|I can totally feel God's love, you guys.|
As all of you know by now, Fred Phelps is dead. He was most famously known for his and his family's protests at funerals — often but not always of U.S. soldiers — because, according to them, virtually every bad thing ever (and I mean everything, even tornadoes) was the direct result of America's tolerance of homosexuality. I say tolerance, not acceptance, because Phelps argued that sodomy should not only be illegal — it should be a capital offence. The Church was also a favourite target of the Phelps clan, who regularly picketed Catholic churches and other houses of worship; they even dedicated an entire Web site to attacking her, which I will not link here.
Predictably, many responses to his death welcomed it, with some reactions outright gleeful. The argument goes that since Phelps spent his life disrespecting the dead with hateful, vulgar protests, his death should be met in kind. Because... tolerance?
I'll cut to the chase: This post is not about Fred Phelps, despite its title. It's about you.
What is most problematic about much of the initial response was not its negativity, per se. It was the sheer hypocrisy of it.
The typical welcoming reaction to Phelps' death went something like this: "Fred Phelps was such a bad person, and we are such good people, that we are surely justified in refusing to afford him the respect he denied us in life, so let's dance on his grave!"
Few are willing to be so explicit about it, but that is what is implicit whenever one qualifies another's life. It is not just about Phelps and the bad he did; it is part and parcel of our society's artificial hierarchy assigned to the value of human life.
Phelps' death is but one example. We see this artificial hierarchy when we discuss abortion and say that while, yes, it is generally bad, babies conceived in rape are worth less than those conceived consensually. We see this artificial hierarchy when we treat the death of an American celebrity with more import than the massacre of dozens of everyday foreign people. And yes, we see this artificial hierarchy when we decide which deaths merit mourning and which merit jubilation.
We saw this most famously three years ago, with the death of Osama bin Laden. Here was a prime example of evil being vanquished: This was a man who killed thousands, who supported a movement that persecuted women, non-Muslims and homosexuals. He was far more destructive than Fred Phelps or his cult ever could have been.
The celebration was, in many ways, cathartic. Many of us knew someone who died on September 11 or in the Afghan conflict which followed. Bin Laden's death was not merely an act of revenge, to many; it was an act of justice. It was fair retribution for the horror he inflicted that bright Tuesday morning. Even if one expressed discomfort at the celebrations themselves, it was hard to fault those who poured into the streets to cheer the news. September 11 was the defining moment of a generation, as evidenced by the disproportionately young participants in the crowds, many of whom scarcely remember a day without war. But once all is said and done, it should still give us pause whenever the taking of another life is seen as a good thing, even if it is done so in self-defence.
It should be the hope of all Christians that every life, once exhausted in this world, is ready to meet Christ in the next. It has been said that death is the great equaliser, for we all share the same mortality. This is an incomplete understanding of death, because not all of us meet the same fate after earthly death. Death is not the great equaliser; Jesus is. To hope for another soul to go to Hell is to refuse to see Christ in that individual and to debase love itself.
It is so difficult and, indeed, contradictory to embrace Christianity because so much is asked of us, and yet from the start, the Church has embraced and exalted those who were seemingly least qualified to care for the faithful. The first Pope denied Christ Himself; the most prolific author of the New Testament killed Christians.
When we think of sin, we too often think of it in terms of secular law. Of course, the punishment for a crime ought to be weighted to its severity. Murder surely carries a greater penalty than, say, grand larceny. But all sin — true offences to God, regardless of their legal status — separates us from the Body of Christ. We are all guilty, at one time or another, of denying Jesus and condemning ourselves, which is the entire point of His sacrifice. Jesus did not die just for you, or just for me. He did not die just for Mother Teresa, because of the good she and others like her did. In fact, the evil Fred Phelps did is precisely why He died. If everyone never misbehaved, Christ's death and resurrection never would have had to happen, because we would not need to face death. But we do sin. We do hurt one another. And by these actions do we necessitate Christ's death on the Cross, the worst crime in all of history.
No, we are not better than Fred Phelps. Separation from Christ is separation from Christ. When we are mired in unrepentant sin, no matter what the wrong, we are no better than even the most repugnant of men. Fred Phelps' life should not be the yardstick by which we measure our inherent worth. Christ's should be. Forgiveness is not always easy on our part — nor is it always possible. After all, one cannot forgive someone who is not truly sorry.
As Pope Francis rightly observed today, "Sickness and death are not taboo subjects. They are realities that we must face in Jesus' presence." We do not know if Phelps died regretting his actions in life. We should hope he did. We should hope that anyone who led a life of iniquity would see the error of his ways before dying, so that he might have one final chance of salvation. We do not live by the Code of Hammurabi. We live by the Code of Christ.
We should never be happy when another life ends. We should be sad that a life was spent hurting others, rather than furthering God's Kingdom. We should be concerned about the state of those souls who deny Christ, willingly or not. And we should be hopeful that our lives and actions might make us worthy of His promises.