Praying For Our Enemies

by Heidi C. Heath

I remember the first time I heard the name Fred Phelps. Five days before I turned sixteen, Matthew Shepard was brutally attacked in Laramie, Wyoming.

One day after I turned sixteen, Matthew Shepard died. 

Like many of you around the country, I was glued to the news reports. Enter: Fred Phelps.

The first I heard of Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church was their outspoken, hate-filled protest of Matthew’s funeral. I remember visibly recoiling from the television at the first shots of their vivid, crass signs. I’m not sure I’d ever seen or heard the word “fag” before. Still angsty and unsure of myself, I had not yet fully come to terms with the fact that I was queer. But Phelps’ messaging was enough to send me running back into the closet.

A deeply faithful teenager who had recently discerned a call to ministry, I was moved to tears by the “angels” who surrounded the Shepard’s mourning and peacefully stood on the side of love. Years later, I would watch the VHS of the HBO adaptation of the Laramie Project over and over again in the early years of my own life after coming out.

In the thirteen years since my coming out, Westboro Baptist has become a central piece of the national lexicon. From picketing military funerals, to protesting high school theatre productions, and more, the seemed to become synonymous with the word “protest.” Their infamous hate-filled signs were more than just slogans. The anguish they have caused to families and individuals was palpable and real.

I suspect I am far from the only terrified teenager Westboro Baptist Church sent running deep into the hallows of their own closet.

And while I’ve had my share of choice words for Phelps in painful moments, I found myself overcome with sadness at learning he’d been ex-communicated from his own institution for advocating a “kinder approach” as he understood it. It must be a sad, scary, lonely thing to be facing death apart from all you’ve ever known full of hate, anger, and emptiness.

There are those in my communities who are already dancing on Phelps’ grave. They say any kind words for him are a betrayal. He deserves every dark, aching moment he has coming to him. They find it a poetic justice of sorts that at the end of his life he was an outcast after targeting those at times most outcast by society. They go so far as to say they are glad he is dead.

For me, this is where my faith saves me.

It saves me from being consumed by my own anger, fear, or hatred in a way I fear was not true for Fred. I don’t believe in a physical hell, lake of fire and all of that. But I do believe that “hell” for many of us is the things that separate us from God and one another. In many ways, Fred Phelps lived in his own personal hell leaving him utterly alone in his final hours. I have to believe that he was scared, and isolated. In many ways he perhaps reaped what it was he sowed in his life, and there are those who say he deserved it. But I am not among them.

As a Christian minister, Scripture tells me to pray for my enemies and those who persecute me (Matt. 5:44). It commands me do not return evil with evil (1 Peter 3:9), to love God, love my neighbor as myself (even when I really, really, really don’t like them). Because even those most filled with hate, even Fred Phelps, is one of God’s beloved.

Just as I don’t believe in a physical hell, I do believe that in the end we are all reconciled with God. There is a home in heaven (however you understand it) for all of us. My theology is deeply relational, and so I believe that in the end we are not only re-connected with God, but with one another. I don’t know how God is going to do it.

I don’t know how God is going reconcile Fred Phelps with Matthew Shepard, but I know that God will.

Because God is God, and I am not (and we should all be very thankful for that).

And so, I do as my faith teaches me. I pray. This is my prayer for Fred Phelps.

Into your hands O God, we commend to you your child Fred Phelps. We pray for peace, reconciliation, and healing. Fred, may you find the peace in death that you could not find in life. May you be wrapped and surrounded by God’s infinite mercy and love. May you finally see that we are all beloved, and come from the same creator. May your family find peace and comfort as they grieve your death. Amen.

Photo via flickr user Jamelle Bouie