Fred Phelps, the founder of the Westboro Baptist “Church” died yesterday. Most associate Phelps as possibly both the most hate-filled and hated person on the planet. He, along with WBC members and even children, have been known for protesting funerals of military members and various events. They hate Jews. They hate gay people. They hate Catholics. They hate me. They probably hate you too.
As news of his declining condition and death broke, many called to protest Phelps’ funeral. Phelps and his clan have hurt many people and giving his mourners a dose of their own sick medicine seems like a natural suggestion, especially from anonymous people on the Internet. If this happened years prior, before I was a mother, before I was more desensitized to hate, I would probably be on board. I may have even suggested it myself.
But now as a mother concerned about the world I’m raising my son in and how I’m going to eventually explain these instances of hate to someone who only knows love, I know that protesting Phelps’ funeral doesn’t make much sense in regard to breaking the cycle of hate.
I think about how I would explain this to my son…
“Well, Mr. Phelps was a very hateful man who did bad things like protesting funerals so the people who came to mourn had to be subjected to vile signs and mean people yelling awful things about the deceased person that meant so much to them.”
“Wow, Mom, that’s awful. So what are we going to do?”
“We’re going to protest Mr. Phelps’ funeral.”
Imagine if you did protest Phelps’ funeral. You formed a barricade of like-minded people who have been greatly offended by WBC for years, you make signs that say things like “God hates Fred Phelps” and when mourners pass, you yell at them and remind them that Phelps has to answer for his sins. And the mourners and members of WBC turn to you and say, “You’re just like us.”
Now that is scary.
So, let’s change it up a bit. You’re determined to go to the funeral and make an impact– fine. What I believe would send a bigger message, make a larger impact AND set a better example for future generations would be to attend with compassion and mercy. This time let’s imagine you’re attending the funeral, standing outside with like-minded people and this time you’re holding signs that say things like, “Love the sinner, hate the sin” and when the mourners pass, you shout, “I forgive you!” Now what do you think they’d do? What do you think they’d say?
Probably still something awful. They’re just not very nice people. But, there’s at least a chance someone might be touched by your kindness. There’s a good chance they will not accept your forgiveness or seem to care at all. But that’s not why you forgive. You forgive to make peace with the past and move forward. You forgive for YOU.
If you’re not ready to forgive (which is understandable, to say the least), I have another option for you and it is much easier… Do nothing. The WBC has never really flown under the radar. Their picket schedule has been posted for years, so if they’re coming to protest near you, it’s easy to find. They send press releases to local media outlets. They thrive on the attention and publicity. Fred Phelps himself said he considered the negative reaction to the picketing to be proof of his righteousness.
Without the attention, WBC is limited to being just the relatively small group of Midwestern bigots they are. They’ve wanted to affect us and we let them. So, why should we continue to give them the attention? Would they keep talking if we stopped listening?
Fred Phelps is dead. But there’s still time to decide what impact his legacy will have for the future and I think we should choose wisely.