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What to do about Fred

One of our Sr. High girls, Rebekah, called me last night to ask what we should do about Fred Phelps coming to town today (Friday). It was the first I’d heard about it, and I was so glad she called. That phone call has catapulted me into action (and I’m not normally an activist!)

Most of you know that Fred Phelps is the pastor of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, KS. He is known for his protests and hateful signs aimed at gays in particular, but also anything related to America, patriotism, or the military. “God hates fags” is his famous slogan.

According to his website, his group is planning on protesting here in Cedar Rapids later today, Jan 15th at 6:45 pm! It will happen at Theatre Cedar Rapids to protest the opening performance of “The Laramie Project,” a play about local reactions to the 1998 Matthew Shephard murder. (Shephard was gay and his death was nationally considered to be a “hate crime.”)

According to this girl and another teen I talked to last night, students at school have been talking about the upcoming protest with disgust toward Phelps in particular (as they should), but also toward Christianity in general (which deeply saddens me).

Part of me is sad about it, but the bigger part of me is mad. Because he labels himself a “Christian” and throws out-of-context Bible verses around as weapons, Phelps’ antics work against all that we’re trying to do to reach our community, i.e. Prayer, Care, Share. He does not represent authentic Christianity — he draws attention to himself by condemning others, making a spectacle of himself before the hungry media, and garnering lots of attention in the process.

In contrast, we Christians are called to love people unconditionally, sacrificially, and with humility, offering grace, kindness, forgiveness, and blessing to all — even our enemies. Rather than approach people who are different than us with condemnation, we are to first introduce them to Jesus and then allow Him to change whatever may need changing. That’s the biblical pattern we see with Zaccheaus, Paul, Peter, Matthew, the woman at the well, etc.

WHAT TO DO? So back to this teen’s question — what should we do about the upcoming Fred Phelps protest circus? What I wish we’d all do is just ignore him entirely. Taking away the counter-protests and the subsequent media attention would be quickest way to take the wind out of his sails and end these ridiculous protests of his. But such blatant hate is so hard to ignore and it’s clear that it’s not going to happen in this case. The “counter protesters” [which likely includes agnostics, skeptics, freethinkers, gay supporters, concerned citizens, etc] are planning a peaceful “Wall of Angels” protest to show their disdain for Westboro’s hateful actions. My friend Andy The Atheist just Facebooked me saying he expects hundreds of such protesters to show up.

What about Christians specifically? What ought we do? Something or nothing? Let’s think this through.

NOTHING: This is the easy option. But what if only non-Christian “counter protesters” show up to demonstrate their opposition? What would we be communicating to them and to the watching world if true Christians remained completely silent about Fred Phelps? Might they think we agree with him and his tactics? Yes. I think that to do nothing communicates that we’re ok with Fred misrepresenting the Christianity that we hold so dear — it would say that his distortion doesn’t really bother us all that much.

SOMETHING: This option is not the easy one. What if a respectable number of Christians would come and stand side by side with our “fellow protesting” friends to show our shared disapproval of Westboro’s hate. What would that communicate? They’ll learn that true Christians are quick to take a stand against hate and who knows, perhaps we’ll even have opportunities for some great conversations with others who are there. I know some would fear that by doing so we’ll be perceived as sharing all the values of the other protesters. It’s a valid concern — communicating what Christianity really is is the issue here after all. So to make our intentions clear I’m suggesting that we Christians who have been mis-portrayed could all hold signs that simply say “GOD IS LOVE 1 John 4:8” to set the record straight.

CLOSING THOUGHT. The issue here is not about the right- or wrong-ness of homosexuality. People may have different opinions on that topic. The issue at stake tonight is the good name of Christianity and how Christians should treat people. By standing in opposition to Fred Phelps, we go on record that we oppose his posture of hate. That’s the issue here.

