Saturday, September 11, 2021

Classic: A Provocative Email

I originally wrote this as part of my church newsletter on September 25th, 2001.

It was the weekend after the horrific events of 11 Sept 2001... in fact, it was Saturday night. I was "putting the sermon to bed". ("Putting the paper to bed" is an old newspaper term - meaning "stop working on it and publish it".)

And then I got this e-mail from an atheist friend. He'd sent me a link to a story about the statements made by Jerry Falwell & Pat Robertson on the 700 Club a couple of days after the terrorist attacks... and he'd added the following comment.
My first reaction was to send this to my secular friends as an example of "Christian Love". And then, instead, I decided to forward it to somewhere it might do some good - to a pastor whom I have great respect for. I hope that within your church, and through your greater church organization, you will denounce and distinguish yourself from these officers of the Western version of the Taliban. These snakes must be censured by Christians if the religion is to be kept clean, just as we expect Islamic Americans to denounce the violence done in the name of their religion.
And so, challenged by his 'faith' in me and sickened myself by the remarks that had been made, I attempted to respond.
I wish Disney Corporation would build a REAL new amusement park in the States (like the almost-open Tokyo DisneySeas) rather than the cheap "good enough for Six Flags" California Adventure. I wish all of the games on my search list (held by Manu) would be found and shipped to me. I wish someone would give me enough money to pay off my mortgage and buy a new car. I have a lot of wishes.

I wish people who should know better would learn to keep their mouths shut... to follow the teachings of Scripture and be "slow to speak, quick to listen, slow to anger". But, over time, I've come to expect little more than this from the vast majority of tele-evangelists and Christian media types... Neil Postman was DEAD ON in his incredible book, Amusing Ourselves To Death, when he suggested that religion is profoundly changed by being broadcast on TV.

First, let me apologize to you for those who share my basic faith (in the need for a personal relationship with God through the sacrificial death & resurrection of Jesus Christ) yet still manage to make mincemeat of the truth when you point a camera at them. While I agree that certain behaviors and worldviews attacked by these two are not biblical, I would quickly point out that God could just as easily "lift the curtain of protection" (sigh) for religious hypocrisy or profiteering off faith as abortion or pagan religious beliefs. (Jesus saved his most blistering attacks for those who abused their spiritual leadership.)

Second, I need to point out that the views you've heard expressed by these two (and are being expressed by others) are not necessarily the Christian mainstream, any more than the Taliban or the terrorist organizations speak for all of Islam. In a peculiar blending of scriptural interpretation and "my country - right or wrong" patriotism, they have assumed the promises given to the Jewish people in the Old Testament directly apply to the United States because of it's "Christian" origins. [Never mind that: a. the Jewish people took it in the teeth a number of times in the O.T. even with those promises in place, and b. that America's origins may have some routes in Christian belief, but also include healthy doses of Deism, rationalism, and pure, unadulterated greed.] As you can probably guess, I don't share their viewpoint.

Third, I hope you'll be heartened to know that my sermon/teaching tomorrow morning will be focusing on the scriptural concepts of "overcoming evil with good", "in your anger, do not sin", and "in Christ, there is no Jew or Greek" - as I attempt to lay out some solidly 'Christian' reactions to the horror of these attacks. One of my greatest fears right now is not lousy theology (there always seems to be plenty of that around) but racism in the name of patriotism.

Fourth, there have already been a number of folks in Christendom who've taken Robertson & Falwell to task for their grandstanding during this time of crisis. I had actually read of their remarks on Christianity Today's website Friday, who took a decidedly dim view of their tomfoolery.

Fifth, I take issue with your equating two televangelists with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. While they are irritating and often maddening, they have not recently taken over a country and instituted Sha'riah (sp?) law. (Yes, I understand that many of the legal changes they would like to see would be stifling... but what they long for is an idealized view of the 1950's in the suburbs/South as much as a "Christian" nation.) I understand your anger - but think your metaphor is inflated.

Sixth, thank you for paying me the compliment of forwarding this story to me. As always, I appreciate your friendship and the intellectual challenge of our conversations. If you would not mind, I'd like to use your original note to me and my response as a base for my e-mail newsletter to my church this next week.

yours in Christ,

Within 24 hours, he answered... with permission to do this article and a couple of other interesting comments.
ME: "I need to point out that the views you've heard expressed by these two (and are being expressed by others) are not necessarily the Christian mainstream..."
Well, this is an interesting distinction. Unmistakably they do not speak for all Christians. However, through their visibility, they can easily come across, rightly or wrongly, as representing the mainstream. I truly don't know what goes on out there, and unfortunately, much of my knowledge of American Christianity (as a practice, not as a theology) comes from the media, which is to say, from those who speak the loudest. So I imagine it must be an especial burden for someone like yourself to see your religion so profoundly misrepresented.

And this is why I believe it is so important for you to *actively* distance yourself, and for more Christian churches to come down hard against these people. If the Falwells of the world are the ones who put a face on Christianity, then this is the face that people will see. 
Additionally, I am sure that many in your congregation listen to these shows. If someone like yourself does not take a stand, then there will be those in your congregation who come to believe that the ideas expressed by Falwell do indeed represent Christianity.
And that was that... except that the news went a different direction in the days that followed and one of my friend's comments became even more interesting in light of it.

The Rest of the Story

In the next couple of days, both Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson issued statements.

Pat Robertson first supported the remarks made by Falwell, both on the telecast with comments like "I totally concur" & "Amen" and in statements issued to AP: "In no way has any guest on my program suggested that anyone other than the Middle East terrorists were responsible for the tragic events that took place on Tuesday. I again emphasize that there are organizations within the United States which have labored unceasingly to strip religious values from our public square, and in the process, to take away the mantle of divine protection which our nation has enjoyed ever since the days of its founding."

