Once upon a time there was a civil rights activist who fought tirelessly to wipe the Jim Crow laws out of his town. He spread his efforts throughout the state of Kansas, continuing his campaign even in the face of insult and gunfire. He helped fight discrimination at universities and protected against discrimination at the hand of a state utility company. His efforts won him awards from the NAACP.
That man died yesterday.
His name was Fred Phelps .
Not many people know Fred for his fights for civil rights. Most would be surprised of that history, most know Phelps as the head of the vile and hate spewing Westboro Baptist Church.
So what went wrong?
The first signs of Fred’s fall came during a trial in 1977. A court reported did not have a certain transcript he needed ready at the time he asked. Though the transcript did not ultimately have an effect on the trial, the incident was enough to invoke his rage. He sued the clerk and grilled her, calling her a “slut” and accusing her of perverse sexual acts to attack her character. He lost the case. He then appealed, claiming to have sworn affidavits that turned out to be false. He dedicated himself to destroying the clerk, but in the end, he was disbarred. He destroyed himself.
Somehow, in his fight for good, Fred himself got lost. At some point he decided to used tactics of harm to fight for his cause of good. He was willing to destroy a woman over a trivial obstruction in his case. He decided that the ends justified the means. That was the point of corruption.
I call it corruption because a man who once fought for civil rights in the beginning of his life dedicated it to denying people their rights by the end of it.
So why did it happen?
It is tempting to look for some inherent character flaw, some way to declare him evil from the start. But at one point he was civil rights activist dodging gunfire to protect the rights of others. Evil men don’t do that. But believing that is comforting for the rest of us. We all like to be right. We all like to be good. Believing that people like him are evil makes it easy for us to feel we are good in contrast. Making it a characterlogical evil allows us to believe we can be characterlogically good.
The alternative is less easy for us to subscribe to, if we believe that a good man can be corrupted into evil, then we must admit that corruption is there for all of us. The irony is this alternative is the belief that can best immunize against corruption. Remember, Fred and his family believed they were right when they committed every horrific act they did.
It is important to look at this, because people are trying to figure out how to react to his death. There are those who are talking about protesting his funeral, desecrating his grave, etc. to express their anger at him and his family. But this sounds all too much like his initial attack on that clerk, and how he was willing to destroy her because he was fighting a good cause and she compromised his work. The contrasting responses of those like George Takei are important for us to consider, because it reminds us that being good is dependent on how we react to the world. To respond to Fred’s death with acts to mirror his it to allow him to corrupt us. Rejecting these responses is how we fight the corruption off.
Maybe the best way to deal with Fred is to mourn him. Mourning not the Fred who died yesterday, however, but rather the Fred who we lost in that court case over 30 years ago. Mourn the man taken from us in that corrupting decision to be right instead of fighting for what was right. Mourn so that we can bring it into our awareness to protect us from the corruption that does seek to infect us all