Free to Hate: An American Church Rejoices in Swedish Tsunami Victims

In the January 6 early web edition of Dagens Nyheter, one of Scandinavia’s leading newspapers, the headline reads “USA church rejoices in Swedish victims.”

In the wake of the American presidential elections, when so much has been made about the American citizenry’s overwhelming desire to return to morality and family values, one wonders how the world perceives the American populace. As dozens of foreign presses have detailed, much of the world has not been impressed with America’s foreign policy ethos in the light of the Iraq war. Our news services have registered the diminishing respect level of the American government since the start of the Iraqi war.

Recently, however, newscasters have been recounting a positive turnaround. Why? Because of the US aid to millions in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India, and Africa devastated by the Christmas tsunami. As the death toll rises, Americans read and hear about heroism and survival. On the morning of January 6, Swedish citizens read about the frantic search for hundreds of their countrymen and women, but also about an American Baptist church that proclaimed joy over the disaster. The article, “USA church rejoices in Swedish victims,” reported this American church’s wish that all the missing Swedish citizens were now “food for sharks.” Its author, Georg Cederskog, credited these extreme statements, which he labeled repugnant, to the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas.

Cederskog begins by quoting rhetoric from the church web site: “Sweden deserved the tsunami tidal waves. The Swedes’ suffering is God’s punishment provoked by the Swedish people’s disobedient morality–and its unjust action against the Swedish Pentecostal pastor ke Green.” Swedish Pentecostal pastor ke Green was sentenced under Sweden’s hate crime legislation for preaching anti-gay passages from the Bible in a sermon. He became the hero of Westboro Baptist Church. Green is currently appealing his one-month sentence in the Swedish courts.

Yet, the hero of Westboro church doesn’t want to be associated with the American church’s website. In both the Aftonbladet and Sweden’s English language publication, The Local, Green denounced the rhetoric of the Westboro Baptist Church web site. In The Local article, “Swedish pastor disowns US hate site,” Green states, “I think it is appalling that people say things like that.”

Monument

An illustration posted on the godhatessweden.com website hosted by the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas.

Green is reported to have contacted US newspapers “to distance himself from the comments on the website.” He told Local reporter James Savage that he was surprised that US authorities have not intervened. “This harms Christianity,” he said.

When Dagens Nyheter reporter Cederskog contacted the church for his article, church spokesperson, Shirley Phelps-Roper, mother of eleven children, is quoted as saying: “God has punished the Swedes. Those dead children were raised by their parents for the Devil–I feel such a powerful anger against those parents for not listening to God. I am sad for the children, but this sadness is small and fleeting, because perhaps now they might yet end up in heaven and be better off.” When Cederskog asked how her hateful message coincides with Christian teaching, she is reported to have replied, “God’s love is not for the sinners. And there were many God-fearing people in Asia that survived the tsunami catastrophe.” I wondered how then she justified the deaths of many who were Christians. Would she have termed them martyrs?

I went to the Westboro church site godhatesfags.com, where I refocused my research to the site godhatessweden.com site. And sure enough, Cederskog’s information was accurate in all respects. The church was planning a “Love Crusade” to Thailand “to the Swedish fag colony on the Thai Island of Phuket.” Moreover, I found this banner headline:

WE PRAY FOR ALL 20,000 SWEDES IN THE TSUNAMI’S WAKE TO BE DECLARED DEAD!

 

It is now widely reported that at least 5,000 Swedes are dead as a result of the tsunamis which ravaged Thailand and the other lush resorts of that region, and thousands more are unaccounted for, either still rotting in the tropical conditions or buried, as they deserve, as asses in mass graves (see Jeremiah 22:19). Scarcely a family in Sweden has been untouched by the devastation. Bible preachers say, THANK GOD for it all!

For those reading Cederskog’s article, is this the face of conservative Christianity in America? Is this what Sweden thinks of President Bush’s America?

