When you dance on someone’s grave, two things are pretty certain: Nothing changes for the occupant and you end up with their dirt on your shoes.
Thursday morning brought the news that the Rev. Fred Phelps, founder of Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, had died at age 84. Phelps and his followers had made a name for themselves by protesting homosexuals and gay rights at various events, including the funerals of fallen U.S. soldiers. Their behavior was based in self-serving glorification, self-righteous indignation and hatred, so it’s a safe bet that Phelps never considered the point of those “WWJD” bracelets. In recent years, Westboro’s protests had a boomerang effect, prompting scores of activists to line up at cemeteries and events to shield families from Phelps and his band of misguided followers.
There are teaching moments to be found in everything — even in the death of a despicable mouth-breather like Phelps. I’ve seen a lot of “good riddance” and “see you in Hell” comments, which are completely understandable. I mean, Phelps didn’t provide much of anything that was admirable on any level.
But rather than joining the chorus of critics, I turned to local clergy to see what messages they would provide, what lessons they believe we can take away from the death of Fred Phelps.
“I believe our best and most faithful response is to model the Christian values that Mr. Phelps denied,” said the Rev. Rick Adams, of Wesley United Methodist Church. “I believe those who consider themselves people of faith will bear the most effective witness by expressing forgiveness, grace, and support every day of their lives.”
The character trait — really a flaw — that many affiliate with Phelps is hate. And while the adage goes that you reap what you sow, a couple of leaders said falling into that line of thinking is what we must overcome.
“It is true that Rev. Fred Phelps and his followers have caused great grief to families who were burying their loved ones. He epitomized the demon of hatred and it was this hatred that was the driving force behind most of his demonstrations, especially against the gay community,” said Father Mark Miller, the pastor of Catholic Community of Pettis County. “Once someone demonizes another or a whole community, then it is easy to say anything to destroy them. The temptation is to demonize in return; however, we must remember the words of Jesus from the cross: ‘Forgive them, they know not what they do.’ May God’s mercy be upon him and may God enlighten those who are his followers.”
The Rev. Bobbie Karchner also turned to scripture for her response, choosing the message from the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
The pastor for Tri-county Specialized Ministries added, “If we resort to hating as Fred did, we become like him. Take this time, and in Fred’s memory act with more love, with more caring, with more sensitivity. Then, like Jesus showed us there on the mountain we can use love to turn the world upside down.”
So while Phelps was supposedly a man of God, his message and tactics ran crosscurrent with his faith’s manual. In essence, using the Bible to beat people down instead of build them up showed that he failed to use it as it was intended. That mindset left him and his followers wailing in the dark.
“During Lent, the scriptures we use have a recurring theme of light,” Adams said. “Where can we be a source of light in a world where the darkness of hatred, judgment and intolerance are far too common? In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.’ I pray that you and I can reflect the light of Christ into the darkness of a broken world.”