On Wednesday, Fred Phelps, founder of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church, passed away. While Westboro Baptist Church was made famous by their message of hate, I believe Fred Phelps and his clan have been one of the greatest driving forces of unity in mainstream Christian culture.
The Christian Church, and I believe the Mennonite Church in particular, has an unfortunate history of division. Of course there were the great splits that occurred during the Protestant Reformation and the Anabaptist movement, but since then the unity of the Mennonite Church has been dependent on the hair-trigger of “theological disagreement.” While some splits might have a true theological basis, many churches have split over the the color of car bumpers and whether (and in what fashion) women should have string ties on their head coverings.
These splits all took place as we asked ourselves, “Who should we be as Christians? How should we worship, dress, and live?” But Fred Phelps and his church presented us with a different, and in this case, much simpler question: “Who should we not be as Christians?” In Westboro Baptist, a caricature of the judgmental Christian, the answer was self-evident. As Christians, we should not rejoice in the suffering of others, but lift them up in their time of need. As Christians, we should not preach a gospel of hate, but one of love. As Christians, we should not throw away our children when their paths diverge from ours, but continue to nurture them.
Thank you, Fred Phelps, for showing the Church its common ground. I wish comfort and peace to your loved ones in their time of mourning. Rest in peace.