Wednesday, May 16, 2007
The sudden death of Rev. Jerry Falwell has already caused quite a consternation in the media and blogosphere. Many believers such as Al Mohler will laud Rev. Falwell’s accomplishments in building Thomas Road Baptist Church, Liberty University and the Christian Conservative Movement.
While I in no way claim to speak for all African-American believers let alone all other Christians I’d like to offer some reflections on just a few aspects of Rev. Falwell’s public life and activities.
Many of you probably know that in the early years of his ministry Rev. Falwell was a staunch segregationist. In 1958 he said “If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision [Brown v. Board of Education] would never have been made…. The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.”
Think about that statement for a moment. Rev. Falwell didn’t say that segregation was his personal preference, that this wasn’t the right time or that he just didn’t believe integration could actually work. He claimed that the Immutable, Holy, Sovereign Creator, Savior and Sustainer of the Universe had unalterably decreed perpetual racial segregation which certainly included a segregated communion table. As late as 1965, Rev. Falwell preached a message at his church denouncing the Civil Rights Movement which he at times called the Civil Wrongs Movement. I genuinely wonder how black believers felt hearing a man who claimed to preach and live by the gospel declare with absolute authority that they should remain permanent second class citizens?
Now I know for many believers today that this is uncomfortable to hear. But can we honestly talk about Rev. Falwell’s legacy without grappling with it?
Moreover, have we wrestled with how the seeds sown by Rev. Falwell and others during the Civil Rights Movement have muddied the waters of our witness today. Isn’t it possible for those who know of Rev. Falwell’s racist past to speculate that the man and movement who so emphatically claimed that permanent separation was God’s will might one day move and shift on issues like homosexuality? I’m sure many evangelicals will no doubt highlight the fact that in his later years Rev. Falwell abandoned his racist positions and thus cannot be held accountable for them. True enough, but what does it say to the culture when evangelicals speak with absolute, ironclad authority on a particular social issue in one generation only to do a 180 in the next? Can we fault them for accusing us of only using the Scriptures and religion to obtain and maintain social and political power?
Rev. Falwell was somewhat fond of using provocative rhetoric to inject himself and movement into the collective cultural consciousness. He once attributed an appearance on ABC’s Nightline to his comment that Bishop Desmond Tutu of South African was a phony. Many of his most confrontational statement are now legendary. I bring this up to highlight the whole issue of how believers are called to use speech. Even if it brings an audience and calls attention to an issue do we have the liberty to use insensitive, unwise and belligerent speech? Once more can we faithfully carry out a humble, Christ-like, biblical yet forthright witness while using and endorsing speech specifically designed and crafted to wound? How many of us listen to conservative commentators who make a living using words as daggers even though we know Scripture clearly condemns it? In a culture rife with caustic, demeaning speech should not believers lead the way in speaking on the issues and especially to and about those who oppose us with respect, dignity and kindness? Whether we like it or not Rev. Falwell has left a legacy of using speech in ungodly, unwise and unprofitable ways. We’d do well not to follow his example in this.
One more challenge that Rev. Falwell has left the believing community (and whether you want to own it or not we are all indeed in this together) is the focus on certain sins as worthy of God’s judgment. For this allow me to quote Mal. 3:5 "Then I will draw near to you for judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely, and against those who oppress the wage earner in his wages, the widow and the orphan , and those who turn aside the alien and do not fear Me," says the LORD of hosts.
Let me ask a question my evangelical brothers and sisters: Why is it that we’re sure and certain the homosexuals, abortionists, pornographers and the Clintons are destroying America but corporations who abuse workers, those who ignore oppress and exploit the political and economically weak and those who mistreat foreigners are given a free pass? I wonder if the Christian blogosphere will comment should the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission win its discrimination suit against Walgreens? Sadly, part of Rev. Falwell legacy is a Pharisee laced focus on sin. We seem eager and ready to condemn certain sins and at the same time stand idly by in the face of others. Could this not do damage to the witness of the gospel by implying that real sin is only found among certain lifestyles? Could this lead to others who don’t practice such things and are even against them to honestly believe that they’re okay with God because like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable they aren’t like adulterers, abortionists or even gays?
I do offer my condolences to Rev. Falwell’s wife, children church and Liberty University. Death is often unwelcome and seldom easy.
But in contemplating his legacy let’s purpose to engage our culture and especially those who may oppose us in the Lord’s spirit of grace, authentic compassion and genuine good will.
The Lord’s Peace