And then, there was an about-face. In his final press release on the comments, he castigated Falwell for uttering "a political statement of blame directed at certain segments of the population that was severe and harsh in tone, and, frankly, not fully understood by the three hosts of The 700 Club who were watching Rev. Falwell on a monitor." He then told Fox News that he considered the remarks "totally inappropriate."

Meanwhile, Jerry Falwell was doing some back-pedaling of his own. His first statement was as follows: "I sincerely regret that comments I made during a theological discussion on a Christian television program were taken out of their context and reported, and that my thoughts - reduced to sound bites - have detracted from the spirit of this time of mourning... My mistake on the 700 Club was doing this at the time I did it, on television, where a secular media and audience were also listening. And as I enumerated the sins of an unbelieving culture, because of very limited time on the 700 Club, I failed to point the finger at a sleeping, prayerless and carnal church. We believers must also acknowledge our sins, repent, and fast and pray for national revival."

I can't pretend to know what happened next or what motivated Falwell's actions... but this is where things got really interesting from a Christian perspective. Jerry Falwell issued a second statement a day later. What follows is part of the AP News story.
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - The Rev. Jerry Falwell apologized Monday for saying God had allowed terrorists to attack America because of the work of civil liberties groups, abortion rights supporters and feminists. Falwell said his comments were ill-timed, insensitive and divisive at a time of national mourning. President Bush had called the minister's statement inappropriate.

"In the midst of the shock and mourning of a dark week for America, I made a statement that I should not have made and which I sincerely regret,'' Falwell said. "I want to apologize to every American, including those I named. When I talked about God lifting the curtain of protection on our nation, I should have made it very clear that no one on this earth knows whether or not that occurred or did not occur." He said if the destruction was a judgment from God it was a judgment on all sinners, including himself.

Falwell told The Associated Press that no one from the evangelical community or the White House pressured him to apologize. However, he said a White House representative called him Friday while he was driving to the National Cathedral memorial service in Washington, and told him the president disapproved. Falwell said he told the White House that he also felt he had misspoken.


Now that all the dust has cleared (and, btw, that's the main reason for waiting to write this up - it's way too easy to write/say something that quickly becomes outdated by current events with a situation like this)... so what? Why spend this much bandwidth on what is essentially a two-week old news story?

For me, it's my friend's comment:
If the Falwells of the world are the ones who put a face on Christianity, then this is the face that people will see.
I agreed with him completely that Saturday night as my outrage against anyone claiming to speak for God ("THIS is the reason 4,000 people died" - blech!) burned white-hot.

And I agree with him now, as I've watched a very public religious figure, a lightening rod for controversy and ridicule, very publicly apologize for what he said. While I don't always agree with Jerry Falwell, I'm thankful that a major part of this story is his saying "I was wrong." In doing that, he's putting "a face on Christianity" that shows humility, teachability, and an absence of pride.

There's a number of ways to still be cynical about this: "He just did it to get people off his back" or "He didn't mean it" or... well, the list could go on and on. Honestly, the spirit of his apology and what it means is for Jerry to take up with God - as people who claim to follow Jesus, we can simply accept it at face value and move on.

What About Pat?

I'll let you make your own decisions about Pat Robertson's "point the finger" defense. For me, it just offers a sickening counterpoint to Jerry Falwell's apology.

What About Responding?

Was it OK to respond with righteous indignation to the reports of their remarks on the 700 Club? In short, yes.

In long, yes... as long as our legitimate anger at mishandling the Truth didn't bleed over into cynicism and name-calling. It's all too easy to end up in the same place, claiming to speak for God when accusing of others of being unable to speak for God. Sigh.

What About Me?

In light of all this, ask yourself a couple of questions:
  • Who do I need to apologize to? (Take a cue from Jerry and offer an apology without finger-pointing. Chances are you've left someone in your wake in the last 48 hours that deserves your humble plea for forgiveness.)
  • Will you let this go? Will you forgive Jerry Falwell? Granted, he's made himself the target of barbs & criticisms (some of them justly deserved). But when we place him in the category of 'Christian buffoons' and refuse to extend grace to him, we set ourselves up for a fall.
Jesus: "For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins." Matthew 6:14-15 (NIV)
Let those roll around in your heart & mind today...

Thanks For Reading...

...and thanks again to J.D. for letting me quote him and turn some of what he said into a teachable moment.

Note (Sept. 11, 2021)... it's been twenty years - Jerry Falwell has passed away, Pat Robertson is largely irrelevant, and I'm no longer in full-time pastoral ministry. The Taliban was removed from power a few months after I wrote this - and in the last few months, once again regained power. 

And with all that, the same issues remain. We as believers in Christ have a duty to handle the Word of God rightly... which requires that we avoid claiming Israel's promises as referring to the United States, we call out Christian Nationalism as idolatry, and we refrain from bastardizing Scriptural imagery to make political points. We should be people of truth - regardless of how it affects politicians we support, celebrities we like, or ministries we believe have done "good work". We also have a responsibility to be people who both give forgiveness... and know enough to ask for it. 

Today, as we remember those who died - both the victims in the Towers and the heroes who died tried to save them - and those who survived with physical, emotional, and spiritual scars, we owe them a lived-out faith in Christ that changes not just what jewelry we wear or where we spend our Sunday mornings but manifests itself in the way we treat others - both those who share our faith and those who do not.

Mark Jackson

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