If you are old enough to read the news or have a Twitter, you have probably heard of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church. WBC is an extreme community known for protesting funerals – of fallen soldiers, politicians, celebrities, LGBTQ leaders (or even just LBGTQ people) – as well as churches, businesses, and other places that Phelps and the WBC see as promoting LGBTQ rights (or enabling them by not doing enough). Picketing in their hometown of Topeka, Kansas and traveling across the United States, WBC attempts to make the world know that “God hates fags,” “God hates America,” and we should all “Pray for more dead soldiers” (all signs commonly held at WBC protests).
Fred Phelps is the patriarch of the church, made up mostly by Phelps’ family members, and films videos from his compound in Kansas “explaining” tragic events as God’s punishment. Thousands of people stand in solidarity against Westboro Baptist Church at protests, united by the extremism of Phelps and his family. For more than 23 years, WBC has protested vigorously against LGBTQ rights and equality. Many would label Westboro Baptist Church as hateful, despicable, and repugnant. But now, Fred Phelps is dying.
According to Nathan Phelps, an estranged son of Fred Phelps, the patriarch is on his deathbed in hospice care in Topeka. A spokesperson from WBC refused to affirm, or deny, the report, saying WBC will not discuss internal church affairs with the media (NPR March 2014). And some are now saying Fred Phelps was excommunicated from the church in August of 2013, though WBC has remained silent on this point.
As the media and the internet have gotten wind of Phelps’ condition, many are rejoicing that WBC’s founder is dying – Gawker posted this article on Sunday morning, and a group has formed on Facebook called “Fred Phelps Death Watch,” already with 1,881 likes. And while I too feel disgust at Westboro Baptist Church, their protests, their theology, and the fact that they claim the label of “Christians,” I also struggle with this response to a person’s death. Fred Phelps may have been a hateful and hate-filled man, but is that a good reason to cheer his death? Does that not echo what Phelps led his group to do, to protest and rejoice in the deaths of people they did not agree with? Or is it different because they are so extreme and the rest of us are not?
You may be one of those cheering at Phelps’ death and you can disagree with everything my last paragraph said and that’s okay with me. I am not condoning a single thing Westboro Baptist Church and Fred Phelps have done, and I will admit that I am not torn up about Phelps’ death. But I also want to recognize that one man’s death will not stop WBC’s actions. One man’s death will not end hatred and bigotry. And by deeming it acceptable to celebrate this one man’s death, we risk employing the tactics of Phelps himself.
Jaweed Kaleem of the Huffington Post has written a fantastic article on this very topic, and I highly recommend it. Check it out here – “If Westboro Baptist’s Fred Phelps Is Dying, Is It Right To Cheer?” Blogger Azariah also has a piece titled “Fred Phelps, You Are Loved,” which is a beautiful articulation of what it means to love our neighbors, even when they are the Westboro Baptist Church.