Fred Phelps, the patriarch of the Westboro Baptist church, is dead. The 84-year-old man who spent most of his years bringing pain and torment to family and strangers alike, is no longer on this Earth. In the wake of this news, many people are not sure how to react.
Should we celebrate?
Should we mourn?
Should we just ignore it?
While my desire is to celebrate, as this man was by all accounts evil and deranged, I know that celebrating his death would just be trading evil for evil. It's possible no other human will actually mourn this man's passing, but I have to wonder what God's reaction will be. Did God see Fred Phelps as a disgusting and vile creature that He eagerly cast into hell? Or did He view Mr. Phelps as His child, a person that He loved and sent His son to die for? Did Fred ever know God at all?
I have no idea what Fred's personal life was like, when he was all alone with no cameras around. I don't know what motivated him. If he was driven to hate by some kind of mental defect or sick need for attention, or if he really did hate gay people and America as much as the signs he crafted said he did. I do know though that God says we are to be judged by our fruit, and the things that Mr. Phelps produced were far too bitter, vile, and foul to be anything resembling nourishing fruit.
I also know that on some level, I'm grateful for Fred Phelps.
That might sound shocking, but it's true. I'm grateful that Fred Phelps made hating gay people seem deranged, and crazy. I'm glad that, with his crudely drawn bright color signs, he looked foolish. He made the word "fag" something that only hateful people, not "Christians," use to describe gay people. Fred became the clown of homophobia that everyone else laughed at, or mocked, and distanced themselves from.
Fred Phelps showed homophobia for what it was -- a sad, angry, misguided belief.
Yet at the same time, I have to give credit to Phelps for at least being honest with himself and others. He thought gay sex was disgusting, and abhorrent. He thought it was so awful that it caused 9/11, and would result in the demise of America. Phelps was so horrified and angered by homosexuality that he didn't care about offending people by protesting the funerals of soldiers or murdered kids -- he just wanted people to know that "God Hates Fags."
Fred Phelps would never say that he "loves the sinner." He just hated the sin.
This is different than the more deceptive, "loving" homophobia that many other Christians advocate for today. They would never ever dream of holding a sign that attacks gay people, or protest a funeral. But they will vote against the rights of LGBT people, claiming this is for "religious freedom." These people will talk about how awful Fred Phelps was, yet put forth laws that would make it legal to turn a LGBT person away from a restaurant, hospital, or public space.
Which homophobia is worse, the kind that offends with signs, or the kind that oppresses with laws?
Fred Phelps may be dead, but homophobia sure as hell isn't.
Maybe Fred wasn't a clown after all. Maybe he was just a man who was willing to say what so few others wanted to; that their obsession with gay sex far outweighed their care for gay people. Because really, if Mr. Phelps was the crazy one, what does that make the lawmakers and people supporting the very things he put on his signs? "Fags Burn in Hell" might seem crude and crazy, but how crazy is it when multiple countries right now are passing laws criminalizing homosexuality?
Even more frustrating is that fact that some Christians see nothing wrong with ostracizing Fred Phelps, while at the same time defending people like Scott Lively. Fred just spread his hate with signs. To my knowledge, Westboro never actually killed anyone. But Scott Lively has made it his life's mission to travel the world, trying to influence governments and pass laws that would make homosexuality punishable by imprisonment or death. He has gay blood on his hands. And if we want to talk about "crazy" he's also a man who wrote a book on why homosexuality played a role in the holocaust. Despite all this, one of the most powerful and influential Christian organizations today, the Liberty Counsel, (aka Liberty University) is defending him against charges of gross human rights violations. They're on Scott's side.
Honestly, I'm much more worried about the lives that Scott Lively can still destroy, than the ones Fred Phelps already might have affected.
Here is my hope and prayer, in the wake of Fred Phelps death: that people, Christians especially, will not paint Fred Phelps as the now-deceased leader of dangerous homophobia, but instead recognize the alive leaders still spreading hate all over the world today.
Maybe instead of mourning or celebrating Fred Phelps death, we should be paying attention to the men, like Scott Lively, who are still alive, wreaking damage.