As Fred Phelps (pictured here) lay dying the other day, I could not help but remember the anguish he caused my sister and her husband exactly when they were suffering the unspeakable shock of the death of their son Karleton at the hands of the 9/11 terrorists.
Phelps, who has picketed me five different times because I have publicly stood for equal civil rights for gays and lesbians, sent me a fax right after 9/11 blaming me for Karleton's death. Phelps and his debased Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka said God was punishing me for my stance on homosexuality by arranging for Karleton's death.
It was hideous theology and worse human relations.
But what made it even more lacerating was that Phelps threatened to picket Karleton's funeral, to be held within a few days in Boston. At the time of his death at age 31, Karleton worked for John Hancock in Boston as a bond analyst and lived with his pregnant wife and toddler son in suburban Brookline.
So I had to relay the scurrilous news of this picketing threat to my sister and to help her understand something no decent human being can understand -- why Phelps would do such a loathsome thing. What the Phelps threat meant was that there would be no public announcement of the time and place of Karleton's funeral. To prevent the Phelps clan from knowing where and when to show up, word of the event was spread solely by private communications to friends and family.
And Phelps never found the funeral that day.
Nor did he find the later memorial service in North Carolina, where Karleton grew up. That time and date, too, was spread only privately, though again Phelps threatened to find us and picket us.
It's now 13 and a half years later, and we are left to think about why anyone would want to inflict this kind of pain on any family.
The answer is distorted religion.
Phelps believed in a literalistic interpretation -- meaning misinterpretation -- of what the Bible says about homosexuality. Many people do. And most who do are not spiritual terrorists who sink to Phelps' level of hatred. Indeed, some who hold that position on homosexuality are friends of mine and we do our best to love each other despite our differences on this matter.
But sometimes for reasons hard to understand the holders of distorted religion simply run amok. They become so focused on one aspect of what they believe is divine doctrine that they cannot see anything else. It's this kind of theological myopia that leads people to adopt the bin Laden brand of Islam or to join the Ku Klux Klan.
My rule about such certitude is this: If you are convinced that God is speaking directly (or even indirectly) to you and is demanding any action that is likely to cause others serious pain, do not undertake that action until you have prayed about it non-stop for three straight years and then have confirmed God's message to you with a minimum of 1,854,862 individuals who agree with you in writing that has been witnessed by a notary public as well as by the chief of police of your community.
If you do all that and still believe you're right about what God is saying to you, run -- do not walk -- to your nearest mental health facility and check yourself in.
I wish Phelps and his clan had followed that advice.
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AND IT'S NOT FLAT, EITHER
Biblical literalists (are there really any true literalists?) believe the world was created in six 24-hour days and that Earth is just a few thousand years old. New scientific evidence about the Big Bang continues to paint such folks into an increasingly awkward corner. But, then, ignoring evidence is a practiced art among Young Earthers.
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P.S.: Don't forget that you're invited to the 6 p.m. Shabbat service at Temple Israel of Greater Kansas City Friday, where I'll be offering the sermon based on my new book, Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans. For details, click here.
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ANOTHER P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column now is online here.