Knocking on Heaven’s Door?

No, I won’t dance on this man’s grave. Instead, let’s try to leave ourselves open to our own prejudices and fears to discover deeper connections, to let our own humanity shine through.

fred-phelps-wildrose-signsIn what might perhaps be poetic justice, vultures circle over another who fed off of the dead. The Daily News reported yesterday of the encroaching death of Fred Phelps, who rose to infamy with his hate-cult the Westboro Baptist Church by picketing funerals, rubbing acid into the fresh wounds of the bereaved to draw spectacle to his own brand of radical homophobia.

Phelps first came into the public’s consciousness in 1998 when he picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the twenty-one year old boy killed in Laramie, Wyoming, the victim of “gay bashing” so severe that the beaten and tortured body of Shepard that was left by his murderers was famously mistaken for a scarecrow by the cyclist who found him.

Despite an outcry of love and support for Shepard around the globe, Phelps and his family attended the funeral and as Shepard was laid to rest, cameras zoomed in on the words, “God Hates Fags!” and “Matt in Hell!” and upon the elder church leader’s face, where it has remained ever since.

There’s been a lot of speculation about the nature of Phelp’s homophobia –questions about why he is so fixated on the sexual practices of those he professes not to understand. There’s a lot of prose to get caught up in in the New Testament. To focus on gay sex, and to blame it for the downgrade of all humanity, veers beyond the extreme and into psychological territory. It leads me to believe that Phelps is a closeted homosexual, projecting his self-hatred on the world. Some believe that he was a victim of sexual abuse as a child, and that his pent up hatred stems from the shame and emotional damage that it caused.

Kerry Lauerman, former Editor-in-Chief of Salon Media Group and current Co-Founder and CEO of The Dodo wrote a feature on Phelps for Mother Jones a decade ago. On a recent Facebook post, Lauerman speculated that he “might just be nuts.” During his interaction with Phelps, he noted “one odd detail that always stuck with me is how he completely freaked out when he thought I’d asked him if he ever had a gay experience (I’d actually asked whether he’d ever known anyone who was gay). As years have gone on, and it’s become so clear how many of the worst homophobes — the Roy Cohns, George Rekers, the countless ministers caught with their pants down — were closeted gay men crazed by self-hate and/or fear, I often think back to that Phelps freakout and wonder if it wasn’t a pretty clear tell.”

It came out later that Matthew Shepard’s killer was gay as well.

We could point to the hypocrisy and get busy designing our own picket signs to carry at his funeral. The Facebook posts I’ve seen so far say, “God Hates Phelps!” But that would be wrong. And hateful. And exactly what he would want.

George Takei, actor, gay rights advocate and most recently, social media personality stated on Facebook:

“I take no solace or joy in this man’s passing. We will not dance upon his grave, nor stand vigil at his funeral holding “God Hates Freds” signs, tempting as it may be.He was a tormented soul, who tormented so many. Hate never wins out in the end. It instead goes always to its lonely, dusty end.”

I think the world will soon lose a tortured soul, someone whose prejudices and fears became so encompassing that they will live on as his legacy. His tombstone might read: Here lies another so married to his righteousness that it clouded out any humanity.

How sad for him.

As for the rest of us, we move forward, opening ourselves up to cracks in the certainties of our opinions. Through those cracks, we might consider the scope of where we have been wrong. It takes bravery to look there, to study our own psyches for doubt or uncertainty where once there was none.

Light is painful when it first touches your eyes.

No, I won’t dance on this man’s grave. Instead, let’s try to leave ourselves open to our own prejudices and fears to discover deeper connections, to let our own humanity shine through.

Let that be our legacy.

Besa. Albanian Honor Code

The spirit of besa and tolerance permeated every moment of the event, with the acknowledgment of interfaith understanding quietly underscoring the day.

Civility has all but disappeared from the national discourse. For example, there’s no middle ground when evaluating President Barack Obama’s performance: he’s either the face of hope and change, or the worst president ever to have occupied the Oval Office. During a recent GOP presidential nomination debate the audience actually cheered the idea of allowing someone without health insurance to die. People from all walks of life are taking to the streets to voice their displeasure with our government—from the worst elements of society such as the Westboro Baptist Church and the Lyndon LaRouche cult to citizen activists like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street.

It’s easy to get caught up in the fervor surrounding the discontent in this country and, as usual, it’s all about the economy (stupid). I’m as guilty of it as anyone. But last week my emotions were recalibrated after attending an event that highlighted a little-known part of world history that all of us should know. It’s a story about honor in the face of adversity the likes of which we cannot imagine and, given our current behavior, are unlikely to ever know. It’s a story worth sharing and repeating. 

Like many Eastern European countries in the 20th century, Albania—a tiny coastal nation on the Adriatic Sea tucked between Montenegro and Greece—experienced the dual indignity of both the Nazi and then the Soviet occupations. The former lasted through World War II, the latter endured until 1991. Miraculously, despite the well-documented horrors that European Jews suffered during the war, Albania was the only nation to boast a greater population of Jews after the Holocaust than before the war began. In fact, not a single Jew perished in Albania during this time.

Almost nothing was known about their survival fact until the Iron Curtain fell and Albania was liberated.  The Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County recently assembled a panel of experts from around the globe to discuss this phenomenon, and is hosting a traveling exhibit through Nov. 14th.

The panel, held last Sunday on the grounds of the center, and the accompanying exhibit, explained the reason why Albania, or more specifically Albanians, provided safe harbor to Jews during the Holocaust. They call it quite simply: besa.

Besa is the code of honor every Albanian is encouraged, no, required to live by. Ferit Hoxha, Albanian ambassador to the United Nations, described the Albanian adherence to besa and its manifestation in the treatment of others. “Mik,” he says, “has a dual meaning. It means both a friend and a guest.” This understanding of relationships meant that anyone an Albanian encountered is to be “received, welcomed and honored.” There was never a doubt that Jews would be sheltered from persecution, he claims, because this action is “in accordance with our moral code, our faith and tradition.”

Ah yes, faith.

This is the point where it would be helpful, or perhaps surprising, to know that Albania is predominantly Muslim.

Last Sunday’s event and the message behind it are essential to the mission of the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center, which is to teach tolerance through lessons learned from the Holocaust. “Imagine a world,” says Beth Lilach, the center’s education director, “where besa existed in every human soul.” The spirit of besa and tolerance permeated every moment of the event, with the acknowledgment of interfaith understanding quietly underscoring the day.

Faroque Khan of the Islamic Center of Long Island was invited to participate in the proceedings and introduce Qemal Bicaku, the son of Albanian Muslims, who recalled from childhood how his family rescued 26 Jews from annihilation. Khan remarked that he was “pleased but not surprised” by the story of Albanian Muslims as the Qur’an clearly outlines Muslim’s conduct of doing “no harm to non-combatants, protection of houses of worship, women and children, and are even forbidden to harm a fruit-bearing tree.” One by one, the speakers described, tearfully at times, the efforts of their family members to save frightened Jews on the run and how, even more incredibly, not one villager or neighbor ever revealed the location of someone in hiding even though everyone knew where they were.

The event illustrated how besa, a fundamentally secular concept, transcended ideology and religion while revealing itself as a core element of all religions practiced at the purest level.

Perhaps the most wondrous part of the event came at the end when the speakers and the attendees gathered around an impressive display of food prepared and donated by the Islamic Women’s Center. We are never more connected to one another than when we share sustenance. It was an emotional day inspired by revelations of sacrifice and humanity, punctuated by warm human interaction over a meal made with loving hands.