On Fred Phelps, Pure Evil and Empathy
It’s rare for a death to be celebrated by so many, but when in your life you’ve spent much of it celebrating the death of people you never met? It isn’t surprising for the same to happen to you.
Fred Phelps, founder of the Westboro Baptist Chruch died today at the age of 84.
I had an opportunity to see Fred’s son Nate earlier this month but being on a work night it was difficult to make the time. A friend of mine explained how you weren’t going to listen to a great speaker but listen to a speaker who had gone through something great. As those with familiarity know, this wasn’t some simple Baptist church. For those who don’t know, there are some great documentaries about the Church.
Fred, interesting enough, was excommunicated from the Westboro Baptist Church last August according to his son Nate when he asked for kinder treatment of church members.
Fred Phelps for North Americans was about the whitest face to true evil you could find today. His anti-gay sentiments and protesting military funerals was the stuff of legend and the kind of hate everyone could agree was over the line. The Phelps family was almost cartoonish in their despicable acts because there seemed to be no sense of thinking exactly what they were saying. In the 21st Century that sort of thing feels ridiculous. I guess I’ve watched enough footage from the 60s and 70s of grown adults claiming rock and roll was the devil’s music to know that no matter civilized we get, dumb people are always going to exist. Unfortunately, stupid can also be dangerous. Or at the very least disgraceful. That’s the actions of Fred Phelps.
As I expressed in my last article, I’m never very far away from video games and Final Fantasy II was my first Final Fantasy. Despite a poor English translation, the final villain of the game is claimed to be consumed with evil. When he’s killed, his evil takes a mutated physical form and seems unbeatable. The power of a united world and the help of your heroes ends up taking him down. Standard stuff right? When the pure embodiment of evil called Zeromus is about to be extinguished, it expresses its final words:
Worried, the characters have it explained to them that there will always be evil as well as good in the hearts of people. Evil and good, darkness and lights. That duality will never change and it’s up to those who are good to always ensure pure evil never succeeds.
So why am I prattling on about a video game (when the season finale of True Detective covered these ideas so much better)? It was the first thing to come to my mind after hearing about Phelps death. Phelps seemed less like a real person and more like a poorly written video game villain. There never seemed to be much compassion or love with him. Even when his son is doing a speaking tour and telling people about the live he had to live through, and how hate is raised in them, it still feels so separated for me. These are such extreme emotions. It’s also a reminder that Phelps being dead doesn’t mean the evil ends. It doesn’t mean we live in a better world now. After all, Phelps was excommunicated from his own church for asking for kindness. And even if an IED went off inside Westboro and killed everyone who remained, the evil doesn’t disappear. In death, evil doesn’t die.
And sadly, much of that evil and hatred can be found in those who hated him.
Checking the Reddit thread you’ll have a hard time finding empathy. Facebook you won’t have much luck either. Twitter isn’t much either but I found an interesting tweet by one of my favourite writers Quinn Norton:
It’s not an easy thing to feel when you know what the person has said and orchestrated. Fred Phelps celebrated the deaths of homosexuals and the military. He corrupted and abused his own children. To show empathy today shows a lot of character, and it’s that sort of character I would like to see more of. I’m not far removed from the Reddit community in wanting to see some form of retribution or revenge towards Phelps and the church he founded but it isn’t like Fred Phelps is around to see it. And even if he was, would he care? And if he did, would you believe him?
More importantly, Norton expressed sympathy for those who lose a father. It’s something nobody wants to wish on a person in theory, but something many wished on the children of Fred Phelps before he passed away. Even if they hated him too, they probably still deserve some pause for a pain and loss that will still exist.
If you hate an evil person, does that change the fact you still have hate in your heart? I can understand that hate, but I can also understand the damage it can create. It’s perpetual. There’s a hate in everyone. It’s my belief we are all capable of the hate that Fred Phelps helped ignite. But we’re also capable of the opposite. As much as I want to join on the celebration of Fred Phelp’s death, something in me would rather find a way to extinguish it instead. There’s someone in this world I hate and I might never stop hating them. It’s a hate I’ve fed off before to do great things because of. It’s a hate I’ve used to instead of inflict against the person I hate, I instead turned around and used it to show compassion and empathy for others. To become a better person to do good things. Even if my reason for it was lit by hate.
It’s what I think Nate does when he speaks to people about his experiences. It’s what I hope more do out of this.