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.