During our class on Mark’s gospel last Sunday, I was reminded of Rudyard Kipling’s description of the jackal. “Even the tiger runs and hides when little Tabaqui goes mad, for madness is the most disgraceful thing that can overtake a wild creature.”
When the jackal was mad, it was more horrifying than terrorizing. All the animals avoided the raging jackal because it simply knew no boundaries and had no shame. To engage with it would require entering its unseemly world.
This week we saw the passing of Fred Phelps, the past leader of the Westboro Baptist Church, purveyor of excessive and inflammatory pronouncements of how God hates just about everyone but its leaders. I once helped organize a gathering, in the rotunda of Iowa’s capitol building, of religious leaders across many faiths, including a wide spectrum of Christian leaders from progressive to fundamentalists.
These were leaders who were at odds with one another on a regular basis. The one issue on which we could all agree was that the Fred Phelps School of Hate was a gross misrepresentation of God. He was the rabid jackal that pushed the rest of us into a small measure of solidarity as we backed away and said, “Whatever that is, it is not what we intend to be.”
The rationale of the Westboro approach is plain enough to be laughable. Whenever something bad happens, it becomes the new “gotcha” moment that proves that God hates America because America does not hate people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Conversely, whenever something good happens — which is quite often, really – the Westboro folks are nowhere to be found. In the end, they are opportunistic ambulance chasers of the worst sort.
But this rationale is not what makes headlines. It is the strategy of the Westboro folks that lands them in the news. They can violate the respectful dignity of funerals and speak of their god in ways that make one’s blood boil, because they act like Tabaqui the jackal, with no boundaries or shame.
So now Phelps has died, and people of faith and good will wonder how to respond. Do we celebrate? Do we protest his funeral? Do we conjecture that he is hell-bound? Should we line his funeral procession with rainbow flags and “God Hates Haters!” posters? While there is something deliciously tempting in all of those responses, they would show us to be more like Phelps than different.
In the end, maybe the death of a jackal during the season of Lent is timely. During Lent, we reflect on our brokenness, including our reactions to Phelps’ death. As long as we encounter his hate with our hate, the only real difference between Phelps and ourselves are some layers of propriety and decency that he was willing to shed and we are not.
But if we confess that we too have such trust in hate, then the long, slow process of transformation begins, where love overcomes hate and good overcomes evil.
MARK DAVIS is the pastor of St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach.