Earth, Air, Fire, Water in Struggle with the Evils of our Times

Essay by Rev. Matthew Fox on 2 November 2017 2 Comments

Last night I returned from a conference in Jamaica about Men and Masculinity—they are dealing with a veritable epidemic of violence among young men and killings of men by men. Not unlike El Salvador and many other places around the globe.

Here at home we have our own violence, much of it also spawned by reptilian brain action/reaction responses, efforts of striving to be “number one” at all costs, buttressed by sins of greed and denial and of patriarchy gone berserk.

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What can we do about a preacher in our state whose website is "” and who is constantly harassing churches that seek to be open to new knowledge about homosexuality?


Dear Maria,

First, I hear your pain. I hear how embarrassing it is to have such a ministry in the state that you live in. I hear your desire to try to do something.

You’re no doubt referring to the Westboro Baptist Church that, until recently, was founded and led by the late Fred Phelps. I actually met him. Spoke with him. Was yelled at by him. Yelled at him. And … had communion with him.

The way you worded your question suggests to me that you primarily want to “do something about” that church. Understandable. With that in mind let me remind us that we have freedom of speech in this country and if we were to somehow censor their preachers or ban that ministry, that sets up a dangerous and unacceptable situation whereby we could be censored or banned by others in the future. There are limits of course to free speech such as inciting to riot, threatening violence, or urging others to commit violence. Many of the members of that congregation are attorneys and they know how to avoid crossing that line. Indeed, a case can be made that they are so savvy that they actually hope counter protestors who show up take swings at them – so they can sue their pants off and further fund their hateful ministry.

That said, there are certain helpful things that have worked in various communities around the nation “when Westboro comes to town.” One tactic is to seek to enact local ordinances, or even laws at the state level, whereby protests of any sort are not allowed within 500 feet of local churches, cemeteries, etc.

Another strategy is to do as Soul Force has done; i.e., to amass large groups of volunteers standing between the hateful Phelps clan (and their “church” largely consists of their family members) wearing very large angel wings to prevent grieving families from seeing the ugly signs held by the Westboro gang.

And, several communities have informed the Westboro thugs that for every minute that they protest in their town, $500 or so will be donated to the NAACP, the ADL, Reconciling Ministries Network (organizations that they loathe). Such funds and pledges are secured days before the Westboro gang shows up – and… there has been a marked reduction in the frequency of WBC showing up in other states as a result.

We can also take a page out of Jesus’ playbook by engaging in radical hospitality. In the same way that Jesus invited himself to share a meal with a hated tax collector, we can seek to interact with the members of that church, ideally one–on-one over coffee (holding warm beverages helps), to learn why they think the way they do. Help them feel heard. Validate how that may have made some sense in the past – well, any small part at least. Normalize things by sharing how we too have had certain tendencies toward bigotry and prejudice in our lives (and we all have if we’re being honest). And then share “and yet, I can no longer think in that way as I’ve come to know X, as I’ve come to experience Y, as I’ve come to know and be in relationship with Z..,” etc. Zacchaeus changed, so apparently did Fred. Never write anyone off as “irredeemable” or “beyond hope.” To do so would be to deny Jesus and our faith.

I would invite us to go beyond scheming about “what we can do about them” and consider how we are like them. It is often the case that we humans seek to turn some ugly group or person into a scapegoat to exorcise us of the parts of ourselves that are like the person/group we seek to kill or banish. It is a truism that we criticize most in others that which we struggle most with ourselves. In fact, given the insight that “the people who annoy us the most are our most important spiritual teachers” there can even be much merit in considering how the WBC are one of our best spiritual teachers. And we do well to take seriously Nietzsche’s observation “Beware that when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster, .. for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”

And, there’s something to be said for the notion that the best response to encounter with the bad, is intentional commitment to the good. Please know that the WBC does not define the good people of Kansas. We tend to think of y’all as wholesome and reasonable. We know that WBC is an embarrassing outlier. Be the best Christians and the best Kansans that you can be.

