The colorful signs of the Westboro Baptist Church need no introduction. People across the U.S. have seen their hate-filled language be it on the news, one of several documentaries, or perhaps even at an event or funeral in person. The extreme religious group from Topeka, Kan. has certainly established their sentiments towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons, their supporters, and the nation that tolerates their existence; that hell awaits them. Their message and their vocal leaders have been heard and despite legal protection to spew such hatred, the nation has shown exactly how it feels about them.
In 2012, a petition to change the WBC’s legal status from tax-exempt religious institution to hate group gained 278,000 signatures, a label the Southern Poverty Law Center already brands them with. A YouTube search of “Westboro Baptist Church Attacked” gives an ample supply of videos proving that Americans from all over have plenty of hate to give back to them.
But one of those leaders will never be heard from again. Fred Phelps, the patriarch of the WBC, died on March 19. His passing has sparked a renewed vigor in this ongoing discussion, both about him personally and the church he founded.
John C. Murray is the lead pastor at Hesston Mennonite Church and a prominent theological voice in Hesston. His reaction to the passing of Phelps reflects the complexity and sensitivity required to handle this situation.
“There is no right or wrong way to react,” Murray began. “And ‘shoulds’ and ‘nots’ aren’t helpful.”
There may not be a right or wrong way to react, but Americans took to social media to stand on their soap boxes anyway. In a San Jose Mercury News feature, the paper took a wide variety of opinions the Bay Area posted via Twitter. Some citizens and churches called for a forgiving approach.
“Come pray for forgiveness, healing, and #FredPhelps at 8 tonight in the #Castro,” tweeted the Episcopal Diocese of California.
Others were quick to take a more judgmental route.
“What would be more satisfying: picketing or dancing on his grave?” Twitter user “ilona” said.
Still others took a middle route, taking the opportunity to chastise Phelps but imploring the nation to take the higher road.
“So in a weird way, let’s forgive Fred Phelps and his lot, and thank them for making it that much easier to see how we don’t want to be,” Twitter user Scott Campbell said.
Among the many voices in this societal discussion is the Anabaptist community Murray and his colleagues help to represent. They and the rest of the community must decide what to do with the passing of a figure like Phelps. The Schleitheim Confession, a document written by Michael Sattler in 1527 and considered the basic underpinning of Anabaptist theology, writes that a Christian “should not pass judgment in worldly disputes.” In context the quote is referring to the Anabaptist stance on nonviolence, but should it be applied to cases such as these?
Murray seems to think so.
“I do think, however, that at the very least we should be compassionate and avoid the desire for vengeance,” Murray continued. “Revenge against those who have wronged you does not advance the Kingdom.”
Hesston College Bible professor and ordained Mennonite pastor Marion Bontrager agreed that the situation is complex and says that even though love is the Anabaptist’s reaction to evil, our response cannot forget the wickedness of Phelps’ actions, a nod to the reactions many Americans in the third aforementioned group are having.
“If you believed in ‘an eye for an eye’ then it would seem right to picket them because of all they’ve done to others,” Bontrager said. “How do we express love without affirmation?”
Perhaps the best we can do is keeping ourselves in the right and hope our example shines through the darkness. Murray confessed that the WBC probably doesn’t deserve the privacy they’re requesting but added that what people deserve isn’t the end line.
“We should give them the grace they don’t deserve,” Murray said. “Not because they asked but because it is right.”
As for Phelps himself, Bontrager and Murray don’t believe it is appropriate to allow our perception of him to be incomplete. Before Phelps was known for his anti-homosexual propaganda which began in 1991, he was a prominent civil rights attorney. Phelps was praised by local African-Americans whose cases he took when no other lawyers would.
“I wouldn’t want Christianity to be defined by Phelps,” Murray said. “But I wouldn’t want his later actions to erase the good he’s done.”
“Most people are a mixed bag,” Bontrager echoed. “Most public figures have done some good and some evil.”
But what about those who have been personally victimized by the hatred? LGBT individuals and the families of those whose funerals the WBC picketed may not be so quick to see any good in Phelps. The pastors understand their pain, but advocate a more healing approach to their justified anger.
“When people feel abused a common need is to be heard and understood,” Bontrager said. “How can they get that and how much is enough? People need healing, but also need to choose to harbor resentment forever or not.”
“I wouldn’t chastise someone who did want to picket his funeral,” Murray said. “But instead would want to converse with them about how to channel their emotions into something more constructive. In my years, I’ve found that revenge does not bring healing.”