I’ve been following the varied reactions to the death of Fred Phelps, the vicious leader of the Westboro Baptist Church. Over the course of his lunatic life, Phelps lead his increasingly tiny band of followers in picketing the funerals of people with AIDS, Matthew Shepard, various soldiers and others. Among the people whom Phelps condemned were Princess Diana, Jon Stewart and Mister Rogers. While Phelps often targeted gay people, he seemed to hate just about everyone.
From reading Phelps’ Wikipedia entry, I discovered that he’d originally been a lawyer, defending many African-American clients against discrimination and defeating Jim Crow laws. It’s unclear exactly how and when he turned to spewing hatred as a career.
Many people have exulted in Phelps’ death, which is entirely understandable, especially because he preyed on people who’d often just lost their loved ones. Others have chosen to treat Phelps with the forgiveness he denied his countless enemies. I’ve read posts from people who feel that Phelps ultimately helped the cause of gay rights, by becoming a symbol of irrational hatred.
I’m not sure how I feel. On one hand Phelps was only a venomous curiosity, a powerless man seeking the lowest form of attention, and worthy only of oblivion. But when I was about to include a photo of Phelps with this post, I decided not to, because I didn’t want to look at him. Phelps was genuinely evil, in that he wallowed in what Tennessee Williams called “the only unforgiveable thing”, meaning “deliberate cruelty.”
One of the placards which Phelps would use at AIDS funerals read “FAGS DIE, GOD LAUGHS.” What interests me about this is the concept of God laughing. I could never believe in a God who took pleasure in hatred, but I like the idea of a God with a sense of humor. If God is laughing, maybe he’s laughing at Fred Phelps.