Fred Phelps. I’ve been thinking of him these last days of his illness and death. I’ve contemplated what he stood for, wondered why he stood for it, and considered whether he thought, in the end, that standing for it was worthwhile. I wonder what he gained and lost. I wonder if he really did all this because he believed in his heart it was right and if, in those last dying days, he regretted the path he chose. Reports that he was excommunicated from his church for advocating a kinder approach to church members cracks the door to that possibility.
Those are all speculations, because I don’t know Fred Phelps the person.
Instead, I’ll focus on Fred Phelps the persona.
Phelps the persona represents everything wrong about faith and religion. He has boiled everything down to rules, void of love or relationship. What a terrifying existence.
A while back, I used the WBC “God hates fags” pic on a post. Someone told me they were offended, because that represented WBC’s extreme response to homosexuality, not their own ‘more moderate’ Christian view (that homosexuality is a sin, but we don’t hate people for it). Well, of course most evangelicals don’t go as far as WBC — but they’re on the same road!
This may sound extreme, but stay with me.
To view gays as less-than is still the same road of judgment; WBC has just taken that road all the way to the end.
Anti-Semitic groups may not run concentration camps, but it’s on the same road. Those who persecuted Jews, or those who inflicted the worst abuse on slaves, could not have done that if they had not first deemed them less-than. And Scott Lively and others could never have brought about the kill-the-gay bill in Uganda without likewise first diminishing gays — it’s just a matter of degree.
In fact, this little line from the article makes that clear: “The anti-gay bill cruised through parliament in December after its architects agreed to drop a death penalty clause.” You see, parliament is condemning them all the same, it just produced a different penalty – one it could live with. Life in prison may be “better” than execution, but it is still a terrible consequence on the other side of marginalization and judgment.
For one group of people to drop the gavel on another group of people is the same grievous error. Most southerners were horrified to discover the abuse perpetuated by the worst of the plantation owners, but the societal agreement that a population is less-than is what enabled that abuse in the first place. It’s the same societal agreement that happened in Nazi Germany. It’s the same societal agreement regarding the gay issue that is perpetuated in family dinner conversation, in government offices and from the pulpit.
To believe that homosexuality is wrong based on personal conviction is one thing; to press this belief onto society thus perpetuating LGBTQ discrimination is way beyond personal conviction.
The very bottom line of the entire message of the gospel is this: Are you going to trust God or are you going to trust your own effort? That’s what Phelps did at WBC: tried to reduce the gospel to a list of rules instead of a life-flowing relationship. Many have done the same over the millennia, aiming for works instead of grace. Phelps’ reduction to rules is so stark and so ugly, we turn away, we distance ourselves from it. But even if we come up with a list of prescribed behaviors that’s easier to keep, it’s still our own effort instead of Jesus’ redemption through his life in us. It turns our focus to ourselves instead of to God, and it still completely debases God’s generous offer. (Here’s a link to a great teaching on this.)
Nathan Phelps is Fred’s son, who left his father’s church years ago at age 18. He sums this up entirely speaking of his father. “It’s terribly ironic that his devotion to his god ends this way. Destroyed by the monster he made.”
Phelps served as a visual aid to all of us. Jesus said, “You live by the sword, you die by the sword.” That wasn’t a threat but an observation and an appeal to live a different way. Likewise, he said, “How you measure it out it will be measured back to you.” It’s no small irony that Phelps received the same judgment from his church that he advocated for everyone else. He told everyone they couldn’t meet the standards, and his church in essence told him he couldn’t meet the standards.
I mean this with no acrimony toward Fred Phelps the person. I don’t feel good or bad about Fred Phelps. And even though he intentionally inflicted intense pain on others, he may have believed deep down that he was doing right. The monster god he created required it of him.
But I’ll tell you a little piece I love in all this: it’s how those WBC hurt have responded to Phelp’s death. They are not responding with the hate he meted out but with Love. Gentleness. Peace. Even if they have no love for him, they are being the love they want to see in the world.
To hate your enemies is easy. That’s what what people do who live with a scary monster god they created, from distorted, fragmented reflections of God… shards of terror and shame.
To love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that’s the hard part. But that’s the way Jesus offers.