God is not like me or Fred Phelps. And I am thankful for that.
Fred Phelps, the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, died last week. Phelps and his church are infamously known for picketing the funerals of lesbian and gay people and the funerals of American soldiers with signs saying “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for 9/11.”
There is no doubt that Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church have spread a lot of hate and caused a lot of pain over the last few decades. From funerals to Lady Gaga concerts, the church’s website boasts that Westboro members have picketed more than 50,000 events since Phelps founded it in 1955.
Why was Phelps filled with so much hatred? He explained his animosity in 2006 when he analyzed the tragedy of 9/11:
We told you, right after it happened five years ago that the deadly events of 9/11 were direct outpourings of divine retribution, the immediate visitation of God’s wrath and vengeance and punishment for America’s horrendous sodomite sins, that worse and more of it were on the way … God is no longer with America, but is now America’s enemy. God himself is now American’s terrorist.
If you didn’t know it before, you know it now: theology matters. What we say about God matters because, like all of us, Phelps was a reflection of the god he worshiped.
I’m scandalized by Phelps’s god. According to mimetic theory, scandals both repel and attract us. Like so many others, Phelps’s wrathful and vengeful god repels me. He had a symbiotic relationship with his god; his god is filled with hate which, in turn, justified Phelps’s hatred.
A god filled with hate repels me, but truth be told, I’m also attracted to a hateful god. In fact, most of us are. We want a god who is on our side and against our enemies. We want a god who loves the people we love and hates the people we hate. We all want a god made in our own image.
When it comes to hatred, the difficult truth is that we are just like Phelps.
And we hate Fred Phelps. Phelps is the patriarch of the “the most hated family in America.” Liberals and conservatives can all agree that Phelps is crazy. Even Jerry Falwell could call Phelps “A first class nut” – and many invite Jesus to join in our hatred of Phelps. Phelps and his god are scandals to us because we are repelled by them both, but deep down we are attracted to the gods of hate.
In being against Phelps we have mimicked his hatred, returning self-righteous hatred for self-righteous hatred. Our mimetic hatred is self-righteous for one reason: Phelps and Westboro know they are good because they can agree that the rest of us are evil. And those of us who hate Phelps and Westboro know we are good because we can agree that they are evil. Each side justifies their hatred in the name of their god or in the name of goodness.
Thankfully God is not like me or you or Fred Phelps. As Michael Hardin states in his book The Jesus Driven Life, God is like Jesus:
When we so differentiate the Father from the Son (and the Spirit), when God can kill and justify all sorts of violence, and yet we also claim that Jesus reveals God, yet Jesus is non-resistant and non-retributive, then we have a problem of epic proportions. Either Jesus does not really show us the character of God or Jesus was deluded to think that he manifested the reign of God in his person and ministry… What we have failed to do is to recognize that if Jesus ‘imitated the abba,’ the Maker of all that is, then God is like Jesus.
Jesus responded to the hate levied against him with love. He taught his disciples to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Here Jesus connects loving your enemies with what Michael calls “the character of God.” In this sense, love is not based on good feelings toward another, but on God’s all-embracing love that has nothing to do with retribution but everything to do with forgiveness.
Theology matters. But our starting place for theology matters just as much. Start with Jesus. When Christians start there we will have a clear view of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Because of Jesus we can let go of our scandalous and hateful gods. No longer do we need to be attracted or repelled by the gods of hate. Wherever we find them, we can now look in their direction, smile, and move on. In Christ we know that “God is love” and that “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.”
So, Fred Phelps, may you rest in peace. May you know that God doesn’t hate you or anyone. May you know that God so loved you that God sent his only Son to reveal God’s love. And may you abide eternally in the merciful arms of God.
Adam Ericksen blogs at the Raven Foundation, where he uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Adam on Twitter @adamericksen.
Image: "Against the Westboro Baptists Church - Albany, NY - 09, Mar - 11" by Sébastien Barré / Flickr.com