So I emailed Cederskog for more information. I went back to the web site. According to the site, the church, founded by Fred Phelps in 1955, aligns itself with the Old School Baptist or Primitive Baptist Church, yet I could not find the Westboro Church on the official list of member Primitive Baptist churches.

Moreover, when I took a look at the Manifesto of Westboro Baptist Church, I was stunned:

We are a TULIP Baptist Church! We believe–and vigorously preach– the 5 Points of Calvinism! Anyone preaching otherwise is a Hellbound false prophet, a messenger of Satan, to whom we say, Anathema Maranatha! and, Let him be accursed of God!

To put it mildly, I was discomforted. I teach at Calvin College, a midwestern liberal arts college. Calvin College was founded on Calvinist principles. I wondered what the Swedish reporter was going to think when he saw my email signature. (Indeed, I never did receive a reply from him.) I tried to move on to other pressing projects, but found myself unable to. I searched on.

In an Aftonbladet article, “Pastorn nskar att alla svenskar hade d tt,” reporters echo Cederskog’s article in Dagens Nyheter of the day before. These reporters managed to speak directly to Westboro founder and preacher Fred Phelps. When they remind him that as of January 7 over 2,000 of their countrymen and women were missing, Pastor Phelps replied, “That’s a shame. I hope you all die. God takes a firm grip on those [with whom] he is displeased.”

What was more disturbing to me was the phrase used to describe Fred Phelps’s church: “an influential Christian extremist movement in Kansas.” Influential? I had never heard of it. Some have, however. In his 2003 SBCLife article “Night and Day: Stark Differences between Southern Baptists and Fred Phelps,” Michael Foust notes that in Topeka, Phelps is a celebrity:

He’s so prominent that the local newspaper in Topeka once published a special section about Phelps, which is still available on the paper’s website under the banner, “Loving God’s Hate: An In-depth Look at Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church.” In 1999, George magazine named him number five in a list of the “Twenty Most Fascinating Men in Politics.”

In this article Foust asserts that it’s up to the reader to understand the differences of purpose between the southern Baptists and Phelps’s independent church. But I can attest that American ways of thinking, particularly religious, are not necessarily easily comprehended by ordinary Swedes. Distinguishing between different American religious traditions would be even more difficult.

As a young Ph.D. student, I elected to learn Swedish as my doctoral language. A third generation Swedish-American, I was keenly interested in researching Swedish theatre and learning more about my heritage. I embarked on a wonderful journey, enhanced by a distant relative’s kindness in hosting me on visit after visit. Over the past twenty years, I’ve had many discussions about faith and religion with my relatives and friends there. Though Christianity wasn’t an integral part of their spiritual lives, they valued its cultural and ethical creeds and wove it into their daily lives and form of government. Until 2000, Sweden had a church-state, the official state church being Lutheran. Additionally, I have learned about how the Swedes care for each other, their environment, and for the larger world. Sweden has a lot to teach the rest of the world in the way it nurtures its children and integrates family life in the public sphere.

So I was deeply disturbed to read about the assertion by Preacher Phelps that he hoped the entire Swedish populace would die for their moral crimes and lack of appropriate “family values.” I knew it would fortify resistance to Christianity among Swedish friends who were suspicious of the church as an institution.

Then in the American and Swedish presses during the same twoday period, I read about the arrest of Edgar Ray Killen, a 79-year-old pastor indicted for the murders of three young civil rights workers forty years prior. A pastor and member of the KKK in the 1960s. Another extremist Christian fringe agenda.

Who ordains these men? Who sanctifies them? I keep coming back to Swedish Pastor ke Green, the reluctant hero of a small independent church in Topeka, Kansas: “Why don’t the American authorities intervene?”

No, I think, why doesn’t evangelical America intervene? Americans have routinely called for Islamic moderates to condemn terrorists supported by their Islamic fringe movements. Why are not mainstream Christians doing the same things with our “verbal terrorists?”

Why are so many of us silent?

Debra L. Freeberg is professor of communication arts and sciences at Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.