I don't care who you are, nobody has the right to disrupt a funeral and hit a family while they are grieving.
Most people have heard by now of the notorious Phelps clan of Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas. These are the people who have decided God has called them to picket the funerals of service men and women and others. They carry signs that say things like "God Hates You" and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers." I'm not making this up. Last week they were in front of the Supreme Court defending their right to do this.
The Phelps are arguing that they are only exercising their rights to free speech. Perhaps they are right. The dilemma of free speech is that it protects offensive words as well as noble ones. This is a tension we live with in America but I believe the Phelps have seriously crossed the line. Just because you are free to do something, does not mean you should.
I am perplexed, however, by a more confusing question than the dilemma of free speech. How can someone believe that they are called to hate by God? How can they call themselves Christians? Perhaps there are tough and unpopular things that need to be said - but tough and unpopular are different than hateful. I can't begin to see how the Phelps can find justification for calling down hellfire and damnation on grieving families in the name of God. I suspect that the things that really grieve God's heart are rarely the things that these modern day Jeremiahs rail against anyway. It's a tricky thing to appoint oneself a Jeremiah.
I am perplexed, I am saddened, and I'm also angry.
I hesitate to say that I am angry, when this is a raw, oozing wound of anger on our nation's soul. The actions of the Phelps are perhaps only more obvious symptoms of a deeper malady. But it is right to be angry about injustice. I'm angry that innocent people have been subjected to such indecent harassment. I'm angry that we do not seem able to protect them from it. I am angry that a small group of hate-mongers can command such attention and hide behind our constitution. I am angry that God's name is being invoked in such horrible ways.
To the families that have suffered under the words of the Phelps and others who spew messages of hate in the name of God: I am sorry. I am so, so sorry. Reasonable people recognize the Westboro church for what they are - kooks out on the fringe. But kooks still inflict real and lasting pain. I just want to say that these fringe fundamentalists do not speak for all Christians in any way. While our courts may not deliver the justice your pain deserves, please know that we do not believe what has happened to you is OK. It is reprehensible. My sadness cannot approach your grief in the loss of your loved one, compounded by the insult and injury inflicted upon you. But I grieve with you.
In my anger and sadness, I am cautioned. Judging each other is something we all excel at. I must ask myself, where have I presumed to speak for God, passing judgment on someone else? Less flamboyant, self-appointed Jeremiahs can do just as much damage in small ways, without waving signs in front of cameras. I better make sure I have examined my own life and removed the plank from my own eye before I would dare to point out the speck in someone else's eye.
It is easy to answer hate with a bigger hate, but we are not called to hate. What we are called to as Christians is abundantly clear in the Bible:
Love mercy and kindness.
Walk humbly with God.
Love God with all you've got.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
Above all, love. Love sacrificially, love extravagantly. Love. Not hate.
In a society gripped in spasms of hate and anger, love is the only way.
Jennifer Zach lives in Ahwatukee Foothills with her husband and three children. They are members of Bridgeway Community Church. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.