When we do nothing we are also affecting the course of history. The problem we face is often that of choice between various kinds of inactivity rather than of choice between action and inaction.
--H. Richard Niebuhr, The Grace of Doing Nothing
Various parties, including the Tennessean, are getting riled up at Reverend Fred Phelps and his sect coming to Middle Tennessee to protest at the funerals of slain soldiers. Radio DJs, bloggers, and organizations used the weekend to whip up anti-Phelps emotions and they encouraged people to turn out at the funeral for a "counter demonstration." Mobilization seemed to be this weekend's watchword.
I believe that responding this way is a mistake. In fact, I believe that responding to Rev. Fred at all is a mistake.
I believe that those who publicly decry Fred Phelps and show up to wave placards in his face are playing right into his hands. While they think that may be beating his hatred down with sheer numbers and strong feelings, I believe that they are wrong. Numbers and feelings don't cow Rev. Fred. I believe that a popular outpouring against his crowd is exactly what Rev. Fred is hoping for.
Some who have known him very closely say that Fred Phelps is a man who "suffers from a mental illness that leaves him unsatisfied with life unless he can be responsible for the suffering of other human beings." And from what I have seen of Rev. Fred, the more suffering he causes, the better. This is guy whose church is held in the basement of his home with some of his immediate family members. Those are meager proportions, but hyper-Calvinists believe in an elect predestined by God for heaven over against the evil world, itself predestined by God to hell. The elect are an exclusive group, and Rev. Fred's family seems about exclusive as you can get. The strongly judgmental bent of hyper-Calvinism fits cleanly with the sadism said to be Rev. Fred's signature. He has created a siege mentality among his band and every time they go out to protest they call it an "epic."
Consequently, every detractor or heckler crossing their path is validation to them that the world is headed to hell. It is proof of their very message. And if a couple of Phelpsians suffer ridicule or even assault from hotheads on the other side, then all the better for Rev. Fred. That interfaces with both his purported sadism and the badge-of-honor mentality of the elect, who suffer the world's slings and arrows precisely because they are the elect.
Hence, they strike out even more demonstrably the more attention they get. They also seize on the latest high profile events to attach their cause to. They even tied their names to the Cindy Sheehan protest declaring both Ms. Sheehan and George W. Bush as equally "Hell-bound." So, when both mainstream and alternative media sources demonize the Phelpsians and glorify the counter-demonstrators, they in effect embolden Rev. Fred, who is even now probably gearing up for his next circus elsewhere. The Tennessean article is positive press to them. They may also post their own pictures of counter-demonstrators at the this weekend's funerals. They may use them to argue that the "hundreds of people" who showed up to shout Rev. Fred down are hypocrites in their own "hatemongering," as they have before.
So, whenever Rev. Fred shows up in Nashville again--and he will--I would like to recommend H. Richard Niebuhr's idea that there is a grace in doing nothing in response. Inactivity or choosing not to react may have political affects we had not considered in our rush to demonstrate against such hatred. Action in the form of counter-demonstrations are ultimately destined to fail, because they simply encourage Rev. Fred to try to make people on all sides go on suffering. There is a time for counter-demonstrations, especially when those protests call for greater risk and sacrifice than driving your car out somewhere and holding up signs or yelling at some inconsequential pastor from Kansas.
But there is also a time not to respond to hatred. Rev. Fred's brand of hatred is obvious to everyone. He's did us a favor long ago by calling attention to his hatred, which is obvious even to children. We don't need to see it over again to see it for what it is and oppose it. We can see the dragons we are up against with his band. But those dragons become more furious and more winged the more we publicly contest them. So, we should consider the "kinds of inactivity" as our response to those dragons.
Harder to see are the more insidious forms of hatred and discrimination by groups much more mainstream; groups like right-wing evangelical Christians who say they don't hate gays and lesbians, but then turn around and compare them to child molesters and murderers. More difficult is the concealed contempt of those who refuse to concede that gays and lesbians deserve equal access to the same economic and political benefits of marriage that straight people currently enjoy. Such hatred is much harder to spot, more entrenched in dominant culture, more costly to confront, and hence, worthier of counter-demonstrations if we are truly serious about confronting hatred.
Fred Phelps, on the contrary, is only worthy of the grace of doing nothing.