by Sean Philpott, Director of the Center for Bioethics and Clinical Leadership
Fred Phelps, one of the most reviled men in the United States, died last week. Mr. Phelps was the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, a virulently homophobic organization known for its “God Hates Fags” slogan.
Members of the Westboro Baptist Church have been conducting anti-gay protests since 1991, but the group gained national prominence in 1998 when it picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard. As most people know, Mr. Shepard was a young man from Wyoming who was robbed and beaten to death by two men who targeted him because he was gay. His murder and the subsequent trial of his assailants, dramatized in the award-winning play The Laramie Project, helped to raise public consciousness about anti-gay bullying and hate crimes against sexual minorities.
The Westboro Baptist Church now conducts an average of six or more protests a day. Church members routinely picket the funerals of other gay men, particularly those who were the victims of hate crimes or who died of HIV/AIDS. They also protest at performances of The Laramie Project, at concerts given by musicians deemed to be LGBT-friendly, at Jewish and Muslim religious services, and even at the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. Those wars, Church members believe, are divine punishment for “[our] evil nation for abandoning all moral imperatives that are worth a dime.”
Despite the fact that Mr. Phelps and his followers believe that my husband and I are directly responsible for all of the ill fortune that befalls Americans, I do not celebrate his death. While I am not going to mourn the passing of a hate-filled man such as Fred Phelps, I’m not going to take perverse happiness in it either. In fact, I find it sad that he left this world without a chance to find peace, love, redemption and forgiveness.
Many of my friends and family find this a bit shocking. When I posted this sentiment on Facebook, for example, one colleague commented that she’d have a hard time finding forgiveness for a guy who, by picketing the funerals of combat soldiers, put grieving families through so much additional pain.
I see it quite differently. People like Fred Phelps are exactly the ones that need our forgiveness. Moreover, forgiving those who have hurt us — particularly those who have done nothing to deserve forgiveness — gives us great power and strength. This is a lesson that I learned several years ago after having lunch with a remarkable woman named Eva Mozes Kor.
Ms. Kor is a Holocaust survivor. At the age of 6, Romania-born Eva and the other members of her family were sent to the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. While there, Eva and her twin sister Miriam were the subjects of horrific medical experiments by Dr. Josef Mengele. Despite this, they both survived and were liberated by Allied forces near the end of the war. Eva eventually emigrated to the US while her sister moved to Israel. Together, they founded an organization called CANDLES (Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors), through which they began to locate other survivors of Dr. Mengele’s research and to publicize the experiences of Holocaust survivors.
But Ms. Kor also did something completely unexpected and extremely controversial. Fifty years after the liberation of Auschwitz, on the very site where so many died, Eva announced publicly that she forgave the Nazi’s for what they had done to her. She didn’t deny that inhumane atrocities had occurred in the camps, nor did she believe that these crimes should be forgotten. She simply forgave those that had wronged her, freeing herself from decades of victimhood and suffering.
Hearing this story from Ms. Kor inspired me to do the same in my life. I forgave a former employer for a myriad of wrongs, letting go of my anger while still embracing the management lessons that I learned. I even forgave my former stepfather for a decade of mental and physical abuse, recognizing that my own compassion is a direct response to his lack of caring and concern.
I believe that Fred Phelps deserves the same. In fact, we should even thank Mr. Phelps and his followers for their hate-filled rhetoric. By taking the same rhetoric and opinions spouted by many ‘good Christians’ to the extreme — through slogans like “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” — the Westboro Baptist Church showed just how pervasive and perverse homophobic attitudes are. It’s even possible that many of the recent advances in gay rights wouldn’t have been achieved without Fred.
Thank you, Mr. Phelps, for being a role model for kind and caring people around the world. You and the others like you teach us what we should strive not to be. I only hope that you find the love and compassion in the next life that you so sorely lacked in this one.
[This blog entry was originally presented as an oral commentary on Northeast Public Radio on March 27, 2014. It is also available on the WAMC website. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the author alone and do not represent the views of the Bioethics Program or Union Graduate College.]