Westboro Baptist Church founder, anti-gay preacher, and funeral picketer Fred Phelps died of natural causes Wednesday at age 84. Time to break out the cake and streamers, right? Right?
Party, protest or R.I.P.
It puts us, as humans, in a difficult position when people who are widely despised (for legitimate reasons, I’m not talking Justin Bieber) come to the end of their lives. Do we celebrate? We certainly don’t mourn, but is celebrating someone’s death, no matter how despicable they were, morally acceptable?
Many people are facing this dilemma, as evidenced in this CNN blog on the topic. CNN’s Jessica Ravitz wrote:
“Mixed in were those who wanted to picket – or party – at Phelps’ funeral. Some relished the idea of him rotting in hell. Plenty others were horrified by the hatred and condemned the celebration.”
Picketing Phelps’ funeral will not be an option, according to his daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper, because there will not be one.
“We do not worship the dead,” she told CNN.
A number of organizations and individuals have said that although they disagree with Phelps’ beliefs and practices, his death should not be celebrated or we are only mimicking his loathsome behavior ourselves.
In an interview with the LA Times, Thomas Witt, Executive Director of Equality Kansas (an LGBT advocacy group) said:
“We are asking that the LGBT community rise above all the anger we feel toward the Westboro Baptist Church and do what we’ve been asking the Phelps family do for 20 years, which is let us grieve in peace”
What about Bin Laden?
A similar situation arose following the death of Osama Bin Laden in 2011. Large celebrations were held in New York City, Washington, D.C. and across the country as soon as the announcement was made.
Unlike Phelps, Bin Laden orchestrated acts of terrorism and mass murder. He acted on his hate, rather than simply preaching it. But does that justify reveling in his death? For many Americans, particularly those for whom the 9/11 attacks affected personally, the answer was simple. He’s evil, of course it’s ok to celebrate.
For others, such as University of Buffalo campus minister Mike Hayes, the choice was less clear. Hayes told NPR the following:
“I don’t think that the celebrations in the streets were our finest moment as Americans, and reminded me much of the anger I felt at seeing Afghans dancing in the streets at the fall of the Towers on that dreaded day.”
It raises interesting questions, when “bad guys” die. However, in the cases of both Bin Laden and Phelps, there are followers who will continue the legacy of hate (other Al Qaeda leaders and Phelps’ daughter). So in the end, is there really anything to celebrate?