Street performer impersonating a statue near the Roman Forum. Photo by Patrick Scriven.
By Patrick Scriven, Director of Communications and Ministries with Young People
A few weeks ago, a story was circulating about the granddaughters of Fred Phelps, the infamous founder of Westboro Baptist Church. Megan (27) and her younger sister Grace (19) had just left the church known for picketing military funerals with signs declaring God’s hate. Doing so also meant leaving their family behind and what they “lived, breathed, studied, believed, preached – loudly, daily” for their entire lives. You can read Megan’s statement here. It is simple, short, and to all appearances, sincere.
I was moved by this story as I expect a lot of people were. Stories of redemption give us hope. They remind us that people can and do change, and that we aren’t predetermined to some fate beyond our control. It’s a shame that we don’t always remember this.
In seminary I learned that characters in classical Greek literature were often presented as types, fixed from birth, rather than the dynamic, or rounded, characters we expect. Character development, as we might understand it in good literature or cinema today, wasn’t necessarily at play. For example, that story from Luke’s Gospel about a young Jesus in the Temple isn’t meant to share a moment where he had changed. Instead, it is designed to reinforce the portrait Luke is painting and a conclusion already drawn. Another example of this static can be found in a popular Christmas hymn:
But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.”
While I’d love to determine whether the baby Jesus ever cried or not, I’m more interested in our tendency to treat others as if they were static characters in our life’s story rather than inherently dynamic players in a drama of God’s design. Haven’t we all taken part in a conversation about another person which was anchored in our inability to accept that they might change? How many of us have developed a meticulous composite of another, firmly rooted in one or two experiences – or worse a stereotype or ism? How many times have we felt that we were misunderstood or underestimated because this same tendency?
The problem with this way of thinking is that it is in direct conflict with our call to make disciples. Discipleship needs to start with the belief that we can change, that we can become renewed people; dare I say that we can be born again. If we start from a lesser assumption the effort we invest toward others – indeed, even the effort we’ll invest in ourselves – will always be inadequate to the task. It is our contemporary equivalent of burying the talent instead of truly investing what we have been given.
In her statement, Megan Phelps-Roper quotes a line of dialogue from The Dark Night Rises.
There’s no fresh start in today’s world. Any twelve-year-old with a cell phone could find out what you did. Everything we do is collated and quantified. Everything sticks.”
There is truth in these words but it is not the Gospel. If we want to rediscover discipleship for the 21st-century, we need to remember that people can change and that “everything sticks” doesn’t have to equal ‘everything stuck.’ . If we are to take Jesus seriously, those people can include the wrong-headed ‘haters’ whose motivations we can’t ever understand – and those people can even include us.