He first rose to prominence in the public eye in 1998, when his "church" picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the young gay man from Laramie, Colorado who was assaulted, pistol whipped and crucified on a barbed wire fence because of his sexuality. Even in these early days, the startling cruelty and rage of Fred Phelps was on full display. He went on to protest any number of more or less random funerals, blasphemously proclaiming in each case that somehow his visciousness was proclaiming God's warning to the world.
He planned to bring his circus of loathing to Canada in the fall of 2008 to picket the funeral of Tim McLean, who had been gruesomely murdered by a deranged man on board a Greyhound bus. To his credit, then Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day barred Phelps and his followers from being admitted to Canada. They were a no show at the McLean funeral.
At the time, I wrote a blog post proposing that the best way to deal with a Westboro Baptist picketing was for Christians to surround them and sing: about God's love, about God's grace, about God's glory. In other words, counteract Phelps's lies about God by proclaiming the truth about God.
But now Fred Phelps is dead. At this point we don't really know what becomes of Westboro Baptist Church or if the small congregation, primarily composed of Phelps's remaining unestranged family, will continue to assault people with their ugly protests.
There was more to Fred Phelps, though, than "God Hates Fags." In the 1970s and 80s, as a lawyer, he pursued many civil rights cases on behalf of African-American Kansans who had been discriminated against by state institutions and private companies. His civil rights work was honoured by the local chapter of the NAACP. Yet the legacy of this good work is forgotten in the tidal wave of evil over the past 15 or so years.
The reaction to Phelps's death has been oddly restrained. While there has been some nasty commentary (I've seen it, even if Maple Anglican hasn't), most of the reaction has been more along the lines of Star Tek actor and gay activist George Takei, who wrote:
Today, Mr. Phelps may have learned that God, in fact, hates no one. Vicious and hate-filled as he was, may his soul find the kind of peace through death that was so plainly elusive during his life.And later:
I take no solace or joy in this man's passing. We will not dance upon his grave, nor stand vigil at his funeral holding "God Hates Freds" signs, tempting as it may be. He was a tormented soul, who tormented so many. Hate never wins out in the end. It instead goes always to its lonely, dusty end.At Sojourners, Mark Sandlin has written a prayer for the soul of Fred Phelps which is really a prayer for all of us, and especially that we not allow "his hate to grow into a reflection in us." Go read it all.
For that is the risk. Our outrage at the evils of Fred Phelps either blinds us to or gives us cover for our own, and we become the Pharisee to his not quite so penitent Publican. That is the kicker to that parable. The very second I see myself in one of the two caharacters, I have instantly become the other.
Go in peace, and pray for me a sinner.Whatever Fred Phelps's sin, it does me no good to use his sin as an excuse to overlook my own.
So let the death of Fred Phelps be an opportunity, not to vent our rage at his evil acts, but to give thanks for a God who is far more gracious, far more merciful and far more loving that Fred Phelps would ever have wanted him to be. Gracious, merciful and loving even to Fred Phelps.