Fred Phelps, an infamous hatemonger under the cover of a pastor’s call, died today. I won’t weep for him, or pretend to. I won’t yell or call for pickets in retribution. I endorse the “stay cool” platform floated on the web, if not the “ignore him” plank.
We can’t afford to ignore what he and his clan did, not least of which is the harm inflicted on other generations of the Phelps family. But even as the hurt lingers, and there are many who have been hurt deeply and personally by his actions, let’s remember that his life — and his ability to cause further harm — is over.
Let’s also remember and praise the creative responses that many people — some strangers to his targets — developed, and acknowledge (if not be grateful) that his indecent targeting demonstrated that many more of us were “decent” and worthy of care than if a respectable and cool-headed judge decided to separate the sheep and goats. His outrageousness was his own undoing, and a warning about simmering and violent hatred that has a better public face and smoother voice.
And let’s not make him better in death than he was in life, nor overstate his shadowy, late-in-life apotheosis suggested in news accounts. He set himself up consciously to be my enemy, and perhaps yours. But Jesus taught us to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. This reminds us, and is our testimony before God, that we regard Fred Phelps as human and not a monster. Redeemable, if not in this world then the next. And if he could not change, others still might. He, too, is more like the rest of us than not, and if we regard him as monster only, we will be unable to minister to those who have been hurt by his cruel hate, or those trying to flee it.
I have no answer why he hated with such a perfect hate, but the reason is less important than making clear to the living that we need not live like that, that we need not be silent before it or that he did not represent what faithful people are.