Okay, a few days have now passed since the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s death. I didn’t intend to devote two whole posts to his passing, but after doing a live interview on Roland S. Martin’s radio show on Chicago’s WVON and chatting with some others folks about Falwell’s decidedly mixed legacy, I thought it would be good to add an addendum to my previous comments.
Lest my earlier reflections sound like I was letting Falwell off the hook for his many transgressions over the years, in one sense I was. As with all of us who count ourselves as sinners, redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, Falwell’s sins were covered. He’s now truly free—and presumably more enlightened.
But let me say that I’m very aware of his bigoted and inflammatory remarks against Dr. King, the civil rights movement, Bishop Desmond Tutu, feminists, gays, lesbians, Jews, evolutionists, you name it. I cannot simply ignore his harsh and hateful rhetoric.
On Roland Martin’s show, as I found myself in the odd position of trying to explain (and perhaps even defend) parts of Falwell’s life and ministry, I began to understand how feeble yet complex we all are. Falwell’s life was filled with scores of positive accomplishments for the kingdom of God—reaching out to the homeless, addicts, single mothers, etc. Yet, as a sinful human being, he also was one of the most divisive high-profile representatives of the Christian faith in this nation. What do you do with such a mixed bag?
I like Chicago Sun-Times religion columnist’s Cathleen Falsani’s honest reflection on Falwell’s life and death. She articulates the feelings of many of us who disliked aspects of Falwell’s style but recognize that God clearly used him.
I also was reminded of an anecdote from my book, Reconciliation Blues. Chris Williamson, an African American pastor who graduated from Falwell’s Liberty University, shared the story of chatting with one of the old pioneers at Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church:
“We were talking about diversity in Christian organizations, because he knew that my church is interracial,” Chris said. “But this older man said something to me that was very revealing. He said that things won’t change in the American church until his generation dies off, that that’s just the way it is.”
Williamson, who had an uneasy time as a student at Liberty, was rather put off by this elderly church leader’s remark, but he also recognized the sad truthfulness of it. Like that old man, Falwell was a creature of his times. Though he seemed to evolve and soften a bit over the years (later in life he praised Dr. King’s work), his worldview and understanding of the gospel were rooted in a narrow, fundamentalist sensibility that he never fully outgrew. In a sense, the only way for many sectors of the church to finally shake its racism and cultural blindness is to see the older generation take it to the grave—but not before they pass down the residue of those beliefs to the younger generations. It is still up to each generation to make its own decision for or against injustice, intolerance, divisiveness.
As the nation reflects on Falwell’s life, it’s my prayer that the Christian community will embrace and celebrate his positive example, while casting off and burying his legacy of acrimony and division.