To turn the other cheek

According to news stories, Fred Phelps, long-time leader of the Westboro Baptist Church, is near death. There are unconfirmed reports that he was kicked out of the church last fall…and reports by some of his estranged children that they are not being allowed to tell him good-bye.

Most people have probably heard of Fred Phelps and his organization. They have made a career out of hate…picketing funerals of fallen soldiers and gay individuals as well as picketing anyone else who doesn’t agree with their interpretation of the Bible. My faith denomination has had occasional pickets from the group at our legislative events, and I saw them recently when we went to an evening with Bill Cosby.

It has been tragic to see little children in the group–5 or 6 years old–holding up signs with words that I know they don’t understand…and to realize the hate they are being taught. Some who were taught that way have been able to break away and follow a different path. But there are others who are even more defiant and sure that what they are doing is correct.

It would be so easy to say that Phelps deserves whatever he gets–whether it’s in this life or the life to come…that he deserves being kicked out of the organization he founded…that he will end up in a place none of us wants to go.

But if we do that, then he wins. Hate returned by hate only gives birth to more hate and distrust.

Those of us who are Christians can remember that Jesus called on his disciples to turn the other cheek…to do something significantly counter-cultural. For those who are of other faith traditions, we can still all unite in some version of what Christians call the “Golden Rule”–to treat others as we ourselves want to be treated.

I can’t imagine any of us who would want ourselves or our families to be picketed with the hateful signs…and so, can we find it in ourselves to be counter-cultural? I have not been directly and personally impacted by this group–but they have still touched me…when I think of how hurtful it would have been to see those signs at our grandson’s funeral (a Marine who died on his 21st birthday)…or when I consider the hate directed toward my brother, my husband, my cousin–because they have different sexual orientations.

And yet…I cannot hate Fred Phelps and those who follow him. I pity them. I cannot imagine what life must be like for those who see only hate…who seem to find little joy in life.

That doesn’t mean that I think they should be allowed to do anything they like. There have to be laws to protect those who are vulnerable. But there is a difference between providing those protections and answering back with “an eye for an eye”–that only lead a society where people continue to hurt each other until all are blind.

Can turning the other cheek make a difference? I don’t know…but it has to be a better answer than giving hatred back.

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