Reflections on the Death of Fred Phelps
Fred Phelps, the infamous founder and pastor of Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) in Topeka, Kansas, died this week at the age of 84. Phelps and his church are known primarily for their relentless anti-gay picketing (as well as picketing other things such as the funerals of American soldiers, Jewish institutions, rock concerts, etc.) and their hate-speech-laced website which I have chosen not to link to. If you really wanted to, it’s not hard to find. According to their website, the WBC has conducted over 52,000 pickets since 1955. WBC is a church of roughly 40-50 active members, virtually all of which are related to Phelps by blood or marriage. One writer rightly says WBC should be referred to as a “family cult” and not a church. Interestingly, rumour has it that WBC ousted Phelps as their pastor not long ago on the charge that he was being too kind with others and therefore compromising his stance on the truth.
Reactions to his passing have been what most would expect. To put it kindly, most people are responding with some version of “good riddance”, though much harsher and forthright language has been frequently used. Despite being an extremely small number of people, Phelps and his WBC comrades have managed to make a lot of noise over the years, garnering far more media attention than was warranted and putting a particularly contorted image forth of what it means to be a Bible-believing Christian.
It’s hard even to know where to start in response to all of this. For what it’s worth, here is my attempt to pull together some (hopefully) worthwhile thoughts on his life and passing, the WBC, and what it all means in the long run.
- Phelps was a human being made in the image of God. It’s easy to see Phelps as a monster – and in some respects, there is truth to that assessment. But at the same time, we should not lose sight of the reality that he was created by God and therefore had value as a person. God loved him and wanted him to repent and receive grace and forgiveness. We’ll never know if that happened or not.
- Phelps and the WBC do not represent Christ. It’s been frustrating to me over the years that this small group of people have received so much media attention. That’s how the media works however – find the craziest thing you can and show it everyone. It’s sad. I wonder, what would have changed if the media was covering healthy, Jesus-loving churches instead? The world would see imperfect but loving communities, people with changed lives, community service, healed marriages, restored families, and the like. I know this because the church I am a part of has stories like this in our midst. I wish more people knew about that.
- The message of Phelps and WBC is despicable. Up to this point, you may think I have being going soft on these guys. But don’t get me wrong: the hate-filled messages that the WBC promote is awful and disgusting and evil. It is not Biblical Christianity and does not honour God. The sooner that message fades away (if indeed it ever will), the better.
- How strongly do you really believe in salvation by grace? This is the question every believer needs to ask themselves. No one goes to heaven because they deserve it. We all are sinners who fall short of God’s standards and need the forgiveness that is offered to us by the death of Christ. That includes you, me, and Fred Phelps. Would it bother you if, on his death bed, Phelps received Christ and is now in heaven? If it does (and it’s a striking thought), then maybe you need to remind yourself that you don’t deserve forgiveness any more than he does. Salvation comes by grace, not our good deeds. To push it even further, we should hope that Phelps indeed found salvation. If we don’t, we are guilty of the same hatred that he spread. God himself shares his own thoughts by saying “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord GOD; so turn, and live.” (Ezekiel 18:32)
- We need to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). There is one thing commendable about the WBC: they believe the Word of God and declare what they think it says. Granted, they have seriously erred on their interpretation of the Bible in many respects, and do not declare what they believe with a heart of love, but at least they have some sense of the need to stand for truth. I can respect that much about them, and it is a desirable alternative to the liberalism of today. But as Christians, we should not go to either extreme (liberalism or hatred), but stick to the Biblical mandate of speaking the truth in love.
- Christianity will always be condemned as hate speech. Let’s not kid ourselves. Do I share the hate-filled views of Phelps and the WBC? No. But do I believe homosexuality is a sin? Yes. Do I believe in hell? Yes. Do I believe Jesus is the only way to heaven, and that all other religious views are wrong? Yes. No matter how nice I am, how much I pray for people, or how much good I do, I’ll still be called a hate-filled, closed-minded, intolerant bigot by some. I can accept that, though I would not agree with the assessment. Fellow believers, are you ready to receive intense criticism, even if your faith is more Christ-like than others’?
- There is a little Fred Phelps in all of us. Actually, maybe there is a lot. Jesus condemned hatred as being equal with murder (Matthew 5:21-22). Christians who hate others are also called “liars” (1 John 4:20) and are said to be “in darkness” (1 John 2:9). And before we get ourselves off the hook by thinking we aren’t usually guilty of hate, consider that “if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17) Hate is not always an action, but sometimes a lack of action. How often are you and I guilty of having the ability to show love and then not do anything? Every time we do, we are demonstrating hate and not expressing the love of God that is in us.
I’m not sure about you, but I think this is some serious food for thought!