The guests are Tim Phelps and Steve Drain, and Brand shows them enormous hospitality and patience. He checks his audience, reminding them that “It does take courage and bravery to come in front of a room full of people you think almost certainly don’t agree with you, so let’s hear what they’ve got to say.”
And the fascinating thing here is that Brand actually does give us a chance to hear what they’ve got to say with more clarity and precision than the group’s chanting, slogans and litigation-baiting provocations usually allow. Here’s a bit of a rough transcript from the video above:
PHELPS: Since you promote sin, you hate all these kind people in your heart.
PHELPS: That’s why he applauds your sin, because he hates you all.
BRAND: I don’t applaud any sins what’s hurting people or yourselves.
PHELPS: You encourage them, and then they burn in Hell for eternity. That’s not very loving.
DRAIN: When the Lord Jesus Christ said to love your neighbor as yourself, you love your neighbor as yourself by warning them when their sin is taking them to Hell. And, as a matter of fact, if you fail to warn your neighbor, you hate your neighbor in your heart. So by a Bible standard, we love you all. And I know you can’t believe that from your goofy Hallmark standard, but from a Bible standard, we love you, and he [Brand] doesn’t.
PHELPS: From a Bible standard, he hates you. And you probably hate each other.
Their language is slightly more blunt and provocative than the usual, but the idea Phelps and Drain are saying here is commonplace in evangelical churches, sermons, blogs and Facebook postings. It’s the idea that people are sinners, and that therefore the most loving thing we can do for them is to tell them the truth about their being sinners. This is the idea that Sarah Bessey delightfully and thoroughly dismantles in that post of hers I linked to yesterday: “In which I tell you the truth about telling the truth.”
It’s remarkable, and disturbing, how many times in this interview we see that Westboro Baptist, apart from its nasty signs and slogans, is not all that different from mainstream American evangelicalism.
“Why did you come here?” Brand asks his guests, and their answer presents a clearer picture of Westboro’s concept of evangelism:
DRAIN: It’s our duty.
PHELPS: To warn these people to stop sinning.
DRAIN: The Bible says this, “Cry aloud, spare not. Lift up thy voice like a trumpet. And show the people their transgressions.” How do you show people their transgressions without making it crystal clear what the manner of your sin is? God hates fags. I know it’s not — oh, dude — I know it’s not popular. But we’re not making this stuff up. It’s right in the Bible.
That bit, too, will be utterly familiar to anyone who has spent time in evangelical churches or reading evangelical blogs. “I know it’s not popular … it’s right in the Bible,” is a time-honored defense-mechanism employed when others recoil at our morally appalling behavior or statements. It turns their proper horror at what we’ve said or done into a badge of honor — enabling us to ignore both their revulsion and the cries of our own conscience that they have a point.
The passage Drain quotes there, by the way, is from Isaiah 58. It’s right in the Bible — you can look it up. I love this passage which does, indeed, describe things that God rejects as well as things that God loves. There’s not a word there about homosexuality. The transgressions the prophet cries aloud and lifts up his voice to show the people in Isaiah 58 are these:
- you “oppress all your workers”
- you quarrel and fight and strike with a wicked fist
- you point the finger and speak evil
- you fail to “loose the bonds of injustice … to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke”
- you fail “to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house”
- you “hide yourself from your own kin”
- you fail to “satisfy the needs of the afflicted”
- you “trample” the sabbath by doing all of that on God’s holy day.
That’s another Jubilee passage. It does not support Steve Drain’s point, his theology, or his understanding of sin, righteousness or piety. But then that’s true for nearly all of evangelicalism, so it would be unfair to single out the Westboro folks for criticism on that point.
Some more from the interview:
DRAIN: We’re not talking about a base human passion like you or I might feel. Like you and I might hate each other. [Pantomimes trading punches with Brand] It’s simply …
BRAND: Just so you know, I love you.
DRAIN: I know, I love you too. It’s simply God’s fixed determination to punish the wicked in Hell for their sins. Because He can. Because He’s God. Because He’s sovereign.
