Earlier this week I read that Fred Phelps was on the verge of death. Today I read that he passed at the age of 84. Unless you have been completely disconnected from the media, you have some idea as to who Fred Phelps was and what his brand of (false) Christianity represented. Phelps was the man who established an independent work in Kansas called Westboro Baptist Church. From all reports this autonomous group remains fairly small (under 100 members and mostly if not all are family members). Where Phelps and his community gained their notoriety was through their picketing of any funeral that had gained some level of media attention, mostly soldiers who had died in combat, showing up with vile placards that denounced homosexual behavior and abortion. This in turn brought about media attention for Phelps, his congregation and his brand of religious expression.
There have been many who have tried (and failed) to identify Phelps as an example of Bible-believing Christianity. It is a ridiculous notion that most, if not all, serious thinkers merely roll their eyes at. Just because a man calls himself a ‘pastor’ doesn’t make him one and just because a group calls itself a ‘church’ doesn’t make it a church. I personally put it in the same category as those who try to identify Phelps as a Democrat; Just because he ran for office under the banner of the Democratic party doesn’t mean he really is one. But why do we know that? Because we measure his behavior/beliefs against the genuine article. A quick glance at what Phelps preached and how he lived should be enough for any skeptic to recognize that his brand of religious extremism had no place in orthodox Christianity. There is, however, something that I think is more valuable as people read about the passing of Fred Phelps. It is this: How do we respond to this man’s death?
It goes without saying that many are rejoicing and/or are indifferent. Some are suggesting a protest at Phelps funeral (if there even is a funeral). There is even defiance as Westboro has demonstrated in their own press release. But what about pity? I fully recognize that offering pity to a man who seemed to rarely if ever demonstrate pity himself is a bit strange. Maybe even too much for some. Yet pity is where my mind drifted when I first read about his death and I can’t even explain why. I also remembered a singular passage from the old prophet Ezekiel: ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.’ ~ Ezekiel 33:11.
Outside of what I read on-line whenever his name made the headlines, I know very little about Fred Phelps or what his personal life was like. But in what I have read, I am struck by three things. First, Fred Phelps remains someone’s son, father, and grandfather. The collateral damage that he inflicted on others over the past many years certainly has stained his family. Ask yourself this: how would you like to have his name attached to you for the rest of your life? Second, regardless of what he has done in his life and how he has represented the god he says he follows, he remains a creature with (the True) God’s image stamped upon him–just like you and me. Is he a creature that became warped and defaced? Without question. But he remained with God’s image stamped upon him nonetheless.
Finally, I was struck by a little ‘tidbit of news’ that has gained a little traction with reports of his death. Apparently, Phelps was excommunicated (kicked out) from Westboro Baptist Church sometime this past year. WBC won’t confirm these reports, but according to Nate Phelps (Fred Phelps estranged son), this happened because Phelps wanted to ‘soften’ his methodology. That he was advocating kindness. What? Apparently for this, and probably other things as well, Phelps was, as his son wrote, “…destroyed by the very monster he created” and ex-communicated. As to why Phelps was advocating kindness (if he really was) has yet to be revealed. It could be simply that Phelps was a man facing the end of his life (and all of eternity) and was hoping for something from God that he himself had not demonstrated to others; that he was hoping for grace and mercy. Along those lines I really appreciated what Rod Dreher wrote in his piece for The American Conservative:
‘I’ve always thought the Westboro Baptist Church people were despicable, but there is something about the thought of that old man lying on his death bed, forsaken, the victim of his own sins, that makes me pity him. One tear of repentance from the vicious old preacher will open the floodgates of the divine mercy he spent his life trying to deny to others. I pray for that tear. And I hope no one pickets his funeral, giving to his family the mercy they do not deserve.’
Grace and Mercy is what they and Phelps (and the rest of us sinners) do not deserve. Grace and Mercy. I guess that is where my mind drifted when I read about Phelps passing and felt pity. Grace and Mercy. It is what I hope for all people. It is what I hope for myself. Fred Phelps (1929-2014). May he rest in peace. Man knows not his time ~ Ecclesiastes 9:12.