Matthew Snyder (left) from Westminster, Maryland is one of the reasons I’m not celebrating today after hearing the news of the death of Fred Phelps. Snyder died in an accident in Anbar province in Iraq back in 2006. Westboro Baptist Church picketed his funeral shortly thereafter.
One reason I am not celebrating the death of Fred Phelps is because everyone who fought and died (or otherwise served) wearing the uniform of the United States military swore or affirmed an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
I took that oath on July 3, 1996.
Much blood has been spilled in defending the rights of Americans that are protected by the Constitution.
The Supreme Court of the United States ruled that Westboro’s picketing of funerals (specifically Snyder’s) merited “special protection” under the First Amendment. I wasn’t a fan of that ruling even though I understand why it was made. No matter how disgusting or abhorrent someone else’s speech is to you, they have free speech rights. In fact, that is the speech most in need of protection. I found what Westboro did to be disgusting and abhorrent personally, but I didn’t ultimately think they’d lose in court, because of the First Amendment. Of course, taking that to its end means anyone jubilant about the death of Fred Phelps has that right too – I’m not looking to change that either.
If you are celebrating today because you lost buddies or relatives in recent wars, especially if their funerals were picketed by Westboro, I can understand your feelings even if I don’t agree with them or endorse them myself. I would encourage you to focus more on the memory of those who were lost instead of concerning yourself with celebrating the death of Fred Phelps. I am sure most of you are already doing the things Mr. Trebilcock says below in the comments below Al Snyder’s.
Think about what Al Snyder, the father of Matthew Snyder had to say in the past few days before Phelps died:
“I do not like Westboro Baptist Church; I don’t have anything nice to say about them, but if I had anything bad to say about them at this time — or if he dies — it would put me in the same category as him, and I don’t want to be in that category,” he said. “I don’t like hate.”
Also, think about what Al Snyder had to say this week if you’re approvingly talking about people picketing Phelps’ grave:
“I believe he has the same rights as everybody else should have, that he should be buried in peace,” Al Snyder told Military Times on Tuesday. “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
Here’s what Tom Trebilcock, an Army Reservist who was Mr. Snyder’s attorney also had to say:
“If somebody feels the need to get back at the Phelps group, support the wounded warrior groups,” he said. “That’s one reason why I and attorney [Sean] Summers, we took up the case in the first place. We’re both Army reservists. It wasn’t out of any hatred to the Phelps clan or the Westboro Baptist Church. We just wanted to take care of the families of people who went over and paid the ultimate sacrifice.”
Al Snyder, who is also gay, sets a good example in his words above. He has plenty of reasons to be leading the cheers over the death of Fred Phelps, but he isn’t.
The other reason I’m not celebrating the death of Fred Phelps is because I’m a Christian. I’m a sinner as we all are, including Phelps. For more eloquent words from a Christian perspective than I can write here, please read Ed Stetzer’s response. Stezter has been picketed by Westboro as well.
A few years ago (before I became Catholic), I probably would have been celebrating the Phelps death and making jokes about picketing his funeral too. I made jokes about inappropriate responses to Westboro showing up at funerals. Taking the high road can be difficult, but it’s better than getting yourself wrapped up in the same hate you’d be responding to.
When Stetzer was picketed, here’s part of what he said:
Our answer to offensive signs was to show and share the love of Christ with anyone in need. Whether speaking to the protestors, counter protestors, or the media, we were prepared to speak about what God is doing in our community… The last thing we have time to do is shut down because five people show up with offensive signs.
Stezter’s advice is similar to that of Trebilcock who I quoted earlier.
Stetzer give three pieces of advice now (followed with a quote I took from each section) that I’m including here :
1. Grieve for the deceived
Let’s be careful to avoid our own self-deception. The Phelps family, and the Westboro clan they started, are full of people that need Jesus. Let’s not get Pharisaical here—the Phelps family and the people they lead in worship of a false god are sinners, but so are we. The people who spew the hateful words of Phelps’s hateful god need the love of Jesus just like you and me. Pray for them to find peace in Jesus and love as he has loved.
2. Boldly proclaim God’s love
On this day, let’s do the opposite of what Fred Phelps did, and love the people that we don’t like and tell them—or better yet, show them—that God loves them too.
Today, when the world will likely be celebrating the death of a broken man who led a movement characterized by deception and disdain, reach out to others and show them what the unconditional love of God is really like and how it is shown in Jesus Christ.
3. Don’t hate the Phelps family
Why hate those who are trapped in their hate?
Pray for them. Share grace with them. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” There will be lots of hate spewed out today toward the Phelps family. I will not join in.
On this day of Fred Phelps’s death—a man who has become a symbol of hateful religion—I choose to find someone to show and share the love of Jesus.
Now back to my thoughts…
Cheering the news of the death of Fred Phelps does nothing but get us wrapped up in the cycle of hate that Westboro did a good job of perpetuating. Instead we need to work together with others to show love and community like people in the Patriot Guard Riders and the various other groups who showed up to funerals that Westboro was picketing to shield the grieving families from having to deal with them. Work to turn this into a positive instead of just reveling in the fleeting moment.
With some reports indicating Phelps had been kicked out of Westboro, I pray that he might have had an epiphany of some kind. All I can do is pray for everyone involved and pray for Fred Phelps and the repose of his soul.
I’ll sum things up now before I ramble too much.
To my friends on the right, if you were upset and ready to spit nails over those on the left who were gleeful on the death of Ronald Reagan (and more recently Margaret Thatcher) but you are cheering the death of Phelps, you are doing it wrong. I’ll say the same to those of you on the left who are celebrating today but got upset at some on the right who were gleeful when Ted Kennedy died.
I don’t think I’m better than anyone who is happy about the death of Fred Phelps. They have the same right to say whatever they wish. It just pains me to see some of my friends (Christians or not) getting caught up in the hate.
Quinton is a native South Carolinian who has lived in Baltimore since 2006. He is a recent convert to the Catholic Church and is active in the Knights of Columbus. He has been involved in the pro-life movement nationally and locally since 2010.
Quinton is a veteran who served as an intelligence analyst in the Army National Guard. He is also an Eagle Scout.