COMMENTARY: May God have mercy on Fred Phelps

(RNS) A “fringe hatemonger” — that’s what I called Fred Phelps in a letter to the editor of The Washington Times in 1999. In response he announced in a news release that he was coming to Colorado Springs to protest the “… false prophet James Dobson and his fag-infested Focus on the Family scam.”
Two granddaughters of anti-gay preacher Fred Phelps protest in front of a Lutheran church in Topeka, Kan. Religion News Service file photo by Chris Knight

Two granddaughters of anti-gay preacher Fred Phelps protest in front of a Lutheran church in Topeka, Kan. Religion News Service file photo by Chris Knight

It felt almost “out of body” to pull into the Focus campus one morning and see people holding explicit neon signs telling me I was going to hell. I was a fairly new believer at the time, and managing media relations for Focus on the Family. With my salvation came the holy conviction to begin the difficult journey to battle against my own same-sex attractions. The chants, the signs, the venom — it all felt uncomfortably familiar. Christians were once again protesting me. I couldn’t get away from it. It also challenged my immature understanding of theology. “What if Phelps is right?” I worried. I buried these thoughts for years — though truth be told, they’d surface at nearly every mention of his name. I know better now, but words spoken, for good or for evil, during the most vulnerable moments in life make an indelible impression. I have harbored a bitter root of ill will toward Fred Phelps. His hate lodged into my heart during a tender time of spiritual growth. News that he was admitted to hospice and near death brought about mixed feelings this past weekend. I volunteer for hospice twice a week in a faith-based role. I care for and love people without a clue as to who they are or what harm they’ve committed in their lives. However, there are glimpses of the past. • An elderly mother jolts herself back from the brink of death for days because she’s waiting to say goodbye to her son. She calls out his name over and over. In the end, her body gives out. He doesn’t visit. • Another woman with hard memories also dies without family. She curses up a storm, then weeps over those she’s hurt and those who’ve wounded her. In the end, she commits her life to Jesus and the hospice chaplain baptizes her. These are just two examples of a multitude of folks who have less than neat endings. As a hospice volunteer I attend to “death vigils,” where I sit at the bedside of someone who’s about to cross over to the other side. It’s holy ground. I read Psalms; sometimes I sing hymns. I do my darnedest to lead them to peace with God. I know in my spirit when that moment happens, and then sometimes a last gasp of life is taken. What an honor. I have a world of compassion for the dying. In large part, it’s my calling. But what would I do with Fred Phelps as he wastes away in hospice? I consider the military funerals he and his church protested. I think about the LGBT community — of how many are tormented with thoughts of eternal damnation because of him. I wonder about all those who turn Jesus off completely because of his hateful words and spiteful actions. Would I moisten his mouth with drops of water? Could I bring myself to wipe his forehead with a cold washcloth? Would I hold his hand and tenderly whisper the Psalms? Could I pour over him prayers of thanks and pleas of mercy from God? These questions niggled at me this weekend, mostly because I likely minister to all sorts of men (and women) like Fred Phelps. But while there are signs of bitter, hard and even hateful lives, I don’t know the horror. I haven’t walked with them in life –or watched their antics on the news. I’m presented with frail human beings, desperate for peace, for human touch, for forgiveness and for mercy. One additional thought occurred to me: There is one among us who is never conflicted by whether or not to forgive or readily extend mercy. It’s Jesus. He sees all of our hateful moments and hypocrisy — which I suspect are plentiful for most of us –and extends love without condition. Fred Phelps lies in hospice. I don’t like to think of Jesus with him through the hands and words of a hospice volunteer — but that shows how far off the mark I am in the grace department. It’s a cause for prayer, for sure.
Amy Tracy is a writer for global mission at David C Cook in Colorado Springs. She lives with her adopted family -- two best friends, four children, four dogs, two horses, two hamsters and one disagreeable cat. Amy is pictured here with her dog, Wrecks. Photo courtesy of Amy Tracy

Amy Tracy is a writer for global mission at David C Cook in Colorado Springs. She lives with her adopted family — two best friends, four children, four dogs, two horses, two hamsters and one disagreeable cat. Amy is pictured here with her dog, Wrecks. Photo courtesy of Amy Tracy

As the debate begins to rage about whether or not to protest Fred Phelps’ funeral, this gives Christians a unique opportunity. This doesn’t involve giving nod to his ideology or suggesting he even knows the true Christ. However, it may present the chance to talk about mercy and how God is willing to forgive the worst of sinners. The passing of Fred Phelps, and our reaction to it, presents a witness of grace so rarely demonstrated in our world. May God have mercy on Fred Phelps. (Amy Tracy is a writer for global mission at David C Cook in Colorado Springs. She lives with her adopted family — two best friends, four children, four dogs, two horses, two hamsters and one disagreeable cat. ) YS/MG END TRACY The post COMMENTARY: May God have mercy on Fred Phelps appeared first on Religion News Service.

2 Responses to “COMMENTARY: May God have mercy on Fred Phelps”

  1. Mark Azzara

    Mark Azzara

    Thanks, Amy, for one of the best pieces I’ve ever read on hartfordfavs.com. I, too, am tempted to hate Fred Phelps for what he has done – until I remember that Jesus doesn’t hate me for what I’ve done. The Lord is speaking to us through your words.

    Reply
  2. Stephen Mendelsohn

    BS”D

    You shall not carry the name of the L–D your G-d for falsehood, for the L–D will not forgive him who takes His name for falsehood —Exodus 20:7

    I respectfully think we have a major Jewish-Christian difference here. Those who hate evildoers, like Fred Phelps—or Hitler, to take a more dramatic example—are more likely to act justly than those who love and forgive them. I will refer here to the excellent work of Rabbi Meir Soloveichik and his essay in First Things, “The Virtue of Hate”: http://www.firstthings.com/article/2007/05/the-virtue-of-hate R’ Soloveichik writes:

    During my regular weekly coffees with my friend Fr. Jim White, an Episcopal priest, there was one issue to which our conversation would incessantly turn, and one on which we could never agree: Is an utterly evil man-Hitler, Stalin, Osama bin Laden-deserving of a theist’s love? I could never stomach such a notion, while Fr. Jim would argue passionately in favor of the proposition. Judaism, I would argue, does demand love for our fellow human beings, but only to an extent. “Hate” is not always synonymous with the terribly sinful. While Moses commanded us “not to hate our brother in our hearts,” a man’s immoral actions can serve to sever the bonds of brotherhood between himself and humanity. Regarding a rasha , a Hebrew term for the hopelessly wicked, the Talmud clearly states: mitzvah lisnoso -one is obligated to hate him.

    I think Fred Phelps—yemach sh’mo—clearly falls into that category.

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