The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Rest Is Silence

The Legacy of the Reverend Fred Phelps 

O, I die, Horatio;
The potent poison quite o'er-crows my spirit:
I cannot live to hear the news . . .
But I do prophesy . . .
The rest is silence. 
      ~ Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act V, Scene 2

The Reverend Fred Phelps, pastor of Westboro Baptist Church, died last Wednesday at the age of eighty-four.  One of the most hated men in America, Phelps and his congregation – mostly consisting of his extended family – pushed free speech boundaries by protesting at the funerals of U.S. soldiers and others to promote their message that God has abandoned the United States over our tolerance towards homosexuals.

Phelps was admittedly an extraordinary individual.  He was an Eagle Scout and graduated high school at age sixteen.  He was ordained a Baptist minister in 1947 and earned a law degree from Washburn University in 1964.  Phelps specialized in civil rights issues, including free speech.  He used his legal knowledge to leverage his right to deliver religious messages so cruel and hurtful that many felt he crossed the boundaries of decency.

Some of those Fred Phelps
chose as his enemies
Yet Phelps was not only unrepentant but disdainful of critics.  He was sure he was a superior person and correct in his views.  He was certain the obscene quality of his protests paled in comparison to the moral judgment faced by most Americans.  He was positive he was one of a few elect, prophesying to the damned.

Richard Kim wrote a scathing eulogy about Phelps in The Nation.  “What distinguishes him from any other raving street-corner prophet is the simple-mindedness of his message.  In the place of the modern religious emphasis on God’s love, Phelps ranted on about God’s hate . . . It was a juvenile substitution.  And to discuss Phelps as if he were a morally vexing and profound evil is to dignify him with a complexity he lacked.  His hatred was banal . . . In the end, he was only sound and fury.  On his own merits, he accomplished nothing.  He was a nobody.”

Phelp’s estranged son Nathan, although he mourns his father’s passing, warns of him as something still dangerous after death.  “"Unfortunately, Fred’s ideas have not died with him, but live on . . . among the many communities and small minds that refuse to recognize the equality and humanity of our brothers and sisters on this small planet we share.”

While this is doubtless true, I am more inclined to side with those like Kim who view Phelps as more an aberrant than a threat.  When we seek ways to weigh a human life, we sometimes ask who that individual viewed as his or her enemies (i.e. what values did they oppose)?  In his endless hatred of homosexuality, Phelps chose as enemies the men and women willing to die to protect his freedoms, including free speech.

Another method of judging an individual life’s worth is their words – both what they had to say as well as how likely those words may outlive them.  Compare a few of Phelp’s words, found in (surprisingly few) places such as this one, against others who served the same God he professed to serve.

“By refusing to heed Westboro Baptist Church, that God hates fags, and by continuing to persecute Westboro Baptist Church, America is pouring gasoline on the raging fires of God's wrath. America may expect many more dead and maimed bodies from Iraq, many more Katrinas and other natural disasters, and many more Virginia Tech massacres. Westboro Baptist Church rejoices, not grieves, when we see God's vengeance.”
~ Phelps 

But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.  And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.  Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.  For if ye love only them which love you, what reward have ye?  Do not even the publicans the same?  ~ Matthew 5

“Thank God for 9/11. Thank God that, five years ago, the wrath of God was poured out upon this evil nation. America, land of the sodomite damned. We thank thee, Lord God Almighty, for answering the prayers of those that are under the altar.”
~ Phelps 

Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there remember that thy brother hath ought against thee.  Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift. 
~ Matthew 5

"God hates fags! God hates America! Thank God for dead soldiers! You're going to hell!"  ~ Phelps 

Thou therefore endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.  No soldier entangles himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier.  ~ II Timothy 2

Those earlier words have persisted for two millennia now and may well continue for many more because they speak to something uplifting in the human spirit.  In contrast, Phelp’s words are harsh rants of pride, fear, and anger.  Perhaps Phelps gave his message a certain power while he lived through the fury and certainty that burned within him.  Yet they seem hopelessly trite without his passion.

If there is an afterlife, Phelps is most certainly suffering in hell, if only through his own discontent.  After a lifetime of booming prophecy, he has ended in silence.  And that is all his life’s work will ever be for the rest of eternity.

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