Fred Phelps is dying. That news has touched off rejoicing among many people who are angry and hurt about what Phelps has done with the anti-gay cult he founded in Kansas.
Phelps was the founder and former pastor of the group which calls itself the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. But his story is complicated. The Mississippi-born Phelps was an award-winning civil rights lawyer early in his career. How do we reconcile that with the subsequent career of the man who’s best known for preaching that “God hates fags“?
On Facebook, I saw many angry comments after the news came out Sunday that he’s dying.
“I hope it’s an awful and traumatic death,” one woman wrote in what was typical of the attitudes I noticed.
I disagree with Phelps and the group he founded. They’re wrong theologically and in every other way. They’re full of hate and anger. The things they say and do are vile and mean. And they’re terribly arrogant.
But I don’t hate Phelps or the others who are still part of the cult. Despite the terrible things they’ve done — and the hurt they’ve inflicted on many people, including some I care about — I’m not going to bring myself to their level and hate them in return.
Hatred damages the hater more than anyone else. The worst punishment that could be inflicted on these people is having to live inside minds and hearts so full of poison. They’re punishing themselves more than anyone else ever could.
It appears that Phelps has actually been excommunicated from the cult. Two of his sons — both of whom escaped the group — report that he was tossed out, but the cult itself won’t confirm or deny that.
“We don’t owe any talk to you about that,” a Westboro spokesman told the Topeka Capital-Journal Sunday. “We don’t discuss our internal church dealings with anybody. It’s only because of his notoriety that you are asking.”
Did Phelps soften his views in his old age? Did he reject the hatred that he had preached? Or did he at least decide that maybe God didn’t hate gay people after all? This is pure speculation on my part, of course, but it’s hard for me to think of another reason he would have been thrown out of the group he founded.
Whatever the reason for the split, hate isn’t the appropriate reaction to hateful people such as this cult. There’s nothing to be gained by hating them. Even if Phelps goes to his grave full of hatred for gay people, it does us no good to poison our minds with hatred for him.
I feel sorry for Phelps and for people who live with thoughts and feelings such as what he preached. Anyone who can believe what he believed is an angry and tortured soul. Something in him was miserable and he had to find others to make miserable — to make the focus of his anger and hate.
You can believe that homosexuality is wrong without hating gay men and lesbian women. I’ve known a number of people who sincerely believe it’s wrong according to their reading of the Bible — which was the traditional Christian position — but who didn’t hate anyone as a result. There’s nothing wrong with that if that’s what you sincerely believe. We can reasonably disagree with each other about theology. Preaching that God has some special hatred for one group is simply theologically and morally wrong, though.
We might never know why Phelps chose gays to hate. Maybe he had felt some attraction to men at some point in his life and he turned that into a source for self-hating rhetoric and action against others. Although that, too, is pure speculation, there are all sorts of possibilities. All I’m sure of is that his life must have been miserable.
People frequently have a change of heart as they start approaching death. Maybe that’s what happened to him. Maybe not. I’d like to believe it, though. I’d like to believe that he could have experienced some sort of redemption as death approached.
Whether he did or not, I choose not to hate him or the other hateful people at Westboro. If you’re a fellow Christian, loving our enemies is what Jesus told us to do. If you’re not a Christian, it’s still in your self-interest.
Living with this sort of hate and anger is miserable. There’s no reason to willingly inflict it on yourself.
Forgive him instead. Overcome evil with good.