THE INVITATION. I’m inviting you to join me in joining the “Wall of Angels” tonight. The time is 6:45-7:30 pm on the sidewalk by the Theatre Cedar Rapids temporary building by Lindale Mall (the 1st Ave side across from Home Depot). Note: the mall won’t let us stand on the mall grounds so we’ll have to stay on the sidewalk along 1st Ave.

Let’s plan to meet as a group in the Home Depot parking lot at 6:30. I’ll have my bright orange striped van there as a landmark meeting spot so everyone can find our group. I’ll also have some “God is Love – 1 John 4:8” signs, but bring your own if you can. Invite your families, friends, people from other churches, etc. I’m hoping we’ll have a respectable turnout! We should be done at 7:30 and again my bright orange striped van can be a meeting spot for people getting rides.

Time is short, so please spread the word if this sounds good to you!

THE REPORT.

I was pleased that about 75 Christians showed up at the rally holding signs saying “God is Love – 1 John 4:8.” The total crowd was approximately 400 (my guess) so I’d say we had a respectable turnout. (Especially when you consider that my blog post’s “call to action” only went out 12 hours before the event. The other protesters started theirs 2 full days ahead of time.)

Fred Phelps and his crew didn’t show up to our disappointment, but it really didn’t matter because we weren’t there to attempt to address him personally, we were there to stand up against what he represents — hate towards others. It is also worth noting that there was not even one person holding up Phelpsy signs, indicating that such hateful actions haven’t pervaded our community.

There was an interesting feeling of unity and camaraderie as we mingled amongst the protesters. My friend, Andy the Atheist made it a point to come over and greet our group of Christ-followers, glad we were there. Fred Phelps, even in his absence, brought together atheists, agnostics, liberals, gay rights folks, and conservative, evangelical Christians. How often does that happen!

In hindsight, I think it speaks well that so many of us evangelicals were involved in this historic event. From now on we’ll be able to proudly say that churches including ours were right there on the front lines in opposition to the Fred Phelps ideology (we even had four of our pastors there!) I trust that this will open doors of communication with spiritual seekers. From now on, when Fred Phelps makes the national news our community will say, “Thank goodness, our local churches are not like that!”

We removed a barrier to the gospel last night and I’m glad to have been a part of it.

disclaimer: like every post on my blog, the views expressed here do not represent those of ncbc or my role as the youth pastor. They represent my views alone.

5 Comments

  1. Mark, I am so sorry that I can’t come tonight. However I will certainly be praying and I’m sending your email to some other people I know. Thanks for listening to God’s Spirit. I pray there will be an outpouring of God’s love and that Phelps and his group will be overpowered by that.

  2. Pastor Kevin Jones

    January 15, 2010 at 11:10 am

    A year or so ago a Lutheran church in West Des Moines was picketed by the Westboro followers. The church sent out an email to everyone saying that these protests are a way of funding the Westboro Baptist Church. The protesters taunt people in hopes of starting a physical confrontation. They have people who video tape from vehicles nearby. Any physical confrontation is then used as a basis for a law suit to fill the church coffers. I don’t know if this is actually what the protest is all about but I thought any counter-protesters should be aware of the potential for confrontation and the importance of not rising to the bait.

    I will be praying for God’s Holy Spirit of peace to be with you all.

  3. Mark, I’m proud of you! Thanks for your heart and love for God and all God’s people. Looking forward hearing and praying and supporting. You are a bright shining light for Christ. Steve

  4. Mark,

    I officially bestow upon you the often unappreciated title of “activist,” with all the rights, duties and encumberances appertaining to such a pursuit. Good job! Phelps falls into the trap of trying to do God’s job. God knows how to do his job, and he doesn’t need any of this kind of help from Phelps. Our job in this world is to stand for what is right, but to stand as human beings who will all stand before God. “If I . . . can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” (1Corinthians 13:2)

    Thanks.

  5. well done. this is what God is about. as you mentioned, it seems that actions of hate are being used to bring unity and love…

    isn’t there a verse about how God does that?? šŸ™‚

    great pictures, they capture the great mood of the evening…

    blessings!

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