It was very disheartening to read about Mr. Falwell’s comments- the way he chose language that grouped all Muslims together and spoke of killing with swagger and the celebration of the crowd. I can only imagine the discomfort it must have caused you. I can’t speak for the church in any official capacity, but as one of her members I want to apologize for the remarks; and I ask for your forgiveness for the fear it must have created for you.
As a follower of Christ (as understood within the Great Tradition), I’m anxious to point out that Falwell’s remarks seem more an expression of the individualism of secular American Civil religion, than they do of the Christian gospel. I don’t mean to imply any sense of superiority in saying that. I constantly feel the same tug of … let’s call it Americanism, and have secretly harbored the same compromised sentiments. He just said out loud what I’ve sometimes felt in my heart towards others. Usually it involves the ‘idiot’ in the car beside me. Truth be told, I’ve said it out loud a time or two, also.
But there is a difference in two becoming lost while struggling towards a shared destination, and disagreeing about the actual destination. It’s disagreement about that metaphorical destination that is the issue- both between the church and my Christian brother, Mr. Falwell. I suspect between you and me, too.
What is God (i.e. ultimate reality) like, and so what does it mean to be truly human; and so what does human flourishing look like? The story that is the Christian gospel answers these questions in a very specific way, and being baptized into that story determines (or ought to determine) my interaction with everyone- friends, enemies, woman, believers and non-believers etc.
Pastor Carlyle Marney once explained ‘If somebody asks me what a quarter horse is, I describe Buck. He’s the greatest of the breed I ever saw…. He’s up there on my place. So when anybody asks me what a quarter horse is like, I say ‘He’s like Buck.’ If anybody asks me what’s a man like…. I don’t describe Napoleon, that poor little sick fellow. Or Hitler. Or even Winston Churchill, much as I thought he was… I describe Jesus Christ. That’s what a man’s like.’
When I wonder what God is truly like; I look to Jesus because I believe he was GOD made man. Likewise, when I ask what it means to be truly human, I look to Jesus who was God made MAN; and when I look to Jesus, the central defining act of both true God and perfect Man was his purposefully dying at the hands of his enemies for their own sake, and he was clear that the continuing Christian vocation is to take up our own crosses and follow his example.
I realize that this is a pretty unbelievable upside down spin on things. The current holiday season is as good as any at making that clear: God leaving the unimaginable glory of heaven as seen up on a hill by some shepherds so that he could reveal his greatest glory down the road by being placed in a manger and dependently feeding at a woman’s breast. God in a diaper. Foolishness, really. I get that; and I understand that part of what makes you Muslim is a rejection of the idea as expressed in the Christian doctrine of both the Incarnation and Crucifixion. In answering the question of God, man and human flourishing you look elsewhere- as does the average practitioner of Americanism, regardless of the flavor of ‘religious’ frosting that they spread over top. Thankfully, the practical outworking of the various answers to these questions often overlap. But not always, as Mr. Falwell’s remarks illustrate.
The unequivocal Christian mandate is love of neighbor. Some of my neighbors are friendly (I believe you to be among them) some of my neighbors are not. Doesn’t matter. Christians are to love them. I am forbidden from hating or acting in vengeance. I am demanded to forgive. Its hard. I do a lot of driving.
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”
Of course these are impossible demands- especially when I’m overwhelmed with the very proper anger that results from injustice; but that only shows how far I have to go to be a man, fully alive. Thank God that he forgives; and won’t give up until I am that man.
It would be a mistake to think that this requires pacifism (though a minority has argued so). On the contrary, the Great Western Tradition insists that I have a responsibility to defend my neighbor, which may even extend to the point of killing in their defense. (It may come as a surprise to some to learn that there is no comparable place for intentionally killing in simple self-defense. I bit of reflection will show why) Mr. Falwell is zealous to protect his students. I applaud him for that. But granting that there were jihadists for him to encounter, acting out of protective love for my innocent neighbor does not relieve me of my duty to love my enemy. I can imagine a situation in which a beloved family member- let’s say a brother, perhaps as a result of drug abuse- strikes out at his innocent child. Doing what is necessary to defend the child does not invalidate my love for my brother; but my love for my brother will inform any emotional lead up to the confrontation, the nature and proportionality of the response and it will certainly guarantee that the aftermath is a very sad one. No place for swagger or anticipatory celebration.
I don’t fault Mr. Falwell for asserting that we must defend our neighbors. I fault Mr. Falwell for apparently failing to answer the question of ‘Who is my neighbor?’ as Christ taught us to answer it.
I don’t fault Mr Falwell for suggesting that there may be a duty to uphold; I fault Mr. Falwell for sounding as if that duty ought to be longed for.
I don’t fault Mr. Falwell for implying that scripture properly fences this duty of coercion. I fault Mr. Falwell because the restriction seems a checklist that ends in open permission to kill, not a weighty responsibility for the details of every action taken and the motives that lay behind them.
Perhaps the whole thing was simply an unfortunate misspeaking. I hope so.
Either way, against threatening warnings, I and other Christians offer you the protection of our families from the unjustified violence of those who would harm you. I do this not because I’m American (although I am grateful that I am); but because I belong to King Jesus. I suspect that if push comes to shove, Mr. Falwell would too.
I pray that you come to be overwhelmed by the truth, goodness and sheer beauty of a reality in which creation itself is rooted in the God who is ‘Father’ before ‘Creator’ or ‘Judge’, and in which the self-giving exchange of ‘my life for yours’ is naturally and unselfconsciously played out – whether in the shalom of the tangled legs of the marriage bed or the terror of protective shields held against the flight of hateful arrows- because each is an image of the God who is love and who eternally exists by giving himself away: Father, Son and Holy Spirit; one God; world without end.
But most of all I pray that the specific failures of Christians to live into such a reality don’t rob you of the opportunity to see that it is there for you to enter.
Christ had died! Christ has risen! Christ will come again!