I am not so different from Fred Phelps.
Yes, he founded Westboro Baptist “Church” in Kansas in 1955. Yes, he was at the center of the “God hates f*gs” controversies, celebrating terroristic carnage and picketing military and celebrity funerals. Yes, he urged the disowning of his own family members because they did not subscribe to his group’s rigid ideology.
Yes, he was a man marked by hate, heartless religiosity and cruel misappropriation of Scripture and God’s character.
But my life has been marked by those things, too.
My story has weaved in and out of alignment with the kind of lifestyle Jesus called me to. But my story is not over. And neither is Fred Phelps’ story.
Fred Phelps in Bad Health
Phelps is reportedly in poor health, and some say he’s nearing death. [UPDATE: Phelps passed away late Wednesday, March 19, 2014.]
The Internet is atwitter with responses, most of which wish vile things upon Phelps and Westboro. Many propose picketing Phelps’ funeral in retaliation for the funerals he so maliciously picketed.
There is speculation even Westboro itself would protest Phelps’ funeral, who they excommunicated in 2013 for reasons still unclear.
But to celebrate the imminent death of another human, no matter what kind of atrocious person he was known to be, is wrong. It’s neither tasteful nor humane. And it speaks more to the nature of the reactionary than that of the ailing man.
Especially for Christians seeking a proper response to such a convoluted topic, any form of harsh judgmentalism against Phelps or anyone else would compromise the love Jesus so widely spoke about.
How we respond to Fred Phelps’ death determines whether we’re preaching the same hate he became so popular for.
A Minority of Compassion
“I pray that despite all the many families & people affected by the WBC, that they will not have vengeance in their heart, but rather pity.”
As this news grew popular the week of Saint Patrick’s Day, it’s curious to recall the words of the deceased missionary.
Patrick devoted his life, after escaping enslavement to pagan Druids, to returning to Ireland where he preached the Gospel to the very people who once held him captive. His vision from God was not to retaliate with force, but to invite them to follow Jesus, the One whose love transforms even the most wayward of people.
“If I have any worth, it is to live my life for God so as to teach these peoples, even though some of them still look down on me.”
– Saint Patrick
God Is Not Done
Do not be quick to declare when Jesus is done with someone else’s story. That’s not our job. Ours is to be faithful to Jesus and the change He’s bringing about in our own lives, and helping other people experience His transforming grace and truth.
When we try to transform others or change their minds, whether by religious overzealousness or by calloused hate or anything else, we’re bound to fail utterly because it is not our position to do so.
We become blinded to our own hypocrisy, lost in the false front of self-righteousness that would crumble if we allowed anyone in on the secret that we actually had issues, too. We fight the same tired battles against sin that destroys parts of our lives, but we don’t let anyone see it for fear of being branded unfaithful or broken.
Jesus begs us to pull down the facade and acknowledge we don’t have it all together. Because in that space, where we humbly admit our imperfections and our need for healing, He joins us in our messes. His grace eagerly meets our failures. Jesus doesn’t reject us because of our evils, or even because of our hateful propaganda. He walks with us and calls us to something better.
I will not celebrate Fred Phelps’ death. To do so would tell God His grace isn’t big enough for all of us. And I hope you reject hatred in these vitriolic circumstances, choosing instead to embody the love Jesus has extended to all.
God does not give up on us. Let’s not give up on His work in others, either.
What’s your response to the news of Fred Phelps’ death?