By Jessica Ravitz
(CNN) — He was a preacher best known for his virulent anti-gay rhetoric, the force behind placards that read “God Hates Fags.” He taught that natural disasters and man-made horrors like the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting were God’s punishment for acceptance of homosexuality. He believed gays and lesbians should be put to death.
On Thursday, the world learned that Fred Phelps, founding pastor of the small but infamous Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, was dead.
The news unleashed a firestorm of online chatter. In less than an hour after CNN posted an article announcing his death, more than 3,000 readers had weighed in with comments. By the end of the business day, that number exceeded 11,000.
Nearly as many readers “liked” a comment from humm61: “To paraphrase a famous actress, ‘My mother said to only say nice things about the dead. He’s dead. How nice.'”
Mixed in were those who wanted to picket — or party — at Phelps’ funeral. Some relished the idea of him rotting in hell. Plenty others were horrified by the hatred and condemned the celebration.
The sometimes heated back-and-forth between readers at CNN and elsewhere got us thinking: What is the appropriate response to Phelps’ death? Is it right to damn him to eternal suffering, a dark wish he extended to plenty of others?
We reached out to several advocates for those who may have taken Phelps’ message most personally — Christians who are also gay — to see what they thought.
“The words and actions of Fred Phelps have hurt countless people. As a Christian, I’m angry about that, and I’m angry about how he tarnished the reputation of the faith I love so much,” Justin Lee, executive director of The Gay Christian Network, said in an e-mail message.
“But as a Christian, I also believe in showing love to my enemies and treating people with grace even when they don’t deserve it,” he said. “I pray for his soul and his family just as I pray for those he harmed. It’s easy for me to love someone who treats me kindly. It’s hard for me to love Fred Phelps. To me, that’s the whole point of grace.”
That Phelps is gone isn’t cause for joy for Jim Smith, either.
“There is a sadness as deep as the Grand Canyon over the harm that he has unleashed in our country, a sadness that can’t be quantified. But that still doesn’t mean I delight in his death,” said Smith, the associate director of Dignity USA, an organization that advocates for LGBTQ Catholics. “I’d delight in the end of the Westboro [Baptist Church] mission.”
But, Smith added, the “obsession with sexual orientation” isn’t Westboro’s alone. Plenty of other houses of worship and institutions fail to teach universal acceptance.
One need not specifically work on behalf of the LGBTQ community to see this broader point. Phelps was one small, albeit persistent and radical, voice in a larger chorus.
“A Christian can be glad that Fred Phelps will no longer be distorting the gospel into little spectacles of hate. But then he’s hardly been the only one doing that,” Mark D. Jordan, a professor of religion and politics at Washington University in St. Louis, wrote in an e-mail message. “As hate-mongers go, he was not particularly dangerous.”
Phelps “was a phantom of the media: he loved a TV camera — and the TV cameras too often loved him,” said Jordan, a leading expert on Christian ethics and sexuality.
“If we’re serious about stopping Christian persecution aimed at sex or gender, we’ll pay less attention to televised spectacles and more to the collusion of churches with bureaucracies of governmental power.”
Rejoicing in Phelps’ death, or the loss of any soul, isn’t the Christian way, Jordan added.
“If some Christians want to celebrate the death of Fred Phelps, I hope it’s because they think he has been released from bodily suffering and is going home to God,” he said.
“To rejoice because you hope that he’s already in hellfire is to do exactly what he did to his enemies.”
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