We all make heroes and villains out of people we've never met. Yet, we speak of them as if we know their humanity, as if we can treat them as we would treat our friends and adversaries. An outpour of grief for the death of American hatemonger Fred Phelps has counteracted the hate that he spread in life -- but this doesn't necessarily mean we're invoking change. Where we offer our love matters to the world. And why we offer it matters to ourselves.
Phelps tore deep into the lives of many, spreading a revolting culture of homophobia and unprecedented antagonism towards anyone he could claim threatened his religious mantra, and for that he became a household name. His notoriety created a sort of feedback loop: The universal public outrage at the Westboro Baptist Church fueled their hateful fire, as legal action against violent outbursts from the public funded their organization for years. The more they push the margins, the more they can carry out their mission -- and even after his passing, we carry on Phelps' name, now under a banner of compassion for the dead.
But we face a daunting question: Is our response building a better world? Erring on the side of love is generally a great ethic -- but a case like this is not so simple.
We certainly shouldn't reserve compassion based on our assessment of someone's character -- that's fickle, that's shallow, that's, I'd say, spiritually immature. But our commitment to muffling prideful, righteous impulses does not translate to enthusiastic (and unprecedented) expressions of love to claim a moral high ground, nor to illustrate to the world that we feel such love at all. When we whisper a prayer or share a thought in memory of a character like Fred Phelps, we counteract that conniving urge to dance on his grave. But leftist America offers a wave of sympathy and forgiveness for someone who we only know for his violent hateful rhetoric, whether or not we have the ground to decide if he is forgiven. We not only muffle the legacy of violence he's left in his wake, but we do a disservice to our own commitment to praising humanity where we know it exists -- in those around us.
My spirituality demands that I be critical of my ego and critical of my anger. It is suspiciously easy to react to the elimination of a hateful force like Fred Phelps with love, rather than mockery and resentment. But there is so much space between. I can't claim to feel compassion for Phelps' humanity because in the public character that we created, the one who too should have perished at the very moment Fred Phelps died yet who will remain in our culture for years, no humanity existed. I am incredibly fortunate to see pure love around me every day, and it teaches me that sensations like Phelps do not characterize the human condition one bit. My humanism is rooted in the humanity that I am able to experience around me -- that is worthy of my love, not the specter of hate in one of it's most cartoonish forms.
But what Phelps' "deserves" doesn't factor in at all, not to me. I care about dismantling the toxicity of that legacy full stop -- and catalyzing the spiritual enrichment of all of us as we witness it. There is a nobility in refusing to dance on the graves of the hateful, but no nobility in congratulating ourselves on taking the baseline moral stance. Anyone who has felt pain knows that our stores of love can be exhausted, and that we must be intentional in how we share from them. We've found ourselves in a world where all of our communities include unheard voices and unsaved souls -- let's let our compassionate ethic drive us to fighting for their humanity first, and devote ourselves to the faces we see every day, where our love may be compounded rather than wasted.