Fred Phelps, Choice, and What We Deserve

If you’re on Twitter like I am and you casually trolled through the tweets today, you might have noticed that a lot of people are talking about Westborough Baptist founder and virulent anti-LGBT protester Fred Phelps is reported to be on his death bed. My first reaction (and one I’m not proud of) was, “Good. We won’t have to listen to his hate anymore.”

Stepping back, however, I realized that I was being uncharitable with that thought. No matter what someone has done, I don’t believe we are ever justified in wishing them dead. If you believe in God and life after death, then you understand that when someone dies, they go to God to be judged. For those we disagree with and those who are so hateful, to wish them dead is effectively to wish damnation upon them. I would rather Fred Phelps had more time to repent of his hate and have a real change of heart before he went to his final judgment, just as I pray I might live long enough to be corrected in all my own errors before I go to be judged of God.

The Problem With Choice

I was looking through Twitter to see what people’s reactions were and I came upon this exchange:

Twitter reacts to Fred Phelps' condition
Twitter reacts to Fred Phelps’ condition

Our choices do determine what we deserve. If I choose to touch a hot stove, I deserve to get burned. The injury is a consequence of my choice. But when we’re talking about something like this situation, I begin to wonder if maybe consequences are not as direct a thing as we think.

I’m not advocating that we give Fred Phelps a free pass. He has done some horrible things. And he did choose to take this path in life. But is dying alone really the consequence he deserves? That’s a hard, hard punishment to inflict on someone. No matter what someone is or has done, I don’t believe that a violation of their inherent human dignity is what anyone deserves. Not LGBT people and not Fred Phelps.

Isn’t that what we have been fighting for all this time? That love will be allowable everywhere? As LGBT people, that’s what we say: It’s about love. That ideal shouldn’t stop at the door to Fred Phelps’ hospital room. As Christians, we are even more beholden to the ideal of love, because Love is who we worship. The greatest virtue is love and if we don’t have it for everyone, including Phelps, then we’re not living up to our professed faith. What do we deserve then?

What We Deserve, Then and Now

I understand why so many people are reacting the way they are. Fred Phelps has been one of the loudest proclaimers of hate in the world and he has affected many, many lives adversely because of it. LGBT people aren’t just reacting to a faraway political actor – they’re reacting to someone who hurt them personally and who affected their personal lives directly. I remember when Westborough  Baptist visited my university campus. Many of the LGBT people on campus were very much affected by it. It was a personal hurt to them.

LGBT people (and ALL people) deserve better than what Fred Phelps and Westborough Baptist Church have given them. We deserve to be treated like human beings. We deserve to be respected as persons. And we deserve to be able to live our lives in peace, without being treated as objects of political recrimination.

But we also deserve better than how many of us are acting right now. It won’t make any of us feel better in the long run if we throw all the hate back into Phelps’ face. Is there more joy in destroying an enemy than in seeing an enemy become a friend? Which lasts longer? Which actually allows us to heal?

As I was praying this morning, I re-read the Collect for Ash Wednesday. I think it’s the most appropriate prayer for this moment, for this issue. And I hope that I keep in mind in the future as Phelps’ fate becomes known.

“Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent; Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” 

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