It is very easy to hate a man like Fred Phelps, Sr, founder and longtime leader of the fringe, bile-spewing, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church.
It’s just as easy, as Fred Phelps lies dying, to offer up tasteless headlines or to do some premature grave-dancing or to celebrate the end of a life spent spreading messages of hatred, dedicated to terrorizing grieving families and communities.
That’s why it felt a little strange when I was reading the news this morning that I didn’t have an immediate, visceral reaction of joy or retribution.
Further muddling my feelings was a Facebook post by Nate Phelps, Phelps Sr’s sixth child, who permanently left the church at 18, in 1980, and has since worked as an advocate for LGBT rights and against child abuse:
I’ve learned that my father, Fred Phelps, Sr, pastor of the “God Hates Fags” Westboro Baptist Church, was ex-communicated from the “church” back in August of 2013. He is now on the edge of death at Midland Hospice house in Topeka, Kansas.
I’m not sure how I feel about this. Terribly ironic that his devotion to his god ends this way. Destroyed by the monster he made.
I feel sad for all the hurt he’s caused so many. I feel sad for those who will lose the grandfather and father they loved. And I’m bitterly angry that my family is blocking the family members who left from seeing him, and saying their good-byes.
I’m reminded of my own parents and grandparents. While they’re certainly nothing comparable to the kind of extremist personality of Phelps Sr, they’re all as completely human, imperfect and fallible as I am. I think about how I’ll feel when each of them is close to their death.
I also think about how Fred Phelps Sr, while easy to hate, is a single molecule in a turbulent sea of hatred, bigotry and lawfully condoned systematic oppression (each link is an example of a news article that came out around the same time as the revelation of Fred Phelps’s failing health). While a particularly loud and polarizing voice, Phelps is a fringe voice, a scapegoat that helps most of society justify their interlinking sexist, racist, Islamaphobic, transphobic, homophobic and generally dehumanizing prejudices, by comparison.
Even when Fred Phelps is dead, hatred will still live on.