Fred Phelps, Sr. is dead. This piece of information is undeniably true. Phelps will never again raise a ruckus about how much “God hates fags,” which he has vehemently spouted and touted on picket signs at too many protests to count. What remains up in the air is whether or not the American public is handling his death appropriately.
Phelps was one of the most controversial religious figures of this century — and for good reason. Founder of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., Phelps raised up a misguided, radically conservative congregation bent on condemning anyone who is not like them. The church has made a name for itself through protests of military and homosexual funerals, music concerts and any other public event they deem worthy of Westboro judgment. According to the church’s website, Westboro has organized more than 52,000 protests since 1991.
Even Baylor, with its Baptist roots, was not exempt from the protests. Members of the church showed up to the Nov. 2012 Baylor vs. Kansas State football game because “God hates Baylor,” and they just wanted to give the university a friendly reminder.
Phelps and his church have undoubtedly horrified grieving families and brought tremendous shame on the deaths of many Americans. Holding signs that read, “Thank God for dead soldiers,” is not excusable. It is intolerable and hardly justified by the First Amendment. Just skimming over the protest schedule on the church’s website leaves one sick and wondering how this group can harbor so much hate for people it has never met.
In the past week, the Internet has looked frighteningly similar to a Westboro protest. The comments sections of online articles about Phelps’s death are riddled with anti-Phelps and anti-Westboro sentiments. Many commenters suggest his death is a weight off the shoulders of good-natured Americans — now better off with one less hate-spewing preacher. The man who served judgment on a wooden stick is receiving the same, 1,000 times over. Westboro has clung so hard to the Biblical judgment of God that it has neglected to see the parts of Scripture that teach about mercy and grace, but that does not mean everyone else should do the same. Although this man is arguably undeserving of any respect or dignity, shaming him will not change anything about his life or the church he has built up. One man from Westboro has passed on, but the church still remains. Treating this single death as if it will end the insensitive protests is silly. Pews are still occupied in that backwards church in Kansas.
Americans should take a step back and look at the big picture. If everyone in a room is shouting, no one can make sense of anything being said. Making light of this death is just as cruel as making light of the deaths of homosexuals and soldiers. Learning to express love to someone who has spent so much time hating others is more powerful than reciprocating enmity.
“Sorry for your loss.” These were the words written across a banner held by a group of people that showed up at musician Lorde’s Kansas City, Kan., concert this past week. Westboro protesters also showed up — doing what they do best — but received this unusually warm welcome. An article from the New York Daily News said the group held the sign expressing condolences for the church’s loss, much to the admitted confusion of a Westboro member. Even though he claimed to not understand the group’s message, Americans could learn something from this situation.
The sign’s meaning was clear: “we can see that you are humans too.” This probably is not a message the church gets very often. Instead of responding in the same hateful manner that Westboro prides itself on, Americans ought to respond with sympathy. Maybe mix a little pity in there too, because life is really passing them by. It takes a lot more energy to be defensive about everything you disagree with than it does to observe them and move on.
I wonder how many people Westboro has successfully led into repentance with its loud, tactless gospel. Probably not many. Likewise, Americans should not expect to use offense to silence Westboro. Although he was one of the most offensive characters of the past two decades, Phelps deserves some sentience of respect — even if it is solely because he bears the title of “human.”
Rae Jefferson is a sophomore journalism major from Houston. She is a staff writer for The Lariat.