Reflecting on the Passing of Fred Phelps

We have a choice to make.

We have a choice to make.

As many of you know, Fred Phelps recently passed away.  He was the leader of the Westboro Baptist Church known for picketing funerals of Matthew Shepard and U.S. soldiers, as well as concerts and various other venues, with signs such as “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” I’ve been a little more preoccupied with his passing than I anticipated. Surprisingly, at least to me, there are some within the LGBT community who consider Mr. Phelps beneficial.  “Fred was a net positive for the LGBT community,” said Truth Wins Out Executive Director Wayne Besen. “The organized Religious Right despised him. They would spend big money to concoct elaborate schemes that tried to make raw hate appear to be love. Then Fred would come along and foil their careful plans with a ‘God Hates Fags sign.’”

 I can see Mr. Besen’s point, though I’m not sure I can go so far as to see Mr. Phelps’ actions as beneficial.  However, with the recent ‘license to discriminate’ bills being considered by several states in which legislatures ponder allowing businesses to refuse service to gay customers all in the name of “protecting religious freedom,” there is something almost refreshing about someone approaching with the “God Hates Fags” sign.  It is, after all, easier to battle those wearing white hoods, easier when you know what you’re dealing with.

At his passing though, I’d prefer to concentrate on a truly positive thing surrounding Fred Phelps. One of the most immediate responses to the Westboro Baptist protests was people showing up to form human shields between the protesters and the funerals.  As far as I know, those forming the human shields didn’t usually know the families they were protecting and it’s likely some of them didn’t even support gay rights.  But those people, often strangers, came together because they not only recognized a wrong, a hurt being inflicted on others, but they stepped in to stop it. Over and over again we saw this somewhat spontaneous display of love and protection. As history has repeatedly shown us and what I occasionally hold on to with a white-knuckled grip, whenever individuals show us the absolute worst in humanity, other people respond by showing us the absolute best.  Ironically, Mr. Phelps’ protests often worked to restore my faith in those around me.

On that note, I hope when Mr. Phelps’ funeral arrives no-one pickets or protests, tempting as it may be.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m no saint. A part of me feels relief he can no longer organize hatefulness and distraction during a time when people are experiencing levels of hurt and loss I can’t even fathom. Years from now, Mr. Phelps will be a footnote in the history books representing religious fanaticism. For many who are followers of Jesus, Phelps’ extreme beliefs are the antithesis of the unconditional love of the outcast Jesus practiced. Maybe Phelps’ life as a whole is nothing more than a lesson about hubris, the pride in being right that can blind us to everything else, including people.  If that is the only thing that can be said of one’s life, then it was a wasted one indeed.  I can’t feel more than sadness for that.

Many organizations have discouraged others from emulating Mr. Phelps’ actions at his passing, to let him instead go in peace.  I can’t disagree.  I also think people feel compelled to do something because of the helplessness we’ve felt at watching these actions over the years.  I can’t disagree with that, either.  But if we feel compelled to do anything, then let it be concentrating on opening not only our minds but also our hearts when dealing with those with whom we disagree.  Some have already started – when the Westboro Baptist Church showed up at a concert to protest after Phelps’ death, they were met with ‘counter-protesters’ who held this sign:

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Reacting to hate requires not only an immense amount of compassion, it takes courage and an affirmative decision to not turn a blind eye.  It takes showing up, as people have repeatedly done in forming human shields.  Seeing the worst of humanity is your opportunity to display the best. Remember this and you will find that even in the darkest of moments, there are always beacons of light and hope – you can be one of them. If we can do that, then today is not a day of remembering terrible things Mr. Phelps said or did, it’s a day of celebrating that even in the depths of hate, love can bear fruit.

… I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last …” John 15:16. I choose the fruit of compassion and I choose to show up.

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