Life / Spirituality & religion

Conflicted feelings about Phelps

When I first read this past week the news that Fred Phelps – the former pastor of Westboro Baptist Church who is best known for exploiting blasphemous slogans like “God Hates Fags” and protesting funerals and queer houses of worship – is dying in hospice, my teeth clenched. My eyes narrowed. My stomach turned. I thought, “thank Goodness and good riddance.” OK, OK. That’s actually a generous G-rated rendition of my more poisonous initial thoughts.

The timing of Phelps’s immanent demise is not without some irony for us queer Jews, who are smack-in-the-middle of a festive season in the annual Jewish calendar. We just celebrated Purim, a holiday commemorating the defeat of mortal enemy Haman by Jewish heroes Mordechai and Queen Esther. In less than a month we will observe Passover, a holiday marking a watershed moment of literally biblical proportions in our collective history: the Israelites’ deliverance from hundreds of years of slavery in Egypt.

Both holidays are infused with rituals of joy and celebration.  On Purim, children dress in costumes, families exchange edible gifts and adults don’t shy away from drinking wine to disinhibit and act especially silly. The Passover seder is one of the most observed rituals for religious and non-religious Jews alike. It is a Jewish Thanksgiving meal with special foods, rites-of-passage, and at which we read stories and sing songs of liberation and gratitude.

And yet both holidays also include negative traditions and texts. After Haman and his ten sons were hanged, the Jews went on violent rampages, exacting bloody revenge on the local non-Jewish population who would have exterminated the Jews, given the chance. When the scroll of Esther is read aloud at synagogue, we shake and rattle noisemakers every time “Haman” is uttered, drowning out even the mere mention of his name. On Passover we traditionally ask God to pour divine wrath on our enemies. We tend to give short shrift to the fact that the Egyptians endured ten plagues, and not one or two, because God repeatedly hardened Pharaoh’s heart, preventing Pharaoh from exercising his own free-will to free the Israelites sooner.

How do we celebrate liberation, freedom and survival?  With death, violence and glib satisfaction at the suffering of others.

On the one hand, this seems very natural and very human. Hatred is contagious.  If others have caused us to suffer, we want them, in turn, to suffer.  On the other hand, I wonder if that is what I want to teach my children. Is this the best way to heal the world and help rid it of war and anger and suffering? Martin Luther King famously said that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Are these words any less relevant on Purim or Passover, or when contemplating Phelps’s impending death?

I can certainly understand the urge, expressed by some, to angrily protest Phelps’s funeral as poetic justice for his own bitter behavior.  Yet it seems to me that it might feel better to simply take a deep breath after Phelps has exhaled his last, and to work harder than ever to shine more light, more love, on the darkness and hatred he tried to spread.

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  1. I think you’ve got the right idea on this one. If we stoop to his level with a protest at his funeral we are just promoting hate and revenge and that accomplishes nothing except encouraging the nasty cycle. Letting him die and be said goodbye to by his family, in peace, is going to show that we are capable of moving on by showing love to others instead of resorting to the “eye for an eye” mentality so common now. We will all be so much better off if we can just ignore him now, not give him or his old followers the satisfaction of being able to point to us and say that there is yet another reason we’re so awful. We’re not, we know that, lets act like it.

  2. Agreed! Though the less forgiving lobe of my brain will imagine a minister at his death bed telling Fred that he has been wrong all along and that he is damned to hell.

    Nice tie-in to the holidays, Ian. Thank you!

  3. Very wise. Not easy for most of us to breathe out our anger for people who have caused us pain directly or indirectly, rather than hold on to it. Even in rejoicing other’s pain or suffering, we’re hanging on to anger. Can’t be healthy for us.

  4. The best we can so is send love to his craggy little heart and hope he’s freed from whatever pain drove his madness. I can’t help but wonder what will happen to his organization now? Is it like a gang or terrorist group, where one dangerous leader is simply replaced by another?

  5. I’m all about taking the high road even when it’s hard.

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