What Fred Phelps’ death makes me think of

To anyone who’s been keeping track, yes, in keeping with my Lenten project, I was due to post yesterday. A combination of some disappointing news and the need that news created to have a beer with a buddy of mine scuttled the blogging plan. Not that I’ve been terribly rigorous with it in the first place, but hey.

(Also, if that’s you, I’m happy you’re reading my blog, but you might want to find a more worthy hobby than tracking the regularity of my posting. Might I suggest learning an instrument, taking a drawing class, or finally reading that book that’s been on your shelf for six years?)

Anyway, in the spirit of commenting on current events for a change, Fred Phelps, founder of the small but infamous Westboro Baptist Church and notorious spewer of anti-homosexual vitriol, died on Wednesday.

As many problems as I had with the guy’s message and his tactics, I can’t say his death makes me happy as such; he was a human being, after all, however little the rest of us might like to admit that fact. I can’t exactly say I’m crushed with grief, either, though; the world doesn’t really need anyone perpetuating a message of hate the way he and his followers did. (Incidentally, Phelps’ death doesn’t necessarily mean the rest of the Westboro folks will get any quieter or more loving, so I’m not assuming we’ve heard the last of them.) If anything, I might hope and pray that, sometime before his death, Phelps repented of the hate and judgmentalism he had spent so many years spreading. Whether he actually did is, of course, between him and God now.

But there’s a point I want to make about the way Christians, especially American Protestants of a more conservative or evangelical bent, think about homosexuality. Certainly an awful lot of us reject the hate and judgment spewed by the Westboro crowd. Whatever any given Christian may think about same-sex attraction, same-sex romantic or sexual relationships, and same-sex marriages and unions–and there’s plenty of debate about these things, even among evangelicals, despite media portrayals to the contrary–most Christians agree that hating people runs contrary to the message of Jesus.

The refrain often heard among Christians opposed to homosexuality is that we are to “love the sinner but hate the sin.” That is, Christians are meant to oppose actions which are sinful, evil, morally wrong, and/or contrary to the precepts laid out in the Bible, but at the same time to welcome, embrace, serve, and care for the people who do those actions.

Whatever one may think of “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” the distinction is often lost on outside observers. One reason, I suspect, is a legacy of the identity politics adopted in the 1980s and 1990s by some advocates for the LGBTQ community. Some folks identified so strongly with their sexual orientation or sexual preference that they effectively erased any distinction between what they do and who they are. What I do is so entwined with who I am, the logic goes, that if you hate what I do, you do hate me; loving me requires loving and accepting what I do. And the media attention given to people who spoke this way cemented the association, so that even today a great many Americans assume that loving (or hating) a person’s actions must be part and parcel of loving (or hating) the person.

But another reason, and for my purposes today a far more important reason, lies in the attitudes of Christians themselves–ourselves, I should say, since, although I’m trying to stop thinking this way, sometimes I still fail. The problem is that, when we look at a person whom we identify with a certain kind of sin (usually but not always one or another sexual sin), too often all we see is the sin. We tell ourselves that we love the person and it’s only the sin that we hate, but it’s awfully hard to love people whom you don’t see even when you’re looking right at them. And it’s also hard to convince people that you’re distinguishing between who a person is and what a person does when all you see, and consequently all you react to, is what the person does.

Now, as I say, there are Christians who fall along a whole spectrum of viewpoints about same-sex attraction, homosexual activity, same-sex unions, and other issues related to sex and sexuality. As though to illustrate precisely this point, a few years ago a group of Christians at a gay pride parade in Chicago took a very different approach from that of the nearby protesters by apologizing to the gay community for their harsh, judgmental treatment. And I’m not trying to settle the discussion today, or even stake out a position in it. What I’m trying to say is that, whatever you may think about issues of sexual attraction, sexual activity, or sexual identity–and, for that matter, whatever you may think about people who disagree with you on those issues–“Love thy neighbor” still applies. And loving thy neighbor requires seeing thy neighbor, even if thou must first train thyself to look.

It’s that sort of training that has allowed me to see, among other things, that no matter how objectionable, even evil, I may have found his actions, Fred Phelps was still a human being.

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