Stooping to the Level

Lots of people know the name Fred Phelps.  He's the "pastor" of Westboro "Baptist" "Church," the group who has become known for their protests of military funerals and the signs that say "God hates fags."  I, like many, am disgusted by his message and the way he uses religion to justify hatred.

But the response people give has always been troubling to me.  Here's a sampling of things I've read or heard:  "When Fred Phelps dies, I'm protesting his funeral."  "I hope his spot in hell is 10 times hotter."  "Fred Phelps is the devil himself and doesn't deserve to live."

It bothers me that the response of many Christians is no different in kind than the language used by Phelps himself.  Are our motivations different? Sure.  Are we out spreading hate and teaching it to our children? I hope not.  But you would think that if we want to show that our way is more correct, more loving, etc., then our response would model how we believe people should respond (instead of, "Phelps, God is love, now go to hell").  In other words, if we believe we're on higher ground, why do our actions and words stoop to the level?  He wishes death on us, we wish death on him.  He protests our funerals, we're going to protest his.  This is a boxing match, not the higher ground that God calls us to.  The Bible tells us not to do this kind of thing over and over.  Proverbs 20:22, 24:17-18; 1 Peter 3:9; 1 Thessalonians 5:15; Romans 12:17; and I seem to remember Jesus telling us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:43-48).

Late Sunday night, 5/1/11, it was reported that Osama bin Laden had been killed by the U.S. military.

Many Americans responded with what Diana Butler Bass called "patriotic frenzy."  Chants of victory filled the streets well into the night with chants of "U.S.A.," flags waving.  Facebook and Twitter exploded with comments, mainly of the following nature:  "Rest in pieces."  "Yay!  Woohooo!!"  "Ding dong, the wicked witch is dead."  "I love karma; now you know how it feels!"  One person even wrote, "Let's change the 's' to a 'b'."  Pages for Christian organizations had some of the most vitriolic and shameful rhetoric I could find anywhere.

Again:  If we believe we're on higher ground, why do our reactions stoop to the level?  Our behavior is no different in kind.  Substitute in another country's flag, and it all looks the same.  We're doing nothing but fueling the fire of war and brokenness.  We have to ask ourselves what we truly want.

Diana Butler Bass said it well:  "What if we responded in reverent prayer and quiet introspection?...That would truly be American exceptionalism."  It bothers me when Christians celebrate death as opposed to praying and working for the restoration of life.

Let me just address the objections I'm bound to hear.  One is, "This is justice for the families of loved ones killed on 9/11."  Let me be clear:  I do not in any way wish to minimize or dismiss their loss, nor do I pretend to understand what they have gone through.  But what is "justice?"  I'm reminded of that quote from the character Prot in the movie K-PAX:
"You humans subscribe to this idea of an eye for an eye, a life for a life, which has become known throughout the rest of the universe for its stupidity.  Even your Buddha and your Christ had very different ideas, but no one has really listened to them, not even the Buddhists or the Christians."
Another objection will be, "Why do you sympathize with Osama bin Laden?"  I don't sympathize with him.  I wonder if we can see him as a human being made in the image of God just like the rest of us, but just like with the Phelps, I despise what he has done. I just see no redemptive quality in expressions of revenge.

This is notwithstanding all the other things that were largely unconsidered in the moment.  First of all, is this going to be the big step toward ending terrorism that we think it is?  We've just reinflamed the terrorists, so I doubt it.  There will be lots of things to come, lots of nuanced dynamics, and lots of media mess to sort through. And it's interesting that we are now talking as if we've been relentlessly pursuing him but, at least on the level of the American consciousness, we've barely talked about him for years.  He wasn't on our radar, and I really think the main purpose his death will serve is to provide talking points for upcoming political campaigns.

In other words, bin Laden's death will have a tremendous effect on the American psyche, but not, I suspect, on the war on terror.  Our boogie man is gone.  In time, we will find another one.

This is a call to higher ground, a call to explore what the world might think of us if we treated this a little less like a sports match.  And this is a reminder to people of faith that God calls us to a very different place, away from the loud victory dances of the masses.

"Do not gloat when your enemies fall; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice, or the LORD will see and disapprove and turn his wrath away from them."  Proverbs 24:17-18


  1. Great post! Had the same feelings of disgust watching people's reactions but could not articulate it as well as you have here.

  2. It is a huge relief to read this, like balm on a third degree burn. I was mortified at the footage of celebrating youth, as if at a Fourth of July picnic, also an event celebrated with little understanding of it's true significance. Every great empire exists on a slick of blood, and for any empire to ignore the sad inevitability of this is to submit it to slipping on it to its own demise. Pride only further greases the precarious platform upon which any powerful nation builds its identity. Our ability to avenge is not our power. I believe is is the humility in accepting that we are called upon to die by the standards by which we stand. Hut that cannot be done without a spiritual backbone, the cost of which is self appraisal, something our American politics is sorely lacking.

  3. Right on. Well said. David Harader