Fred Phelps, of Westboro Church “God Hates Fags” fame, is reportedly near death. Which may or may not actually be true, but has led to some number of people publicly discussing how one is to respond to the death of a man so odious. This is a man, after all, who has picketed the funerals of soldiers as well as spewing endless hate for gay people, and indulged in massive, spit-flinging rants about the evils of everyone who doesn’t fall within his extremely narrow view of the righteous.
How then to respond to the news of the impending death of such a vile individual? Should his funeral (which, under the tenets of his church, he won’t actually have) be picketed? Should we flock into the streets singing, like the Munchkins, “Ding dong, the witch is dead”? Should we pretend to mourn, or note with pity the passing of a pathetic, miserable old man who had nothing better to do with his time than make a hideous spectacle of himself?
The answer, I suppose, depends on what God you choose. You can rejoice in Phelps’s suffering and sing in the streets when he dies, but if you do then you have sided with Phelp’s God, the one who belongs on a sign that begins: “God Hates….” If you are rooting for Phelps to receive the misery that he so richly deserves then you have opted in with the world view that people deserve to be punished for being despicable, which is exactly what Phelps himself had to say. If that’s what you believe, that God hates and punishes, well then, by all means rejoice, but know that you have chosen to play on Phelps’s team.
Or you could go with the team which says that love is without limits, that every one of us is a part of the sacred, that every one of us has worth and dignity, that each of us is tied to the other in an infinite web of love and connection. You might or might not call that web of connection God. Doesn’t matter. The question is simply whether you are playing on the Love Team. Because if you are then you don’t have to mourn Phelps like a brother, but you need to wish him gentle passage and hope that whatever awaits him is kinder than he himself has been.
You might even want to tell him thank you as he departs. After all, there are plenty of people who took no notice of the daily little assaults on the rights and dignity of GLBT folk, who didn’t much worry about the lack of legal protections for same-sex couples or the price of being the butt of jokes or sidelong glances on the street. But some of those people listened to Fred Phelps’s rants and thought: “No one deserves to be treated this way.” And then started to think about how people did deserve to be treated. Without Phelps and his gang, hundreds—maybe thousands—of people would have never felt moved to join a counter-protest, would never have experienced what it is like to meet violence with the power of love. Without Phelps to make obvious just how ugly religious prejudice can get, countless people might have felt comfortable leaving their own less virulent prejudices firmly in place.
So Godspeed, Fred Phelps, and God bless. I do not condone your hateful words or spiteful actions, but I will not mimic them. Thank you for reminding me that every life brings its own unique gifts, and that while our choices always bear consequences, they are not necessarily the consequences that we intended. Thank you for reminding me of which team I have chosen to play on, and that love, while infinite, is not always easy. May you, at long last, find peace, and may those of us who go on living never stop choosing peace.