This past Thursday, the Rev. Fred Phelps passed away at age 84. Phelps was the virulently antigay preacher who attracted overwhelming condemnation and revulsion for picketing military funerals as a way to proclaim his and his tiny church's belief that God is punishing America for its tolerance of homosexuality. For years, Phelps, founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, a small independent church in Topeka, Kansas, was a much-loathed figure on the outer fringe of the American religious scene. Phelps and his flock -- made up largely of his own family which included 13 children, 54 grandchildren and 7 great grandchildren -- were regularly denounced by people across the theologic and political spectrum for their beliefs, language and tactics. In bipolar contravention of Christian dogma, Phelps' God was suffused with hatred for -- and vengeance against -- gays, lesbians as well as the society which permitted them to exist. In Phelps' worldview, any and all lethal tragedies -- hurricanes, floods, terrorist attacks, wars -- were vengeful acts of a malevolent God who, above everything, despised homosexuals and homosexuality. And yet, despite the all but universal revulsion Phelps' crusade met with, he continued his very public attacks, armed with nothing more than the utter certainty of a deeply deluded fool.
Upon learning of his death, I began wondering what kind of reception would be awaiting him in the world beyond . . . of what his final judgment might be. What follows is one possibility . . .
The Scene : A spare room with a series of hard wooden benches facing a scarred wooden desk. Sitting at the desk is a sinuous wraith of a man. He is of undetermined age and has a wild manic look about him. He is forever gnawing on his fingers. The only other soul in the room is Rev. Fred Phelps, who, after sitting on the bench for what seems to him an eternity, makes his way up to the desk. He addresses the wraith-like man:
Phelps: " How long are you going to make me wait? Will you please inform God that His ardent, most zealous servant Fred Phelps has arrived and seeks an immediate audience?"
The Wraith: "God? What makes you think that God is available to you? And what makes you think that God is a 'He?'"
Phelps: "Crap-and-half! Don't tell me there's political correctness in heaven too! I had enough of that bilge down on earth. There's no way in heaven God can be a She; I know this for a fact. But never mind; if God isn't currently available, please let St. Peter know that I am here awaiting entrance to the Eternal Kingdom."
The Wraith: "St. Peter?" Where in the Hell do you think you are? Does this look like Heaven's antechamber? Do you see any pearly gates?"
Phelps: " So where am I . . . and who in the Hell are you?"
The Wraith : "You, Fred Phelps have arrived at the entrance to Hell, a place to which you have been consigned for the rest of eternity for being an utterly irreligious, hateful miscreant. And as for me, I am Count Ugolino della Gherardesca . . . one of the Gatekeepers of Hell. Perhaps you have heard of me and know my story?"
Phelps: "I haven't the slightest idea who you are and could give a rat's rump. Just get off your rump and tell St. Peter that I'm here. I don't belong in Hell, for I am a Crusader on behalf of the Lord. Perhaps it is you who have not heard of me or know my reputation!"
Count Ugolino: "Oh, we all know your name and reputation Reverend Phelps. You are the man who stood religion upon its head and turned a merciful loving God into an instrument of vile hate. And by the way, if you want to know who I am I suggest that you read Dante's Inferno. I am the fellow who ate the corpses of his children after they had died of starvation. I was also immortalized by Rodin in his sculpture The Gates of Hell, which is precisely where you are right now."
Phelps: I really could care less about you and your appetite. What I do care about is claiming my rightful place among the righteous and dutiful servants of our Lord and Savior. After all, it was I who, more than anyone, steadfastly understood God's admonition that 'You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination.' I would assume that you are familiar with that Biblical verse Count whatever your name is?
Count Ugolino: "Sure, it's Leviticus 18:22. And, according to my notes, that seems to be just about the only verse in the entire Scripture that ever seems to have interested you . . . and that's out of 5,845 verses! You certainly have been the living definition of an obsessive-compulsive. Is it perhaps a case of 'me thinks the lady doth protest a bit too much,' sweetie?"
Phelps: You can mock me all you want you blasted kiddy eater. That's not the only verse that 'interests me,' to use your sarcastic phrase. There's also Leviticus 20:13, which, in God's own words, clearly states: 'If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.' Try and argue against that! Aren't the words as clear as mother's milk? Does or does not the Bible make it perfectly clear that homosexuality is a sin punishable by death . . . that God hates homosexuals?"
Count Ugolino: "You know something Rev. Phelps? You are a real piece of work. Instead of answering your last question about whether or not God clearly reviles homosexuals, I would remind you of two other verses: the first from Proverbs 6:16-19: 'There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.' The second is from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice: 'The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose. An evil soul producing holy witness Is like a villain with a smiling cheek, A goodly apple rotten at the heart.' You, Fred Phelps are guilty of all seven things which the Lord hates and are the living embodiment Antonio's words about the devil. If you're so all-fired true to what the Bible commands, what about the punishment for lighting a fire on Sabbath, or wearing a garment of wool and linen or eating pork, lobster or crab? Aren't they punishable sins as well? But no . . . you chose precisely one verse, one issue, and then used it to turn a loving, beneficent and merciful God into an instrument of unmitigated vengeance. And what is doubtlessly even worse, by picketing all those funerals -- the funerals of war heroes and murder victims -- you were hurling mephitic acid into the faces of the bereaved. Turns out that you, sir, are the very abomination you revile . . . "