Fred Phelps is dead. Yes, the man who promoted the idea that “God Hates Fags” and made a ritual out of picketing funerals to spread that message has now passed into the great beyond.
This Bob Jones graduate, who turned against his alma mater because it had become “too liberal”, was eventually consumed by his own fundamentalist Christian revolution. Apparently, some months before his passing, Phelps himself was excommunicated from the Westboro Baptist Church that he founded and maintained.
Phelps languished for at least a week as others spread the news of his health concerns as well as his ouster from the church. Reactions have been mixed, from a show of compassion to somewhat less than sympathetic tweets and Facebook comments. More than one even suggested that there was a “special place in Hell” for Phelps if he didn’t get right with God before his death.
How should we feel about a man who spread innumerable messages of hate in the name of the all-loving Lord Jesus Christ? Is there a special place in hell for him?
Everything in my own heart tells me that there should be such a place for Fred Phelps, although I doubt it truly exists. At least not unless I believe that there may be a similar location reserved for me. None of us are nearly as blameless as we’d like to believe.
I cannot honestly say that I feel sadness at this event. The man said and did things in Jesus’ name that made my skin crawl and my blood boil, and many of my Christian friends felt the same way. As his clan continued to protest, even on the evening of his death, it infuriates me that we even know who he was. It enrages me that he told the world that God authorizes us to hate.
We can choose wallow in our hatred and loathing for Fred Phelps, and create a legacy and attitude that may end up resembling him (perish the thought). Or we can actually move on and learn from the lessons that he taught us.
Yes, Fred Phelps taught us a lot.
He taught us that hate sells. Fred Phelps enjoyed poking a bear with a stick, and he got more and more attention every time he did it. That attention was profitable to him and his cause in a variety of ways.
He taught us how to use the media to let someone else’s righteous indignation drive the conversation. He knew exactly what buttons to push to get us to play his game, and all of our outrage did little other than bring publicity to a little Kansas church of less than 100 people.
He taught us ways to band together against that hatred, well beyond the media. Stories of people banding together to protect military families from his methods actually brought out the better side of our humanity.
He taught us how to hate back. There are times when I hated Fred Phelps and his church, which is exactly what he wanted me to do and the opposite of what Christ called us to do. By recognizing this teaching, we can learn to do the opposite and follow the path of Christ.
He taught us to look at others rather than looking at ourselves. We could always say, “At least we’re not like THOSE people!” Then we could ignore the plank in our own eye a little bit longer.
He taught us to be “against” rather than “for”. Christians are already pretty good at that, but once again we can oppose Westboro’s brand of bigotry without dealing seriously with our own. It’s not enough to not be like Westboro. We have to learn to be the opposite of that, and to stand up on behalf of those that are targets of hate.
(And no, I don’t always do this, and I’m not even sure how to do it at times).
He taught us to be sad, for many things and for many reasons. We are sad because a man lived an entire life with what seem to be bitterness and anger at everyone who did not agree with his brand of Christianity.
We are sad because people who needed grace and peace, who were sometimes the victims of unspeakable violence and tragedy, bore the brunt of his wrath. We are sad that a version of Christianity met the public eye by claiming some strange, convoluted interpretation of the right and command to hate, somehow coming from the living and loving God.
Finally, Fred Phelps taught us to love. Yes he did. In fact, he taught us that the only option is to love! When staring in the face of those who take the Lord’s name in vain by claiming the right to hate, love is the only valid response. You cannot possibly hope to argue down such hatred, but can only hope that love will overcome evil with good.
I do not want to mourn or be sad or pray for this family. But I have to do it anyway. Following Christ is not about obeying only the commands we like or going along with Jesus only when we feel like it!
Some may say that such expression are fake and disingenuous. Doing what is right and acted as scripture commands when we feel like doing the opposite may be the most genuinely Christian and human thing that we can ever do. It is the picture of the conflict that we find within ourselves on a daily basis, as we seek to live love and grace in the face of malice and judgment.
Ironically, the family of the man who protested the funeral of Mr. Rogers is asking the public not to repay them in kind. Beyond that, some of the very groups that Phelps and his Westboro Church clan despised are calling for wisdom and restraint in reacting to his passing. And they are right. The last thing that anyone, particularly Christians, need to do is follow the model of Westboro Baptist Church.
If we treat Fred Phelps and his clan as he treated others, we become a haunting reflection of the very thing that we claim to oppose. And that is a long way from the image of Christ that we want to see when we look in the mirror.