One of the stories trending this week on Facebook concerns Fred Phelps, the founder of the highly controversial Westboro Baptist Church, who is said to be dying at a hospice center in Kansas.
The news originated from Nate Phelps one of Fred’s estranged children, who wrote this on Facebook a few days ago.
“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.”
The Westboro Baptist church was pioneered by Fred Phelps in Topeka, Kansas, in 1955. To this day the church remains small in numbers but big in impact because of its controversial statements and pickets – over 52,000 of them since the church began. Its websites include “God Hates Fags,” “God Hates America,” “God Hates Islam,” “Jews Killed Jesus,” and “Beast Obama.” You get the idea. God’s pretty ticked off with just about everyone except the people at Westboro Baptist. There’s even a “God Hates the World” website which lists all the countries and why God particularly hates each one. The Westboro website includes a tally of the “people whom God has cast into hell since you loaded this page.”
The church has become particularly well known, and despised, for protesting at the funerals of high-profile people as well as American soldiers who’ve died in combat. A number of laws have been passed in order to keep these misguided “Christians” away from grieving friends and relatives.
As a Christian I have found the Westboro Baptist Church to be a great embarrassment over the years. I frequently find myself disappointed with their hate filled rants as well as all the media attention they receive. They present God in a way that only repels people away from a Creator who loves and cares for them. They will be remembered in history in the same category as those who misquoted the Bible to defend slavery (think “Twelve Years a Slave”), the subjugation of women, and the persecution of scientists.
So how should we respond to such a hateful man as Fred Phelps as his life draws to a conclusion? It would be easy to cheer and spew the same hate back at him that he and his family have dished out over the decades. After all, he’ll reap what he’s sown right? But does that reflect the teaching of Jesus? I think not. Jesus constantly encourages us to take the high road in our reactions towards those who mistreat us. He said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). In chapter 9 of his gospel, Luke recounts the story of a Samaritan village that rejected Jesus and His disciples. James and John asked Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” After all, God hates Samaritans! Jesus “turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.”
The apostle Paul picks up the Master’s teaching when writing to the Roman Christians, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse … do not repay anyone evil for evil … do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12).
A friend of mine posted this on Facebook last night, “Can you imagine what a powerful statement it would be if the LGBT community showered the Phelps family with love during Fred Phelps’ funeral?” I replied, “Well said, that would be awesome to see and hear – unexpected, unpredictable and a whole lot better than spewing hate back at hate.” This guy suggested a response that takes the high road – a response that Jesus encourages us to choose. Is it easy? No, it’s difficult. But the world will never be a better place if we only fight fire with fire. There’s got to come a time when we stop firing hate, bullets, bombs and harsh words at one another. Fred Phelps will pass away and there’ll be plenty of hate-filled people to take his place. We can’t stop them, but we can choose the higher road of love that Jesus taught us to take.