that the Reverend Jerry Falwell has apologized for his ignorant
misapplication of Christian thought, we can reflect on one or two
questions lying about in the rubble.
What Jerry Falwell said on the 700 Club program was that
the sins of the nation incurred the wrath of God. Pat Robertson
agreed. After a day or two of pretty general clamor, including a
disavowal by President Bush, the language was slightly changed.
What happened, Falwell elucidated, was not a direct aggression engineered
by God, but the forfeit of God's special protection.
That refinement didn't do it. So finally Mr. Falwell said that
his remarks were "insensitive, uncalled for at the time, and
unnecessary." He apologized for making them. Among the protesters
was the Greensboro, North Carolina, News & Record, whose
editorial said that "people who hold positions of religious
leadership have a responsibility to think before they speak and
to consider the implications of what they are about to say. Jerry
Falwell and Pat Robertson failed that test in a most revolting way.
They have forfeited any claim to Christian leadership."
Certainly they have reminded the community in general, and the
Christian community especially, that even ordained ministers of
the faith are able terribly to misteach Christian thought.
What Falwell did was to accumulate his complaints against the engines
of a secularized America and invoke God as an avenger. His complaints
against abortion, gay rights, the end of prayer at school, boiled
down to God vs. the ACLU, the attack on the World Trade Center being
a divine shot across the bow of the Supreme Court.
Transcriptions of God's manners in such fashion lend themselves
to massive, if facile, retribution. "Falwell and Robertson,"
the economic analyst Andy Tobias wrote on his website, "have
convinced themselves that when a hurricane hit Virginia Beach (Robertson's
neck of the woods), there's no meaning to it, and that when a hurricane
fails to hit Orlando as predicted in retribution for Disney's equal-rights
policies for gays, there's no meaning to it, and that when AIDS
devastates the (straight) population of Africa, or 6 million innocent
Jews and 3 million innocent Cambodians are exterminated, God merely
works in mysterious ways. But when religious fanatics crash planes
into the World Trade Center because they believe it will take them
to a special place in heaven, this is not caused by a fanatic religious
certitude greater in degree but not entirely dissimilar from their
own. Rather they conclude that it is caused, at least in part, because
people like me [Tobias is gay and the treasurer of the Democratic
National Committee] have made God mad."
The Old Testament's most inscrutable book is Jonah's, recounting
the passage of God's emissary to Nineveh to advise of the impending
apocalypse brought on by affronts to the Word. Jonah survives the
whale that swallowed him, reaches Nineveh, and is dismayed to learn
that God has forgiven the wicked of that place. But then, "Who
can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce
anger, that we perish not?" Jonah acknowledges the mercy of
God, but roils at the humiliation done to him, preaching a false
message. He informs God that he wishes to give up his own life,
"for it is better for me to die than to live. Then said
the Lord, Doest thou well to be angry? And he said, I do well to
be angry, even unto death.
Christian teaching is not irrelevant, simply because we
dismiss as preposterous the notion that, on September 11, God was
the hijackers' co-pilot. God does not shield his creatures from
the malevolent exercise of free will. "Do you suppose that
these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans,
because they suffered such things? Or those eighteen on whom the
tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were
worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem?"
"I tell you no," said Jesus, "but unless you repent
you will all likewise perish."
As it is true that the acts of terrorists befall everyone, it is
no less true that there are reasons for everyone to repent, in this
context most notably Osama bin Laden, but also Jerry Falwell and
Pat Robertson, and yeah, even members of the Supreme Court.