"No man is an island, entire of itself...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind..."
This quote, from John Donne's Meditation 27, has become so ubiquitous to have lost much of its impact. But like many phrases and concepts of the Christian Bible, it manages to retain an impact and a truth beyond its simplicity.
I mourn Fred Phelps as I mourned Adam and Nancy Lanza and Lou Reed and my friends and children I've never met and my mother and my pets and animals that were only with me a short time. I mourn equally the death of ideas and cultures and languages, of whole populations of insects and birds and mammals and fish wiped out before we ever had an opportunity to know of them, of civil discourse and sitting silently before answering and owning up to what one has said. But I mourn Fred Phelps and the others differently than those because they are a part of my experience of the world and I think I'd be the worse for not having known them.
In my theology, god (small "g" for the same reason we don't capitalize "People") is everything that makes up our experience, including the way we treat one another, the thoughts we have and act on, the toast we have for breakfast and selecting the bread and toasting and smothering it with butter as well as where the bread and the toaster parts and the cows and grass and water that make up the butter came from. This idea that god is a verb, simply is the way everyone and everything behaves, is something I picked up from born-again writer Anne Lamott. But it didn't originate with her. It was probably Jewish mysticism as exemplified in the Kabbalah that came up with the idea. In the contemporary world this is called pantheism, and I'm comfortable being called a pantheist.
Physicists have calculated that exactly the same amount of matter resides in the universe today as did moments after the Big Bang, and if that is the case then nothing ever goes away, it simply changes form. Fred Phelps qua Fred Phelps is on his way to becoming another series of atoms in another form. (Whether the new form acheives sentience, as in reincarnation, is another matter.) I have looked in vain for a cartoon memorializing his death by showing Jesus explaining to him, "Look, it says right there in Mark, I hate figs!" because I think that would be a funny way to eulogize him. But as Adam Weinstein points out, Phelps and his Westboro family, despite whatever else we might say about them, are at least consistent in their reading of the Bible (and I ought to mention my unique thrill at seeing the theological Calvinist acronym TULIP used on the Gawker website). Christians, Calvinists, Evangelicals, and Fundamentalists might not like to claim him, but the truth is the Westboro Church has as much right to claim themselves part of the fold as anyone else.
I mourn the death of Fred Phelps, then, as a fellow part of god, for the good he did in his life, for his role as a man, as a lover, as a father, and as a leader. It's sad that his legacy will be a rank hatred of people and ideas his theology couldn't prepare him to accept, and it's sad that for some people that will be reason to, if not celebrate, then dismiss his death. But life, like everything else we do, has consequences, and this is his.