As word comes that the Westboro Baptist Taliban plans to picket the funeral of Elizabeth Edwards tomorrow in Raleigh, I couldn’t help but wonder just what it is that inspires religious fanatics to do the things they do.
And I’m not just talking about obviously reprehensible things like conducting protests at funerals, but seemingly less reprehensible things like criticizing Mrs. Edwards for not mentioning God in her widely reported farewell post on Facebook. Here is the opening of her last message:
You all know that I have been sustained throughout my life by three saving graces—my family, my friends, and a faith in the power of resilience and hope. These graces have carried me through difficult times and they have brought more joy to the good times than I ever could have imagined.
Some conservative bloggers and online commenters have criticized Mrs. Edwards for not partaking in the death-bed convention of acknowledging the goodness of God, his tender mercies, and his wonderful gift of grace.
Here is Donald Douglas, a conservative blogger who calls himself a “pro-victory Associate Professor of Political Science,” whatever the hell that means:
Being anti-religion is cool, so Edwards’ non-theological theology gets props from the neo-communists. Still, at her death bed and giving what most folks are calling a final goodbye, Elizabeth Edwards couldn’t find it somewhere down deep to ask for His blessings as she prepares for the hereafter? I guess that nihilism I’ve been discussing reaches up higher into the hard-left precincts than I thought.
Personally, I don’t see that much daylight between Mr. Douglas and the Westboro Taliban. Mr. Douglas simply chooses to do his protesting online, safely away from the counter-protestors who will certainly be in force tomorrow, as the life of Elizabeth Edwards is celebrated.
I don’t know what Mrs. Edwards’ theology was, and I don’t know what kind of God, if any, she believed in. I do know that in announcing her death, Christianity Today, a defender of evangelical theological conundrums and other silliness, inexplicably posted some remarks she apparently made in 2007 that naturally offended conservative and Talibanic Christians everywhere:
I have, I think, somewhat of an odd version of God. I do not have an intervening God. I don’t think I can pray to him — or her — to cure me of cancer. 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.
Given her battle with cancer, given the fact that her husband betrayed her in front of the world, given the fact that her 16-year-old son was killed after his Jeep was blown off the road by a gust of wind—wind being a prominent metaphor for the Holy Spirit in the Bible—who in their rational mind could blame Mrs. Edwards for not offering any thanks to God for the tragedies in her life or begging him for mercy in any possible world beyond?
Her son, Wade, was driving to the family beach house in North Carolina in 1996, when a strong wind forced his Jeep off the road and caused it to turn over. Another boy sitting next to him walked away from the accident. How does one account for that within an evangelical theology that sees God as the Great Intervener, the God of Love who hears and answers prayer?
Here’s how Mrs. Edwards explained to Larry King what happened upon finding out about Wade:
…the first thing I did was sort of fall to the floor and just
screaming, “No!” That is actually how I felt. You know, it can’t be true.
And as I moved through the next weeks, first days being you’re just in shock. But as I moved through the next weeks and months, I had this idea that God was going to find some way to turn back time and he was going to be alive.
I would see somebody mowing their lawn and say, no, no, no. Or don’t build a porch or don’t — if everything stays the same, God can do what I always hoped he would, and that was to save the innocents. And I realized, of course, in time that that wasn’t so.
“To save the innocents.” That’s really the highest mission we should associate with God, isn’t it?
“To save the innocents.” It’s the one thing we should expect from a God of Love, right?
“To save the innocents.” We tell our children goodbye in the morning, and if we expect anything from God, we expect him to see to it that they return to us unharmed. Is that too much to ask?
But the newspapers are full of stories that disappoint us, even if that disappointment comes at the expense of other people’s children and not our own.
Most of us read about the death of Wade Edwards and we understand the overwhelming grief of his mother because we understand that what his death means in the end is that there may not be a God to save the innocents. We may be telling our children goodbye for the last time each morning and there is No One to assure us otherwise.
Naturally, Mrs. Edwards turned inward to try to make sense of her life. Larry King read a passage from her book:
As I have felt further less-devastating blows in the years after Wade’s death, I cannot understand how I merited these blows. What did I do? Even though I think I know better, I still continued to ask and continued to wonder.
King then asked her if she had any guilt:
Actually, guilt is one of the things you might go through in grieving. I don’t really feel guilt. There’s a lot of times when I’ve certainly wondered, what did I do wrong to cause Wade’s death?
…With the cancer, you know, did I drink the wrong things or eat the wrong things?
…And certainly with the latest indiscretion [her husband’s affair], you know, what did I do to cause this to happen?
… And I have to recognize with each of these things, they just happen. You didn’t have to do something wrong to justify them. You still sort of wonder, is there some grand plan where you’ve done something someplace else?
She told King that after all the tragedies, the God she “believed in before is not the same God.”
And who could expect otherwise? Who, but a fanatical, fearmongering, faithaholic would criticize anyone for altering their understanding of God in the face of such heartbreaking experiences as befell Elizabeth Edwards?
By my lights, Mrs. Edwards’ life in this respect is a testimony to reason, a testimony of one who refused to shape the facts of experience to fit an Iron Age theology. Instead, she found strength in her humanity, as she expressed at the end:
The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered. We know that. And, yes, there are certainly times when we aren’t able to muster as much strength and patience as we would like. It’s called being human. But I have found that in the simple act of living with hope, and in the daily effort to have a positive impact in the world, the days I do have are made all the more meaningful and precious. And for that I am grateful.