Fred Phelps, organizer and leader of the hate-filled Westboro Baptist Church, is reported on his death bed at the moment. It is news that is quickly spreading throughout social media, with flagrant tweets and Facebook statuses that are somewhat amusing, yet slightly disheartening.
Let me begin by saying that I am, obviously, not a fan of Fred Phelps nor the WBC. I believe they are vile, bitter, and downright dangerously cultish. They have nothing to do with Jesus Christ and the Gospel of the Kingdom.
However, it is moments like this that I have to re-evaluate where I stand, theologically. You see, I believe Christ has grace for people like Fred Phelps as much as he has grace for me. Even though I’m not quite sure I believe in a literal hell of eternal burning, I do believe there is a hell that we put ourselves into, even after death, until we can break free of certain chains and mentalities (racism, sexism, homophobia) that keep us in injustice – and I hope that Phelps does not stay there long. I wish hell upon no one, because I want all souls to encounter the true love that God has to offer.
As I read some of the tweets, I realize that we are not going to get anywhere as a society until we begin to truly return hate with love. As Martin Luther King, Jr. so famously put it: “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” There are many people calling for picketing of Phelps funeral, as it is Phelps himself that became famous when he picketed the funeral of Matthew Sheppard in 1998, and has been picketing funerals ever since. But how would this help things at all? It would only be a small, self-serving act of vengeance that would only continue to raise the hate level of those that are still in attendance at WBC.
One fact I found quite interesting is that Nate Phelps, Fred’s son that left the church many years ago and is now an LGBT advocate, said that Fred was “excommunicated in August of 2013.” Why was Fred excommunicated? At this point we can only speculate, as the WBC has not released this information at all. One can only hope that Fred woke up one morning and said, “Wait a second…I was wrong.” While this is quite a stretch of the imagination, it is not entirely impossible. Maybe he was actually reading Scripture one day, and realized he was on the wrong side. I like to think that he was flipping through John and ran across the verse in Chapter 13 that says, “Your love for one another will prove that you are my disciples.” Then, as he read it, he thought, “Oh, crap!”
But nonetheless, the fact is, Fred was kicked out for some unknown reason, and is now lying on his deathbed, with no one around him. He is dying alone, facing the consequences of decades of hate. I only pray that as he embarks on eternity, he is able to let go of the hate and bigotry that has kept him tied down for so long. I pray that he is able to let go, not only of the hate and bigotry, but of the things that ultimately led him there in the first place. Why did he hate homosexuals so much? Only Fred probably knows that. I hope he is able to let go of that, too.
My final prayer is that people do show up to his funeral as a show of pageantry. I hope they show up with large, decorated signs and billboards. I hope they line the streets leading to the funeral home, and I hope that they make sure they are seen. Finally, I hope every one of those billboards and signs read, “We forgive you.”
Maybe that little sign of love will do something to the remaining members of WBC, and show them that a life filled with hate is really no life at all, but that a life filled with love is the only way to live. I strongly believe that true Christianity – and what I mean by that is simply people following Christ in doing exactly what Christ wanted us to do – is simply having love for everyone, even your enemies, and fighting for justice throughout the world (1 John 3:23, Micah 6:8, John 13:35).
So, Fred, may you be released from the bondage of hate and bigotry, and may God prepare your heart and soul for eternity. Maybe one day in the ever after, I can look you in the eyes and say this to you face-to-face: I forgive you. May you also be able to forgive yourself.
BRANDON WALLACE worked for several years as a Southern Baptist youth minister in Arkansas, but left his post in January 2012 for quite a few reasons; the main one being that he is gay. Two things he’s always known about himself: that he was gay, and that he was called to be in ministry. He spent most of his life trying to reconcile his feelings with what was taught about Scripture, and after many years of toiling over the Scriptures and struggling with God, he finally came to terms with his theology, sexuality, and his faith.
Brandon is an English teacher, and lives in Memphis, TN where he attends a mainline denominational church. He shares his continuing journey, struggles, and battles with God on his blog, The Gay Christian, and his book, “Straight-Face,” about being in the closet deep inside the Evangelical church is expected to be released in May.