In truth, people like me need someone like Fred Phelps. He made me feel better about myself. I am as the Pharisee who gave thanks he was not the tax collector — a comparison to which some might object, on the grounds that in that story, the tax collector was a humbled man, aware of his sins and begging mercy.
But none of us knows what transpires in the heart’s final beating. We can never know until it is we who lay waiting for judgment, our hearts softened or hardened or indifferent. Perhaps Fred Phelps saw, in his final seconds, the cost of his life, the dreadful bloody stink of it, rising up to heaven. Perhaps he saw and he begged forgiveness. And perhaps — how scandalous to think it — he was forgiven.
And while the state of his heart is now a settled and secreted thing, perhaps mine turns, as well as yours, on whether we are willing to pray that it was so, that the likes of Fred Phelps could be saved from the sickness that consumed him. Perhaps such a merciful heart is, in the end, all that saves any of us from his sickness.
Which reminds us that justice, the legal concept, and Justice, the operation of the cosmos under divine guidance, share little more than a word.