And what shall we say now that the monster has died?
His estranged sons Mark and Nate told the world last week that their 84-year-old father, Fred Phelps, was in the care of a hospice and “on the edge of death.” On Wednesday night he went over the edge.
The senior Phelps, of course, was the founder of Westboro Baptist “Church” in Topeka. He was the “God hates” guy. As in “God hates China” (its divorce rates are too high), “God hates Islam” (for being a false religion), “God hates Qatar” (for being rich), “God hates the media” (for saying mean things about Westboro), “God hates Tuvalu” (for having too many holidays), “God hates America” (for tolerating homosexuality), and, of course, most notoriously, “God hates fags” – Phelps’ odious word for gay men and lesbians.
He was also the man who applauded the deaths of American soldiers and picketed their funerals, under the dubious formulation that their dying represented God’s judgment upon this country.
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Westboro is a tiny “church” – hate group, actually – said to draw its membership almost exclusively from Phelps’ extended family. His sons say Phelps was excommunicated from it last year for some reason, which the “church” refused to confirm or deny, saying its “membership issues are private.” For what it’s worth, last week Phelps was conspicuous by his near absence from Westboro’s website, which once displayed his words and image prominently.
Now the monster is gone. What shall we say?
The people hurt and maligned by Phelps didn’t wait for his actual expiration to begin answering that question. They started days ago when his sons announced that his end was near. One woman tweeted about Death needing rubber gloves to touch the body. Another woman set up a “Fred Phelps Death Watch” on Facebook, the tone of which can be inferred from one posting depicting feces in a toilet as a photo of Phelps in hospice care.
After his death, one person tweeted the hope that “his final hours were filled with immense physical pain and horrifying hallucinations.”
You can hardly blame people for not being prostrate with grief. This man cheered the lynching of a young gay man in Wyoming. He turned the funerals of American military personnel into circuses. It is hard to imagine anyone more loathsome, despicable and justifiably reviled.
And yet it is also hard not to feel saddened by this reaction, diminished by it.
If one is a Christian, as Phelps claimed to be, one may hear the voice of Jesus arising from conscience: “A new command I give you: Love one another.” And you may demand an exemption from that command, because being asked to love the spectacularly unlovable Phelps is just too much. But, if you love only the lovable, what’s the point? What does that say or prove? Indeed, loving the unlovable pretty much constitutes God’s job description.
Even beyond the obligations imposed by faith, though, there is something troubling in the idea that some of us willingly become what we profess to abhor, adopt extremist hatred in protest of extremist hatred. As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. famously put it: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
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.
Phelps was given the gift, the incandescent miracle, of being alive in this world for more than 80 years – and he wasted it, utterly.
If God hates anything, surely God hates that.