I write this on the day Fred Phelps, pretender to ministry, hater of gays, vitriolic picketer of soldiers’ funerals, has gone forth into the Judgement he welcomed for others. In the days leading up to his demise there was talk among some, who hate him deeply for his hatred, of picketing his funeral. Of holding signs and repaying his corpse. Someone in his church replied that they don’t have funerals, because this is to worship the dead. I suppose in another generation they’ll be banning crosses as idols, and in the generation after that they’ll be drinking Kool-Aid and waiting for the spaceships, because hatred is a kind of madness.
Hatred is madness, and it is sickness, and it spreads with contact. So does one man’s hateful act jeopardize the soul of his victim, and thus did Fred Phelps do his best to fill up hell. I wonder if he ever thought he was really saving anyone from anything, or if all his public testimony was really just a perverse celebration.
It’s easy to hate a man like Fred Phelps, and just as easy to say that we should have hearts filled with pity for him, for the sheep who followed him. It’s easy for me, anyway, because that was never one of my sons in a box, body flayed by a roadside bomb, his memory dishonored by shouting, sign-bearing heretics. I can’t imagine that horror without also tempting myself to hate him even now, to hope he burns as he ached to see others burn. Me, who was never wronged by him.
In truth, people like me need someone like Fred Phelps. He made me feel better about myself. I am as the Pharisee who gave thanks he was not the tax collector—a comparison to which some might object, on the grounds that in that story, the tax collector was a humbled man, aware of his sins and begging mercy.
But none of us knows what transpires in the heart’s final beating. We can never know until it is we who lay waiting for judgment, our hearts softened or hardened or indifferent. Perhaps Fred Phelps saw, in his final seconds, the cost of his life, the dreadful bloody stink of it, rising up to heaven. Perhaps he saw and he begged forgiveness. And perhaps—how scandalous to think it—he was forgiven.
And while the state of his heart is now a settled and secreted thing, perhaps mine turns, as well as yours, on whether we are willing to pray that it was so, that the likes of Fred Phelps could be saved from the sickness that consumed him. Perhaps such a merciful heart is, in the end, all that saves any of us from his sickness.
(The photo above, according to Wikimedia Commons, is of Fred Phelps, aged 3, hugging his sister Martha-Jean, aged 2, as they stand in the shadow of their father, Fred Wade Phelps. Of the elder Mr. Phelps and his eventual rift with Fred Phelps, the latter’s son, Mark Phelps, once told a reporter: “I remember my grandfather crying. I remember my grandfather telling him to get back in the Methodist Church and stop all this nonsense.” Mark Phelps said that when his grandfather died, his father was broken up, and attended the funeral—showing, perhaps, that love can, at least sometimes, overcome the lies we tell ourselves about God.)