mindless approval. No logical, religious, scientific or even practical arguments can be adduced or offered in this unique case. Taking exception with homosexuality is simply wrong. End of case. End of argument. End of discussion.

Immoral Confidence

I’m not used to seeing my society so sure of itself. For a civilization increasingly inclined to complete relativism and to ever-more-extravagant exhibitions of moral turpitude, this is a remarkable demonstration of sudden moral certainty. How is it that they so firmly and instantly believe that there’s no counter-argument possible? How have we, in our modern age, attained this great wisdom of ours?

I’m certainly not going to say that there are no clear moral issues. I’m just saying I don’t see how our society has managed to get so “clear” on this one.

Of course, I can’t bring myself to believe that what they have is really moral certainty at all. I don’t think it’s backed by anything but pure public self-righteousness. We don’t want to be told we’re wrong. We just want to be left alone to pursue our passions and inclinations on any terms to which we are disposed. And as far as the public welfare is concerned, we really don’t care much about what’s true, what’s reasonable, or what’s moral, in this case. We don’t care how many people are hurt or debased by the sins into which they fall, or what this does to their relationship with their Creator. We don’t care enough to confront sin.

And in fact, the “homophobia” tag is itself clear evidence that the public rhetoric is dishonest. For in truth, those who use it most don’t believe it at all. We all know full well that intelligent people aren’t “afraid” of homosexuality. The truth is that some may hate it, as Fred Phelps appears to have done. Some may object to it because they don’t personally prefer it, or because it nauseates them. Some may protest it on grounds of protecting social institutions like marriage. But the really principled condemnations come from those who read God’s word on the matter and believe what it says. Homosexuality is a sin, plain and simple.

There are moral, rational and principled ways of arguing against condoning homosexuality. That is why its proponents must shut down debate as quickly and summarily as they can. The “homophobe” tag achieves that effect.

Rejoicing Too Soon

Now, Fred Phelps may not have been a good man — though I cannot say where his heart was — but that doesn’t make his critics any better. The public will likely forget that those who respond to his messages of hatred by hating the man are not purified thereby. There would be something exuberantly wicked in delighting over his passing.

Evil always rejoices whenever it perceives a source of condemnation to be removed. This fact reminds one of Revelation, of that incident following the death of God’s two great prophets of the end times:
“When they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up out of the abyss will make war with them, and overcome them and kill them. And their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city which mystically is called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified. Those from the peoples and tribes and tongues and nations will look at their dead bodies for three and a half days, and will not permit their dead bodies to be laid in a tomb. And those who dwell on the earth will rejoice over them and celebrate; and they will send gifts to one another, because these two prophets tormented those who dwell on the earth”.
Fred Phelps was no prophet, of course. And to the extent Fred Phelps fell short, or did evil, he will give his own answer for that; but he is not the only person who will die, and then give an account.

We all will. Those who celebrate his passing would do well to remember that at this moment.

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