While most Facebook announcements skew in happy directions like births, graduations, and engagements, the social platform is also a go-to destination for information from friends and followers about illness and death. Usually, people can expect a unanimous outpouring of condolences and support in their time of grieving. But the sympathy is not so unanimous when you’re announcing the imminent death of someone as infamous and reviled as the former head of the Westboro Baptist Church, Fred Phelps, Sr.
His son Nathan, a former Westboro member turned LGBT activist, took to Facebook Saturday night with the vulnerable confession of his conflicted feelings over his father’s placement in hospice and the refusal of his family to let Nathan see his father. He wrote, “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 then the Internet acted like the Internet.
Notes like “let them burn” and “F**k that whole piece of sh*t family! I hope that pr*ck dies painfully and slowly!! And no, I don’t care that this is your dad” litter the comments. The irony of hating a person by virtue of conditions of his birth in this context seems to have been missed by many. What revolutionary courage it takes to openly hate Fred Phelps, Sr! If this trend continues, Osama bin Laden will have had a warmer send-off into the great hereafter.
Fred Phelps, Sr. was unique in his ability to unite people in disgust at his vile hatred. For decades under his leadership, his church jumped back and forth from being hatemongers, to testaments to the power of the First Amendment, to the butt of jokes with his “God Hates Fags” slogan serving as inspiration for countless counter-protest signs. Phelps was almost cartoonish in his villainy, complete with a sinister laugh and an uncanny resemblance to the antagonist from the Poltergeist films, to say nothing of the horror stories of his parenting methods. But hating such a man is easy. It’s lazy. It’s a default.
I’ve been told that because I am no longer a believing Christian, I have no business telling anyone what Christian behavior looks like. But even someone with only the Cliff’s Notes version of the Gospel knows that loving one’s enemies is a Christian mandate. It’s an aspirational value to be sure, but it’s one that believers and non-believers alike can aspire to if they seek to end cycles of hatred.
Yes, Fred Phelps, Sr. caused untold misery for his family and the groups he targeted. The world might indeed be a better place without him. But the challenge for people committed to loving all people is to see the brokenness —and for those so inclined— the tremendous sin, of a man so morally and theologically bankrupt. And for those who believe in a loving god, perhaps there can be some relief that he has met his maker, finally experiencing light after a lifetime spent in bitter darkness.