Why do I love Fred Phelps?

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.

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Why do liberals think they know what it’s like to be black?

… or what it’s like to be gay, or a woman, or poor, or an immigrant or anything that they are not? Really, why does anyone think that they know what it’s like to be anyone else. I don’t mean to pick on people who consider themselves liberals but that is the culture I grew up in and that’s what I know. I’m routinely amazed at the level of hubris exhibited by white liberals in speaking for members of other cultures. I would never try to speak on behalf of someone else; or so I would like to think. I’ve probably done it myself. We all have blind spots.

I’ve spent the last twenty years or so being pretty active in the gay rights movement. When I first started I took on a position of leadership but I haven’t since. I never felt like I had the right to speak for a whole community. I know what it is like to be me. I know what my experiences with homophobia are, but to be honest, they are pretty limited. I grew up in a liberal city as a musician and a geeky artsy type. I never felt that expectation to “fit in”. I don’t know what it’s like to be the gay quarterback of the state champion high-school football team. I don’t know what it’s like to be the lesbian prom queen from a small town. I don’t even know what it’s like to be a transgender art nerd from Duluth, MN and I play in a band with one. Being part of a community, being part of a movement, being part of a band you hear a lot of stories. You get a sense of what it is like for someone else but you can’t really know what it is like.

In a way I get it. It’s part of the liberal ethos to try and put yourself in another person’s shoes. To see the world from their perspective. We try to immerse ourselves in another culture. It can become all consuming and at a certain point you start to feel like you really understand what it is like to be black, or Hispanic, or deaf or a single-mother on welfare. But can you really? I applaud the attempt. I know that people’s hearts are in the right place but let’s not kid ourselves. We can use this experience to build bridges but we can’t rebuild the building that have crumbled under oppression. We can use what we have learned from these experiences to build better connections, ‘to understand and heal ourselves, but we can’t fix anyone else. I understand the desire to raise our voices to compensate for the those that have been silenced but we need to remember that they are our voices. We can’t speak for anyone else.

And even more than that, we can’t tell someone else what it is like to be them!

The other day I heard a white woman tell a black child that the world was unfair and that he would be judged more harshly because of the color of his skin. This child was in trouble and the woman was worried that if he didn’t change his ways that he would become another black male statistic. The boy is adopted and his white mother was there as well. I could tell that she had the same concern. I’m not saying that the concern isn’t warranted, I’m just saying that this woman had no authority to speak about it. This kid needs to know what it is like to be a black man in America but he needs to hear about it from someone who has been there. Even then, his experience is going to be uniquely his own. Times are changing and so is this child. No one can claim to know what his future will be like.

I understand the desire of white people to use their “white-privilege” to help those less fortunate but white people are not privileged. White people are not better. Racism and oppression are fucked up. They are corruption. We can’t use corrupt power to fight the power of corruption. All we have is love. All we can do is stand side-by-side in solidarity as one people. I understand the feeling of guilt about the injustices of the world but there is nothing to feel guilty about. There is no way to atone. All we can do is accept that we are who we are and that we are no better (or worse) than anyone else.

Okay people, use your voice. I’m sure I pissed someone off with this post. Don’t hold back, I can handle it.

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