You probably already heard the news that Fred Phelps and his family, aka Westboro Baptist Church, won their Supreme Court case yesterday. If you are unfamiliar with this case, read/listen to NPR’s news story on the sordid history. The short summary is this. The Phelps family believes that “sodomites” and their supporters (America) are going to hell. This particular belief is not all that rare. But what makes the Phelps family stand out is, (a) their belief about what God is calling them to do about the problem, and (b) their tactics of protesting at funerals of servicemen and women and other public figures. A father of a dead soldier sued the Phelps for causing him pain and suffering when they picketed outside his son’s funeral. Among their picket signs about homosexuality were signs such as “Thank God for dead soldiers”. A lower court agreed with the father’s suit and awarded the father 5 million dollars in damages. Yesterday the Supreme Court reversed that decision saying that hurtful speech is still protected speech.
The NPR coverage goes beyond the usual coverage and attempts to detail some of the Phelps’ theological beliefs and or motivations for their hateful speech. I found it very interesting since usually they are just (rightly) labeled as nut-cases. Some of their thinking:
- It is their job to try to make American’s angry, to reject God and be damned to hell
- “Our job is laid out,” she says, in comments sprinkled with biblical references. “We are supposed to blind their eyes, stop up their ears and harden their hearts so that they cannot see, hear or understand, and be converted and receive salvation.” (quote from NPR story)
Why the Phelps are wrong: A quick look at how we are to respond to sinners
If NPR has captured their motivations and beliefs accurately, then they have made a couple of significant errors.
1. Whose job is it to damn, blind, and judge?
At the last day, God will indeed judge the world. He will separate sheep from goats. There will likely be surprises in heaven (last minute conversions and people we thought were going to be there but were really wolves in sheep’s clothing). Sometimes God sends prophets to preach to the condemned. True enough. But, the prophets preach the need to repent and/or the coming judgment. God does say to Ezekiel that his hearers won’t listen to him preach the need or repentance. But, preach repentance he must.
Or consider Jonah. Jonah is called to preach to Nineveh. His job is to preach. And this is what bothers Jonah. Jonah knows that God is a merciful God and will forgive. That is what bothers him; he wants Nineveh to suffer! The Phelps want America to suffer.
2. The message? Do the Phelps want people to be converted and get into heaven? By the quotes above you would have to answer an emphatic NO. Seems they might be afraid to find that heaven is filled with all sorts of sinners (maybe even pride-filled, angry, protesting, mean-spirited people?). Paul says gives a list of sins and says, “and such as were some of you” as he writes to believers. Let us remember that heaven will be filled with sinners. Yes, those sinners have been forgiven and are living lives of daily repentance and turning from their sin. But sinners they are right up to the moment of entering heaven.
How do we respond to sinners? How do we respond to ourselves? Pray, converse, eat with, and care for. Oh, and yes, talk about the only way to righteousness. Following Jesus’ example is a good start!