Fred Phelps, the controversial pastor who drew heavy criticism for his anti-gay agenda that included having his followers picket military funerals, has died at age 84. Some of the reaction among Christians hasn’t been pretty.
The tone of the reaction to the death of Fred Phelps has been largely expected.
Even so, some of the posts have been nothing short of shocking. Especially when they come from people who call themselves Christian and who seem to feel that they are somehow better Christians than Phelps was.
Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church would stage demonstrations at military funerals as an opportunity to push forward his contention that God was punishing America for its tolerance of homosexuality.
Picketers would carry signs that read, “God hates f–s,” the latter word being a pluralization of a three-letter slur against gay people.
But if we as Christians are going to believe that Phelps’ evangelism was not consistent with God’s teaching or God’s attitude toward His people, then we have to take the high road in our reaction to the death.
The family has indicated that there will be no funeral for Phelps. It’s likely, if that is true, that the decision was made to prevent picketing at his own funeral. But no Christian should give even serious thought to such an idea.
If what Phelps did was so wrong, we should seek to do what’s right.
As hard, at times, though it may be.
For whatever reason, Phelps seemed to have been certain that he was doing God’s bidding. He once told a Pennsylvania newspaper, for example, that “the way to prove you love they neighbor is to warn them they’re committing sin.”
“You’re not going to get nowhere [sic] with that slop that ‘God loves you.’ That’s a diabolical lie from hell without biblical warrant.”
I don’t think he could be more wrong about that statement. But his dedication to his belief indicates, to me, someone who was absolutely fooled by perhaps an even bigger “diabolical lie from hell.”
He was so sure his way was the right way. Yet to us, his way seemed so terribly wrong. And this was a pastor.
How could a pastor be so deceived by such an evil idea?
More importantly, what does it say about how easily the rest of us could be deceived through our own vulnerabilities?
We can complain all day about the message people like Phelps send to non-believers about what Christianity is all about.
What message do we send when we react to the passing of such a man the same way?
It’s too easy to “celebrate” the death of a man who hurt so many people and, potentially, turned people who needed to hear from God away from Him.
And that’s the point.
It’s much more difficult to choose to seek compassion for a man like that. To pray that there was some opportunity for him to see the hurt, the pain and the anger he caused and to seek forgiveness. And to hope that God granted it.
But for Christians who believe he was so wrong, it’s the right thing to do.