Fred Phelps: Life of Fear

Fred Phelps: Life of Fear March 21, 2014

I’m not proud of it but there have been people I have hated in my life. Not many, mind you, and not in a long while. I can only remember one or two of them, but I am sure there were more.

None of the people I came to hate were old lovers. Thankfully, I never really went through all that drama that so many women seem to suffer. I dated plenty but I only went steady with a handful of fellows, and lucky for me they were all pretty decent chaps. I’ve remained friends with a few of them over the years and I admire them still.

None of the people I came to hate were old girlfriends, though, I have been betrayed far more often by the women in my life than the men in my life. I don’t know if that says something about women in general or something about me in specific. Maybe I’m not very discerning when it comes to trusting others.

Who knows?

No. The people I came to hate, at least the ones who come to mind, were a couple of former co-workers of mine. I can recount with disturbing precision the wrongs they did that compelled me to hate them, but the funny thing is over the years, all that hatred has dissipated. Oh, I can still tell a funny story or two of the ways in which I exacted revenge on a certain someone but I no longer feel that ugly burn of hate towards him. Mostly, all that former frustration just makes for a good story best told over a glass of wine and candlelight.

There were times while writing A Silence of Mockingbirds that I would feel anger and hatred toward Shawn Field, the man who killed Karly Sheehan. I feel that same sort of anger and hate whenever I read any story about the abuse of a child at the hands of Evil Incarnate.

Although I can’t recall it now, it is more than likely I felt that same sort of hatred toward the terrorists in the aftermath of 9-11.

For much of my formative years I harbored all kinds of hate toward a people and a country that I knew nothing about, other than they were responsible – or so I thought- for my father’s death in Vietnam, one of America’s most ill-conceived wars.

That all changed when I went to Vietnam in 2003. That trip changed me. It was there, standing on the edge of the Ia Drang Valley, looking toward Cambodia, that I let all that hatred go. It was as if it just seeped right out of the pores of my feet into the soil that held the blood of so many Americans, Vietnamese and God knows who all else.

I wept buckets on that trip. Did the grieving that had been denied me for so long as a young girl. Oh, the tears still come from time to time. But they are no longer the tears of an angry child denied her daddy. They are sweeter now, perhaps an acknowledgement that it won’t be long before I see my father and my mother again. Just a blink of the eye before the decades long separation ends with a joyous reunion. I suppose if I could pinpoint a moment when I quit hating it was there in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.

Hating has a way of contorting one’s life. It makes a person see the world in such a wonky way, always distorted. In Where’s Your Jesus Now? I wrote about the forgiveness the Amish extended to Charles Roberts after he went into the Nickle Mines school and shot all those poor babies dead. Tied them up and executed them. Left a suicide note for his wife saying he just couldn’t get over the pain of losing their own daughter, so he went out and shot ten innocent girls, killing five of them.

A grandfather of one of those children murdered admonished the community to not hate Charles Roberts. A father of one of those shot offered comfort to Roberts’s own father. Dozens of the Amish attended the funeral for Charles Roberts and reached out to offer comfort to his grieving wife and children. Some onlookers criticized the Amish for being so quick to forgive, suggesting that such forgiveness would only lead to more evil.

See what I mean about hatred making us look at the world all wonky-like?

Several years ago I wrote an oped for the New York Times about Fred Phelps and the folks from Westboro Baptist protesting at the funeral of soldiers. It was early on in the war in Iraq and Westboro had shown up at the funeral of a war widow I knew. She was dismayed and hurt by the actions of Fred Phelps. I had never heard of the man before, and did not realize until after the oped appeared that the reason Westboro was protesting the funerals of dead soldiers had nothing to do with war and had everything to do with homosexuality.

Wonky, I tell you.

Fred Phelps called me after reading that New York Times oped. Called me and left an rambling 15-minute message on my cell phone. He read (or quoted) long passages of Scriptures to me, calling for the damnation of my soul, and the damnation of the soul of anyone who loved a homosexual or lesbian.

Every now and again, I stand before the First Amendment Rights classes at Central Washington University and explain to students why, as Americans, we are compelled to give Fred Phelps and the folks from Westboro the right to protest. I tell students about the oppression the public faced prior to the invention of the printing press and the wide distribution of the Bible. I explain to them the argument between Hobbes and Locke and ask them to decide who they think got it right. I tell them that no matter how much I disagree with Fred Phelps, I never want to live in the country where we can’t disagree with one another. The country where people are forced by law and persecution to think uniformly.

Such freedoms compel our soldiers to fight to their very death.

The students don’t always agree with me about that, and that’s okay, too. I completely understand why someone would want to put a muzzle on Fred Phelps and his ilk.

When Phelps died, plenty of people took to Social Media, their blogs, and opeds to express their contempt and disdain toward a man who made hate his livelihood and did it in the name of God and all things Holy. I can’t say I blame them. Fred Phelps was a hateful person. He hurt a lot of people, needlessly. That he did all that while claiming to be God’s spokesperson only made his particular brand of hate all the more evil.

Fred Phelps did not live a life of faith. He lead a life of fear. Everything he preached was based upon a deep-seated fear of the world, of humanity, and of the God he reportedly served.

If I had encountered Phelps prior to that trip to Vietnam, I would have been the first in line to desecrate the man who had desecrated so many. But my first experiences with Phelps came on the heels of that trip. Hating on Fred Phelps simply has felt like a waste of time and energy. I’m not up to it anymore.

I really truly hope that his death brings Fred Phelps the mercy and grace he denied so many. I hope he knows what perfect peace is. I hope his face-to-face encounter with God compelled him to drop to his knees, and that Phelps heaved with shame over all the hurt he has wrought. Then, I hope that God reached out a hand, put it on his shoulder and said: It’s okay, Buddy. I got you covered. You are forgiven.

I pray when Phelps looked into the face of God, he saw a God he didn’t recognize. The God of all Creation, the One True God that casts out all fear.

The God who loves us all enough. 

Browse Our Archives