The extreme always makes the ordinary seem smaller. An extremely tall person will make a person of average height seem short, for example. An extremely bright light will make ordinary light seem darker.
Fred Phelps did that with homophobia.
His extreme fear and hatred made ordinary homophobia seem innocuous. That was what irked me most about him, to be honest. He gave our nation an automatic excuse, an insidious shield behind which we could hide: “Well, at least I’m not as bad as Fred Phelps.”
I have always approached the Westboro group with an attitude of “ignore them and they’ll go away.” However, I decided to break my own rule today to offer a thought on the day Fred Phelps died.
I need to say, “I forgive you, Fred Phelps.” I know in my head that I need to say that. I know that is the Christian thing to do. I know that Jesus gave his life so that Fred Phelps would know the depth of God’s love for him, and receive the gift of everlasting life.
I know all that.
And yet I cannot stop thinking about all of the ordinary, everyday, run-of-the-mill homophobia that Fred Phelps’ extremism obscured.
Once a man told me he didn’t want any gay people to sing in church choir because he didn’t want one to put his hand on his knee in the middle of choir practice. Of course, he was no Fred Phelps …
Once a woman in a Bible study got upset that anyone would dare to “accuse” David and Jonathan of being gay. But now, at least she wasn’t Fred Phelps, you know…
Once a man said to me, with a chuckle and a wink, “I don’t care what they do in their personal lives, just so long as they don’t change the definition of marriage.” But hey! Fred Phelps…
It is very hard for me to forgive him for being the extreme that made the ordinary seem smaller.
Because I believe that the hidden homophobia that infects our society is actually a lot more dangerous than the extreme. The extreme is outlandish, a cartoon, a circus. It draws our collective attention away from more subtle but no less hateful actions. The devil is perfectly content for us to spend all our time and energy painting the porch while the true evil is working to erode away the foundation of the house, well outside of our collective attention span.
So let me just say this. Fred Phelps, you have no power over me. You have no power over any of my friends, neither those who happen to be gay nor those who happen to be homophobic. We no longer have you behind which to hide our ordinary homophobia. And now, if we will forgive you, that will set us free to love people – ALL people – like Jesus calls us to love.
We must no longer use your extreme ideas to hide our own hurtful attitudes and actions. Instead, we must confront them, confess them, and allow the grace of God to transform them. And in order for this to happen, we must forgive you. We know that we should. We know that if we do not, you will continue to hold this bizarre sort of power over us. And so…
Fred Phelps, we forgive you.
Dear God, receive Fred into the arms of your mercy, and raise him up with all your people.
Receive us as well. May we live as those who are prepared to die. And when our lives here are accomplished, may we die as those who go forth to live, so that living or dying, our life may be in you, and nothing in life or in death will be able to separate us from your great love made known to us in Jesus Christ.