I don’t think of Fred Phelps as a fellow Christian. Let me clarify. For my purposes here, a Christian means a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, called Christ; someone who tries to live according to Jesus’ teaching and example. The message and practices of Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church lack any hint of the compassion that fills Christ’s words and actions. No amount of invoking Jesus’ name can make Jesus sanction such hatred.
What, then, is a proper Christian response to his visit and his doctrine? I must answer that question by looking at Christ.
The Gospel of John records a story that begins with Jesus stopping alone at a well during his travels. In the heat of the day, a woman had come there to draw water. She lived in a sexist society, was an ethnic enemy of Jesus, and had become a social outcast. Across all those barriers, Jesus spoke to her and asked her for a drink of water.
During their conversation, Jesus asked her to call her husband. “I have no husband,” she replied. “What you have just said is quite true,” he said, adding that she had had five husbands and was now living unmarried with a man. The woman was amazed, saying he must be a prophet.
So — “What you have just said is quite true.” What are we to make of Jesus’ response to the woman’s living situation? He isn’t silent about her not-husband; in fact, he raises the subject himself. He doesn’t affirm her way of life; elsewhere in the Gospels, he advocates a very strict view of marriage. Nor does he condemn her way of life. He merely points it out.
Jesus makes it clear that he has much more on his mind concerning this woman than her sex life. He claims to have access to “living water,” which will satisfy her more deeply than either the water she came for or the man she was bringing it back to. Jesus offers neither blanket affirmation nor outright condemnation of her sexuality, which has served to define her in the village’s eyes. Instead, he offers her something completely different, something no one else has ever offered her. He offers unconditional love, forgiveness, and an identity that comes from something deeper than sexuality. In short, he offers himself.
If I mean to follow Jesus, therefore, my response to my neighbor’s sexuality must be as nuanced and radical as Jesus’ to this woman’s. I don’t get to avoid the issue; Jesus didn’t. I don’t get to encourage my friends just to find happiness however they wish; Jesus didn’t. I don’t want to condemn them, at all; and Jesus doesn’t give me any reason to. Instead, I must do what Jesus did. I must offer myself, as an unconditional friend; and, even more, I must offer Jesus and the living water only he can provide.
As I talked with some of my Christian friends about these questions late at night, we were all struggling with how to respond to Fred Phelps’ visit. We knew we could not take any risk of falling into his trap of un-Christian hatred. Nor could we simply ignore him or the issues he raises for us. Nor could we align ourselves wholly with queer activists while affirming the Biblical vision of sex as created for heterosexual marriage. As this story about Jesus shows, following him through these pitfalls means giving ourselves to our neighbors, both as individuals and as Christ-representing communities, in complete love, all the while speaking the truth God has revealed. That solution is by far the hardest option. Too often we Christians fail to love, or to speak the truth. But we try, and we support one another; and there, in community with each other and Jesus, we find what he offered the woman at the well.
I pray that Fred Phelps may be transformed one day, that God will break through his hatred with everlasting love. In the meantime, don’t listen to him for a Christian word on homosexuality. Listen to Jesus. I hope that we, his followers, are making him known.
Chris Ashley is a sophomore in Silliman College.