According to his son, Timothy Phelps, the long-time senior pastor of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church died last night, Wednesday, March 19, 2014. Westboro Baptist has long been identified with the worst kind of hatred – that which is wrapped in self-righteousness in the name of God. To get a better grasp on the depth of Fred Phelps venomous life’s work, see the Southern Poverty Law Center’s bio page.
The ripples of his death announcement are stirring conversation. There is already talk of people picketing his funeral. Eye for an eye. Hate for hate.
Others are suggesting that we let it lie. Don’t respond. Don’t feed the monster. Westboro Baptist has long-thrived on the media-circus energy generated by its outrageous behavior and over-the-top messages, designed to fuel controversy and hopefully secure relevance in the national consciousness, albeit relevance being known as the most vocal and provocative of hateful bigots. So some are saying, “Stop talking about Fred Phelps. Let him drift into obscurity where he belongs.”
The Christian community is responding, too.
“Fred doesn’t represent me…”
Honestly, I think even most of those who are virulently anti-Christian recognize the gulf between the hateful message of Fred Phelps and the average Christian church-attender today. Sadly, because Westboro claims to speak for God, there are some who equate his rantings with the conservative (read “fundamentalist”) Christian right-wing. But let’s be honest… To the vast majority of the world, Fred Phelps and his family are really viewed as more of a cult than as any kind of legitimate representation of Jesus or His followers. This is a case that doesn’t need to be made.
But in a way, he does…
So how should we respond, Church? What do we say? Around the water coolers, at Starbucks, at home with our friends?
I suggest we respond with great humility. Here are my take-aways:
(1) Resist the urge to add fuel to the fire. Many are going to revel in this. Voices from outside the church, and many from within. Many will take this opportunity to bash the most dis-likable of men with a sense of self-righteous indignation that is fueled by the unity of their coworkers and neighbors. “Good riddance,” many will say. But the Church has an opportunity here to show some Spirit-led restraint. This is another opportunity to be light in the dark. Self-righteousness is darkness. Pride is the root of every sin. We would do better to let the bandwagon roll on by.
(2) Resist the urge to cover sin with cliches and band-aids. I saw one suggestion that perhaps it would be appropriate to picket the Fred Phelps funeral after all, to make a point that love is stronger than hate. Except instead of responding in kind, carry signs that read “God loves you” or “God forgives you.” While I recognize that this is an attempt to bring a positive message to light, we must acknowledge the truth that it is ultimately up to the sovereign Holy One to judge. Fred Phelps has mishandled the very name (and reputation) of the Almighty. Judgement is His. Further, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7) Ultimately, we don’t know what went on in the heart of Fred Phelps in his final days and hours. God does. I understand the temptation to make loving proclamations here, to try to counter all the years of hatred spewed out in God’s name. But to me, they don’t smell right. We are called to speak the truth in love, not proclaim forgiveness to the unrepentant.Yet, maybe Fred came to know the grace of God in a real way in his last days. God alone knows the heart. We would do better to be quiet. God will judge.
(3) Recognize the degree to which we are Fred Phelps. All men are haters. All men are rebellious enemies of God. Ever since Adam, we’ve been corrupted by sin. In Fred, that corruption seemed to pour out like venom from a firehose. In some of us, it is more insidious. But sin corrupts, and we’re all going to die one day because of it, unless Jesus comes back first. The message of the cross is that Jesus’ took all that venom and drank it down on our behalf. Forgiveness is found in him only. To those who believe, He gives the right to become children of God. But the venom of sin still corrupts. So we in the Church, who look to Jesus for our freedom, we still sin – just like the rest of the world. We still carry that venom around in our old nature. The difference is, if we believe, we are forgiven. Sinners still. But forgiven. That should be a sobering, humbling reality, not a soap-box from which to look down upon the more visibly corrupted. Literally, but for the grace of God, there go I. We would do better to examine ourselves, and lean into the mercy of God again.
Today the world will begin a dialogue about the death of one of the most disliked, disrespected people in recent American history. The temptation to join the cacophony will be strong. Church, we would be wise to walk humbly, be quiet, and do some honest self assessment today.
Is there a better way for the people of God to respond?
“fred phelps sr. dies :: how do we respond?’ by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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