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Fred Phelps

It is official now that Fred Phelps is dead, and many of us who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer are not mourning. His Westboro Baptist Church infuriated us with their “God Hates Fags” signs. While it is easy to cheer Phelps’ death as a victory over discrimination and intolerance, few of us have done more for LGBTQ equality than the Reverend Phelps. The church he led is so full of hatred, his congregation has become a symbol for the true ugliness of homophobia. We see their hypocrisy of professing to be Christians while rejecting everything Jesus Christ taught. If there are any individuals or groups who have brought empathy to the condition of gay people and support for our civil rights, they include Phelps and the folks at Westboro Baptist Church.

Let the Westboro funeral picketers have their first amendment rights. Let them speak and show how irrational their hatred is. Trying to shut them up only gains them sympathy. Phelps has been to our civil rights movement what Lester Maddox, “Bull” Connor, and George Wallace were to the African American civil rights movement in the sixties. Maddox used an ax handle to keep blacks out of his chicken restaurant. Connor used fire hoses to knock people down for simply marching in the street to demand their rights. Wallace stood in the doorway of a public university to prevent blacks from attending. Their actions made them symbols of segregation and Jim Crow. Their use of brute force not only failed to preserve racial segregation, they actually contributed to the success of a movement based in non-violent resistance.

While Phelps and Westboro did not inflict physical violence against us, their message was violent and painful. For that, we should look at Phelps and Westboro no differently than the civil rights leaders of the sixties viewed the segregationists. We start by not hating the hater. If we view racism and hatred as illnesses, we find that people can be cured of this suffering. Before he died, George Wallace would regret his earlier support for segregation. In a public demonstration where Wallace held hands with African Americans he once hated, SCLC President Joseph Lowery, praised him “for coming out of your sickness to meet us. You are a different George Wallace today. We both serve a God who can make the desert bloom. We ask God’s blessing on you.”

Quakers seek God in every person. We know that people do evil things. That does not make them inherently evil. Being a part of God means we are inherently good and only do evil when we suffer from ignorance, fear, and hatred.

I found that coming out of that suffering involves recognizing that those being oppressed are no different than I am. When I was a child in the fifties, I remember playing in the streets on hot, summer nights. Sometimes it was in my own South Jersey neighborhood and sometimes in Philadelphia where many of my father’s relatives lived. In the sixties, I became a fan of Bill Cosby. His comedy described the kids playing in the streets of Philadelphia. I realized that black kids playing in Bill Cosby’s neighborhood were no different than the kids I played with in white neighborhoods. We all played the same games and acted the same way. On TV news, I saw how people were being treated differently because their skin color was different. They were being beaten and jailed for speaking out against their oppression. If a person with a different skin color is otherwise no different than I am, I thought then, why should that person be treated any differently? Why shouldn’t that person have the same rights and freedom I have? I found that growing up in a family that held racist beliefs did not sentence me to holding those harmful beliefs. I could learn to be different.

It is easy to create an enemy. You start by denying that person his or her humanity. I counter that with this thought: start see humans and stop seeing monsters. Humans can do monstrous things, but that doesn’t make them monsters. They are merely frightened, insecure humans, acting defensively in the cause of self preservation. Their biological flight or fight response has been set on fight. They bully to divert attention to the one who is weaker in their group and away from themselves so that others don’t perceive their own fear and weakness.

Was Fred Phelps having a change of heart similar to George Wallace’s? There are reports that he was excommunicated for wanting church members to be nicer to each other. We may never know if he was having a change of heart toward LGBTQ people. Even if it is too late for Fred, it is still not too late for the congregation he left behind. It is not too late for them to realize they are no different than we are. As more of us come out, homophobic people are discovering we include their friends, relatives, and neighbors. Even if they haven’t changed now, we love them just the same.

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March 20, 2014 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , ,

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