Fred Phelps is dead: Does he deserve our forgiveness?

As most of the nation’s news outlets have reported, Fred Phelps (the founder of Westboro Baptist Church) died of natural causes today. He was responsible for organizing a small group of vocal church members to picket funerals of soldiers, victims of violent crime, and any other individual who made headlines with signs that read “God hates fags.”

The reaction of most of the public today is predictable. It doesn’t seem many people are going to miss his contribution to the world. Social media sites are ablaze with comments that meet or exceed the hateful messages that his followers have propogated for so many years. Then there are LGBT advocates such as Judy Shepard (mother of slain gay son Matthew Shepard) who have released statements that are more or less the equivalent of “no comment”. And yet, there are others who are wishing Fred Phelps blessings and forgiveness as he meets his Maker. What’s the right thing to do in a situation like this?

It brings up an interesting question. Is forgivess for the offender or the offended? Many times we withhold forgiveness because we believe it lets the other person off the hook or somehow justifies what they have done. We have some sort of notion that if we hold on to our grudge it will inflict pain upon the perpetrator. This sort of thinking actually doesn’t make sense. Here’s why.

When we withhold mercy and forgiveness from someone, we are holding on to the painful feelings that were born at the time of the offense. In doing so, we think that we are holding the offender responsible for their actions. But this is an illusion. Holding on to ill feelings affects one person and one person only — the offended. As I’ve heard many times before, “Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”

Holding a grudge against a dead man (even an evil man) does nothing but make sure the hatefulness and animosity he created continues beyond his death. Ironic, no?

Forgiveness is not for the other person. It’s for you. Forgiveness doesn’t mean giving permission, endorsing behavior, or saying that what someone did was okay. It simply means letting go of the emotional pain that was inflicted and no longer choosing to harbor the bitterness because it is negatively impacting you. Forgiveness is not a gift you give someone else, although if the other person receives benefit from it, great! Forgiveness, though, is an entirely selfish act. Forgiveness is for you.

What do you think? Should people such as Fred Phelps be forgiven? E-mail your comments to jeremy@jeremydavidsavage.com or comment below. I’m interested in what you think.

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Jeremy Savage, MA, LPC

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