The reaction to Fred Phelps‘ death has been interesting. Much of it went along the line of: Forgive him. Love him. Bury him and his hatred along with him.
If only that last part were so easy, no?
The hate that he nurtured through his Westboro Baptist Church is still very much all around us. It’s in us and our institutions, too. In some respects, we’re maybe more like the departed reverend than we’d like to acknowledge.
Fred Phelps put a face on hatred –an angry, ugly, twisted face. Looking at that face allowed us to say, “Well, I’m not like THAT. My religion isn’t like his religion. My society doesn’t embrace his beliefs.”
Is that really the case?
I think we tend to confuse anger and hatred. Anger often accompanies hatred, but they’re not the same thing. Hatred involves a belief that someone is less than an equally beloved and accepted child of God. And then we act from that belief. It takes many forms of expression — racism, sexism, homophobia, discrimination, denigrating people who are poor and needy, advocating violence.
Many ugly things grow from the fertile ground of hatred, fertilized by others’ acceptance and indifference.
With that in mind, let’s look around.
Within our societies and our religions, people are treated as outcasts or relegated to second-class status for any number of reasons. Poor people are judged and demeaned, just as Fred Phelps judged and demeaned others. Many congregations still choose their leaders based not upon commitment and character, but upon one chromosome.
It’s even trendy nowadays to talk about loving the sinner but hating the sin, which legitimizes hate and gives it credibility. Hatred is still hatred, regardless whether it’s served unadorned or dressed in Sunday best.
Don’t many religions locate their house of worship on the same side of the street as Westboro Baptist?
One other thing: Fred Phelps’ hatred grew out of a closed mind. He often said that he was “100 percent right” in all of his beliefs. He saw no reason for self-examination, no point in considering whether he was wrong about anything. He was convinced he had the Truth, the whole Truth and nothing but the Truth.
Does that sound disturbingly familiar?
Fred Phelps’ closed mind became a very dark place where hatred could grow faster than a weed. His belief in his Biblical inerrancy and theological infallibility turned his mind into a hotbed for hatred.
And yes, his expressions of his hatred were totally off the charts, which perhaps is what made people recoil the most. I wonder if there would have been as great a public backlash if members of his church had left funerals alone and preached their hateful beliefs with smiling faces instead of offensive signs.
Would we have ignored their hate so long as it was confined to the pulpit and the pew? Would we have objected as forcefully if they’d have targeted only gay people instead of military families?
Fred Phelps’ death is an opportunity for re-examination and self-examination. What we see might make us cringe. It might then lead us to do something that he refused to do.