Less Fred, more Francis

Published 11:47 am Thursday, March 27, 2014

Like many Americans, I spent a lot of time this month thinking about two religious leaders who couldn’t be further apart in their ideology — Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps who died last week at age 84 and Pope Francis, who celebrated his first year as leader of the Catholic Church on March 13.

Phelps, who was born in Meridian, leaves a complex legacy that seemingly serves as the antithesis of the Christian idea of redemption.

He started with plenty of compassion and by the 1960s he was renowned for his work defending black clients during the Civil Rights Era. But today his legacy is nothing but the anti-gay propaganda that he and his church spread on the national stage since they picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard in 1998.

Shepard was a University of Wyoming student who was robbed, tortured, tied to a fence post and left for dead, because of his sexual orientation.

The picketing, as we all know, continued at funerals held for soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Often church member would hold colorful signs with large bold text proclaiming “Thank God for IEDs” and “9-11 Gift from God.”

The hate filled messages extend to everyone outside the small Kansas church, which takes harsh stances against Jews and Catholics, which is something I can’t quite understand.

Most of Westboro’s hard-shell beliefs come straight from the Old Testament, which was written by ancient Jews as part of their cannon of holy books. And at its core, Westboro and the Catholic Church share similar beliefs on gay marriage and abortion.

Both agree that neither should happen.

But while Westboro proudly spouts a message of hate and condemns the media for its coverage of Phelps’ death, Francis speaks of mercy, helping the poor and resolving the church’s long-standing sexual abuse problems.

Perhaps the most striking difference to me between Francis and Phelps is the way in which the pope taken his stand against gay marriage.

He was ardently in opposition to same-sex marriage when it was proposed in his native Argentina in 2010.

So what did he do? Did he take to the streets with signs declaring the hate and wrath of God would be upon his homeland?

The then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, wrote a strongly worded letter to cloistered nuns expressing his views and asking them to pray.

Argentinians disagreed with the Cardinal, and the measure passed. He never uttered an angry word and in fact later expressed his headline-making view of gay Christians.

“If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” he said last summer after becoming pope.

The phrase “who am I to judge” shows up frequently in Francis’ theology.

Ask a Westboro member about gay Christians, and they’ll quote scripture to you all day about God’s hate — most of which comes from the ancient Jewish writings that make up the Old Testament.

“Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, or the power of God,” the church told members of the media on its website after Phelps’ death.

After his death, I found myself facing a conundrum, as I’m sure many thoughtful people did. Should we hate him as he hated us? Or should we turn the other cheek and show him mercy the mercy he was lacking?

All I’ve come up with is that I can say that I have faith that the world would be a better place with a lot fewer Freds and a lot more Francises.

Josh Edwards is a reporter. He can be reached by email at josh.edwards@vicksburgpost.com or by phone at 601-636-4545.