Loving neighbors and reading the Bible: Some reflections upon the death of Phelps

The world recently learned of the death of Fred Phelps, Sr., founder and “pastor” of Westboro “Baptist” “Church,” the group who has become known for their protests of military funerals and signs that say “God hates ____.” They have traveled the world and the internet, proving themselves to be incredibly skilled at one thing: making people angry.

Many of us seem to take the bait. Like the playground bully who feeds on your reaction, Phelps and his Westboro gang seem more emboldened when others are angry. Beyond this sordid desire to produce rage, they also felt spiritually vindicated, often pointing to Jesus’ warning that his followers would be persecuted for their faith (Matthew 5:10-12; Luke 21:16-18).

I, like many, have always been disgusted by their message and by this use of religion to justify hatred.

Upon Phelps’ passing, many are rejoicing. I am reflecting, particularly on two lessons that I think are crucial for followers of Christ today.

First, I’m reflecting on how Fred Phelps and his group put our ability to love our neighbor–and enemies–to the test. I’m sure you’ve seen some of the gloating reactions to his death. To be fair, I’ve seen a reassuring number of comments calling for prayer, forgiveness, etc., but it has always bothered me that the response of some Christians is no different in kind than the language used by Phelps himself.

If we want to show that our way is correct, then our response should model something that Fred’s life did not. If we believe we’re on higher ground, why do our actions and words stoop to the same level? He wishes death on us, we wish death on him. He protests our funerals, we want to protest his. This is a boxing match, not the higher ground to which God calls us. Over and over, the Bible points to a different way (Proverbs 20:22, 24:17-18; Matthew 5:43-48; Romans 12:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:15; 1 Peter 3:9). Jesus’ teaching is so radical, in part, because it is so difficult and against our nature.

One powerful verse from Proverbs calls us to task: “Do not gloat when your enemies fall; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice, or the Lord will see and disapprove and turn his wrath away from them.” Proverbs 24:17-18.

I had similar thoughts back in May 2011 when it was reported that Osama bin Laden had been killed by the U.S. military. Many Americans responded with what Diana Butler Bass called “patriotic frenzy.” We rejoiced and we gloated. My troubling realization back then is that you could substitute in another country’s flag, and it all looks the same.

I do not in any way minimize or dismiss how people have been harmed by evil, nor do I pretend to understand what they have gone through. It’s just that I see no redemptive quality in revenge. Christians are called to guard against it. I’m reminded of a quote from the character Prot in the movie K-PAX, who is allegedly a being from another galaxy:

You humans subscribe to this policy of an eye for an eye, a life for a life, which is known throughout the universe for its stupidity. Even your Buddha and your Christ had quite a different vision, but nobody has paid much attention to them, not even the Buddhists or the Christians.

Interestingly, it has been reported that Phelps’ hard-line approach may have backfired on him late in life.

The second thing I’m reflecting on is what the legacy of Phelps can teach us about reading and interpreting the Bible. The Phelps family has employed horrible imagery and language. They have preyed on people during their darkest hour. But there’s one thing I’ve never seen them do: misquote scripture.

In interviews, the Westboro group has been known to say, “We’re not making this stuff up.” When it comes to quoting the Bible, that’s true. They know their Bible better than most Christians, and they never misquote it. They use the same book as my church that preaches love. Where we differ–to use a big seminary word–is hermeneutics: the guiding principles and interpretive lenses we use to decide what parts of the Bible to emphasize and how to interpret it.

The broad question of how to interpret the Bible is too large a topic for this space and one that I have tried to tackle in a post on my own blog. But before we immediately dismiss Phelps as a lunatic, his use of the Bible should give us pause and make us reflect on the power of this book that we too flippantly quote. It’s a book that has been used for good and for evil. It is an extremely complex book, written and read through cultural lenses. Isolated biblical passages can be used to justify virtually anything. Do we grant it the care and study it requires? Are we more willing than Phelps to put our hermeneutic to the test?

The Phelps family is often accosted for their hyper-focus on the issue of homosexuality; a fixation that is grossly disproportionate to the amount of page space the issue occupies in scripture. But what we may not fully grasp is that this is not unique to Phelps. Other Christian groups, though they may not use his methods, share his obsession. Fred’s prejudice and repulsion were always on full display, but he almost always stayed in the realm of speech and rhetoric. Other Christian groups have been much more of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. They pass repressive laws under the guise of protecting marriage or religious liberty. They set up treatment protocols for “conversion therapy” and try to “cure” homosexuals of their orientation (a practice for which Alan Chambers and Exodus International later repented). Worst of all, researchers and journalists have found that U.S. evangelical leaders were behind the drafting of Uganda’s new law that criminalizes homosexuality with a maximum penalty of life in prison (an earlier version of the bill imposed the death penalty).

Such efforts have caused harm that goes beyond any emotional damage inflicted by Phelps.

There will plenty of time for us to mourn all the hatred Phelps has helped spread. But I call on us to allow Phelps’ legacy to be a catalyst for self-examination. I see an opportunity here for us to learn what love of neighbor and responsible biblical interpretation require of us. I see an opportunity to “make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.” (1 Thessalonians 5:15). 

Corey Fields

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Corey is a husband, daddy, American Baptist pastor, and recent Doctor of Ministry graduate from Central Baptist Theological Seminary where his work centered around developing a congregational vision for incarnational ministry. Corey writes on theology, society, church life, family, music, technology, and the intersection of all such things.

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