Monday, March 17, 2014

Of Course I'm Not Picketing Fred Phelps' Funeral, Whenever It Happens

For the last umpty-some years, when people have found out that Kansas is one of the places I've called home, they all want to know what I think about Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church.

So here it is, in all its glory.

He claims Christianity, but neither exemplifies nor accurately represents it to me.  The Christians I know personally are people of thoughtful compassion, kindness, empathy, and love.

He may claim Kansas as a home, but he also doesn't represent Kansans to me.  Aside from a few frightened and misguided souls, the Kansans that I know are practical, thoughtful, kind and honest people with a sincerely broken political culture and no real idea how to fix it.

He has, for much of my adult life, been a screaming voice of hate and anger.  In recent years his church has become a caricature of itself, nothing more than a toothless tiger against which we take the opportunity to display our own defiance.  As a unifying enemy, the Westboro Baptist Church has done more to unite pro-equality voices than any other single person or group, because they've consistently placed pro-military and pro-gay rights voices on the same side of a picket line, where they could find out exactly how much their love of freedom, peace, and courage overlapped.  The Westboro Baptist Church has spent most of its history making its enemies into each other's allies.

Now, word comes that Fred Phelps, hated patriarch of the hated church, may be dying in hospice, excommunicated and scorned by the house his hate built.  I know a lot of people smugly rejoicing in that knowledge.  I'm not one of them.

Why not?  A couple reasons.  The first is easy: rejoicing at other people's suffering and misfortune isn't how I was raised.  Feeling glad that people 'get what they deserve' always seems to end in *you* getting what *you* deserve, and I'll be the first to admit that on a strict judgment of good acts to bad in my life, I've probably gotten off more easily than was strictly fair.  I'm grateful for that fact.  If that means some others get off more easily than is strictly fair, then I'm OK with that too.

The second is theological.  As a religious pluralist, I accept the validity of a variety of religious paths, including a variety of potential afterlife experiences.  The one thing that remains constant is that you get what you believe is coming to you, but not on your own terms.

At the end of your life, I think you face whatever gods you called yours, to determine the next phase of your experience.  And I believe you're given an understanding, at the end of life, of the near and far reaching effects of how you lived.  How many lives you touched.  How much of your world you changed.  The good you did.  The harm you caused.  And rather than live to avoid hell or a bad reincarnation your next time on the wheel, I think the best choices you can make come from a place of "If you had to account for this to someone without lying to yourself about it, how would you feel?"

As to atheism, by the way, I'm of two minds.  Either you cease to be, just as you always thought you would, or you're given the empirical evidence you always said would change your mind, and what happens next depends on how you change or don't change your perspective.  Same with agnosticism; the real test is whether you were sincerely questioning and evaluating in a search for understanding, not whether you ever found the 'right' answer.

In any case, I think that at the end of your life, you get Answers from the universe and you may well be asked for them.  And I don't envy Fred Phelps, as his days wind down, the conversation I expect he'll be having with his god.  I don't envy him that moment of perfect understanding.  I look at the possibility that he'll fully grasp the mark his life has made, the corrosion his hate has spread, the children whose spirits he destroyed, and I can only find compassion for what he's about to experience.

By all accounts, Fred Phelps is an abused child who grew up to be an abuser, locked into the cycle of abuse as victim and perpetuator, given power by religion and money and pure visceral meanness to spread his childhood damage beyond the usual reach.  I'm glad on some level that his tormented days will end, and hope that after understanding what he's done, and facing all his harm, he can find some of the peace and forgiveness that he's denied for so long lie at the core of the Christian faith.

Because if he's judged as he has judged, what waits for him is far beyond any hell I can imagine.  And whether it would be fair for him to find that hell or not, I fall back, like Marcus Cole, upon my faith in the general unfairness of the Universe.

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