Memory is fictional. That is not to say the past doesn’t exist but rather the past is often not as factual as we believe it to be, especially our own past. We create stories of our past; indeed as that wonderful line from the movie Her acclaimed, “The past is just a story we tell ourselves.” And so with caution, I often tell stories of my childhood which was complicated but happy. Of the many memorable stories of my childhood, when Abacha, Nigeria’s de facto dictator died, there was much jubilation by Nigerians throughout the world. And yet I remember my Dad, who had left because he wrote against his government, having a solemn silence.
My dad is a man with many flaws, and to his children he is often a stark contrast to our mother who we lovingly refer to as “The married Virgin Mary.” Yet I have always found myself trying to emulate the integrity in which he approaches his vocation, and the Christian humanist perspective he almost always takes on important matters. As a child, I didn’t understand why he would be silent at the death of someone who had caused so much pain to people. But despite his flaws, if there is one thing, anything, that my dad believes in, and along with my mother taught his children to believe in – it’s life. The safeguard, protection, dignity, and flawed humanity of all of us in our specific situations.
Yesterday when the news that Fred Phelps died became known, I chose silence. But I was very interested in how other people would react. Unsurprisingly and understandably, there was much happiness and jubilation in media, especially social media. I still remember the first time I heard of Fred Phelps. It was in college, in a sociology class where we watched a documentary about what he did – picketing funerals, preaching hatred, and his unrelenting rhetorical violence towards the LGBTQ community. In my Junior year of college, a few members of the Westboro Baptist Church would come to the law school of the university because there was a symposium, “The Same Sex Marriage Divide.” They were met by 400 students picketing as well – denouncing their hatred.
When I think of the reaction to Fred Phelps death, I think of the reaction to Osama bin Ladin’s death. Now of course these are two entirely different situations, and I do not wish to make a morose comparison between these two men; the way they lived and the way they died are starkly different. And the reason for which they were hated by so many are different. Yet I find myself drawn to the Vatican spokesman’s words at the killing of bin Ladin, when he said,
“In the face of a man’s death, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibilities of each person before God and before men, and hopes and works so that every event may be the occasion for the further growth of peace and not of hatred.”
I cannot imagine the amount of direct and indirect pain that Fred Phelps and the WBC has caused numerous people in this country. But if Christianity as I know it, is to mean anything at all, I cannot rejoice at the death of anyone. And especially of the most visibly troubled souls who I must theologically insist have thoroughly and universally misinterpreted who God is and in this case, who Jesus is. As someone who believes in the final judgment of all of our souls, I cannot wish the worst on anyone. My Christianity is meaningless if it does not extend to everyone when it matters most.
Now I don’t think any of this makes me a good person, I am simply being true to what I have been taught. But it does give us all something to think about – whether you are a person of faith or not. Death is a certain end for this life as we know it, and in it, there may be no opportunity to reconcile to those who we have hurt; to be forgiven. For me, as a Christian, death means a final judgment. And indeed I believe in final judgment because ultimately the world is too unjust as it is, for me to believe “it” all ends here.
But even then, on no person would I ever wish an eternal pain. For every person, I wish God’s just judgment, but even more so, God’s loving mercy. Because when it comes down to it, I believe we are all in need of it for our failings in our human lives – of which we should be most concerned with anyway. So of this man’s death, I must remain silent and try to remember a commandment that is more divine than human, which is of course, “Love your enemies.” That is my responsibility; all other judgment, I believe, must be left to God.