I was thinking about Fred Phelps this morning. You know, the guy who started the hoopla of protesting during funerals.
In the process, I thought about the vast number of people I’ve known during my life who have died, ranging from a beloved woman here in Asheville to people I didn’t know personally but knew of, like Philip Seymour Hoffman or Osama Bin Laden. When I flash back to that last one in particular, I remember that I didn’t feel like celebrating. I watched a few videos of people who had rushed down to Lafayette Square in D.C. and were dancing in the streets. I, on the other hand, felt mostly nauseous, sad, contemplative. I sorta felt that way about Fred Phelps, too, when I heard that he had died and watched the range of emotions expressed on Facebook.
Perhaps it’s the fact that I lost 10 people I loved before I was 20, but for me, even the death of an adversary is nothing to celebrate.
Am I glad that Fred Phelps died? On some level I suppose that I’m glad that the negativity of his message is gone. But I am far more sad. Sad that there are some among us who, for whatever reason, project the misery of their own existences—and the responsibility for it—outside themselves. I’m especially sad when the people who do that represent the loving God I see and experience as a hater of any kind, because I just can’t figure out what might have happened in their early lives that would have cemented such a disdain for other humans. I can’t figure out how one gets from the message of love presented over and over by the man many call Christ to the idea that any one of us beloved is the “keeper of the truth” for anyone else but himself. There are at least a couple of times in the New Testament when Jesus was obviously frustrated at the fact that the guys right there with him, who heard him speak day after day and interacted with him around the campfire at night, didn’t “get” what he was talking about. How in the world does a thinking person in the 21st century actually come to believe he or she has the absolute understanding of what he meant and the authority to rain down judgment on others we not only do not know but will never know?
I don’t know why exactly, but although I grew up in what has become one of the most restrictive, rule-bound fundamentalist denominations, I’ve never accepted that humans are unworthy by virtue of birth or that any human, including myself, is capable of understanding what drives another’s beliefs and perceptions unless we ask them. And even then, the answer isn’t definitive, because we do a damn good job of hiding who we really are even from ourselves.
Back in the day when I was a counselor, my approach to helping my clients started with a comparison of what they believed about themselves with what I considered a loosely ideal model of adult emotional health. Goal-oriented as long as I can remember, it always made sense to me that I couldn’t go anywhere unless I started with a picture in my mind for how I would know when I got there (Point B), honestly considered where I was relative to the same metrics (Point A), and then made some informed guesses about how to best get from Point A to Point B. I knew that life had a way of interfering with the best laid plans, so if I got new information along the way that a bridge was washed out or a gang of thieves was up ahead, I adjusted the plan accordingly, often on the fly.
The process had always worked well for me, whether I was studying for an exam (Point B was an “A” and I knew what I had to “know” to make one) or planning a trip from Atlanta to Arizona or saving money for a new car, so it was only natural that I would employ the same rubric in counseling. I dare say that when the majority of my clients left me, they were emotionally stronger, so I guess the process worked there too.
I’ve always thought of the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God in that way too. If the kingdom of heaven was at hand when Jesus was alive as a man, it is certainly still attainable, right now, right here, today. But we have a problem, in that the views of some of what it would be like if the kingdom were manifest “on earth, as it is in heaven” are vastly different from the views of others. And until we make progress toward the simple goal of agreeing on how we would know if we got to Point B, we’ll certainly never get there. As the old career-guidance book said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else.”
Suffice it to say that Fred Phelps and I had a very different idea of what the kingdom of heaven looks like. But he was a child of God, just the same. Rest in peace, Fred. And now, perhaps, so will we.