The short answer is "yes." I wouldn't pass up an opportunity to try and offer comfort to grieving people, and I believe every person--even a person who squandered his considerable intellect and caused so much harm like Fred Phelps--deserves to be dignified at his or her death as a child of God. Phelps may have vehemently denied the worth of others in God's eyes, but his gross mistakes when it came to understanding God's love can no more undermine God's love for him than his denunciation of others could take away God's love for them. God even loves a person who was as hurtful and hateful as Fred Phelps.
If I were to give Phelps' eulogy, it would be difficult to find admirable deeds to appreciate. This is the man, after all, who created a religious organization (I won't dignify it by calling it a church) that went around the country waving signs proclaiming "God Hates Fags" at the funerals of people who died of AIDS and soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's hard to say that Phelps loved his family when he brought his young grandchildren and great-grandchildren to his macabre protests to hold his offensive signs--I would label such decisions religious abuse of children. Perhaps in his early law career when he filed suits on behalf of African Americans who were discriminated against there may be nuggets of laudable behavior, but I have to wonder if even those acts were done less out of a sense of racial justice and more out of Phelp's joy in ticking off the establishment.
I would definitely resist any temptation to celebrate Phelps' death and would do all I could to stop others from doing so. Just because Phelps had a distorted understanding of what it means to be Christian doesn't excuse other Christians from forsaking Jesus' commands to love and forgive all--especially our enemies. It's tempting to want to give back at Phelps' funeral (were there to be one) some of the horror he gave at the funerals of others, but in my eulogy I would make sure to recite the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. "Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."
I doubt Phelps' family would find it comforting, but I would point out that in some ways Phelps hate-filled antics helped those he condemned the most. Phelps' declarations that America's acceptance of LGBT people caused God to punish America actually caused more people to reconsider their homophobia than it did to convince people his view was right. By spewing hate in its ugliest form, Phelps forced people to confront the ugliness of the way religion is used as a club to wound people. Of course, there are plenty of preachers who are quick to declare they aren't like Phelps and that they "love the sinner but hate the sin," but I believe Phelps' actions and words were so ugly that few can condemn LGBT people today without at least some small concern that they are on the same team as him.
In the end, I would come back to the reason I would agree to do Phelps' eulogy in the first place--God loves Fred Phelps in spite of the things he did that were hateful and immoral. After all, that's what we hang our hats on as Christians. I think there is a qualitative difference between the lives most people lead and the life of Fred Phelps, but whoever we are God loves us in spite of what we do to hurt others.
The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 8, "Nothing can separate us from the love of God." He goes on at great length about how God's love is greater than all other powers that exist. God's love is far, far greater than the hatred of Fred Phelps or the hatred that any of us carry in our hearts. I would stand at Fred Phelps' graveside and I would declare that good news, because it is good news for all of us.
Grace and Peace,
P.S.--here are some other reflections on the death of Fred Phelps I found meaningful:
- Mary Sanchez' column about Phelps' life and death in the KC Star: "Fred Phelps was the Greatest Argument Against His Cause"
- The United Church of Christ statement on Fred Phelps' death.
- Here's a news story from St. Joseph, MO where a member of Zion UCC (where our own Donna Ross serves) offers some meaningful words about Phelps.
- A powerful prayer offered on the occasion of Fred Phelps' death that all people of faith should read and make their own.