Jerry Falwell 1933-2007: an Elegy in Prose

This column was published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on May 21, 2007.

Nineteen years ago, at a concert on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, I had the pleasure of hearing the Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn make a comment that has, in the intervening years, come to embody everything I have ever wanted to say about the late Jerry Falwell and his life’s work.

Introducing his song, “The Gospel of Bondage,” which was inspired by what then was considered to be the “new religious right,” Cockburn said of Jerry Falwell and his followers, “They scare the hell out of me and also irritate me, because I’ve gotten tired of saying, ‘Yes, I’m a Christian, but I’m not one of them.'”

Well put.

Jerry Falwell was a Christian and so am I, but a mutual claim to a shared faith is about where the commonality ends. He was red state, I am blue. He was theologically conservative I am a progressive in all such matters. I had heard of him, I never crossed his mind. Even within our shared vocation we were different: he was the pastor of a church with a membership of 22,000; my congregation is hovering somewhere around 205. His church started a university; my church started a preschool.

Over time I have been guilty of using Jerry Falwell to define myself. I am not the jowly white guy who was slow to support the American civil rights movement and quick to coddle the apartheid regime in South Africa. I’m not the guy who deconstructed the Teletubbies, seeing within their saccharine silliness a subversive plot to alter the sexual orientation of American children. I’m not the guy who suggested that AIDS was God’s way of punishing gay men, nor am I the guy who blamed gays, lesbians, and liberals for the terrorists attacks of 9/11. I’m not that kind of Christian.

I’m the kind of Christian who believes the Gospel compels us to rejoice in the beautiful diversity of God’s children, the kind of Christian who believes that differences of race, nationality, gender and orientation are reasons to celebrate. I believe in a Kingdom of God where everyone is welcome, where everyone is valued and where everyone is equal in the eyes of God.

Including Jerry Falwell.

Unlike Jerry Falwell, I cling to a vision of God’s grace that is far reaching. My understanding of God’s tender mercy makes it impossible for me to believe that Jerry Falwell has not taken a his place among what the New Testament Book of Hebrews calls “That Great Cloud of Witnesses.”

Jerry Falwell even now is gazing with unblinking eyes upon visions of paradise, and I hope I will be forgiven for the delight I take in my conviction that as he marched through the gates of pearl he was met by a host of folks he never imagined would be his eternal neighbors. Muslims were on hand to offer hospitality as Jerry was ushered to a mansion in his Father’s house. A choir made up of former members of the San Francisco Gay Men’s chorus, many of whom had died from AIDS, burst into song. Folks who in this life had suffered under racial segregation in the United States, in South Africa, and elsewhere took Jerry by the hand and led him in a dance as a group of ACLU-card-carrying hippies and staff physicians from Planned Parenthood tapped their feet and smiled.

That was last week, but the party has just begun. A group of El Salvadorian liberation theologians—sent to heaven before their time by US-backed death squads—is making pupusas. Someone has put on an Indigo Girls’ album. Jerry is sitting down to enjoy the feast with Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and Sikhs. Pagans and Animists are on their way over to join the festivities, and certainly from Fallwell’s corner of heaven there emanates a great, cosmic “oops!” with a distinct Virginia accent. It cannot be helped—such is the nature of God’s gracious judgment and loving wrath.

In the fullness of time I’ll be joining the fun myself, certainly to encounter my own set of heavenly surprises, but before I get too shocked, I’d like to get together with Jerry Falwell and Bruce Cockburn (if, by then, he too has joined the Church Triumphant) and hear the preacher from Lynchburg say with conviction, “I’m not that kind of Christian anymore either.”

P.S. Click here to read Larry Flynt’s musings on the death of Jerry Falwell.

 And click here to see my good friend James Bennet interviewed about Falwell on local TV.

7 thoughts on “Jerry Falwell 1933-2007: an Elegy in Prose

  1. Thank You!!! It is my hope and prayer that the death of Jerry Falwell will help usher in a time of Christianity based on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.true

  2. Ben, are you saying that you are glad Jerry Falwell is dead?

    Are you saying this man never brought a soul to Christianity? Are you saying he never changed lives, even though his theological views are not yours or mine? Are you saying he will reside in Heaven even though he was, ostensibly, evil?

    I hold (and held) different views from the man. I believe he was wrong, sometimes frightfully, hilariously, wrong, on certain issues.

    But I note that, unlike the general run of TV preachers, he did not ask people to take out mortgages — or second mortgages — to support his ministry. I note that he did not engage in a sideshow “talking in tongues”, as quite a few TV preachers did, and do, to generate income.

    Let us give him the beneift of the doubt — something I frankly have found liberals in social or religious matters are almost never able to do.

  3. Ben,

    Right on in every way! You made me smile at the beginning of my day.

  4. Thanks for your thoughts.

    Bill, I’m not happy that Jerry Falwell has died. If he had gone into a silent retirement I would have been very happy, but I understand that he will be missed by those who loved him.

    In my piece I’m trying to work through the implications of what I believe about God’s grace, and how it might be made manifest for the likes of Jerry Falwell. If I’m right, he’s facing the fact that he was wrong. I wanted to write about what that might look like, and in doing so I owe a debt of gratitude to C.S. Lewis’ book, “The Great Divorce.”

    As for Falwell touching the lives of people, I know he did. But I also know that a lot of people have rejected religion because of Falwell. And I know that had he joined in the cause to end apartheid he could have done a lot of good. And if he’d spoken up against the brutality of CIA trained US supported death squads in Central America, he could have saved lives.

    Furthermore, go to the webpage for Falwell’s church and look around for images of people of color. I find two men in the congregation in a photo of the last 9:45 service in the old scanctuary, and one woman singing at a “Celebrate America” event. Of course, most churches are racially segregated, but Thomas Road Baptist had more than 20,000 members. They could make a bigger effort.


  5. Heaven is where we all get humbled and thankful…where we make room for those we once excluded and ignored…..where we get to know the unknowable of this life…..where East meets West, and the rainbow is in full color…….where Piedmont and East Oakland get it together….where Shiite and Sunni dance in the same line…..O Boy. That’ll be the Day! To God be the Glory! Let it be! Selah!

    Blessings Ben! Ronn

  6. Ben,

    On the passing of Mr. Falwell I share the following,

    I make no great claims, but I consider myself a Christian. As a Christian I am painfully aware of the concept of Grace, else I am quite doomed. My favorite hymn is “Amazing Grace,” it has always seemed to me as if it were written for me, it always makes me cry in public.

    “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” –Albert Einstein

    “Homo unius libri timeo.” — Thomas Aquinas

    While many Christians may take offence to this, I agree with Aquinas, even if that one book is the Bible.



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