So I woke up, this morning (or, more honestly, this afternoon), to news, blog posts and commentary about word that Fred Phelps, Sr., founder and pastor of Westboro Baptist Church had been excommunicated by his own church in August 2013 and that his health is failing, that he is “on the edge of death.” Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church became infamous in the early 1990’s first for their “godhatesfags.com” website, then for their picketing funerals of gay people or those close to and supportive of gay people. Picketing funerals began with the funeral of Matthew Shepherd, who was tortured and murdered in the early 1990’s by guys who tried, at their trial, to present a “gay panic” defense. In the early 2000’s, Westboro Baptist Church transitioned to picketing funerals of soldiers who died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, arguing that their deaths were God’s punishment to America for being supportive of the LGBT community. They even went on to attempt protesting funerals of children who were murdered in their school by a mentally ill young person.
We’ll leave aside the question of the relationship between God and the “fags.” Using people’s funerals is a horrible way to communicate your beliefs to a wider audience. I don’t personally think that’s what was meant by “freedom of speech” or “freedom of assembly” in our Constitution. But I’m neither a Constitutional lawyer nor a judge, so I’ll leave that alone. I’ll just say that the expression of their hate knew no boundaries! In the Catholic community, we would call that “pastoral insensitivity” at the least; but I think “pastoral insensitivity” is a big understatement!
Over the years, I had been incredibly incensed by Fred Phelps, Sr. and his clan, both as a queer and as a Christian. As a queer, I was incensed because I was the primary target of their vehemence; and, because in their hate, they were trying to project an ugly, evil image of me that was far removed from who I was. As a Christian, I was incensed because they made Christianity look hateful and vile. In the process, they were trying to force a wedge between who I am and what I believe.
I read a lot of celebratory commentary on the internet, today, in response to the news of Fred Phelps’ demise; and I read calls to picket Phelps’ funeral when that day comes, just so they can see what it feels like to have your funeral protested. That disheartens me, and I say, “no!” I know they were heartless when they protested people’s funerals. But are we really like them? Are we heartless too? The Phelps family will be grieving. Let them grieve privately. It’s the humane thing to do. We’ll have plenty of chances to get back at them later.
My response comes as both a Christian and as a queer. As a Christian, I had consistently made, over the years, the observation that the Phelps’ family were not correctly representing Christianity. We were called to love and to evangelize, not to hate. If I were truly called by Jesus Christ, then I was called to live and to love in the way Christ called me to. I’m still called that way now. Would Christ act in angry spite at someone’s funeral? I hardly think so. Neither should I. This is our opportunity to have the truly Christian compassion for the Phelps family that the Phelps family did not have for others.
As a queer, I have read assertions, over the years, that the hate spewed by the Phelps’ family and their Westboro Baptist Church was proof that Christians are not the loving humanitarians they try to present themselves as being; and that queers know better how to love, empathize and honor people in their vulnerability. In other words, being an honest-to-goodness humanitarian is better than being a Christian. To my fellow members of the LGBT community, I would say now is the perfect time to prove that. Do you really want to reinforce the ugly claims the Westboro Baptist Church has made about you or do you want to take this opportunity to show you’re better?
Beyond just compassion, there is a calculating point to my response. Members of the Phelps’ family and the Westboro Baptist Church are delusional narcissists. Protesting their funeral will not humanize their thinking and make them realize their hateful speech is bad. It will only magnify, in their minds, the importance of their church and its founder. It will add fuel to their vitriol. It will also add ammunition to their argument. They will never admit to unjustifiable hate; but they would be inclined to leverage a protest against their funeral as evidence of ours. We don’t want that strategically.
Besides that, Fred Phelps, Sr. and his church actually did both Christianity and the LGBT community a huge favor. There are many others out there who use their Christian faith to justify their hatred of gay people. Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church pushed that to its extreme. It gave Christians who were movable the opportunity to see what their own position looked like when pushed to an extreme. As a result, a lot of Christians were moved to look at themselves in the mirror and ask, “Am I being that ugly?” We should be thankful to Phelps and his church for that reason alone and give the Phelps family an unmolested opportunity to grieve.