Recently news was released that Fred Phelps, founder of the highly controversial Westboro Baptist Church, was “on the edge of death” in a hospice center in Kansas. If you’re not familiar with Mr. Phelps and WBC’s work, here’s a LINK (here’s the Wiki). To say that the way they present the Gospel of Jesus is perverse and maddening would be gross understatement. It literally goes against every tenant of following Christ that He outlined in His teaching. Sadly this couldn’t even be a discussion about what is considered “sin”, because the real issue is the hate and contempt that they use to deliver their message of condemnation and the repulsive way they portray MY God as a something He is not. It used to make me angry that people might associate me, as a Christian, with this “church”, that is until I read an article by Justin Lee, Executive Director of GCN, titled “You Love Gay People? That’s Great. Prove It.” In that article he confirms, what I’ve long hoped to be true, that gay people realize that people like those in Westboro Baptist are extremist and not really Christian. (Quick side note: This is a great article and gave some much-needed perspective to a lot of stuff I’ve been praying and thinking on.)
With that said I think it’s worth discussing what our Christian response to Fred’s impending death should look like. As I see it, if you call yourself a Christians, a follower of the loving and forgiving God that the Bible declares (this doesn’t eliminate Him being just, that’s actually part of Him being Love), we really only have two choices in how we address Fred Phelps’ life and death.
1. Forgive and pray.
Because this is Jesus “M.O.” it should be ours. Our God, displayed in our savior as He hung dying on a cross, is in the business of forgiving and praying for those that condemn and reject Him. I’m not suggesting that we are all, or even must be, at that place right this minute, but we should definitely be seeking to get to that place. That place is a place where forgiveness, prayer and love are our answers to hate. Jesus was pretty clear when He said, “Love you enemy and pray for those that persecute you.” To be fair, in this situation, forgiveness and prayer isn’t really an impossible decision for me. Am I angry at what WBC says and does? Yes. Am I angry at how they portray my Jesus and those that seek to truly follow Him? Yes, again. Am I angry at WBC for driving away a group of people who already feel hurt by the Church and that Jesus wants to reveal His love to? Another yes. Are they persecuting me directly? No. Can I forgive them and pray for them, even though I’m angry? Absolutely I can, but only because of Jesus.
2. Not say anything.
This might actually be the best place to use the old adage, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Or better yet, the golden rule, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you do also to them.” fits really well in this situation and in this case means, if you don’t want people being hateful toward you, then don’t be hateful toward them. Honestly it’s tempting to spew back the same hate and contempt toward WBC that their words and actions have communicated for nearly a quarter century. It’s tempting to want to bullhorn scream condemnation to such a misguided and destructive group of people; especially when they claim to serve the same God that I do. It would also be easy to cheer Fred’s demise or protest his funeral as a way to snub WBC. But it would only serve to blacken and harden your heart and draw you far from God. Hate only ever begets more hate. So, as a Christian, if you’re not able to forgive and pray for him, then the only other real option, if you claim to follow Jesus, is to not say anything. I don’t claim to know what it’s like for someone you might know to have been directly hurt by WBC. I imagine it’s an infuriating feeling to know someone you love suffered the hurt of such condemning words, especially in circumstances like mourning a lost loved one and having WBC show up. I can’t conceive that anger or hurt. If that is where you’re at, I’m sorry they hurt you. All I know to do, from times I’ve been deeply hurt by another, is to seek out the counsel and prayer of other mature believers and then go to God in prayer. Pray for comfort and guidance. Pray for healing and peace. God won’t abandon you in that pursuit.
To be clear, this is not a call to silence anyone’s anger. As a Christian this type of behavior and hate should drive you to anger and you should voice that anger. But anger becomes righteous or sinful with the actions that follow it. Voice your anger, and then pray for Fred? That’s righteous. Voice your anger, and then picket his funeral with “God Hates Fred” posters? That’s the same sin and hate as WBC. If anyone should want to picket Fred’s funeral it should be those families of the soldiers whose funerals were protested and the gay community that was tormented. But so many aren’t taking that stance. In fact actor/director George Takei (best known as the Mr. Sulu on the original Star Trek – and for me at least, Kaito Nakamura on Heroes) posted this on his FB page.
There is hope in this.
There’s one last thing I want to address based on a pretty good conversation that my wife and I had about this whole thing. It might be tempting to entertain the thought that this may be God’s wrath or judgment poured out on Fred. Whether this is God’s justice or not isn’t our concern; it may or may not be. What I do know is that God’s wrath was poured out on His son as He hung on a cross, some 2000 years ago, to atone for our sins, ensuring that we never (if we choose) have to experience His wrath. No one except Fred Phelps and God know what is happening in Fred’s heart while he lies in that hospice center. Like it or not, as long as he’s breathing God can still draw Fred back and that’s between him and God. Until you breathe your last, you’re never too far from God and that should be a relief to all of us.
What are your thought? Is there another way Christians should or could respond?