Fred Phelps on the verge of death. I’ll be glad he’s gone, and that’s where it stops for me.

If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh?
if you poison
us, do we not die?
and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

~ Shylock, The Merchant of Venice

So Fred Phelps is on the verge of death.  The big question on everybody’s mind, it seems, is whether or not it is wrong to celebrate his death.

I think you have to split up your feelings.  I don’t think it’s wrong to be happy that the world will be rid of such a malicious and prosperous merchant of psychological misery.  If you are an advocate of compassion and human dignity, it would be difficult not to breathe a sigh of relief at Fred’s passing.  The world will undoubtedly be better without Fred Phelps in it, and when the world is better seems the perfect time for celebration.  It’s unfortunate that Phelps dying won’t unmake the work of his life.  But I think when some people wonder if it’s wrong to be happy that Phelps is going to die, what they’re wondering is if it’s ok to rejoice in the other members of the Phelps clan getting their just deserts: seeing people cheer at their pain the way they at the funerals of strangers.  These are the people considering protesting Fred’s funeral or even smiling at the prospect of others doing so.  Is it revenge?  Justice?  Maybe both?

Fred Phelps’ life was spent trying to sow the seeds of hatred.  It was in the very signs that made him infamous: god hates fags, implying that if god hates them then so should you (and this, somehow, was the way to express Christ’s love).  He wanted to make others as bitter as he.  He wanted others to come to enjoy the anguish of others.  I’d just as soon not give him even that small victory.  I’d rather he die a complete failure.

So while I will be happy for the world that this purveyor of pain has left it, that’s where it will stop.  I won’t dance on his grave.  I won’t wish for his family to suffer.  In short, I won’t do what Fred did to the families of so many, even if the Phelps clan has it coming.  For me, the best way to survive Fred Phelps is by not emulating his satisfaction at the suffering of my enemies.  If I am bitter, in my eyes, a piece of Fred Phelps may live in me, and I’d just as soon watch him die entirely.

But I honestly couldn’t blame anybody for doing different.  I think anybody who does use Phelps’ death as an emotional knife with the Phelps family does so out of compassion for all the families that family has hurt.  I honestly can’t tell if rubbing Fred’s death in his family’s face would be justice.  If it is justice, who am I to criticize?  I’ve often said I don’t think any justice exists in the universe save for what humans provide.  There is no hell awaiting Fred Phelps.  He won’t even be uncomfortable after death.  Perhaps someone, like his accomplices (read: the family members Phelps successfully corrupted while he was alive), should be made to feel a sliver of the agony they have inflicted on other families now that such a ripe and fitting opportunity has presented itself.  But I don’t know if I can make that call.  Good luck, and no judgment, to anyone who thinks they can.

But if you do so, pity them that they were not born into a different family.  Pity them that they may never have become the monsters they are if they were born to other parents, even if the adults those children have been molded into now deserve to cry.  I doubt they were born so cruel, but they were made that way when they were convinced that obedience to a god supported only by faith was more important than being kind.  It’s a story as old as humanity and the reason we fight religion: compassion – we see how religion can twist people and we feel for them.  That is why I’m wary that the Phelps’ message of hate could have, in any way, corrupted me.

Like I said, I may be entirely wrong, and I couldn’t bring myself to pass judgment on anybody who felt or acted differently than I.  I guess I just wanted to think out loud, like I always do on my blog.  Maybe I think we’ll figure this out better together instead of by ourselves.  Surely there will be some people who say there is one proper way to respond to this odious man’s death and will criticize others if they don’t respond that way.  If you want to get back at Fred, leave the atheist movement more understanding of each other, more united, not fractured, on account of his death.

I don’t celebrate his death – I grieve his misused life.  See you tomorrow.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.


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