I’ve written about schadenfreude before. It is the joy one takes in the misery of others. We all do it from time to time. But I take no joy in death. Ever.
Fred Phelps died on Thursday. You may not have recognized the name before watching the world news last night but you no doubt knew who he was and what he did. Or at least most of it.
What Phelps was famous for was his church’s work in “opposing the homosexual lifestyle of soul-damning, nation-destroying filth,” according to the Westboro Baptist Church’s very own Web site. He was proud of his work in picketing funerals for military men and women and Hollywood stars, saying their deaths were proof positive that God is mad at America over our acceptance of homosexuals.
You’ve likely seen the group’s signs in chain emails or on Facebook posts: “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Thank God for 9/11,” and the ever-popular “God Hates Fags.”
Fred Phelps was a confused man. From my point of view, he had a horrible misunderstanding of Christianity. It wasn’t just Fred, either. He got his son Fred Phelps Jr. involved in the anti-gay movement and even roped his daughter into it. I hope you got the pun, as her name is Shirley Phelps-Roper.
I had the — let’s go with privilege — of talking one-on-one with Shirley on a couple of occasions, first in 2007 following the death of Heath Ledger. The Westboro church protested his funeral. I interviewed her again in 2008.
Her definition of Christianity — much like her father’s — is far askew from what I learned in church. Hers is a vengeful god, as though the New Testament had never been written. As though Jesus has never been born.
Yes, I realize I didn’t capitalize “God” in the preceding paragraph. It’s how strongly I believe that the Westboro types believe in a completely different religion — and therefore a different god — than I do.
I learned to treat others as I want to be treated. I learned to forgive others for their trespasses. I learned that the only one with the right to judge us for our sins is God himself.
Some people are going to celebrate the passing of Fred Phelps. But that would be just as wrong as what Phelps had done in the later years of his life. It would be a very “Old-Testament reaction” to Phelps’ death. More eye-for-an-eye than love-thy-neighbor.
I’m saddened by Phelps’ death in the same way I would be saddened by the death of anyone I don’t know. The loss of life at any age and in any situation is the loss of opportunity. For Fred Phelps, it is the loss of his opportunity to turn his life around and be the man he once was, having been a civil rights attorney who helped to end Jim Crow laws in Kansas. Yes, Phelps was a good guy before he turned bad. He could have turned good again.
But he died too soon, as everyone who dies does.
Scott Leffler thinks that even misguided and hateful people need love, too. Feel the love on Twitter @scottleffler.