A rabbi colleague tells the proverb of a woman whose husband was held in high regard in their synagogue, yet secretly berated and abused her. With the help of a friend, she eventually left the man and made her home in another town where she contentedly lived into old age. One day came news her husband had died. To her family’s surprise, the now aged woman boarded a train that she might attend his Kevura (burial). Following the interment, a knowing synagogue elder came to her side and praised her for being gracious despite the cruelty she had for so long endured. After a moment’s pause she replied she hadn’t come to honor him. She’d come to make sure he was dead.
Such was the overwhelming Ethernet reaction at the news last month that incendiary, homophobic pastor Fred Phelps had left this veil of tears. So many had for so long hated arguably the premier hater of the last two decades that some Internet forums, blogs and chat platforms were bottlenecked with inquiries from those wanting to confirm Phelps’ demise. Confirmation soon came, but unlike the battered woman in the Yiddish parable there would be no public closure for those who loathed Fred Phelps: The day after he died his small congregation announced there would be no funeral for the 84-year-old who had so virulently picketed those for slain gays and decorated veterans. As with America’s other religious megalomaniacs, Phelps’ was a complex story. A onetime Democrat honored by the NAACP for his efforts on behalf of African Americans, he in 1991 changed his preaching after a series of bizarre and ethically questionable events ended his credentialed legal career.
Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) – the Topeka congregation Phelps founded in 1955 – was now radicalized in order to advance the church’s core theological statement made famous during its many pickets: “God Hates Fags”. Phelps spun a comprehensive alternate theological universe in which every of America’s ills was punishment for advancing gay rights. Even the wanton slaying of a young gay man (Matthew Shepard) and combat deaths of American servicemen and servicewomen were cited as proof of God’s blanket condemnation. Phelps spared no one the self-righteous scorn that was his trademark. When interviewed over the years, he alternately blamed the state of the nation on politicians and religious leaders without regard to party or faith tradition: None took seriously God’s undefiled outrage and eagerness to mete out consequences. Phelps and WBC practiced their increasingly toxic religion first with tacit, then overt judicial protection when in 2011 the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 the church’s activities were a protected form of free speech.
But by that time Phelps had already stunned the watching world with the most chilling of all his rants against civility – his tirade from just three days after 9/11:
“God hates America, and those calamities last Tuesday are none other than the wrath of God…it’s very likely that every last single one of them was a fag or dyke or a fag enabler, and that the minute he died, he split hell wide open…What you need to do is see in those flames — those sickening, twisting, burning, life-destroying flames, brightly shining from every television set around the world! You need to see in those flames a little preview of the flames of Hell that are going to soon engulf you, my friend. Burn your soul forever.”
The damning 9/11 quote was widely excerpted as word of Phelps’ imminent death began to spread. There were time-of-death of office pools, a Facebook countdown and numerous social media featuring mock prayers that Phelps suffer prolonged agony.
Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. agrees in a March 23 entry Phelps was a monster who took pleasure in others’ deaths and turned funerals into circuses. But for Pitts, Phelps is due at least a small measure of detached consideration: “It is hard to imagine that anyone beyond, perhaps, his immediate family, is sorry Fred Phelps is dead. And that is probably the truest barometer of his life and its value. But as most of us are not sorry, some of us are not glad, either. What we feel is probably best described as a certain dull pity.”
Pitts finishes with the rejoinder that despite his horrendous words, Phelps’ greatest sin may not have been against the living, but against life itself: “Phelps was given the gift, the incandescent miracle, of being alive in this world for over 80 years — and he wasted it, utterly.”
Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Tarpon Springs, Fla. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2014
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