Friday, December 10, 2010

Westboro Baptist Church vs. sanity: picketing Elizabeth Edwards' funeral

Honestly, the world really is going to hell in a handbasket, as my grandmother might have said!

Elizabeth Edwards Funeral To Be Picketed By Westboro Baptist Church. Reading their insane announcement about Edwards' funeral, what seems to anger them most is that she said, "I'm not praying to God to save me from cancer."

In my opinion, what she said was admirable. Unlike so many people, she didn't try to fool herself into thinking that God would intervene to stop her cancer. NPR has an interview with Jonathan Alter, who spoke with her in 2007 about her life.
INSKEEP: When you sat down with Elizabeth Edwards how did the two of you talk about such a personal subject?
Mr. ALTER: Well, this was after her recurrence in 2007. And for those who are listening who've had cancer, had somebody close to them with cancer, you know, that it's kind of a club, almost. It's a way of looking at the world that is impossible if you haven't experienced it.
So we bonded, pretty quickly, even though I wasn't a particular supporter of her husband's campaign. And what struck me in that interview shortly after recurrence, was her brutal honesty, which I think the rest of the world came into contact with in later years.
INSKEEP: What do you mean?
Mr. ALTER: Especially struck by how honest she was on the issue of faith, which most presidential candidates and their spouses have - are required almost, by the world we live in, to talk with great sincerity about their religious faith.
And what Elizabeth said on that particular occasion, was that she couldn't see how she could believe in a god who would blow her 16-year-old son off the road and kill him in an auto accident in 1996. And that any god who could do that, was a god that she was not going to be praying to to cure her cancer. Because if he wouldn't save her son, he wasn't going to save her. And that just was reflective of the degree of honesty that she achieved after she had this horrible life experience.
From a profile of Edwards, quoted in Politics Daily:
"I have, I think, somewhat of an odd version of God," Edwards explained to an audience of women bloggers when asked how her beliefs inform her politics. "I do not have an intervening God. I don't think I can pray to him -- or her -- to cure me of cancer."

Edwards, according to Stan, laughed after describing God as "her" -- hardly a heresy and certainly understandable given her audience -- and continued on:

"I appreciate other people's prayers for that [a cure for her cancer], but I believe that we are given a set of guidelines, and that we are obligated to live our lives with a view to those guidelines. And I don't believe that we should live our lives that way for some promise of eternal life, but because that's what's right. We should do those things because that's what's right."
From an interview with Larry King:
In the weeks and months after Wade's death, she told King, "I had this idea that God was going to find some way to turn back time and he was going to be alive." She continued to ask herself, as many do, whether she had done something wrong -- did she not teach him well enough, not get him a safe enough car? And then when cancer struck, and her husband's affair was revealed, she agonized about the possibility of her own cosmic cooperation in it all.

"And I have to recognize with each of these things, they just happen," she told King. "You didn't have to do something wrong to justify them."

But she added, "You still sort of wonder: Is there some grand plan where you've done something someplace else?"

Edwards said she had to move on from such magical and negative thinking, and she quoted a line from the Bill Moyers PBS special on the Book of Genesis, to the effect that "You get the God you have, not the God you want."

"The God I wanted was going to intervene. He was going to turn time back. The God I wanted was -- I was going to pray for good health and he was going to give it to me," she said. "Why in this complicated world, with so much grief and pain around us throughout the world, I could still believe that, I don't know. But I did. And then I realized that the God that I have was going to promise me salvation if I lived in the right way and he was going to promise me understanding. That's what I'm sort of asking for . . . let me understand why I was tested."

Such openness to doubt and, in particular, to the persistence of suffering runs counter to powerful currents of American Christianity that stress the blessings (mostly material) that will flow to those who believe (and donate), as well as to the premium so many Christians place on voicing a confident and undiluted conviction, no matter what the reality.
It's that last point - the openness to doubt and especially to the persistence of suffering - that is so important. I don't think that religion should be used to shield us from the reality of suffering, to make us pretend that suffering doesn't exist - for each and every one of us, no matter how rich or successful we may end up being. We all die in the end, often in pain, often in loneliness. I don't see the point of religion which cloaks that reality. That's why the books of Job and Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) are so important - perhaps we need to read them more often, rather than wasting our time on spiritual pabulum that soothes us while at the same time lying to us.


  1. When my grandmother was in her long decline in the late 1980s, my mother asked her rabbi (at the time, R Saul Berman at Lincoln Square Synagogue) if she could pray for her mother's death, as she didn't see any hope for a recovery. R' Berman told her that she should pray for an end to her mother's suffering. I.e., not the usual prayers for "complete physical and spiritual healing."

  2. Thanbo - thank you for your comment.

  3. How awful to protest against the dead or dying. At least pick someone who is alive and healthy and able to provide a viable defense. All religious folk should understand that Elizabeth is in the care of the Almighty God now, and I recommend at least hesitating before picking a fight with the Creator of the Universe. Good grief.