If you clicked on the first hyperlink that I posted above (me having “communion” with Fred Phelps) you’ll see how the Holy Spirit intervened in a truly unique and unexpected way. For those who don’t click on it, I’ll share the ending of it here:

Fred, human history will not remember you kindly. There are reasons for that. I thank you, however, for sharing that moment in the Sun on that plaza that day. I thank you for having cookie communion with me. I thank you for your prayers – and for that fleeting glimpse of your higher self – your true self – the loved, forgiven, accepted Child of God – who loves, forgives, and accepts others. Perhaps that’s the true self that allegedly got excommunicated by the hateful “church” that you created. Their loss is heaven’s gain.

~ Rev. Roger Wolsey


Bishop John Shelby Spong Revisited

The Bible, Corporal Punishment and Human Guilt - Part 5


"Those whom I love, I will reprove and chasten so be zealous and repent (Rev.3: 19)."

Can you imagine that something as life denying as sado-masochism is overtly a part of the Christian story? Impossible, you say! Christianity is about life and love, not about pain and punishment. Well, let's examine that thesis. Listen first to the words from a hymn found in the Episcopal hymnal:

"Before thy throne, O God, we kneel; Give us a conscience quick to feel,
A ready mind to understand, The meaning of thy chastening hand;
Whate'er the pain or shame may be, Bring us, O Father, nearer thee.
Search out our hearts and make us true, Wishful to give to all their due,
From love of pleasure, lust of gold, From sins which make the heart grow cold,
Wean us and train us with thy rod; Teach us to know our faults, O God.

Is there no sado-masochism present here? Listen now to the self-deprecating words of Christian liturgies: "We were born in sin! We are miserable offenders. There is no health in us. We can do nothing good without you. Have mercy, O Lord, have mercy!"
Are these not the words of a frightened child before a punishing parent? Over and over in the forms of our worship, words of penitence, guilt and pleas for mercy are heard. They are liturgical admissions that we deserve the wrath which is judged to be our due. These elements are deeply written into our faith story. During Lent, church bulletins tend to feature instruments of torture like whips and nails. The Bible portrays a wrathful God intent on punishing. When the Jews do not obey, God raises up enemies to subdue them or a pestilence to torment them. The Bible describes human beings as sheep gone astray; and God as the parent whose righteousness must be served. We tremble before this deity. Worshipers are expected to act like school children waiting in anxious dependency for the moment when the price of our sinfulness will be exacted. We cover these neurotic aspects of our religious tradition with layers of piety, but when we listen to our liturgy, this is what it seems to say: "I have been a bad boy or girl. God either punishes me directly or Jesus takes my place and God gives him what I deserve. That is how I am saved." That is what the substitutionary doctrine of the Atonement proclaims.

Is that healthy? Does it enhance life? Is being asked to watch Jesus die on the cross for my sins anything more than an act of sado-masochistic voyeurism? Is it not time that we Christians raise these issues to consciousness?

If this is not yet visible to religious people, it is because they do not yet want to see it. We are forced, however, by a rising consciousness to look anew at the way we tell the Jesus story. Perhaps the violent sadism seen in the blood from the crown of thorns streaming down the face of Jesus or the beating scenes from Mel Gibson's film, "The Passion of The Christ," will finally be enough to make us see the violence that traditional Christianity has constantly fostered.

The understanding of the cross turns God into a divine child-abuser. The Father punishes the Son instead of us. Does that not sound strange? The Christian Church invites the faithful to meditate on Jesus' vicarious pain, to revel in his shed blood In Protestant evangelical circles we are told that his blood washes away our sins. In Catholic devotion we learn that the blood of Jesus received in the sacrament has the power to cleanse us from within. Either way, our evil is said to be so excessive that only the suffering of Jesus can overcome it. This in essence turns the bleeding Jesus into a grotesque guilt-producing icon and rivets our attention on the Cross. That is the story scraped clean of its piety so that its horror can be viewed with full awareness. It is barbaric, fashioning for us a sadistic God who is served by masochistic children.

Is that not what is being said when Protestants use the words, "Jesus died for my sins," or, "We are saved by the blood of Jesus?" Is that not what is being said when the Catholic mass proclaims that in the Eucharistic action, the sacrifice of Jesus is re-enacted in a timeless way so that people in every generation can appropriate his saving death on the cross? Jesus suffers while the sinners, watch and cringe and are reduced to bowls full of quivering guilt-filled jelly. What an incredible way to torture ourselves. If our guilt is total and inescapable, however, this becomes the perfect answer. We suffer eternally.

