Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Jerry Falwell, 1933-2007

A long-time nemesis says it all:
My mother always told me that no matter how much you dislike a person, when you meet them face to face you will find characteristics about them that you like. Jerry Falwell was a perfect example of that.

I hated everything he stood for, but after meeting him in person, years after the trial, Jerry Falwell and I became good friends. He would visit me in California and we would debate together on college campuses. I always appreciated his sincerity even though I knew what he was selling and he knew what I was selling.

-- Larry Flynt
I read "Listen, America," Falwell's most influental book, back in college, and he made a lot of sense to me at the time. And while he was on the wrong side of a lot of battles, he was also on the right side of quite a few. But I think he was sincere, and I truly think his heart was in the right place. Falwell fought a good fight.

Ultimately, however, I think even he would admit that the fight he fought was lost. There is no other way to objectively look at his battlefield as it existed when he began compared to how it looks now that he has left the field. And I think a good part of the explanation for that loss is that the battle was simply fought in the wrong arena. In making the Gospel a legislative manifesto, he tied the Good News of Jesus to a political movement, an act which, as two of his former assistants explained in "Blinded by Might," necessarily compromised and doomed it. One simply cannot compel a change of heart, and hearts, not laws, are ultimately what need to change to keep us from killing one another in word and deed. One does not reclaim America for Christ by playing kingmaker, but by playing peacemaker. Falwell was, in my opinion, too often a kingmaker.

That said, there's a lot of celebration going on tonight, and to be honest, it saddens me. But I understand it, I truly do. I hope that I am not as jubilant when Castro dies* though I am fairly certain I will be: I'm human and no better than any other human in that respect. What I see in the hearts of others is in mine as well, so this is not so much a rebuke as a confession.

But I am reminded of a pensive line from Nennius about the mission of Saint Germain in 5th Century England: by his ministry many were saved; but many likewise died unconverted. Many died never overcoming the darkness that they held and sometimes cherished, many lost a last chance to see what the light offered. To celebrate a death is to revel in the fact that someone did not see the truth and will never get another chance. It is the blindest of hatreds, and we are blinded to it because it is so close to justice.

As Gandalf once said of Smeagol's deserved death, "Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement." To celebrate a death is to revel in judgment. Fine for the judgmental, I suppose, but unbecoming of those who hated Falwell's monumental judgmentalism.

"For as you forgive men their trespasses, so will your heavenly father forgive you." (Matt 6:14) Forgiveness does not mean pretending the forgiven was something nice when he was cruel, something good when he was evil, something right when he was wrong. It simply means voluntarily giving up our right to get even and our feelings of self-righteousness, and rather to hope that in some small way what is broken might be mended. It is, as CS Lewis said, the most hateful of virtues. Which is why, perhaps, it is the most rare.

Larry Flynt, whose cartoon claiming that Falwell's first sexual experience was in a Virginia outhouse with his own mother resulted in him fighting the man tooth and nail on campuses and in courtrooms for 2 decades, ultimately called Falwell a good friend. And that, I think, offers a better witness to the kind of man Falwell truly was** than an hundred CNN eulogies.

* my life will go on, unchanged, just as these folks' lives will go on. Perhaps we will both need to seek new demons when the ones we name are gone.

** and Flynt still is.

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