“It would be in extremely poor taste if someone were to protest my father’s funeral just because they disagreed with him. Everyone is entitled to respect in death. What monster would go out of their way to upset my family when we’re grieving?”
Thus pled Shirley Phelps-Roper following the recent death of Fred Phelps, her father and head of the Westboro Baptist Church, ironically echoing pleas of the hundreds of families picketed by the Westboro congregation while they attempted to lay their own loved ones to rest.
Nathan, Fred Phelps’s estranged son, mourned his father’s “23-year campaign of hate,” but believes that Phelps’s extreme hatred has often served to draw diverse communities together in opposition to Westboro’s vile actions.
I’m reminded of Hank Williams’s refrain in his song, “The Tramp on the Street”: “He was some mother’s darlin’ he was some mother’s son / Once he was fair and once he was young.” I have no idea whether the elder Phelps was anyone’s darlin’, but his raising was such that he programmed his own to believe, “My father was a great man who did no harm to anyone. So what if he beat his own wife and children? Doesn’t any good, loving father do that?”
No, they don’t. Nor am I writing asking forgiveness for the man or his actions. I can forgive only wrongs done me, not those committed against others. Such “forgiveness” would be a presumption of powers I do not possess, a power belonging only to the injured.
Phelps was not alone; his congregation continues and there are others worldwide, from Texas to Uganda, who share his warped ideology. “Any man’s death diminishes me,” wrote poet John Donne, but the most magnanimous effort I can muster is to share his Nathan’s generous words from the statement he released:
“I will mourn his passing,” he wrote, “not for the man he was, but for the man he could have been. […] Let his death mean something. Let every mention of his name and of his church be a constant reminder of the tremendous good we are all capable of doing in our communities. […] My father was a man of action, and I implore us all to embrace that small portion of his faulty legacy by doing the same.”