Living by the Golden Rule is a pain sometimes. There are days when I wonder what the heck I was imbibing when I decided this was a good idea, but here it is, my first spiritual principle:
I seek to live by the Golden Rule, treating all beings as I want to be treated. I will give the respect and consideration to a stranger that I would give to a loved one.
How does this translate into action? It means I seek to treat everyone with respect whether that’s a child who is irritating, a woman who confuses me, or a man who thinks I don’t have the right to draw another breath.
Honestly, I blame my embrace of the Golden Rule on the Unitarian Universalists, and of course, Fred Phelps. About 20 years ago, I attended a UU fellowship in Lawrence, Kan. I loved the place, the people, and the UUs seven principles, particularly the first one where they endorse:
The inherent worth and dignity of every person
I remember the moment when I walked out of the Fellowship into a bright Kansas morning, and my mouth dropped open because a thought had just hit me upside the head: If I truly did support the inherent worth and dignity of every person that meant I had to support EVERY person, which included Fred Phelps.
That’s the anti-gay Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church fame. For people who lived where I did, about 30 miles from Phelps and his church, their nasty protests were an everyday in-our-face reality. I hated him. I was supposed to believe that this guy I hated had inherent worth and dignity? Noooooooooo!
And yet, it didn’t seem that there was an escape clause in that first principle — no believing in the inherent worth and dignity of this person but not that person. What the heck was I supposed to do? After much thought and gnashing of teeth I came to a few conclusions, which may or may not be of help to you. Let me know what you think.
#1. I’m doing this for me, not Phelps.
I met Phelps a couple of times before he died. The first meeting came only weeks after I moved to Kansas 30 years ago to take a job as a reporter in the Statehouse. One morning a tall, craggy faced man with cropped, graying hair, maybe 50 years old, and wearing skin-tight bike shorts and a skin-tight, short-sleeved bike jersey appeared at my office door. He thrust a press release at me.
I will never forget how he looked that day. I don’t know whether he was mentally ill. I don’t have the knowledge to diagnose. But I do know the man I met was being consumed by something. As I read the release, he loomed over me, watching with hunched shoulders and quivering with barely repressed energy. He was the most uncomfortable person I have ever seen in my life. He looked like he wanted to crawl out of his own skin.
When I think back to that moment, which ended politely, I finally got it: Whatever Phelps worth might have been, I didn’t want to be him. I didn’t want to be the hate-obsessed soul who quivered and shook in anticipation or fear. If I wasn’t going to be consumed by hate, I was going to have to let go of hate, and that meant letting go of my hatred of Phelps.
#2. Like everyone else, Phelps was once innocent.
Once upon a time, he was someone’s baby with chubby arms and legs waving happily in the air. I bet if you had reached close enough, he would have grabbed your finger, curling his tiny fingers around you in trust. I don’t know what happened to turn that infant into the man we knew, but I do know I can believe in the inherent worth and dignity of that child.
#3. I can see the infant’s worth and dignity without endorsing the beliefs and actions of the adult.
I can look at Phelps with compassion, and I can feel the tragedy of his life without agreeing with him. Compassion means understanding; it has nothing to do with agreement or capitulation. I have marched, organized and spoken out against Phelps and his church and will continue to do so when the need arises. Compassion didn’t change my actions, but I did notice that it changed the way I spoke about him.
Phelps Bashing is an Olympic sport where I live. With every rise in his church’s notoriety, we’d ratchet up the rhetoric. We used every nasty name you could devise to describe Westboro and Phelps, some I can’t mention in print. At the very least, we labeled him the embodiment of evil, and then we hooted at the Westboro folks like bullying 13-year-olds.
Over time, I began to feel like I didn’t want to do that anymore. The man who came to my office was in pain. Yes, he inflicted pain, but he was also in pain. The protests he led at funerals, the pornographic signs, the nasty words shouted at mourners piled outrage on top of tragedy, but I think the tragedy of Phelps’ life was far more painful that what he and his family did at funerals.
The mourners could be free of Phelps once the funeral was over, while Phelps, his children, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren and their spouses had to live inside a maelstrom of hate.
When Phelps died of natural causes in March 2014, his family did not have a funeral. I hope and pray that if there had been a funeral, no one would have picketed it. No one deserves that. If nothing else, Phelps taught us that there are some lines you never cross.
That’s how the UUs and Fred Phelps taught me the importance of the Golden Rule.
A NOTE ON THE PHOTO: This one’s mine. It was taken on Sapelo Island, Georgia.