The Church has always sought to control its people through guilt that stymies our growth and keeps us child-like and penitent. Listen to the words of a Lenten hymn:

"Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee. Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee: I crucified thee."

When guilt becomes unbearable or intolerable we have to rid ourselves of it. The normal way people do that is to project it on to others. We become unloving and judgmental. We reject others when we cannot accept ourselves. We hide our violence under a thick veneer of righteousness. We build enormous, hurtful barriers to keep ourselves safe from any self-revelation. How often religious people manifest exactly those characteristics.

This diagnosis of our intrinsic evil requires either punishment or vicarious redemption, that is, someone else suffers in our stead. Either way it validates violence as the price of salvation. Perhaps that is why religious people can so quickly turn so hostile. Perhaps that is why history is dotted with religious persecution, intolerance and wars; with things like the Inquisition and with sermons on the fiery pits of hell to which, the preacher asserts, all who do not respond to him will suffer through all eternity. Is not it rather amazing how we tend to create God in our own image? The punishing God is replicated in the punishing parent, the punishing authority figure, and the punishing nation. Violence is viewed as redemptive. War is justified. Bloodshed is the way of salvation. It all fits together so tightly, so neatly and it justifies the most destructive and demeaning of human emotions. Look at the places of violence and war in the world today and ask yourself whether or not each has a religious dimension.

There is no Christian or even religious future unless we understand this dimension. So let me, speaking to the violence within Christianity, issue the call to Reformation with what I hope will be heard as the good news of the gospel: Jesus did not die for your sins or mine! That is theological nonsense! It is an improper prescription in an attempt to deal with an incorrect diagnosis. We must get rid ourselves of both. One can hardly refrain from exhorting parents not to spare the rod, if the portrait of God at the heart of the Christian story is that of an angry parental deity who punishes the divine son because he can take it and we cannot. I hope my readers see that connection.

This interpretation of Jesus is a human creation, not a divine revelation. It was shaped by the first century world in which Christianity was born. It was influenced by the liturgy of the Jewish followers of Jesus. Seeking to make sense out of the violence of the Crucifixion, they borrowed images from the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. In the observance of Yom Kippur an innocent lamb was slaughtered as a symbolic payment to God for the sins of the people. These people would then have the cleansing blood of that sacrificial lamb sprinkled on them to "cover their sins with the blood of the Lamb." In the second act of Yom Kippur an innocent goat would have the sins of the people symbolically laid upon its back; then this goat, called the 'scapegoat,' would be run out into the wilderness. It became the sin-bearer that 'took away the sins of the world.' Yom Kippur was a worship-filled drama designed to relieve human guilt, at least symbolically. Jesus was captured by these liturgical images. But they are all based on an understanding of human life that is quite simply wrong.

Yom Kippur and the Christian Atonement doctrines both assumed that to be human was to be fallen, to be alienated from God and to be banished from our true purpose as citizens of the Garden of Eden. That was the only way these ancient people could make sense of the human experience. But it is not true either historically or mythologically. We are not fallen, sinful people who deserve to be punished. We are frightened, insecure people who have achieved the enormous breakthrough into self-consciousness that marks no other creature that emerged from the evolutionary cycle. We must not denigrate the human being who was willing to eat of the fruit from the tree of knowledge in the Genesis story. Our sense of separation is not a mark of our sin. It is a symbol of our glory. Our struggle to survive is not a mark of original sin. It is a sign of emerging consciousness. It should not be a source of guilt. It is a source of blessing. We do not need to be punished. We need to be called and empowered to be more fully human. Jesus did not die for our sins. Jesus demonstrated that it is by giving that we receive and by loving that we enhance life.

Guilt, judgment, punishment, orthodoxy and creedal purity are the manifestations of an angry deity who judges human life from some heavenly throne. That god image must be broken and then the door will open to a healthy religious future.

~ John Shelby Spong
Originally published July 14, 2004




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