Fred Phelps, the man known much more for his vitriol and hatred than for any kind of religious compassion, is dead. Reaction to his death is all over the map, from gleeful celebration and parties to sobering reflections and reminders of mercy and forgiveness.
84-year-old Phelps died just before midnight on Wednesday night in hospice care in Topeka, Kansas, home of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church. Family members say that that there will not be a funeral for the man best-known for picketing the funerals of those with whom he disagreed.
George Takei of Star Trek fame regularly comments on the social trends of the day, and his memes are widely circulated on social media, but on this day, he found nothing to mock or celebrate:
“Today, Mr. Phelps may have learned that God, in fact, hates no one. Vicious and hate-filled as he was, may his soul find the kind of peace through death that was so plainly elusive during his life.”
A blogger from Christianity Today admonishes readers not to hate but to grieve for the Phelps family, whom he calls “deceived,” and to show unconditional love. He clarifies that Westboro Baptist Church is neither Baptist nor truly a church. In fact, the two largest Baptist denominations, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Baptist World Alliance have denounced any affiliation with the group.
The “church,” founded by Fred Phelps, has been described as more a group of family and lawyers than a church. Most members are direct descendants of Phelps. Some family members have left, while others have been ex-communicated, leaving fewer than 20 members at present. Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center says, “By all aspects we can see, the Westboro Baptist Church operated by a cult of personality. It was built around [Phelps’s] personal politics and personality.” Potok does not expect Phelps’ organization to stay around for long, now that its founder is gone.
That is good news to most. A search of Facebook groups reveals several recently-formed groups, such as “Fred Phelps Burn in Hell Party 2014,” “Fred Phelps Death Watch,” and “Fred Phelps Sucks,” among others, with combined followers numbering more than 10,000. There is much rejoicing over Phelps death, with memes such as “Ding, dong, the witch is dead,” and pictures of devils welcoming Phelps to a fiery eternity. Many others are extremely graphic and filled with venom. It looks like he may be reaping the very hatred that he has spent his life sowing.
There seems to be little sorrow over the passing of Fred Phelps, but there are many reminders to be BETTER than he was. The Washington Post admonishes people to “instead, let’s celebrate all the good he accomplished in his life — completely inadvertently.” Phelps’ over-the-top hatred often had the opposite effect than intended, bringing out the good in people who opposed him.
It was Phelps’ group’s nasty picketing of funerals, especially those of deceased soldiers, that inspired the formation of the Patriot Guard Riders, a nationwide group of bikers who honor deceased military and their families, by invitation only, to shield the families from the funeral protests by Westboro Baptist Church, which average about six per day.
Those protests ignited the passions of Americans. It was out of Phelps’ opposition to so many issues that patriots, gays, and church members alike have found themselves united in support of fallen heroes and victims of tragedies like the Boston bombing, hate crimes, and tornado outbreaks. The hatred of the one group has brought out the best in others.
Blogger Darian Burns may have said it best:
“How about we don’t become Fred now that he’s dead…. If Fred Phelps was the example of everything God calls us not to be when he was alive, why on earth would we follow his example now that he is gone?”
[images via Bing]