As I am writing this, one of the prominent news stories around the country is that Fred Phelps is dying.
You know Fred. He’s the founder of Westboro Baptist Church—the organization responsible for those crazy signs about God hating this group or that group. If you are gay or in the military or a professional basketball player or attending Comic-Con or famous in any way, it is entirely possible that Phelps has endorsed a protest against something you care about. He is a man who has created a small but very loud voice of people who use their ideas about God to spread a message of hate everywhere they go. He has excommunicated some of his own grandchildren when they have refused to join his crusade of vitriol.
This is the legacy of Fred Phelps: closed-mindedness, sorrow, despair, and hate. He is the man responsible for some of the most ignorant and evil rhetoric this generation has ever heard.
And he is about to die.
This happens every once in a while. Someone we hate—who is known for their own brand of hate—dies.
In the spring of 2007, Jerry Falwell died, and few people who did not know him personally had a kind word to say.
In 2011, the news reported that Osama Bin Laden had been killed, and there was much rejoicing on the Internet.
And now, we are perhaps days away from the news reporting that Fred Phelps has died. There will be snark, and there will be jokes. There will be people who say, “Good riddance.” And it will be hard to disagree.
So perhaps we should prepare ourselves now for how we will respond to this inevitable moment.
This is a man who has built a legacy of hate, and as a result, he is hated.
We hate him for his hate.
So doesn’t that make us a little too much like him? If we hear the news that Fred Phelps has died and our first impulse is to celebrate, doesn’t that make us just as guilty of the crimes we have convicted him of?
Jesus tells us, “Love your enemies.” I’m not sure what that looks like on any given day, but I doubt that means we should do a victory dance on our enemy’s grave.
It’s this strange and impossible paradox: We hate people who hate people because they hate people. And when we do so, we become the evil that we are trying to resist.
So perhaps the way of Jesus is the more difficult path: to pray for those who have made life more difficult.
We pray for peace for Fred Phelps as he nears the end of his life and that perhaps in his final moments, he will experience some semblance of clarity and remorse over the pain he has caused others.
We pray for those he will leave behind—that they will be comforted in their mourning, and that they will choose a different than has been modeled for them.
We pray for the granddaughters who have been cast out of Phelps’ family—that they will be comforted and receive the love that was denied them by their own family.
We pray for the people who have been hurt by the words and actions of Fred Phelps, that they would be healed and find peace.
This is not to whitewash the terrible things that have been done under the leadership of this man. In fact, this is necessary because of the darkness that has been created by his hands. People have been wounded, scarred, and made to feel afraid, and that is not okay. We can never excuse these things.
However, the only way to make the world a better place—to bring the Kingdom of God into this realm—is to make better choices than the people who hurt us and to end the cycle of violence rather than contribute to it.
There is so much brokenness, and we can always choose to add to it with hate and cold-hearted rejoicing over the death of an enemy.
We can also choose to chase the darkness back into the shadows by overcoming evil with good.