Fred Phelps, founder of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church, has died at the age of 84. Westboro Baptist Church are famous for their “God hates fags” signs and the picketing of soldiers funerals. His legacy is one of perpetuating hate, discrimination and pain.
I do not mourn his passing, but I don’t celebrate and revel in it either. I do not know what kind of upbringing he had, or what his life was like away from the cameras. He was clearly filled with bitterness and anger, but he was also someones father, a grand father, and a husband. His family, for all the anger and hate they’ve inherited, will be grieving. I cannot find it in myself to celebrate his death and taunt his family. I pray for them. Bereavement is hard enough, they may have to do it publicly and face those who Fred Phelps hurt. Neither do I believe he is beyond Gods grace. He was loved by God, as everyone is, and may now have the full knowledge of what his actions did to others. Again, he is not beyond grace.
There will be those who will find closure in his death, I fully respect that. I was not harmed by Phelps or his teachings, and though I bear a few scars from battles with those who believed what he did, they are nothing compared to the majority. There will be those who will want to picket his funeral and to celebrate. I understand their feelings behind it, but there seems to be an opportunity here to help break the cycle of hate that Westboro Baptist Church encourages. We don’t have to respond in the same way, we have the same choice they do, but by not acting as they would, maybe we can show them how wrong they are. It doesn’t matter if it makes a difference to them or not, responding tit for tat merely fuels the fire and shows that they are right in their approach. We can end that. To quote Martin Luther King Jr; “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Christian or not, we can all choose love. Westboro have been prime examples of why hate doesn’t work. As Chris Stedman writes:
“WBC and Phelps may have been good at getting attention, but they’ve largely failed to change hearts and minds in their direction. (If anything, they’ve made anti-LGBTQ views that much more unattractive.) May their utter failure to promote their vision of a divided world be a lesson to us all.”
Whilst it’s true that Phelps is not around to harm anymore people, Westboro Baptist Church still exists. It is still run by those who shared his views, so today does not mark a victory or an end of a battle in an ongoing war. Phelps was merely one spokesman for homophobia, there are many more still alive and still spreading hate and doing so almost un-noticed. Those committed to fighting discrimination and homophobia still have fights on their hands, that doesn’t end with todays news.
There is no victory here, just lessons to learn and the chance for grace to be extended.