Lately I have been hearing about nothing but the impending demise of Fred Phelps, the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church. In case you have been living under a rock for the last few years, the congregation of said church likes to go to military/children/gay funerals, parades, and concerts and picket them with very un-christianlike signs, that I won’t stoop to repeat here. As the news of the coming death of its hate-mongering leader spread, I have seen everything from celebration to compassion and all that goes between and as much as I don’t want to give that man any more fame or google hits, I had to work out my own feelings about it.
Throughout the last few years, I have been disgusted, heartsick and righteously angry with the tactics of this man and his followers. I have gone to funerals just to protect mourners from them, should they show up. I have rejoiced with a good majority of people I know when hardened bikers have shown up as an honor guard and a buffer to do the same. I hoped someone would either have a serious breakthrough with them or in my less cordial moments, a serious face breaking. I laughed hysterically when the Satanic Temple recently gave them a taste of their own medicine. However, I have mostly wished with all of my heart that they would vanish into obscurity, taking their vitriolic hate speech and venom with them. I begged the universe to stop giving them press or feeding into their agenda so that could happen. The universe did not listen though, and the press clamors over the church and spreads their message of hate with every article they publish about them. Now with the leader ailing, it is no different and the stories continue.
Now, I am no saint. I am no christian either. I attempt to be a pretty decent human and I try not to hold grudges – but I will say that if the christian idea of hell really exists, some people should have reservations there, particularly those who have built a life and an empire on intolerance, cruelty and hate. This includes everyone from Adolf Hitler to Ian Paisley and Fred Phelps. Those who use religion or politics to further fuel their poisonous bigotry should be held karmically responsible for it. That is not our job though. It is important to remember that almost every faith or doctrine from fundamentalist christianity to pagan witchcraft encourages kindness and cautions against harm. Westboro, its members and particularly its leader(s) missed that lesson deliberately, and I despise them for it.
However, I don’t want anyone celebrating my death, dancing on my grave, spewing hatred at the mention of my name or condemning my life – and therefore, I am uncomfortable with those who are planning to do that when Phelps finally passes. Rejoicing at another human’s suffering or death is just what that church did – and to do the same is as cringe-worthy and wrong as they are. It leaves a terrible taste in my mouth and is even more disheartening, after all – I expect it from haters but not from those that are normally decent and compassionate humans.
The Germans have a word for it. Schadenfreude literally translates to harm-joy. It is a word used to describe taking joy in other people’s pain or sadness. Our country is very good at it. The night Osama Bin Laden was killed there were block parties and insensitive or downright bigoted screams of delight. People love to tear down others, to feel joy when an enemy is vanquished, to use someone else to feel better about themselves. This root feeling of vindication, schadenfreude and lack of empathy is a what leads to us being heartless and cruel – it justifies becoming the very dragon we are trying to slay. It may temporarily feel good but with what consequence? It brings us down to a level of spitefulness that is uncomfortable at best and leads eventually to an intolerant, entitled and thoughtless state where we are incapable of sympathy or understanding.
It is the easy way out. It’s perfectly simple and accepted to join the throngs calling for Fred Phelps’ head or those who are celebrating his death, even before he’s in the grave. It’s easy to give into the mob mentality that he took advantage of for his whole life. It’s much harder to dig deep for a feeling of balance and calm, to refrain from putting even more negativity into the world or to actually forgive another human that is so easy to hate.
I’m struggling with it and I still think that if the archaic idea of hell is available, I’d book him a room. But in this life and the next, and the next and the next, I hope to evolve into a better person, a compassionate person with grace and sensitivity enough to forget that a low road exists – much less that I could choose to walk it. That begins now.
So Mr. Phelps, if your god exists, I hope that he judges you fairly. And rather than wishing you or your followers harm, I still simply wish that you’d fade into the ether – so that your message of hate is confined to the walls of your church and the people who remain in it. I fervently hope that your membership dwindles as reason and empathy infects it and the young leave for a better life. I hope to continue to live my life in such a way that your hateful church would find disagreeable, and I pray to your god and all the rest of them that we as a human race can nurture each other and judge less – learning for once and for all to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and to “do no harm”.