Friday, June 30, 2006

Jerry Falwell on NPR

NPR did an extensive feature this morning on Rev. Jerry Falwell commemorating the 50th anniversary of his occupying the pulpit at Thomas Road Baptist Church. At the same time, Thomas Road Baptist Church is moving to a new 1 million square foot, 6,000 seat facility.

My pastor reminds me, and the rest of his congregation, that Jesus asks us to love our enemies. So, it is in that spirit that I did not begin the previous paragraph by writing: "NPR did an extensive feature this morning on fat, intolerant gas-bag Jerry Falwell..."

The segment irritated me initially because the reporter offered little to balance Falwell's self-congratulation, self-righteousness, and self-importantance. Then, the old student of journalism in me noticed that the story was something much more important than "balanced." It was objective. Though the reporter did quote Falwell's former ghost-writer, now openly gay minister Rev. Mel White who attends Falwell's church with his partner in order to directly protest his bigotry, he mostly focused on Falwell himself, and let Falwell speak for himself. And, in that way, he gets Falwell to hang himself. Twice in the report he admits that he makes his controversial statements purely for the media attention.

Falwell acknowledges that his controversial remarks about homosexuality and other issues are designed to get attention.

"A pastor has to be media-savvy if he's going to reach everybody," he says. "I don't mean to be ugly and harsh, but to be forthright and candid. And the result is that people that don't like you start listening."

Elsewhere in the broadcast report he admitted he was critical of Bishop Desmond Tutu in the 1980's, when Bishop Tutu was leading the human rights campaign to end Apartheid in South Africa, purely for the media attention his statements would bring to him.

I came away from this report with the impression that Rev. Falwell's mission was to expand his influence and his ego through appeals to the lowest common spiritual denominator: fear. Follow me or God is going to get you is his central message.

To be sure, he preaches that God is love and Jesus forgives sins, but he is just as quick to preach that if you do not follow as he prescribes, God is just as quick to withhold that love and Jesus will stand in judgment against you for your sins.

Here is where I must interject some of the wisdom I have learned from my Calvinist parents, though I think they would probably disagree with my interpretation: God saves who God wants to save. Though I still believe that each person has the free will to decide to be a follower, God calls the shots when it comes to how he is going dish out love, grace, mercy, etc. Now, if I don't get to decide who is saved, then I also don't get to decide who is damned. I don't get to speak for God's judgment. Which sounds achingly familiar to what Jesus said, and my pastor, when he said don't judge or you will be judged. It also shines a light of understanding Christ's teachings to love your enemies and do for other people what you want them to for you. "Love your enemy," for instance, because God loves them. Serve others because God became a servant. When Jesus was asked if he came to rule as a king, he said that his kingdom is in the heart.

Keep in mind, Jesus made that statement as a citizen of a staunchly theocratic nation. The Old Testament laws weren't just spiritual guidelines to the Jews in Israel in the first century. They were THE LAW. Much as they would be today if Rev. Falwell had his way. I don't think Rev. Falwell sees the irony of this. There is a historical clip of him preaching from 1974 when he came out strongly against the Equal Rights Amendment claiming that it would usurp the godly authority of husbands over wives. But if he had read a history book as well as his Bible, I think Rev. Falwell would have realized that Jesus, in total opposition to his culture, did treat women as equals. But I think there's a lot about Jesus that Rev. Falwell doesn't understand. Or if does understand, he purposefully misconstrues that understanding to protect and spread his own influence.

It is probably redundant at this point to point out that Rev. Falwell is more like the first century religious leaders who spent years trying to prove that Jesus was a fraud or a heretic than he is the man he calls his savior. Indeed, I'd bet that if Jesus were to return today (not in the Left Behind sense, my problems with those books, closely associated as they are with Falwell's theology, are a whole other topic), Falwell would likely denounce him as a liberal, a communist, a homosexual activist, and a moral relativist.

And Jesus would still love Jerry Falwell.

In light of that, I wonder if I am being uncharitable to Rev. Falwell. Upon reflection, I don't think I am. Jesus didn't hesitate to call religious leaders hypocrites, a gang of snakes, or well-manicured graves that are that are landscaped and have fancy monuments on the ground but are rotten and full of decay down below. Jesus didn't condemn these religious leaders outright. But, in today's cultural terms, he did say it was easier for a limousine to squeeze into the "Compact Car Only" space in the mall parking lot on Christmas Eve than for the self-righteous and self-sufficient to get into the Kingdom of Heaven. In first century terms, the "needle's eye" Jesus said it was easier for a camel to go through than it was for a rich man to get into God's kingdom was a small, pedestrian gate through a city wall, large enough for a person to walk through, but not large enough for a pack animal or a religious procession or an entourage. No one noticed or trumpeted your arrival if you came in that way. His point was: to get in, you go in humbly and without a lot of baggage.

Going back to our 21st century metaphor, Rev. Falwell is driving a pimped out Hummer and he's eyeing that parking spot by the door. Let's pray he realizes soon it'd be easier to get that parking space if he was driving a Civic.

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