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“The Wasted Life Of Fred Phelps”: It’s Hard To Mourn A Monster

And what shall we say now that the monster has died?

His estranged sons Mark and Nate told the world just a few days ago that their 84-year-old father, Fred Phelps, was in the care of a hospice and “on the edge of death.” Thursday morning, he went over the edge.

The senior Phelps, of course, was the founder of Westboro Baptist “Church” in Topeka, KS. He was the “God hates” guy. As in “God Hates China” (its divorce rates are too high), “God Hates Islam” (for being a false religion), “God Hates Qatar” (for being rich) “God Hates The Media” (for saying mean things about Westboro), “God Hates Tuvalu” (for having too many holidays), “God Hates America” (for tolerating homosexuality) and, of course, most notoriously, “God Hates Fags” — Phelps’ odious word for gay men and lesbians.

He was also the man who applauded the deaths of American soldiers and picketed their funerals, under the dubious formulation that their dying represented God’s judgment upon this country.

Westboro is a tiny “church” — hate group, actually — said to draw its membership almost exclusively from Phelps’ extended family. His sons say Phelps was excommunicated from it last year for some reason, which the “church” refused to confirm or deny, saying its “membership issues are private.” For what it’s worth, last week Phelps was conspicuous by his near absence from Westboro’s website, which once displayed his words and image prominently.

Now the monster is gone. What shall we say?

The people hurt and maligned by Phelps didn’t wait for his actual expiration to begin answering that question. They started days ago when his sons announced that his end was near. One woman tweeted about Death needing rubber gloves to touch the body. Another woman set up a “Fred Phelps Death Watch” on Facebook, the tone of which can be inferred from one posting depicting feces in a toilet as a photo of Phelps in hospice care.

After his death, one person tweeted the hope that “his final hours were filled with immense physical pain and horrifying hallucinations.”

You can hardly blame people for not being prostrate with grief. This man cheered the lynching of a young gay man in Wyoming. He turned the funerals of American military personnel into circuses. It is hard to imagine anyone more loathsome, despicable and justifiably reviled than he.

And yet it is also hard not to feel saddened by this reaction, diminished by it.

If one is a Christian as Phelps claimed to be, one may hear the voice of Jesus arising from conscience: “A new command I give you: Love one another.” And you may demand an exemption from that command, because being asked to love the spectacularly unlovable Phelps is just too much. But, if you love only the lovable, what’s the point? What does that say or prove? Indeed, loving the unlovable pretty much constitutes God’s job description.

Even beyond the obligations imposed by faith, though, there is something troubling in the idea that some of us willingly become what we profess to abhor, adopt extremist hatred in protest of extremist hatred. As Martin Luther King famously put it, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

It is hard to imagine that anyone beyond, perhaps, his immediate family, is sorry Fred Phelps is dead. And that is probably the truest barometer of his life and its value. But as most of us are not sorry, some of us are not glad, either. What we feel is probably best described as a certain dull pity.

Phelps was given the gift, the incandescent miracle, of being alive in this world for over 80 years — and he wasted it, utterly.

If God hates anything, surely God hates that.

 

By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Opinion Writer, Miami Herald; Published in The National Memo, March 24, 2014

March 25, 2014 Posted by | Christianity, Religion | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“An Unabashed Bigot”: Should We Go Picket Fred Phelps’ Funeral?

Now that the Rev. Fred Phelps is dead, decent people are being tested. The conundrum is, should we picket Phelps’ funeral?

Phelps, of course, was head of the Westboro Baptist Church – though it seemed less of a house of worship than a home for institutionalized hate – which is known for picketing funerals, especially those of fallen U.S. soldiers. Was he antiwar, and protesting the deaths (or service) of members of the military who lost their lives in war? Oh, no – there was not even the pretense of behaving badly in the name of advocating for a more peaceful world. Phelps was an unabashed bigot – and in his mind, according to the church’s own website, God was punishing soldiers and basically all of America for the nation’s increasing acceptance of its gay and lesbian citizens. Phelps and his cohorts picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a young man beaten to death because he was gay; the group picketed the funerals of Elizabeth Edwards (who surely went through enough stress in life) and of Michael Jackson.

But it was the military funeral demonstrations that were perhaps the most galling. There were families, understandably distraught over the loss of (often) very young people who died in the line of duty, and all Phelps could see were the rightful victims of God’s wrath. The picketers would carry signs saying “God Hates Fags,” among other appalling epithets.

The Supreme Court ruled that the picketing – in the case of a military funeral, at least – was acceptable under First Amendment tenets. It wasn’t an endorsement of the harassment (and it was, indeed, harassment), but a statement that we don’t quiet people who want to be heard in this country, no matter how offensive their views are.

It would be tempting to turn that concept back on Phelps and whatever loved ones he might have. It might feel satisfying to disrupt his own funeral, carrying signs that say “God, and people of faith, and people who have no religion at all, hate bigots.” It might be cathartic for people who believe in Hell to discuss openly, in front of mourners, what kind of accommodations Phelps will have in eternal fire. Phelps refused to let gays, lesbians, transgender and bisexual people live lives of dignity; he refused to let service members be mourned and buried with honor, and he interfered with the basic right of human beings to say peaceful good-byes to those they have lost. Why should he be given any of those considerations now?

The answer is because Phelps is dead, and with him, hopefully, is some of the poison he distributed. Behaving decently isn’t about the impact on people who may or may not deserve our decency. It is a practice that by definition must be exercised without discrimination. The reason we should not picket career hater Fred Phelps’ funeral is simple: because we are not Fred Phelps. We need not mourn his death. But neither must we endorse his bigoted and destructive tactics by continuing his tactics.

 

By: Susan Milligan, U. S. News and World Report, March 21, 2014

March 24, 2014 Posted by | Bigotry | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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