ANDALUSIA, Alabama, MARCH 23, 2014 – So, Fred Phelps, founder of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church, is dead. A couple of days before his death, one of his sons put out a release stating that he was “on the edge of death” and in hospice care. That’s all it took for the internet to absolutely explode with reaction. The calls to picket his impending funeral were both swift and expected. The cries of “Good Riddance!” were loud and abundant. It’s not hard to imagine these reactions; to be fair, most of us probably shared these or similar sentiments. But there, off in the distance, from the quiet perch of his laptop, sat the Voice of Reason.
In this particular iteration, it was George Takei.
In response to the news that Phelps was near death, Takei took to Facebook and said to all 4.5 million of his fans:
“I take no solace or joy in this man’s passing. We will not dance upon his grave, nor stand vigil at his funeral holding ‘God Hates Freds’ signs, tempting as it may be. He was a tormented soul, who tormented so many. Hate never wins out in the end. It instead goes always to its lonely, dusty end.” Two days later, when the end for Phelps came, Takei again took to Facebook, stating, “Today, Mr. Phelps may have learned that God, in fact, hates no one. Vicious and hate-filled as he was, may his soul find the kind of peace through death that was so plainly elusive during his life.”
If ever there were a test of someone’s grace, Fred Phelps and his church (term very loosely applied) is it.
For those who don’t know, the Westboro Baptist Church was basically a front for pastor Fred Phelps and his family’s tirades against, well, everyone. The church comprises around a hundred members, nearly all of them related either by blood or through marriage. They are infamous for picketing soldiers’ funerals and the funerals of homosexuals, along with any museum opening or parade or whatever else that happens to pique their interest at the moment.
They carry signs that read, “God Hates Fags,” “Pray For Dead Soldiers,” “Thank God For AIDS,” and other classless and hate-filled slogans. And they do it all under the banner of God. Again, this church’s mere existence is truly a test of our collective grace.
During the lead-up to Phelps’s death, so many of us failed that test of grace, and failed it with such blazing irony, that it’s hard not to see the humor in it.
Phelps is a bad guy. He’s just the worst; that we can all agree on. The reason he’s so bad is because he is so full of hate, it practically oozes from his pores. It’s on display all day every day, and it is the defining characteristic of the man and of his organization.
His actions were deplorable; specifically, the act of accosting people who are grieving a loved one with mocking and odious picket signs driving us to disgust. Therefore, the simple idea that any of us would want to do the same to his family in their time of grief is ill-advised, at best.
So let’s all collectively take a deep breath, and calm down. Yes, there is joy to be had in the fact that Phelps can no longer torture people through his messages of hate. But for us to revel in that puts us right down in the gutter with him.
Instead, let’s celebrate the opportunity we have to love one another, especially when it’s the hardest thing to do.
Remember, the object of the game is to love your neighbor –even your cranky, intolerant, backward, insane-with-rage neighbor. We should all take a cue from Mr. Takei, and while we find joy in the fact that Phelps can no longer hurt anyone, we should pray for the peace that so clearly eluded him during his misguided, but loudly-lived, life.
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