Mars Hill Forum # 70: A True “Son of Hell”

John C. Rankin (March 21, 2014)

Is it possible to deeply oppose the homosexual-hating Fred Phelps, who just died, while at the same time not embracing homosexuality? This I sought to do in a 2002 debate with him in Casper, Wyoming.

Mr. Phelps was as much “a son of hell” as I have ever met – a term used by Jesus of his plotting enemies during Passover Week.

Jesus came to love those who struggle with temptation, and caused scandal by hanging out with “sinners,” with the hated Jewish turncoat tax-collectors, and with prostitutes. To the woman caught in an act of adultery, Jesus silenced her accusers, then said to her: “Neither do I condemn you … Go now and leave your life of sin.”

This is the Gospel, the good news that always affirms the humanity of all people, of all of us, despite our struggles and temptations. As we are loved, we are empowered to turn to God’s grace. Mr. Phelps had no such concerns, as his god was a god of hate – a false deity into whose arms he has now cast himself. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Mr. Phelps said to hurting people, in virtual essence, “Get the hell away from me, all you whom I hate.”

For those who share my biblical understanding, we know how much Mr. Phelps slandered the Gospel by his own chosen sub-humanity, and the demonizing of others. In my debate, I stated up front what the apostle John says: “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” And also, how Jesus sums up the greatest commandment as loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and thus, loving our neighbors as ourselves.

The key question I put forth in the debate was this: “Does love define hate, or does hate define love?” For Mr. Phelps, it is the latter. I also asked if there is any definitive statement in the Bible that God “is hate.” He could not provide it, and in the balance of my presentation I set the biblical contrasts between creation and destruction, hope and fear, giving and taking, God and Satan, trust and distrust, light and dark, good and evil, freedom and slavery, honest and false questions, heaven and hell, friends and enemies, curses and blessings, judgment and mercy. Mr. Phelps lived and advocated a life on the back end of all these equations.

Some months before I debated him, I addressed a forum at Wesleyan University on the question of same-sex marriage. As I arrived on campus during what was called “Queer Awareness Days,” the sidewalks across the main quad were full of chalkings in support of homosexuality and cognate sexual identities. As I approached the building where I was to speak, there were repeated chalkings, where by name, I was identified as someone who should be homosexually subdued or raped.

This was, indeed, “hate speech” calling for a “hate crime.” About the same time, Mr. Phelps posted a cartoon on his website calling for me to be homosexually raped. Thus, both a homosexual activist (who identified himself during the forum), and a homosexual-hater, wanted the same crime committed against me. Why do polar opposites – as it were – embrace the same hate speech calling for hate crimes?

One or several years later, Mr. Phelps and his group came to downtown Hartford to demonstrate at Center Church, just across from my office at the time. It is an “open and affirming” church that supports homosexuality. I received a call from a reporter for the Hartford Courant, who said she heard that I had debated Mr. Phelps, and wanted my comments. As I explained my reason for debating him, and as she learned I was not a homosexual advocate, she hung up.

So I guess it comes full circle to my opening sentence. It is possible to speak the truth in love, but only for those who want to hear it.