BRAND: [laughing] Because he can! That’s very good. OK …
BRAND: OK, so … it’s simply God condemning what is objectively and indefatigably wrong. That’s what it is … I understand now.
PHELPS: Well put. Well put. Other than the accent, very well put.
BRAND: This is how this language is supposed to be spoken. Cheeky.Throughout the interview, Russell Brand is the same brash, kinetic goofball he tends to be in front of an audience (whether it’s Aldous Snow or Arthur, I don’t know how to distinguish Brand from the character he plays). But I give him credit here for allowing these folks the chance to clearly state what they believe and for genuinely listening so that he is able to summarize what they believe in words they find accurate and agreeable.
Elsewhere in the interview, Brand attempts to engage his guests’ views and to argue with them a bit. Russell Brand would not be my first choice for defending Jesus from the Westboro Baptist Church, but he winds up doing better than I expected. Some of what he says is pretty vapid, but he also takes a few stumbling steps toward something like a Christ-centered hermeneutic of love.
On one level that’s unfortunate, because Brand is in many ways the embodiment of the straw-man stereotype “Bible-standard” evangelicals invoke in order to avoid understanding what a hermeneutic of love entails. That phrase — “hermeneutic of love” — conjures up for them a picture of someone who looks and sounds a lot like Brand. A liberal. An over-sexed hippy blabbing squishy, fuzzy, feel-good sentiments about love.
That’s an odd response. A reflexive opposition to talk of “love” is odd to begin with, but then there’s the stubborn rejection of biblical teaching by people supposedly devoted to “Bible standards.” Jesus said that love is the essence of “all the law and the prophets.” The Apostle Paul wrote that “love is the fulfillment of the law.” That’s a hermeneutic of love directly from Jesus and Paul.
And the rejection of a hermeneutic of love as “liberal” is anachronistic — ignoring that this is a teaching that goes back to the early church. Here’s one of my favorite clear statements of a hermeneutic of love, from notorious theological liberal St. Augustine in his dangerously liberal tract On Christian Doctrine:
Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.
The other problem with regarding a hermeneutic of love as squishy, fuzzy and feel-good is that doing so utterly misperceives and misrepresents what love means. For Christians, the ultimate expression of love can be seen in the cross. That’s not a picture of something warm and fuzzy or feel-good. Or read 1 Corinthians 13 — Paul’s hymn to love as “the most excellent way.” It’s a beautiful description of love, but who can read that and think it’s something easy or comfortable or squishy. The most excellent way is a lot harder than that.
But unlike the Westboro/evangelical claim that love just means telling sinners the truth about their sinfulness, love is actually something we humans have access to — something we are capable of. Absolute certainty of absolute truth is not. It’s not an accident that Paul’s famous statement about the epistemological limits of humans — “For now we see in a mirror, dimly … now I know only in part” — is there in the middle of his hymn to love, a necessary part of his argument for the supremacy of love.
Despite Russell Brand’s theological shortcomings, though, he comes across like Karl Barth compared to his guests from Westboro Baptist Church. He deserves credit, again, for providing them a platform to state their views with precision. That allows us to see those views with greater clarity and thus to identify just where they go wrong and just where Westboro’s theology departs, disastrously, from Christian doctrine.
Westboro Baptist Church teaches that Jesus Christ failed. None of what they believe makes any sense if Jesus Christ has triumphed over sin. Thus we can see that, according to Westboro Baptist Church, Jesus Christ did not triumph over sin.
Sin, for the Westboro cult, has not been conquered. Jesus gave it his best shot, apparently, but he failed. So now it’s up to us — we must battle against sin, which still has the upper hand. We must live in fear of sin and in fear of death, and we must warn others to live in fear of sin and death, because Jesus was unable to conquer either of those things.
That is, technically speaking, heresy. For Christians, it’s actually a form of blasphemy.
But set aside the theology and just consider what it would mean to try to live according to Westboro’s beliefs. It means being miserable. It means being dominated, at all times, by fear of sin and death.
That’s no way to live. Such fear is, in the words of Isaiah 58, a kind of yoke or oppression.
Jesus Christ has conquered sin. Break every yoke and let the oppressed go free. Jubilee.