Our family pet is a bichon frise, French for curly lap dog. She’s curly, to be sure; but she avoids most laps. To look at her, you’d say she has little in common with a beagle. Yet she evidences a strong strain of rabbit dog, squirrel dog, and even bobcat dog. When she was younger, we saw quite a bit of deer dog in her. A friend suggested there is no surprise in all this. It’s a dog, after all.
My thoughts drifted to dogs and their make-up as I read reactions to the death of Fred Phelps, founder of Westboro Baptist Church. I don’t live anywhere near Topeka, Kansas, and I have never picketed anything. I don’t openly hate whole categories of people or feel like I have a hotline to God, enabling me to pick up the red phone and get a regular update on whom the Almighty is targeting this week for condemnation.
Still, if you take a closer look, you’ll see a little Fred Phelps in me. The same is true of you.
Which brings to mind entertainer Sid Caesar, who beat out Phelps by a month in shuffling off this mortal coil. When Caesar died, news articles and blog posts called attention to his memorable performances in the early years of television, his comic genius, and his roles in a number of movies. He was deserving of the praise. While I had thought he was already dead, I still felt a mild sense of loss at the passing of a generation of legendary comics. Plus, he once complimented my daughter in an elevator in L.A.
Contrast the warm tributes to Sid Caesar with the torrent of social-media venom in response to the news of Fred Phelps’s death. Expressions of relief vied with anger and the vehement hope that Fred is getting his just desserts for eternity. Fred’s appointment with his Maker, many opined, would be nothing like the Westboro patriarch had anticipated.
It appears that even his last months on earth were not what he had anticipated. Phelps was excommunicated from his church in 2013. Perhaps it’s no surprise that a congregation as contentious as this one, and populated primarily by high-spirited Phelps family members, would oust the founder. The irony is found in the precipitating circumstances. Published reports state that Phelps had urged members of his congregation to show more kindness toward one another. Kindness, apparently, is beyond the pale. He was voted out.
Have you ever been rejected by a friend or family member when, after years of screwing up, you finally took a stand for the right thing? If so, you’ve got a little Fred Phelps in you.
Libby Phelps, one of the Phelps granddaughters who left Westboro Baptist, posted a tribute on her Facebook page. She wrote: “I’m so sorry for the harm he [Fred Phelps] caused. That we all caused. But he could be so kind and wonderful. I wish you all could have seen that, too.” She was describing a beloved grandfather, not a fire-breathing hyper-Calvinist.
Thankfully, you and I can count on people who know other sides of us and who love us. They acknowledge our blind spots and screw-ups; they also recognize our more noble side. And because of that, you and I have a little Fred Phelps in us.
Fred and his followers could spew more than their fair share of venom; but so can their detractors. When you see pictures of Westboro Baptist Church adherents picketing the funeral of a service member, do you see nothing but insanity? Who in their right mind could be so narrow-minded—and so smug about being that ignorant? How can they believe the rest of the world is wrong and they, a tiny deceived isolated hateful handful of humanity, are the select few who hear from God? “Thank God for Dead Soldiers;” “Pray for More Dead Soldiers;” “God Hates Fags.” How can anyone with half a brain think this stuff comes from God?
Do you find satisfaction in mocking the crazies at Westboro Baptist? Have you ever warmed to the idea that the antics of Phelps and his followers make the rest of us look pretty righteous by comparison?
It’s not hard to feel superior when considering their beliefs and actions. But feeling superior to anyone can be a bit like winding up to throw the first stone, and before you can deliver the pitch you drop the rock on your foot. While you’re hopping around one-footed taking the Lord’s name in vain, you can’t help but notice inconsistencies in your life. You’ve been staring at the other person’s splinter while overlooking the sheet of plywood in your own eye. Let’s face it, you and I have a little Fred Phelps in us.
The comic-strip character Pogo wisely stated, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” I never met Fred Phelps, but I feel like I know him well.