Eirik Rogers admits he smiled when he heard of the passing of Westboro’s Fred Phelps, but realizes something else would have made him smile even more.
Fred Phelps didn’t just hate the sin. He hated the sinner. And he built an empire of hate so powerful it ultimately consumed him, retching him out last year for daring to step towards a kinder regard.
The only other time I have felt a smile dance upon my lips hearing the news of someone’s passing was the death of Osama bin Laden. It felt like a guilty indulgence I didn’t quite trust myself to share – until I saw the similar smiles around me.
Mark Twain was arguably quoted as saying, “I have never wished a man dead, but admit to reading some obituaries with great pleasure.” That eloquence pretty much said it for me.
When bin Laden’s death was announced, I was with friends in a courtyard bar in New Orleans. The band stopped playing, and everyone crowded inside around the TV, waiting for the President to make the official announcement. By the time we left, there was already an impromptu parade marching through the French Quarter. It was an eerie reality; I had never defined my own elation as the reciprocal of another’s demise. But bin Laden and Phelps seemed to have built their hopes and careers upon that very premise. In that sense, my joy was perhaps an inevitable part of the equation they established.
The deaths of bin Laden and Phelps challenge me to re-examine who I am to some extent. Is the definition of a good man in part derived by the relative context of the bad men around him? Fred Phelps has been described as the most hated man in America. His small contingent of followers known as the Westboro Baptist Church – mostly made up of extended family members – have picketed funerals of US soldiers killed in action, carrying signs thanking God for everything from breast cancer to IEDs and vilifying beloved icons from Santa Claus to Mickey Mouse. While many good men strive to set the highest of standards for themselves and the world around them, Phelps seems to have strived to set the lowest, and with little competition.
The Huffington Post has reported that Phelps was excommunicated from his church last year for suggesting a “kinder treatment” between church members. What happened there? Did his words serve only to blow the embers of animus? Little is known of Fred Phelps’ sudden departure from the church, nor of his final days. A church which has exercised little restraint in their blatant intrusions in other peoples’ lives and emotions will not withstand similar scrutiny from others, exempting themselves from the Golden Rule.
But my smile requires no retaliatory efforts, no picketing, and no inflammatory rhetoric. It is a smile of peace, and while I can think of few men who deserve it more, it is a smile without judgment. But it is a smile none-the-less. It may reflect perhaps the serenity of such anger finally at peace.
I am a secular man, and organized religion has never been a regular part of my adult life. But I believe in redemption. In my work as a health care professional, I see catastrophes carried in the door that walk out a few days later, and many of them I simply cannot explain. If there is an afterlife – a reckoning and a finale to our time here – many could easily hope for him the flames of hell. But if he could save himself through heartfelt repentance and finally recognize the love he has denied to others – to himself – that would be my wish. And it would make that mysterious smile on my face grow even bigger.