Sunday, May 27, 2007

Responding to Fred Phelps & the Westboro Baptist Church with decency

By Diane Silver

You can’t be gay and not know about Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. Actually, it’s hard to be alive and not know about the church, and its ever-present protests at the funerals of troops killed in Iraq.

Their latest infamy (as of the date of this column) is a threat to picket the funerals of those murdered at Virginia Tech. Perhaps by the time you read this, the Phelps will have made good on their threat. They almost always do.

The LGBT community has been dealing with Westboro’s vileness for 20 years. The Phelps Gang – and the 70 church members are largely family – first gained notoriety for picketing anything in Kansas they thought was gay. That included a performing arts center and a Topeka restaurant where blue-haired grandmothers met for lunch.

I ran into the Phelps my first week in Kansas. They were picketing the KU Union for a reason that remain obscure. What stuck in my mind was their sign declaring: “Bob Dole Gay!”

I had two reactions. First: “Huh?” Second was an outraged cry of “Dole isn’t one of ours; we won’t take him!”

Their reasons for claiming Dole was gay, their pickets at the funerals of soldiers, and the victims of AIDS and murder makes little sense, and I’m not going to repeat it here.

As absurd as the Phelps seem, though, there is nothing funny about the fact that they picket funerals. They hurt people at the most vulnerable moments of their lives.

As decent human beings, how should we respond to their awfulness? Should we heap as much venom on them as they heap on us? Should we limit their right to speak? Should we throw things at them?

In the decades I’ve been around their pickets, I’ve seen all those methods attempted. I personally tried arguing with Margie Phelps once outside the Lied Center at KU. I’ve shouted at them.

Once in Lawrence, I slowly walked into the middle of their protest and stood surrounded by their fury for what seemed like an eternity, thereby terrifying my friends. I have never quite understood why I did that. Perhaps I needed to stand in the middle of all that hate and know I could survive.

After the Virginia Tech shootings, many people visited my blog to read about the Phelps and vent. So far, I’ve deleted three comments listing their personal phone numbers. These commentators exhorted people to harass the Phelps by phone and “let them know how much you disapprove of them.”

I deleted those comments because I don’t endorse harassing anyone, even people who have done so much to hurt others.

From a practical point of view, nothing anyone can say or do will change these people’s minds. By harassing them, people give the Phelps “proof” that the world outside their church is hateful and full of anger. (And yes, I know they prompt that anger, but we’re not talking about rationality here.)

If the purpose of such harassment is to inflict as much pain on them as they heap on others, then I have to not-so-gently suggest that this is a lousy idea. If we act like them, we are no better than they are. By focusing on name calling and anger, we also descend into the same hell the Phelps inhabit. That’s not a place where I want to live.

Like many, I’ve thought about the fact that family patriarch Fred Phelps is not young. Someday soon it will be time for his funeral. Wouldn’t it be sweet justice if all the people from all the funerals Westboro has ever picketed show up that day? Perhaps they could hold obscene signs and jeer like the Phelps do.

As hateful as the Phelps are, that doesn’t feel right. All of us deserve to be treated decently.

Even the man who preaches hate deserves to be given love once in his life.
This column was originally published in The Liberty Press in May 2007. Regular blogging will resume after Memorial Day.


Friend of Jonathan said...

I've always thought it would be interesting to surround them with an inward facing wall of mirrors.

Diane Silver said...

Wow, that is an amazing thought. If it wasn't for the sharp edges and potential for nasty reactions, I'd do it. To reflect back to them who they really are is a great idea. I wonder, though, if the Phelps have the capacity to see? I bring this up not because I think they're any different than anyone else (i.e. monsters) and thus, incapable of seeing, but because the life they've been forced to lead may make it impossible for them to see.

Fascinating. Friend of jonathan, I am truly impressed.