The news that Fred Phelps, the Westboro Baptist church founder and a man known for hate-filled protests against gay people, is dead will not bring a chorus of eulogies from those familiar with his peculiar brand of ministry.
For more than 50 years, Westboro, largely under Phelps' leadership, has been a bastion of a virulent and primitive form of hate, under the guise of being a church, abhorrent to the teachings of Jesus.
Ironically, it is the unproductive "ministry" of Phelps that underscores the core principle of Jesus' teachings. Can those of us who would spend a lifetime opposing Phelps with every fiber of our being still affirm his humanity knowing that he has no regard for ours?
The easy and understandable answer is no, but that stands in stark contrast to what Jesus commands. In Matthew 5:43-44, Jesus states, "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you."
This is a radical statement that cuts across the culture of Jesus day as it cuts across our contemporary times. Jesus challenges us when we wish delve in the depths of "churchiness" that cheaply passes as Christianity calling us instead to the lofty heights of his inconvenient love.
I think about this passage, when I reflect on the valor of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. I find it hard to believe that King actually liked Birmingham Police Commissioner, Eugene "Bull" Connor, who in 1963 became the embodiment of Southern hatred as he unleashed high-pressure hoses and vicious police dogs on children.
But King, in the Jesus ethic, understood that his humanity was inextricably linked to Connor whether he liked him or not. Like and dislike are the seductive emotions that allow us to conflate our desires with the will of God, but should have no bearing on our willingness to strive toward Jesus' gargantuan command.
Nowhere does the Old Testament enjoin hatred of one's enemies, but in the days of Jesus as is the custom today, that was the practice. Too often religion is used to justify one's hate.
But in a deeply subversive way, similar to his parable about the Good Samaritan, Jesus leaves no room to ponder what it means to love one's neighbor. For if we must love our enemies, whoever is my neighbor, however I define it, falls under the jurisdiction as worthy of God's love. Their humanity must be affirmed.
As Reinhold Niebuhr reminds us, "Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love."
Jesus reminds us that none are beyond God's ubiquitous reach, none stand beyond the boundaries of God's grace, and none beyond the jurisdiction of God's love -- and that would include Fred Phelps.