Of the many bits of wisdom handed down from the ancients, perhaps the most difficult to live up to today will be this gem from Chilon of Sparta: “Of the dead speak no ill.” In our time this counsel is generally interpreted as being a way to shield the bereaved relatives of the departed, no matter how loathsome they might have been, during their period of grief. But how might this counsel apply to the kin of Mr. Fred Phelps, Sr., lately the Pastor of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church, who at his direction repeatedly violated this taboo, bringing their message of homophobic paranoia and hatred to the gravesides of both the great and obscure alike? The temptation to do likewise to Mr. Phelps, now that he has gone to “join the majority” is almost too great to bear. One actually feels pity for the poor groundskeepers at whatever cemetery the Phelps family chooses to deposit his mortal remains, for in the coming years there is likely to be so much urine directed toward the plot that the ground will be rendered totally unsuitable for the growing of grass, or anything else for that matter.
And yet, in moments like this, with Schadenfreude straining at all the restraints one can possibly devise to hold it back, we are shamed by the words of George Takei, who as both a gay man, and an alumnus of the Japanese-American Internment Camps of the Second World War, knows far more about oppression and hatred than many of us will ever have the opportunity to learn. In response to the news of Mr. Phelps’ passing, Mr. Takei posted the following on his Facebook page:
“Today Mr. Phelps may have learned that God, in fact, hates no one. Vicious and hate-filled as he was, may his soul find the kind of peace that was so plainly elusive during his life.
There is much to be learned from Mr. Takei’s position, as much in fact that can be learned from viewing Mr. Phelps’ life as a form of awful parable. For indeed, if Fred Phelps taught us nothing else, he taught us all the corrosive, and ultimately self-destructive power of hate. Whatever his reasons for his intense homophobia, whether it stemmed from a hyper-fundamentalist reading of Christianity, a deep unease regarding sexuality, or perverse addiction to attention, be it good or ill, Mr. Phelps’ embrace of hatred ultimately destroyed him.
It was not always so. Decades ago, the idea that Fred Phelps, Sr. would end up as the symbol of all that was hateful and wrong in American society would have been viewed with incredulity. The man first entered into the public eye as a crusading pastor/attorney who, in cooperation with the Kansas branch of the NAACP, successfully fought and defeated the institution of legal segregation in his state. Yet, in the intervening years, some awful change was wrought in his character, a paranoid hatred that fixated on homosexuality as the bane of all that was good in society. The crusader for civil rights became the foremost zealot of the culture wars, exceeding the most radical of the ultras (such as Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell) in his rhetoric, or his willingness to degrade, attack, insult, and appropriate the grief of innocent men and women in his quest for publicity and attention. In the home, as attested to by his disaffected, excommunicated and disowned children, Phelps was domineering, authoritarian and abusive. Whether these personality traits were a result of his embrace of hatred, or whether his embrace of hatred was the ultimate outgrowth of these traits will probably never be known but it destroyed him, and wrought irreparable damage on his family, his children and his loved ones.
The ultimate lesson of Fred Phelps’ life is that Hatred cannot create, it only destroys. It destroyed his once good name. It destroyed his family. And ultimately, in a nihilistic quest to fill the void that hatred created within himself and his followers, hatred drove them to fill that void with the misery they inflicted on others, all while endlessly aggrandizing himself through the negative attention his hateful actions inevitably spawned.
Fred Phelps, Sr. sought to keep himself ever in our thoughts through cruelty, viciousness and hatred. He and his followers thrived off of our outrage, our righteous anger and our reactions to their horrible behavior. As Mr. Phelps is now beyond our ability to strike at, and his loyal followers are beyond all feelings of natural outrage, the best, and most fitting response we may give to his death is to forget him. To ignore his being and to let his legacy of malignancy go into the darkness with him.