Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Jerry Falwell

Last night the ABC evening news carried a story about the plight of the small, furry and utterly adorable pica, the smallest member of the rabbit family, which is disappearing from much of its favored mountainside habitat due to global warming, and may be headed for total extinction.

In all seriousness, I felt more genuine sorrow over this story than I did over the demise of Jerry Falwell. That's just me being honest.

Which begs the question of how one should deal with the death of someone like Falwell, whose legacy -- at least from where I'm sitting -- is one of hatred; of division; of distortion of the Christian message; of ignorance; of diminishment of the quality of public discourse in this country.

I remember Falwell's rise, during my teen years. He, like Richard Nixon, seemed to tap into the fears and discomfort of working-class white people -- people like my parents -- who'd been broadsided by the cultural revolution of the 60's: people appalled by race and anti-war riots; by the hippie culture; by Tillich-quoting white clerics in turtlenecks walking arm in arm with civil-rights activists; by uppity women questioning their traditional roles. My Missouri Synodian father, who wouldn't have given two cents for Falwell's theology, was in Falwell's amen corner when it came to sec-u-lar hu-man-ists and fem-in-ists and ho-mo-sexuals and the ACLU and everyone else who was, in his eyes, running this country into the ground.

Even in those days I thought Falwell was an oaf, a redneck cariacature right out of the Dukes of Hazzard. Later on, Falwell came to represent everything about American pop Christianity that disgusted me; when I went on my Christianity vacation in my 30's, he and his ideological kinfolk were the Christians in my rear-view mirror I was happiest to disassociate myself from.

But that was then, and this is now. And the question becomes: What do you do with the death of a Christian whom you feel spent his time on earth not "mending the broken places" but wilfully breaking them?

And then I have to go back to something my pastor once said. He was talking about his decision to conduct a wedding for a couple he knew -- one partner was a friend from his campus ministry days, and still an active Lutheran layperson, while the other was an atheist. The atheist fiance had agreed to a church wedding out of deference to his significant other and her family, whom he loved; but he requested that my pastor remove any mention of the G-word from the actual wedding vows; because, he pointed out, he did not want to begin his married life in a state of damaged personal integrity by being compelled to make vows to a God in whom he did not believe.

My pastor decided to conduct the wedding with the groom-to-be's proviso. Because, as he asked our congregation afterward, "Have you ever been wrong about anything before?"

I'm sure I have been wrong and will continue to be wrong about a great many things, and do not relish the prospect, even as I rest in the loving and forgiving arms of God, of reviewing all the things that I did get wrong in this life. If there's such a thing as purgatory, I'm guessing this is it. Death is the great leveler, the thing that brings us all to that same place of what my 12-Step friends would call the fearless moral inventory.

So even if I can't think of Falwell's passing with a sense of affection or loss, I can think about it with the empathy of a fellow sinner, getting it wrong in my own ways, saved in the end by grace.


The Simpleton said...

Hmm, thank you. I've been wondering how to think about Falwell's death (or rather wrestling with my bad self), but I hadn't made much progress until now.

Have you ever been wrong about anything before? How humbling, and grace-filled.

Anonymous said...

I'm okay with commending Jerry to God's care. I can picture Jerry arriving at heaven's gate, and Jesus is waiting there for him, saying, "Okay, son, now we need to sit down and have a long talk. There are some things you need to understand..."

Finally Jerry is getting a clue! It's nice we can just leave this huge task in Jesus' hands. Thank you Jey-sus!


Cory said...

Mine is pretty much a reaction of indifference. He sowed the seeds of that during his life, when he made sure that people like me knew that we're not his type of people. I don't think he's doomed to Hell or anything, but I don't mourn his passing. I'm not even sad about it. As much as I might want to force out some kind of positive thing to say about him or do some liberal Christian navel gazing about my feelings, I can't. It's just a thing that happened yesterday.

Tom in Ontario said...

Watching the news this morning it was interesting to see them talking both about the passing of Falwell and the fact that a front runner for the Republican presidential nomination, Rudy Giuliani, is pro-choice.

I agree that a lot of Christians make the rest of us Christians look bad. But I also just came back from the hospital where a parishioner lies dying (probably today or tomorrow) and his wife admitted he wasn't much of a church goer. Now that's a personal peeve of mine, people who claim to be faithful Christians but don't find the time or place for the church in their lives for even an hour or two on Sunday morning. But I said, and I believe, that going to church doesn't make us right with God. Nothing we actually do makes us right with God. God makes us right with God.

So for all the things Falwell said and did that made him look like such a doofus to so many and embarrassed all of us Christians who have our doctrine and practice so right, none of those things made him right or wrong with God. Only what Jesus did on the cross made him right with God.

MikeF said...

What a beautiful post, LC, truly...

"I can think about it with the empathy of a fellow sinner, getting it wrong in my own ways, saved in the end by grace."

Isn't that the only way to think of people with whom we have profoundly to disagree? I only wish I could say I always do... and I wish I could say it half as well as you just did...

Blessings, loads of them


revcathyellen said...

What a wonderful, articulate, thoroughly Lutheran reflection! I have loved reading your blog since discovering it some months ago, and truly respect you for this post.

Pastor Cathy in Queens, NYC

Reverend Dona Quixote said...

LC, I appreciate your reflections on this have helped me articulate my feelings. Thanks

Doug said...

Thoughtful post. Why do you think the ELCA has no Falwell figure? I think it's beer.

Scooper said...

Ya know, he gave a voice to a large segment of America, and he urged them to act on their beliefs with ballots rather than bullets. He could have done much worse. That he didn't is something for which we can all be grateful - to him, and to the God we all worship.

LutheranChik said...

I can't be quite as sanguine about Falwell's "ballots, not bullets" approach, Scooper...because I believe that his hateful, intolerant rhetoric and that of his Religious Right amen choir nonetheless makes violent people comfortable with the idea of violence as a way to rid their world of perceived undesireable elements. Do you think that Eric Rudolph, for example, would have been as likely to bomb an abortion clinic without the influence of the conservative religious community's "holy war" rhetoric regarding this issue?

Mother Laura said...

Thanks, LC, this is beautiful. I have been contemplating posting about Jerry Falwell with just this point--a healthy view of purgatory, so if I do will include a link here.

Rainbow Pastor said...

As usual, an articulate and thoughtful post...geez that sounds liek a comment on an academic paper.

But you've put into words what I've been thinking about Falwell's passing.


John Petty said...

I saw this morning that Bill Moyers once described Falwell's theology as "the theology of fear and loathing."

Margi (juliansdaughter) said...

Being a Brit perhaps I can't get Jerry in perspective although your parents do sound a bit like mine, my dad at least. I liked the Dukes of Hazzard mention for I always thought ol' Jerry would have taken a better view of his fellow sinners after a moonshine or two.