I wrote the bulk of this article before the passing of Fred Phelps, the homophobic Westboro Baptist Church founder. It obviously became infinitely more topical with his death. To be clear: I am not speaking from a Christian perspective, as I personally am not a Christian. I am speaking from the perspective of anyone who loves their fellow man, Christian or otherwise.
Homophobes and bigots are modern Pharisees.
Let me explain this.
In my search for greater and greater divine and spiritual love, I have found it useful to read the words of all the great sages.
In Matthew 15:14, Jesus tells his disciples, “Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch”. The Pharisees, the blind leaders of the blind, are those concerned about purity, following arbitrary rules, over God’s love. They exile those who err rather than trying to redeem them.
I thought this was such a harsh concept.
And then I began to take a second look at many of today’s preachers. Like the recently deceased Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, purveyors of hatred.
And I saw men professing a higher love, a divine love, preaching hate. Preaching their personal enrichment. Blaspheming by claiming that they knew that their deity had sent punishment for homosexuality.
And I saw what Jesus meant. They were people giving false witness. They weren’t worthy of even touching any holy book worthy of the name, let alone preaching from it. I wish that they would recoil from the crucifix or the lotus like a vampire, so we could know them when we saw them.
A friend of mine asked me to help a high school student discuss issues of transgenderism. Hear the arguments on both sides. I, of course, am pro-LGBTQ, for reasons that will become amply clear. However, I have experience trying to empathize with everyone. I am therefore a good devil’s advocate. So I wrote a small guide, trying to take on the voice of a conservative.
Here are some of my choice comments.
“Certainly, the community does not need to tolerate behavior it sees as immoral publically. That includes being in public spaces like streets and shopping areas, being openly transgender when serving customers or working in government service, having to tolerate immoral activity at their schools such as Gay-Straight Alliance Clubs, etc. As long as they do not infringe upon Constitutionally protected rights, there is no moral, legal or philosophical issue”.
“A curriculum that some may decry as homophobic is not illegal nor immoral. The majority of the community wishes to teach certain values, which is part of the legitimate, compelling state function of public schooling. Those who are sympathetic to LGBTQ people can teach at home their different values. But the community as a whole is not obligated to respect it.”
This is perhaps the most reasonable way I could defend homophobic policies at schools.
In order to speak from this perspective, I had to embody a person. This is the kind of conservative, whether young and spit-filled or a little older and wiser, who will mention what the Constitution says as if it were an absolute guide to all of life, as if we had no obligation to exceed our promises. They will mention Tinker v. Des Moines and Lawrence v. Texas. They will think about what they are purely mechanically obligated to defend.
This kind of person is not a bad person. They’re not even necessarily bigoted. They may personally like transgender people. They may have gay and lesbian friends, and wish them the best.
But as I spoke from this person’s perspective…
I felt my love shrink just a little bit.
I felt my understanding of the divine shrink just a little bit.
And when I came back to myself, I realized that, politics aside, I would never proactively want to deny anyone I loved a different perspective. I wouldn’t want my schools to deny an outlet for the voice of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and straight ally people.
To want that is to be closed-minded. To want that is to be small-minded. It is to circumscribe our love. It is to not be willing to put aside our momentary disgusts and private fears in order to make sure that others can feel safe, empowered and free.
When we believe in anything, whether it is God, freedom, love, hope, or even rationality and science, totally…
It transforms us. It elevates us.
So those men and women that preach hatred, that try to keep gays out of sports, that want to prevent those different from them whose sexual organs touch in ways they do not arbitrarily prefer from being able to enjoy a full life together, those people whose belief in their own beautiful marriage is so weak that they need to make sure that no one else can possibly be different…
And, similarly, those people so scared of those with a different color of skin that they want them searched at airports even though it will so obviously not make them any safer and will actually delay their lives, who would follow a black child and shoot him in that fear…
They are Pharisees.
They are not transformed by any kind of love, God’s or otherwise. They do not care about something positive and good enough to focus on that instead of hatred and fear.
Whether it is fear, anger, guilt, shame, or any other emotion that has not been mastered and allowed to flow away, they are being kept by a feeling from truly loving their neighbor.
But there is a hidden truth to Jesus’ statement.
He begins this seemingly very harsh judgment by saying, “Let them alone”.
Don’t hate them.
Don’t fall to their level.
Because, as I will say over and over again: Having a poisonous and hateful mind is the worst hell imaginable.
We must actually feel sorry for them, and reach out that much harder to free them from the prison of their hate. Because, as Jesus again stated in Luke 6:31, “Do to others what you would want them to do to you.” As the Buddha said in Udanavarga 5:18, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful”.
If we were trapped in a prison of hate and fear, and wished to feel a greater love, we would in our better moments with our better angels want to have someone else aid them.
How horrible it must be for all of those trapped in that hatred to be actually as distant as possible from the God they give false witness to.
And with Mr. Phelps’ passing, I have seen so many of my friends and acquaintances and fellow travelers who know better and who have good hearts be glad for his death. Yes, Fred Phelps was a hatemonger. But we have a choice as a species: Do we let the passing of a man filled with hatred be viewed as a wonderful event, or do we view it as a tragedy? Because, if we allow ourselves to dismiss the humanity of someone who has passed on, we diminish ourselves. In contrast, if we choose to view Mr. Phelps’ passing with hatred in his heart as a failure of those of us who have more love to give, we will hold ourselves accountable to spreading the love that the great moral teachers from Jesus to Dr. King spoke of.
We can never let ourselves make the same mistake that Mr. Phelps did. We can never let ourselves dismiss the humanity of a single person, no matter how much we may hate their actions or disagree with their ideology, or we will be complicit in the barbarism we see everywhere from Crimea to Africa.