Fred Phelps, the most notorious Kansan, is dead.
Fred Phelps started the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas in 1955. Westboro Baptist Church is most known for their picketing presence at the funerals of dead soldiers, funerals of homosexuals and at concerts or ballets or plays. Their message is predominantly a message of hate. Phelps was convinced that God hates lesbians and gays. He felt certain that all disasters—whether manmade or natural—were indication of God’s judgment against America for tolerating homosexuality.He preached and pronounced hate in the name of God.
And on Wednesday, March 19th, at 11:15 pm, Mr Phelps died in Topeka of natural causes.
I’ve always been embarrassed to have Fred Phelps share my adopted state of Kansas. His hatred has coloured Kansas and I’ve deeply regretted that. People who barely know where Kansas is, know Topeka, because they know Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church. Thursday waking up to the realization that he had died I felt, I admit, a little relieved. Let Kansas be cast in new colours. Let Mr Phelps memory fade quickly. Let the hatred also die.
It’s Friday now…and I’m processing it in better ways….
Here’s one Kansans response to the death of Mr Phelps:
• It’s certainly time to strip Westboro Baptist Church of the words “Baptist” and “church”. The congregation is not affiliated with any Baptist denomination. They took that title, I suspect in part, to honour what Mr Phelps told Tim Miller, a professor of Religion at the University of Kansas, “to hold to the old ways”. They may be a group of like-minded people and they meet in a church building but calling them a “church” in my mind calls to mind the Body of Christ and it’s hard to associate their behaviours with those of Christ-followers.
• When crossing cultures we often tell ourselves, “It’s not wrong, it’s just different.” Sometimes the opposite is also true. Sometimes, “It’s not different, it’s just wrong”. That’s the case with the community of Westboro (I’m no longer calling them Baptist Church). On one level they don’t look any different. They get together once or twice a week at church to do churchy things. But on another level it’s very very wrong. When they gather in the name of God to spread hate, to promote abhorance it’s not different. It’s wrong. Plain and simple.
• The message of the gospel is one of love. From the core to the extremities, Christ’s message was built on love. Love the Lord your God with all your heart…. Love your neighbor as yourself…. Keep on loving each other as brothers and sisters. Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers. Love foreigners. Love the poor. Love your enemies. Love your children. Love your spouse. Love sinners. Love saints. Love justice. Love peace. That’s all there is to it, really. Love. Love. Love.
• If it really is all about love (and it is!) it’s impossible to hate in God’s name. Doing so is a sure sign that God is not involved. Claiming he is, indicates it’s a different god. A False god.
• Evil lurks in the hearts of men and women around the globe. It’s really our job to submit that evil we see rising up in our own souls to God who alone can redeem it, and even, miracle of miracles, transform it into good and a desire to do good. Those who do not work against their own evil will hate and give way to their hatred in one way or another.
• My husband Lowell likes to quote a professor he once had in college, “Don’t judge the man by the moment.” While it is true that Phelps gave us a lot of moments that are easy to cast judgment on —we forget that he was once a popular civil rights lawyer in Topeka. He studied Engineering. Once he felt the “call” to ministry he studied at several reputable Bible Colleges and schools. He stayed married and fathered 13 children. And yes…his license to practice law was taken away. His engineering degree wasn’t utilized. His Bible College hopping was motivated by a theology that didn’t align with what he was being taught. At least one of his children is estranged and has radically departed from the faith. Perhaps there are moments of redemption in his story. We are best to suspend judgment whenever we possibly can.
• Hatred will not pass away. It will not die. We cannot bury it and move on. We must recognize it when we see it and name it.
• In 2006, in a sermon Fred Phelps preached, he joked about the possibility of protesters picketing at his funeral. He reportedly said he’d welcome it with joy. He invited people to hate him back. He told the Wichita Eagle that “If I had nobody mad at me what right would I have to claim that I was preaching the Gospel?” I will not give Phelps the satisfaction of my anger. I will choose to not pay back evil with evil. I will choose to love and pity this man who spent his life in this way.
• The maddening reality of the good news is that we are given, mysteriously, miraculously, the capacity to love those who hate. We are called to forgive them and to pray for them. It’s how God reacts to haters and sinners. He asks us to do the same. Certainly it’s not an easy request. It takes work and time and a thousand little heart-level miracles. But God himself calls us to it.
There will be no funeral for Mr Phelps apparently. His daughter told CNN, “We do not worship the dead.” It’s true. We don’t. And I don’t normally pray for the dead either, but today I am saying a little prayer for Fred Phelps, for his family, for his wife, for the community at Westboro, for his son who is estranged, “Lord have mercy .” It’s the only prayer I trust myself to pray in the face of a story so soaked in hatred. It’s the only prayer I trust myself to pray in the face of my own temptation to hate back, “Lord have mercy!”