Fred Phelps, until his death in March this year, and his Westboro Baptist Church -- composed mainly of family members -- travel around the country protesting funerals of fallen soldiers (most of whom are apparently heterosexual) claiming that these deaths are God's punishment against a country that tolerates homosexuality. Phelps is also notorious for his 1998 protest of the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a college student from the University of Wyoming in Laramie, murdered in a brutal homophobic assault.
Issues of common decency and respect for human dignity suffered a serious setback in 2011 when the United States Supreme Court in Snyder v. Phelps ruled eight to one that Albert Snyder of York, Pennsylvania was unjustified in suing Fred Phelps and his followers for picketing the 2006 funeral of Snyder's son, 20-year-old Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, who was killed in a vehicle rollover accident in Iraq. The court also ordered Synder to cover Phelps's court costs in the amount of $16,510 handed down earlier by the Court of Appeals of the Fourth Circuit.
I wrote an editorial ("Work for Tikkun Olam") appearing in our local community newspaper, the Ames Tribune, when I served as Associate Professor at Iowa State University after I had heard that members of the Westboro Baptist Church were to travel to Iowa to hold protest rallies at three sites toward the end of July 2009: Waukee's Jewish Historical Society, Iowa State University Campus in Ames, and Marshalltown at Marshalltown Community Theater, which was then performing the play "The Laramie Project," profiling the life and murder of Matthew Shepard.
On their website, GodHatesFags.com, Phelps made yet another ironic and perverse connection, here linking his own version of homophobia with anti-Jewish oppression. Phelps and company directed their protests against "...the Jews...[who] arrested, falsely accused, prosecuted and then sentenced [Jesus] to death..." and because "God hates Iowa" for being "the first to begin giving $ to little [homosexual] perverts for no other reason than they brag about being little perverts."
Following the publication of my editorial, Margie Phelps, one of Fred's daughters, contacted me by email writing:
Hello Professor. Glad to see we got your attention with our upcoming good fig hunt in Iowa. You approached the issue with a veil on your heart, blind eyes, a hard heart, stopped up ears, and full of guile - because that's how you - and all the rest of the apostate, reprobate Jews - roll. God did that. His righteous judgments are wonderful! Here is your own personal copy of the letter to the editor forwarded today. Enjoy! And share! PS Shall we put you down as one of the naughty figs? You are definitely not sounding or acting like a good fig. I'm just sayin'.
Phelps's use of the word "fig" in this context comes from Jeremiah 24:1 in which two baskets of figs -- one containing the good figs while the other contained the bad figs -- were "set before the temple of the LORD." Evidently I am one of the bad rotting figs to Phelps.
The editorial she submitted to the Ames Tribune, which they did not publish, asserted in part:
Letter to the editor: How the Jews have taught people all over the world to be proud sinners in God's face is by double-talking voo doo bull crap like Warren Blumenfeld's 7/17 column. You think if you fill the air with puffy vain words you can change the standard of God. Get real! The reason Jews belong in the same category as homosexuals is because they're both vile sinners before God -- period. See jewskilledjesus.com for the facts. There is not a group of people more sodomy-enabling in this world than the apostate reprobate Jews....
Phelps and family, in their own distorted way, continue the centuries-old linkage of the many clear and stunning connections between historical stereotypical representations and oppression against Jewish people and lesbians, gays, bisexuals and trans people (LGBTs).
If anyone pondered whether the "Church" would continue to spread its brand of venom after the demise of its founder, wonder no more. Though giving no specific date, the flock plans to march and picket my current institution, the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, to protest what I and many others consider as the brave, courageous, and groundbreaking announcement of Derrick Gordon, a sophomore starter on our men's basketball team, when he came out as the first gay athlete in Division I men's college basketball.
A number of my students have expressed to me that they are in the planning stages of a counter demonstration.
Students also organized and staged a very well-attended rally when members of the Westboro Baptist Church descended upon Iowa State University. Though some community members opposed the idea when they argued that such a rally would simply play into the hands of Church members' desire for publicity and heighted visibility, for the student organizers and for those of us who were there, it provided a wonderful opportunity to show our support for social justice and appreciation for human diversity, to maintain a clear and resounding voice in the face of intolerance, narrow-mindedness, and xenophobia. We showed in our numbers and in our exuberance that bigotry in any and all of its forms has no shelter on our campus, in our community, and in our state -- not here; not now; not anywhere.
Dan Olweus, international researcher and bullying prevention specialist, enumerates the distinctive and often overlapping roles enacted in bullying: the person or persons who perpetrate bullying; the active followers; those who passively support, condone, or collude in the aggression; the onlookers (sometimes referred to as "bystanders"); the possible defenders; those who actually defend the targets of aggression; and those who are exposed and attacked.
Each day we all are called on to make small and larger choices and to take actions. Which side are we on? This question brings to mind the civil rights activist Eldridge Cleaver's call to action: "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem."
Today as in the past, no truer words were ever uttered, for in the spectrum from occasional microaggressions to full-blown genocide, there is no such thing as an "innocent bystander."