Get unlimited digital access to baltimoresun.com. $0.99 for 4 weeks.
News Opinion Op-Eds

The wasted life of Fred Phelps

And what shall we say now that the monster has died?

His estranged sons Mark and Nate told the world just a few days ago that their 84-year old father, Fred Phelps, was in the care of a hospice and "on the edge of death." Thursday morning, he went over the edge.

The senior Phelps, of course, was the founder of Westboro Baptist "Church" in Topeka, Kan. He was the "God hates" guy. As in "God Hates China" (its divorce rates are too high), "God Hates Islam" (for being a false religion), "God Hates Qatar" (for being rich) "God Hates The Media" (for saying mean things about Westboro), "God Hates Tuvalu" (for having too many holidays), "God Hates America" (for tolerating homosexuality) and, of course, most notoriously, "God Hates Fags" -- Phelps' odious word for gay men and lesbians.

He was also the man who applauded the deaths of American soldiers and picketed their funerals, under the dubious formulation that their dying represented God's judgment upon this country.

Westboro is a tiny "church" -- hate group, actually -- said to draw its membership almost exclusively from Phelps' extended family. His sons say Phelps was excommunicated from it last year for some reason, which the "church" refused to confirm or deny, saying its "membership issues are private." For what it's worth, last week Phelps was conspicuous by his near absence from Westboro's website, which once displayed his words and image prominently.

Now the monster is gone. What shall we say?

The people hurt and maligned by Phelps didn't wait for his actual expiration to begin answering that question. They started days ago when his sons announced that his end was near. One woman tweeted about Death needing rubber gloves to touch the body. Another woman set up a "Fred Phelps Death Watch" on Facebook, the tone of which can be inferred from one posting depicting feces in a toilet as a photo of Phelps in hospice care.

After his death, one person tweeted the hope that "his final hours were filled with immense physical pain and horrifying hallucinations."

You can hardly blame people for not being prostrate with grief. This man cheered the lynching of a young gay man in Wyoming. He turned the funerals of American military personnel into circuses. It is hard to imagine anyone more loathsome, despicable and justifiably reviled than he.

And yet it is also hard not to feel saddened by this reaction, diminished by it.

If one is a Christian as Phelps claimed to be, one may hear the voice of Jesus arising from conscience: "A new command I give you: Love one another." And you may demand an exemption from that command, because being asked to love the spectacularly unlovable Phelps is just too much. But, if you love only the lovable, what's the point? What does that say or prove? Indeed, loving the unlovable pretty much constitutes God's job description.

Even beyond the obligations imposed by faith, though, there is something troubling in the idea that some of us willingly become what we profess to abhor, adopt extremist hatred in protest of extremist hatred. As Martin Luther King famously put it, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."

It is hard to imagine that anyone beyond, perhaps, his immediate family, is sorry Fred Phelps is dead. And that is probably the truest barometer of his life and its value. But as most of us are not sorry, some of us are not glad, either. What we feel is probably best described as a certain dull pity.

Phelps was given the gift, the incandescent miracle, of being alive in this world for over 80 years -- and he wasted it, utterly.

If God hates anything, surely God hates that.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His email is lpitts@miamiherald.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
  • Jews, outnumbered by Muslims, suffer under mob rule
    Jews, outnumbered by Muslims, suffer under mob rule

    In the wake of the terrorist attack on a kosher market in Paris, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked French Jews to come home.

  • Baltimore: Gateway to America
    Baltimore: Gateway to America

    The Baltimore City Council just promulgated a new motto for the city of Baltimore: "The Birthplace of The Star Spangled Banner." I would like to suggest another, perhaps one that may also be shared with the state of Maryland: "The Gateway to America."

  • Who's watching the kids?
    Who's watching the kids?

    Quality, affordable child care. It was the first item on President Obama's shopping list in his State of the Union address. If the future is going to be about helping the struggling middle class, he said, quality, affordable child care for working parents is the linchpin.

  • A path forward for responsible gas shale regulations
    A path forward for responsible gas shale regulations

    Newly inaugurated Gov. Larry Hogan and his team have only a few weeks to review and take action on the previous administration's proposed "gold standard" rules governing oil and gas development in Western Maryland, or the regulations will go into effect.

  • Partnership and tolerance over partisanship
    Partnership and tolerance over partisanship

    Multitudes of Marylanders are enthusiastically celebrating the  inauguration of our state's 62nd governor, but some others — plagued with reservations and doubt — are skipping out on the festivities.

  • Attorneys general for a day
    Attorneys general for a day

    When Brian Frosh became Maryland's attorney general several weeks ago the program for the investiture ceremony informed us that he was Maryland's 46th attorney general. There are some traditionalists, however — and perhaps some querulous archival purists — who would knock Frosh down...

Comments
Loading