March 23, 2014 2 Comments
For those who don’t know who Fred Phelps is, I envy you. Fred Phelps was a preacher and head of the Westboro Baptist Church. He was best known for his adamant views against homosexuality and protesting at the funerals of US soldiers. He and his followers would show up with signs that read “God Hates Fags”, “Thank God For Dead Soldiers”, “America is Doomed” and other incendiary statements about what he believed God felt. He died last Wednesday and outside of his followers, mostly members of his extended family, it is hard to imagine anyone will be mourning his loss.
By all accounts he was a truly despicable man. He exhibited no love or compassion towards anyone. He would beat his children. He celebrated the deaths of people who were killed by anti-gay violence, people who died from AIDS and soldiers who died in combat. He caused tremendous hurt to countless people already dealing with great sadness and grieving the loss of their loved-ones. He fuelled the hatred that has caused so many young people to take their own lives and for others to act out violently against their peers. While he never pulled the trigger himself he most certainly has blood on his hands. Perhaps worst of all is that he involved children in his salacious acts and poisoned their minds with his hateful rhetoric.
So why do I love a man who is so diametrically opposed to everything I believe in? The simple answer is because I love everyone. Still, simple doesn’t always mean easy. When I made a commitment to love everyone I knew it would be hard. I knew that there would be cases like this that would test my resolve. It would be easier to simply dismiss him as a crackpot and just not care… but I do care. Fred Phelps thrust himself into my world, into the lives of people I care about, into the media spotlight and into the national consciousness. I couldn’t simply ignore his existence. If I was going to love EVERYONE then I was going to have to find a way to love him as well.
His beliefs about God and homosexuality are certainly extreme but so is the belief of loving everyone. Fred Phelps and I may be polar opposites but when it comes to holding extreme beliefs we have something in common. While I don’t share his views I can’t help but admire his conviction. I don’t know I could ever believe anything that strongly.
It’s not like he invented hate. While his particular verbiage in interpreting the Bible is unique he was hardly alone in his position on what the Bible says about homosexuality. If you believe as Fred Phelps did that God is omnipotent and the ruler of everything then what other conclusion can be drawn from the 9-11 attacks and dead US soldiers other than God hates us. It’s got to be troubling for those who believe that God is on our side. Most people can find some other explanation or rationalization for these events but if you take certain parts of the bible or certain beliefs about God to their logical conclusion, you wind up with Fred Phelps.
One thing I can say about Fred Phelps is he forced people to take a stand. You were either with him, or against him. Thankfully most people decided that they were against him. It’s hard to say what effect Fred Phelps had on the gay rights movement but he certainly helped our cause more than he did his own. He made people think. He caused people who were perfectly comfortable hating gay people to become uncomfortable with their beliefs. For the longest time I suspected that he was a one man false flag operation. Like a good conspiracy nut, I became obsessed with trying to find evidence to support this theory, but in the end I came up empty-handed. Fred Phelps really was the man he portrayed himself to be.
Fred Phelps was also a champion for the First Amendment although I’m not sure he saw himself that way. He was vehemently opposed to the freedom of religion part but he sure embraced the freedom of speech part. At least one case made it all the way to the Supreme Court. I had my doubts as to whether the constitution was strong enough to endure such an hideous attack but even Fred Phelps could not cause us to abandon our values. As a result, the people responded with their own brand of free speech showing love and respect for the targets of his hate. Gangs of motorcycle riders would show up at military funerals to drown out the protesters. Even the threat that the Westboro Baptist Church would be protesting would cause people in support of the event to turn out in droves.
During his time on this planet, Fred Phelps made a difference. He was fueled by the worst in himself but he brought out the best in others. When I look at my country today, compared to how it was before Fred Phelps began his picket line crusade of hate, I see a stronger and more tolerant nation. Obviously, I don’t give him all of the credit, but overall I believe we are better for having known him. He set an example by the way he lived, in his case, it was a bad example. We all have a role to play and this was his.
That is not meant to justify anything that he did. I still don’t believe that the ends ever justify the means. The means must be justifiable unto themselves and I don’t find anything to justify the means used by Fred Phelps; but they were not my means. It’s not up to me to justify them. Perhaps he will find his justification now that he is dead but I doubt it. From my perspective I see a lonely man who lived a life of anger, torment and fear. His actions caused him to become estranged from some of his own children, disbarred by the State of Kansas and later prevented by the federal court from practicing law altogether. Near the end of his life he was even excommunicated by the church that he founded. It’s almost tempting to feel bad for the guy, but I don’t.
The only thing I can feel is love. There is no other emotion he can cause me to feel. He could not inspire me to feel hate, anger or disgust. He could only inspire me to shine light upon the darkness. The struggle to see his humanity has made me a more compassionate and forgiving person. For that, I do love him.