UPDATE: Fred Phelps passed away on Wednesday, March 19 at the age of 84
January 7, 2011, I sent my husband an email at work: “Hey, will you send me an email to [email protected]?”
A few minutes later I received a concerned reply.
“What have you done?”
His cyber-tone indicated it probably wasn’t the best moment to let him know I’d also bought the domain name FredPhelpsFuneral.com. (The ensuing junk mail is, I assume, why residents of our former home no longer forward our creepy mail.)
Three years ago I’d carefully calculated that the death of the mean religious bully was…inevitable. And I wanted to be ready. I priced last-minute plane tickets to Topeka and wanted to have the picket signs painted and ready to go. That’s what the domain was for: to invite others to submit better sign ideas than the obvious “God is love…duhhhh.” And maybe to carpool once we all got to Topeka.
My fantasy about the Kansas love-fest lost steam, though, when I posted about it here at RLC in 2011. One wise commenter, who politely acknowledged that the cliché sentiment was well-intended, noted, “It would make for a good publicity stunt, but I doubt that the Phelps family would feel loved.” He suggested letting the family mourn in peace.
If there’s one thing I hate, it’s when people are reasonable. (A sentiment Fred Phelps and I seem to share.)
Though I relinquished the domain name after one year, the commenter’s measured words moved me. So today as other well-meaning and ill-meaning strangers paint their signs and plan their pilgrimages to Topeka, as Phelps is now on his deathbed, I won’t be among them.
We Can Do Better
As people who claim to pattern our lives after a guy who loved some really offensive saints and sinners, we can do so much better than clever signs.
At the heart of Phelps’ lunacy has been his dogged insistence that some human beings—most of us, it would seem—are worth less than others. And despite the fact that no one outside his wounded angry little flock found him, even for a season, to be a credible source, Phelps’ hateful message of human worthlessness was an affront to a God who created men and women in God’s own image.
In a word, he lied.
He lied just as many of us do who discount those holding a radically divergent opinions as worthless. Idiotic. Expendable. Whenever we declare that someone with whom we disagree is worth less, we lie.
So rather than picketing a funeral that is certain to have more protesters than heartbroken mourners, the church’s response to Phelps’ lie ought to be to declare—in our homes and neighborhoods and churches and schools—the truth about every human being created in God’s image.
Though not with signs.
More powerful than any ideology we announce with our hand-lettered signs and tweets and books is what we reflect about the value of those who are “other” than we are with our faces and voices and bodies. If communication is, as the experts say, 93% nonverbal, this is where the real power is. With compassion in our eyes and kindness in our voices we communicate that all those who are “other” than we are have, as we do, immeasurable value for one reason: because we’ve been created in God’s image.
The real takeaway, for me, from the stark-raving reasonable commenter in 2011, lies in finding a creative kingdom response to the lunacy. By my reckoning, the very best response to a lie is to consistently reflect to others the God-honest truth about who they are.
So may our faces and voices and bodies serve as signs of the kingdom that clearly proclaim, “You—whoever you may be, and even if I disagree with you—are worth loving. Worth knowing. Worth respecting.”
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