In case you haven't heard the news reports that came out over the weekend: Fred Phelps Sr.--he of the Westboro Baptist Church, founder and patriarch of the thoroughly despicable "God Hates F*gs" cult of hatemongers--is a-knock, knock, knockin' on
When I heard the news, I posted this to my Facebook page:
Hearing the news about the imminent death of Westboro Baptist Church's founding pastor Fred Phelps Sr. has caused me to really reflect on the message contained in my sermon today, simply because of the prescient timing with my current sermon series on Jonah.
After all, Jonah does not want to preach God's word to a people he despises. So he runs from God. But after staying in the belly of a fish for three days, he realized how low he had sunk and he pleaded with God for deliverance from himself.
If ever there was a church pastor in dire need of spending a few days inside of a giant fish, it's Fred Phelps.
The reception of that off-the-cuff remark was meaningful enough for me to include it (with the wording slightly polished up) at the 11th hour in Sunday's sermon. I would like to think that such a divine intervention would indeed produce a transforming change of heart and nature for this man, but the only ones who truly know if it would are Phelps himself and God.
And this is, in a couple of capacities, a personal story for me: I went to college and seminary with a number of gay and lesbian classmates whom I consider friends to this day. But I was also raised in the virtual shadow of the WBC, geographically a mere hour's drive east from their headquarters in Topeka, Kansas.
The flip side of the coin is that in another way, it isn't as personal. As a straight man, I am not the person most targeted by Phelps' hate and ire. In fact, I am the type of person most likely to escape criticism of who I am from any church. As I reflected about this with a friend yesterday over lunch, I will never have to face the possibility of having to decide whether or not to leave a congregation because that congregation refuses to recognize my pastoral authority on the basis of my gender or sexual preference. I will never experience that kind of shunning.
But I have friends who have. I have friends who will. And theirs is the mercy that is needed in moments like these, not mine. Because they have been wronged in ways that I never will.
One of the things that has been repeatedly impressed upon me--as a Christian, heterosexual male--by my friends of minority demographics was that when I strive to be an ally to people who are oppressed, I need to know when to use my status to speak up for them, and when to instead shut the hell up and get out of the way.
Honestly, I feel this inclination in no small degree when reflecting upon Phelps Sr.'s reported impending death. If God wishes to forgive Phelps, that is God's affair, and my belief in God is such that if Phelps does indeed repent even after his death (I believe in repentance after death on the basis of several Scripture passages, namely John 12:47-50), then God will be prepared to offer that forgiveness. I am also amazed and impressed by other folks who have been hurt by Phelps who are responding to this news with grace and magnanimity.
But if Phelps does not repent, then my belief is that he will indeed go to hell, which I define as complete separation of God. This also means that Phelps may have been in hell before he even dies, because I have to believe he willfully separated himself from God's love a long, long time ago...although, if rumors are true, Phelps himself was excommunicated last year from the church he built because he began advocating for "kinder treatment of fellow church members." If true, perhaps this represents the first tiny step towards true repentance and a true softening of his heart.
However, I still really hesitate to express any forgiveness of Phelps on my own, from own human perspective, because I fear that it would be so, so massively presumptuous for me to do so. I am neither God nor among the people Phelps probably hurt the most.
Phelps may have cast a shadow over my childhood and my formation as a Christian, but I am not the lesbian teenager whose self-worth was brought into doubt by his hate. I am not the gay youth in high school whose bullies might have felt validated by his crass use of homophobic slurs. I am not the family of the fallen military hero who planned a funeral in abject fear of a WBC protest.
My forgiveness is not the forgiveness that Phelps must seek, nor is it the forgiveness that should be available to him. The forgiveness his soul requires is the forgiveness of the gay men and women who have faced down bullying, suicide, homelessness, and shunning (as well as military veterans, whose increased risks of homelessness are well-documented) all because of an attitude that he and his ilk professed in the extreme: that God somehow disapproves of gay and lesbian people, which I have come to believe is nothing more than a destructive lie.
And for that great lie, if I am completely and very brutally honest with myself, I have to admit that I have no forgiveness to offer Fred Phelps Sr.
Purely from my own individual, spiritual perspective, I am ready to let him die unforgiven.
I am ready to let him go to hell, to be separated from the God he purported to preach on behalf of.
And may the souls he demonized in life be so close to God for all eternity as to wholly disprove his every lie and insult.
Yours in Christ,