Thinking Out Loud

March 21, 2014

Fred Phelps Passing: A Different Kind of Sorrow

fred-phelpsI’m writing this at 11:30 PM on Thursday night. Some major media outlets have noted the passing of Rev. Fred Phelps for almost twelve hours now, but coverage on Christian media has been spotty. Odd that the person who loved publicity and loved to play the media should pass in relative obscurity.

There have been a few smirks, but not everyone is gleeful. Phelps was despised and really still is despised. A comment at CNN’s religion blog reads, “To paraphrase a famous actress, ‘My mother said to only say nice things about the dead. He’s dead. How nice.’” A little cruel, a whole lot dry, but not exactly celebratory. As I write this, comments there have surpassed 17,000; I’m not sure what the number will be when you read this in the morning.  Similarly droll on Twitter: “Westboro Baptists flying the God Hates flag at half-mast today” (@plyrene).

The mainstream Christian community is mostly shrugging its shoulders. What to say? The question of how to respond is the theme of the few Christian blogs on the two Alltop blog aggregators (Alltop Church and Alltop Christian) that had mentioned Phelps’ passing.

At Christianity Today, Ed Stezer asks How Should We Respond?

…But, today, Fred Phelps learned that “because love is from God, and everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God… The one who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8).

At Relevant Magazine Brandon Peach writes,

Temptation to dance on the grave of the godfather of grave-dancers is certain to crop up. However, as a church, we can choose to respond differently to the death of one who caused irreparable emotional and spiritual damage: with mercy, compassion and even pity.

Veteran religion journalist Cathy Lyn Grossman writes at Religion News Service,

The message he spread across the country never took root, and in fact helped galvanize the gay rights movement and put other Christians on the defensive. The image of Christianity he painted was a hateful, judgmental collection of rabble-rousers — an image that, paradoxically, did more to help his targets than it advanced his message.

Experts say Phelps’ ultimate legal and social impact on the American religious landscape will be a footnote. Religious leaders lament the damage they say he did to Christians who preach God’s love and mercy.

Counter response from several years ago

Counter response at Crosspoint Church in Nashville when WBC visited their church, Summer 2012

Jessica Ravitz, in a follow up piece at CNN’s Belief Blog also asks, Should We Celebrate Fred Phelps’ Death?  This is the first of three responses they published:

We reached out to several advocates for those who may have taken Phelps’ message most personally – Christians who are also gay – to see what they thought.

“The words and actions of Fred Phelps have hurt countless people. As a Christian, I’m angry about that, and I’m angry about how he tarnished the reputation of the faith I love so much,” Justin Lee, executive director of The Gay Christian Network, said in an e-mail message.

“But as a Christian, I also believe in showing love to my enemies and treating people with grace even when they don’t deserve it,” he said. “I pray for his soul and his family just as I pray for those he harmed. It’s easy for me to love someone who treats me kindly. It’s hard for me to love Fred Phelps. To me, that’s the whole point of grace.”

The Christian Post came the closest among Christian websites to offer a more standard obituary, noting some of Phelps’ earlier days:

Outside of his work at Westboro, Phelps also earned a law degree at Washburn University in 1964.

Before being barred from the practice for being overly abusive to witnesses, Phelps worked as a civil rights attorney until 1979, where he once claimed that he had “systematically brought down the Jim Crow laws of this town [Topeka, Kansas].”

Phelps was closely tied with Kansas’ Democratic Party, helping Al Gore’s 1988 presidential campaign. He also was invited to and attended both of Bill Clinton’s inaugurations, though the second time, he showed up as a protester.

A few days ago before his death, son Nate Phelps, who left the movement, wrote these words on his Facebook page:

I’ve learned that my father, Fred Phelps, Sr., pastor of the “God Hates Fags” Westboro Baptist Church, was ex-communicated from the “church” back in August of 2013. He is now on the edge of death at Midland Hospice house in Topeka, Kansas.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. Terribly ironic that his devotion to his god ends this way. Destroyed by the monster he made.

I feel sad for all the hurt he’s caused so many. I feel sad for those who will lose the grandfather and father they loved. And I’m bitterly angry that my family is blocking the family members who left from seeing him, and saying their good-byes.

Nate, believe me, we share your sadness and sorrow.

Nothing to celebrate here.

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