I once knew a lesbian whose mother had done some really nasty things to her as a child. Years later, she told me her mother had died, and I responded, “Well, I hope she likes it warm. She’s gonna be there for awhile”. She told me that I was the first person to suggest that her mother deserved the flames of hell for the pain she had caused in this life. She felt relieved because, at the funeral/wake, all of the people kept saying how she must miss her mother and how special she was. So, let me relieve you as well by being the first person to say that I hope Fred Phelps likes it warm, because he’s going to be there a long time. At least that’s what I think intellectually.
For people who don’t know him, Fred Phelps was the pastor and founder of the Westboro Baptist Church which began to picket funerals of gay people or veterans because America was turning gay or not punishing those homosexuals enough or some such nonsense and they thought God was causing these deaths to happen because — in his words — “God Hates Fags”. I hate to repeat that epithet, but I want people to be clear just what kind of person Phelps was. Apparently, according to the Huffington Post , Phelps was excommunicated from his own church in 2013, has cancer now, is in hospice care, and will die soon. I got the impression from the piece that he and his family were excommunicated from the church because he didn’t hate enough, but that could just be my understanding.
In any case, this vocal bully of a man who traveled great distances to make people’s lives hell — this nearly prime example of bad, un-Christian theology — is now dying of a horrible illness, and he seems to be dying alone. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy, or as John Lennon said, “Instant Karma’s gonna get you!”. The temptation to gloat, to point out how young he is, and how nasty his cancer is almost too much to keep under wraps. If there was any justice at all for Fred Phelps’ life, this would be it — for as many years as he bothered the people at their children’s funeral, he should suffer the pangs of cancer, symbolic of the cancer that his thoughts have been to America’s psyche.
Still, it seems to me that the best kind of Christianity would have me attend his funeral … and be nice — to pray for him and his family as he passes into the next whatever is out there. If you make a place because you believe in it, then Fred Phelps will surely believes in Hell, and it’s going to be nasty and there’s nothing that can save him from it, Well, nothing but God can save him from hell and ours isn’t necessarily the God of justice, but the God of mercy and compassion. That’s what being nice at Phelps’ funeral would symbolize — the merciful and compassionate God that Mr. Phelps never seemed to talk about, the God who would weep for whatever caused Mr. Phelps to be so hateful, spiteful, and mean-spirited.
In the world of psychology, I can’t believe that Phelps’ hate (and that’s what it was) didn’t spring from some sense of extreme self-loathing. Maybe he himself was gay and couldn’t cope, or molested by a man and never got over it, or maybe his parents were abusive, or maybe he is schizophrenic or … who knows. In any case, I don’t like to believe that this kind of hate just happens. So, whatever’s behind it, (if there is something behind his hate), God is the kind of God who would be sad about whatever it was, and we should be too.
But that doesn’t excuse the hate. As I tell clients all the time, I can understand just about anything, but I can’t excuse it if “it” is just too much. Horrible things happen all the time. Some people live their lives to make sure it never happens again to anybody, and some people never deal with it, and simply act out. Phelps acted out and seemed to believe his acting out was a good thing.It wasn’t.
Phelps and his church followers’ action don’t just make him a jerk, they make him a special kind of jerk. He so excelled at being a jerk, he got press coverage for it. He was not a Kardashian-type reality “star” who was famous for doing nothing. He had real talent and special skills — he earned his reputation.
In Dante’s Inferno, there’s not just one big pit of hell, where all evil is equal. There are levels of hell to distinguish between people who made logical mistakes (soldiers who were absolved before they killed anybody, so the absolution didn’t count) and, say, Judas Iscariot, who killed Jesus. Phelps’ words and actions would put him closer to Judas’ level and farther from the soldier’s. Here’s why: Phelps didn’t just besmirch his own reputation with his words. He made a mess of God and Jesus’ reputation with his words. People would look at him and his press coverage and they would say, “How can you believe in that God?!” They would say “If that’s Christianity, I don’t want it!”.
I often felt like Clousseau in the Pink Panther movies when a man accused him while being bitten, saying “I thought your dog didn’t bite?!” and Clousseau answering, “It is not my dog”. My God does not bite, but Fred’s did. People were amazed when I would say, “If that’s Christianity, I don’t want it”, and then I would get to explain myself. What bothered me was the people who never said it me, or never listened when I answered back, or never thought they could approach a Christian and ask what I — or others like me — thought. Those people are gone, or lost, or angry at a God that loves them and forgives them when they need it, and reaches out to them every night they can see the stars. It is those people that make Fred Phelps a real jerk. Rather than drawing people closer to God, people like Fred drew them away from God.
There is a scripture that says that the only sin God will not forgive is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. That means God will not forgive people who say the Spirit is bad or evil, or un-holy in some way. That, for my literalist friends, might be the one that gets Fred sent to hell. Certainly, I would agree to it if asked.
But here’s the thing: as angry as I get at the likes of Fred Phelps, I am not the one who makes that heaven-or-hell decision. There are some who would say that Fred himself made that decision. But even Fred may not have that kind of power. In the end, the faith teaches that God (or Jesus) is the one with that decision. We are not to judge. To judge would be to give into the very hate we despise in others, to become more like Phelps and less like Jesus and I don’t want to go there.
By the way, for those who believe (or worry) that just because Phelps may have “confessed Jesus as his Lord and Savior”, that he can’t go to hell, I quote Jesus: “And don’t claim that your heritage makes you above it all. God could make these stones turn into sons of Abraham”. (Matthew 3:9, Luke 3:8). In other words, “Don’t think your faith gives you a “get-out-of-jail-free” card. It doesn’t”. If Phelps abused the Spirit for his own political ends, if he didn’t recognize the Spirit in his LGBT brothers and sisters and instead tried to kill it, he shouldn’t plan on an easy time in the after-life. A just God won’t let him have one. The question is “Do we worship a just God or a merciful one?” That question can only be answered by God Him/Herself. I remain convinced that God is big enough to make that decision so I don’t have to.
So how does a good Christian respond to the news that Fred Phelps will likely soon die? With prayers for his healing, and his true repentance, and a life with God that heals people instead of hurting them, that sees The Holy Spirit in all of his brothers and sisters, that doesn’t disrupt people at the most important times of their lives.
So, until he is dead, that’s what I will do. After he’s dead, whenever that is, he’s on his own, as far as I’m concerned, and it’s better that way.
Where does Fred’s death leave the Christian world? In the same place his life did: picking up the pieces of what he’s done to the world and trying to live, preach, and act on the gospel of Jesus, trying to correct false impressions of the faith, trying to believe that it’s possible if I could love them, then perhaps God could, too. With time, the damage that Fred has done to the faith will be forgotten and people will think that evil like his life is only a myth. Until that happens, though, I and all of Christianity have some work to do.