Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Mixed Legacy


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
Pastor Lance



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9 comments:

Jen said...

As a young reformed believer, I have to admit to knowing little or nothing about Mr. Falwell, except what is bandied about regarding teletubbies (ok, I know a little more than that). Thank you for your post. I've been reading a number of thoughtful commentaries on this man's life, and your's was helpful. Please continue blogging, as your blog has been edifying and challenging to me. I realize you have a church to shepherd. Please do that first! But throw the rest of us a few bones when you're able!

Daniel said...

Amen. Thanks for the engaging post.

Matt Haeck said...

Wow, I find myself agreeing with Daniel for perhaps the first time. Thanks for an honest post, brother. We Christians need to be upfront about our failures--it's our only defense against the charge of corporate hypocrisy.

I especially appreciated this sentence:

"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?"

pduggie said...

Thanks Lance.

I think theres a fairly compelling answer to your ending question, which is that most of us perceive that the "homosexuals, abortionists, pornographers, and clintons" want to change, or have already changed, the system of law away from biblical moral norms, while oppressive employers and racist exploiters generally seem to have at least some force of law against them. The legal system exists to deal with exploitation and abuse. It can't catch it all, surely, but that doesn't mean Christians give it a free pass. It does mean that we have to recall that legal justice is an adversarial system, and all accusations of injustice might not be valid. It won't catch all abortion, murder, or gay marriages, either.

I'm not aware of the full details of the Walgreens suit, but I note that the suit is progressing, and if someone proved to be guilty, there will likely be punishment. Nothing like that can happen in the case of abortion or redefinition of marriage, or prosecutions of pornography under Clinton (very interesting Nightline special on porn that showed that prosecutions for porn are VERY easy to win, if a prosecutor brings his cases. But Clinton let them all drop.

Andrew Sullivan once asked why the Christian Right was up in arms about gay marriage, but not divorce. I replied to him that I'd fully support a credible movement to strengthen divorce laws and protect women harmed by no-fault divorce, but such a movement doesn't exist. If there was one' sign me up.

pduggie said...

Not just nightline, but apparently pornographers say it too

http://justhillary.com/herwords/jenna0517.php

"PR.com: "Do you find that the climate of the adult industry changes when there is a Republican administration versus Democratic?"

Jenna Jameson: "Absolutely. The Clinton administration was the best years for the adult industry and I wish that Clinton would run again. I would love to have him back in office. I would love to have Al Gore in office. When Republicans are in office, the problem is, a lot of times they try to put their crosshairs on the adult industry, to make a point. It's sad, when there are so many different things that are going on in the world: war, and people are dying of genocide...I look forward to another Democrat being in office. It just makes the climate so much better for us, and I know that once all our troops come home, things are going to be better and I think that getting Bush out of office is the most important thing right now.""

Pastor Lance said...

thank you all for your encouraging and thoughtful input.

as evangelicals (both black and white) we have a collective legacy and history that in many ways is difficult to sort through. yet I believe it's necessary to do so if only to keep from making mistakes that might impact our witness in years to come.

I appreciate those who gave input regarding speaking out against certain sins. I suppose the challenge is to do so without making it seem as if they're the only sins listed in Scripture.

thanks again and the Lord's blessing.

Anonymous said...

"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?"

Great questions. May I ask you a few questions? Who exactly is passing laws saying what Walgreens did was right? Actually, the laws are in place to bring a suit against them. Do you support affirmative action? Those laws which are designed to help the exploited do so by exploiting others.

What do you mean by mistreating Foreigners? The ones who are here legally, or the ones who are here illegally? Is arresting illegal immigrants, and returning them to their home country "mistreating" them?

There are laws that support murdering unborn children. There are laws supporting same sex marriages. There are laws making it OK to treat women as sex objects. Do these laws help build up America?

Kevin

Q. A. Jones said...

thanks for the challenging thoughts Pastor Lance. Blessings to you and family.

Q

Matthew Cochrane said...

This was an engaging and challenging post. Yet maybe a bit more appropriate if it was written after a little more time after he had passed away. There were a lot of things I disagreed with Falwell on, including him calling the theological treatise of limited atonement heresy.
As for his earlier racism, he has spent the last thirty or so years of his life repenting of that sin and distancing himself from that movement.
But he also did a number of noteworthy and good things for the kingdom, and right now, just days removed from his death and with the grief and hurt still so fresh among his family and friends, it is perhaps best to focus on these aspects of his legacy.