Jay Gallagher offers the opposing side to this argument in ‘Fred Phelps – Celebration in Death?‘
Fred Phelps is dead.
I have no idea what of, but I can imagine that he died in his bed. Sick, old, and utterly alone, with enough time to possibly contemplate his legacy, and wonder if he is at all prepared to meet his maker.
Much like when Osama Bin Laden or Margaret Thatcher died, my Twitter feed suddenly became a river of hatred, spite and anger. Justified as it may be, it was still anger. They called for a painful death, for Phelps to burn in hell, there was happiness at his death. Those words sounded familiar. I’m pretty sure I had seen them on the banners of the Westboro Baptist Church, calling the same end for “fags” and soldiers.
I first heard about the Westboro Baptist Church when I watched The Laramie Project, a 2002 movie about the killing of Mathew Shepard and the subsequent picketing of his funeral by the Westboro group. Subsequently, a group of individuals dressed as angels with large wings assembled around the Westboro church group, blocking out their hateful message.
Watching the film, hearing about the Westboro Baptist Group terrified me. I was sixteen years old, and it suddenly became a stark reality that not only did people hate me for who I was, but they also wanted me dead. People who had never met me, known me as a person, would see me extinguished from the face of the Earth for something that was not only beyond my control but that I also didn’t see as a bad thing.
When I was eighteen years old, life opened up to me and my time in university led me to safe havens such as the university’s LGBT society. At their annual ball in 2004, the theme of the year was Trash, and I dressed up accordingly. I covered my jeans in Bible verse, stuck the front album cover of Madonna’s American Life on one leg, and wore a t-shirt of my own design emblazoned with the image of Fred Phelps. I wasn’t about to let this terrible man rule over my life, he was trash.
Louis Theroux’s brilliant 2007 documentary, The Most Hated Family In America, offered a different perspective to the proud and strong group holding banners at funerals. What we glimpsed was a small group, a family in disarray, full of hypocrites and seriously broken people. They thrived on hate, anger and discord. It was a pathetic sight to see, but it was also a tragic one. It was upsetting to realise they were raising children in this environment, teaching them to be hateful and aggressive, rather than living in peace and love.
We shouldn’t dismiss Fred Phelps’ efforts outright, or cast them aside as the lone ramblings of a lunatic fringe group. They are a viewpoint taken to an extreme by a minority, but they painfully expose the more “moderate” hateful view of so many in the world.
However, I don’t think celebrating a man’s death is constructive to anything. Going to protest at his funeral is of little constructive use, other than fighting fire with fire, and what does that lead to other than ruins? If Fred Phelps gave us anything, it was the power to realise in ourselves that we are good people, that we are capable of good in this world and that those feelings and actions are of more use than any bile we could find ourselves capable to muster.
What I propose is, don’t go and picket the funeral of a hateful old man. Don’t wish him bad things, the choices he made in life made him suffer plenty I am sure. Live your life as an example of what you want to see in this world. The Phelps in this life thrive on hate, don’t give them any more fuel.
Look to the most vulnerable people, those most affected by Westboro’s hate speech. Give some of your time to help someone, be kind to someone. Write about your own life and the things you have overcome, inspire those around you to grow and be strong.
In the few minutes it takes to compose a tweet wishing Fred Phelps great pain in the afterlife, take a moment to donate to charity. Choose any you like. I have chosen The Matthew Shepard Foundation, in the memory of the love Fred Phelps never felt for anyone in his entire miserable life.