By Miriam Ahmad-Gawel
I’m sure we’ve all heard of it. In fact, it’s hard not to have heard of Westboro Baptist Church and their maniacal declarations of hate. For those of you who have somehow managed to escape the news, Fred Phelps, the leader of what can only be described as a cult that basically invented the words “biblical literalism,” just died at the ripe old age of 84. Due to his fervent and unrelenting efforts to say as many abusive things as possible before his death, it makes sense that people would be happy now that he’s finally kicked the bucket. But where do we, as a society, draw the line when it comes to rejoicing in the fall of a leader? And does our celebration of his death make us any better than them?
Phelps’ brainchild, The Westboro Baptist Church, is a church based in Topeka, Kansas, infamous for its extremely fundamentalist ideologies and, in particular, its open (and deeply disturbing) hatred towards the homosexual community. Some of their first catchphrases, which quickly garnered worldwide attention, include “GOD HATES FAGS”, and “FAGS DIE GOD LAUGHS”, all printed on nice, big, neon billboards. Keep in mind these are merely two of their very eye-catching and thought-stimulating forms of protest against other people’s sexuality. They’ve also protested against Lady Gaga, Twitter, military funerals, Comic Con (yes, GOD HATES NERDS was an actual sign), and sadly, the Sandy Hook shooting funeral service. The modern-day Klu Klux Klan actually found it was necessary to let the public know that they have “not or EVER will have ANY connection with The ‘Westboro Baptist Church’,” and even said that they “absolutely repudiate their activities.” If that doesn’t give you some perspective, I’m not sure what will.
Other ways Phelps’ church has spread their “gospel” is by visiting schools and universities for open, civilized discussions – these mostly consisting of yelling and a whole lot of biblical misinterpretations – and picketing churches that are deemed “gay enablers” or sin-condoning. Their website, www.godhatesfags.com, has a tally of important events that are occurring, have occurred, or are going to occur, as well as a number count. The numbers include the total number of pickets conducted by the WBC, an alarming 52 377; the number of cities visited by the WBC, 923; and the number of people whom God has cast into hell since you loaded the page. I am currently at 1 244, and it seems to be increasing at a rate of 1 soul per second. That’s unnervingly fast, if you ask me.
Now that we’ve been reminded of of the horrifying antics that the WBC gets up to, let’s move on to a more recent event: the death of their leader, creator, and overall Frankenstein, Mr. Fred Phelps. It’s almost inconceivable that one could empathize with the level of hatred and cruelty that lived inside that little man. He has been described by his few estranged children as being abusive, and having said things such as “Our church has had a lot of bad dealings with those demon-possessed Canadians! A big Canadian flag flies at our church upside-down, the international symbol of distress. We fly it day and night, to educate and warn people about the fagi-nazi regime just to the north of us,” and “This evil nation has smeared fag feces blended with dyke-fag semen and dyke feces on the Bible!”, it is no wonder that people are rejoicing at the news of his death. A liquor store in Moore, Oklahoma has even gone as far as to offer a 10% discount on celebratory champagne. But is our celebration of Fred Phelps’ death really justified? Though his words and intentions are what the majority of society deems evil, I don’t think it is unreasonable to argue that having a great big jamboree doesn’t make us, morally, any better.
For one thing, Phelps frankly isn’t worth it. He died a weak, feeble man in hospice care, with much of his extended and estranged family not allowed to visit. Before his death he was also excommunicated from his own creation: ironically, his advocating for kinder treatment among church members resulted in a mutiny of sorts, and he was subsequently kicked out. He died alone, with funeral arranged, and the church is getting along fine without him. The only people that still seem to be caught up in his death are us.
With news of his passing came a wave of vengeful hate all across the internet, with Facebook, Twitter, and all other social networking sites swelling with “good riddance” notes, reveling in how Phelps will finally have a chance to taste the true wrath of God. But fighting fire with fire, as I’m sure we all know, is never the best solution. Though most would probably be lying if they said that they didn’t feel a sliver of relief at the figurehead’s death, this isn’t to say sending more hate towards the Westboro Baptist Church will solve anything, or make anyone feel any better. It is common knowledge that the church has no censor, and will not think twice before rebuffing any and every negative comment that comes their way. In that sense, we are only further fueling the fire, making them angrier, ourselves angrier, and everything more unpleasant for everyone. Constant hostility will never allow for healing. No hate can overcome another hate.
I think it’s about time we let Fred Phelps go. The only way we can overcome his “legacy” is if he dies both in the literal and figurative sense. There is no point in celebrating just yet – the hate he’s sparked is still burning and thriving, and only with time and a positive, forgiving attitude will we ever be able to put it out. So come on people, don’t buy that discounted champagne just yet; there are better, more valuable things to celebrate.