What can we learn from the death of Fred Phelps?

We shouldn’t celebrate Phelps’ death, but we should heed his and his group’s example.

Trent M. Kays

Fred Phelps is dead, and I’m not happy.

The 84-year-old former Westboro Baptist Church figurehead died of natural causes last Wednesday. I don’t know if it was peaceful or not, but the fire and brimstone pastor is no longer part of this world. It would be a challenge to find anyone in the United States who hasn’t heard of Phelps’ tactics of hate. His organization — or cult — has picketed and interrupted everything from funerals to concerts to memorials.

To suggest that Phelps’ group is anything less than deluded wouldn’t go far enough. The purpose of the Westboro Baptist Church was steadfast and fiery: hate. While the Southern Poverty Law Center labeled them a hate group, there’s nothing particularly special about Westboro or Phelps’ tactics. It’s easy to hate; it’s much harder to love. Yet, as I reflect on the degradation of what the Westboro represents, I notice too many celebrating its founder’s death. This is part of the reason I’m not happy.

What exactly is there to celebrate? Certainly, I understand hate. I’ve experienced it intimately. However, there is nothing to celebrate with Phelps’ death. I suppose the only thing that I can consider a semblance of applause is that he will no longer cause emotional harm. Still, that’s only something to mildly celebrate — if at all.

There are a lot of people in this world deserving of scorn. Phelps was one of those people, but now he is gone. He will no longer cause pain, though I’m confident his progeny will continue doing so. Regardless, Phelps still deserves compassion. I don’t know what was in his heart or what made him behave the way he did. His behavior was inexcusable, but by celebrating his death, we also honor the impact of his message.

Phelps’ message was so vile that it doesn’t deserve honor. It deserves nothing but to be a blip in our cultural history. Most people hate in order to fill something empty inside them. If this is true, Phelps and his ilk must be some of the emptiest creatures to have ever existed.

Despite his character, we can still learn from Phelps’ hate. It’s clear that his message wasn’t successful, because his “church” didn’t grow. It’s fundamentally remained the same since its founding, with a primary membership of Phelps’ own family. He was an abusive father and a petulant familial demagogue who vented his anger and hate through his primitive and horrendous interpretation of the Bible.

Phelps’ most notable intonation, “God Hates Fags,” must have been tattooed somewhere on his body. Or he repeated his hateful mantra as he knelt in prayer. It doesn’t really matter; all that matters is he will be remembered for “God Hates Fags.” But does God actually hate fags? I mean, how could Phelps know? If in his understanding of religion, he believed he knew and, by extension, his cult knew, then he must have considered himself god-like.

If you’ve read the Bible, you know that’s a problem.

I’m not Christian. In fact, I don’t believe in any Judeo-Christian religion; however, I understand such religions. Indeed, a severe cognitive dissonance always occurred for me when Phelps preached one thing but compassionate Christians preached another. I always try to imagine what Jesus would say to such things. Unfortunately, I can only envision Phelps and his sort spitting on their own savior simply because he or she wouldn’t condemn LGBT people. It is all these things combined that should teach us that we should not care about their message.

Don’t misinterpret me: Their message is a disgusting use of rhetorical techniques meant to elicit responses. But we should not give in, we should not look down on them and we should not justify their existence by recognizing their choices. Indeed, we should only meet them with love and compassion.

Despite Phelps’ hate and decades of vile bigotry, he was human. His family is human. His congregation is human. Whether we like it or not, he was, and they are part of us. True, they are a part we may wish removed. As the Zen master Dogen once remarked, “A flower falls, even though we love it; and a weed grows, even though we do not love it.” So, Phelps’ brand of fanaticism shouldn’t surprise us, but we should still try to meet it with undeniable and unrelenting compassion.

It’s hard to stare into the face of extreme hate and only smile back. Even I’ve wanted to lash out. I’ve wanted to grab the Westboro signs and destroy them in a fiery fashion. But those wants fueled only my own damaging hate, and that is no way to live.

Perhaps that’s the ultimate lesson we can learn from Phelps and his hate group: They are what happens when hate rules your life. So, while Phelps should only be a minor cultural blip in the history books, the lesson of his life should span centuries. If Phelps has taught us anything, it’s that, in the words of the 15th century Zen poet Ikkyu, “The vagaries of this life, though painful, teach us not to cling to this fleeting world.”

In all the worlds that have surely existed, hate has never conquered hate. The world is what we make of it, and while I’m not elated that Phelps has moved on to the next world, I’m grateful that he existed in this world.

This may seem a paradox, given his life. But it’s not. He’s shown us what we should not become, what we should not do and what we should not be remembered for.

I hope we all heed that message.