Sunday, December 6, 2015

Thoughts on Jerry Falwell Jr. and Guns

Jerry Falwell Jr.'s remarks about guns at Liberty University have been nagging me all day.  This is because I know some Liberty faculty, know people who currently attend Liberty, know parents who have sent or are sending their kids to Liberty, and know many Liberty alums.  Last night I reached out to some of my Liberty connections. Some responded. Some did not.  

In case you haven't heard, on Friday during the university convocation Falwell Jr. told the Liberty students and other members of the community--some 12,000 of them were in attendance--that they should arm themselves in order to protect the campus from potential "Muslim" intruders.  Here is what he said.

If some of those people in that community center had had what I've got in my back pocket right now [applause] ... is it illegal to pull it out? I don't know. I've always thought that if more people had concealed carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walk in and kill. So, I just want to take this opportunity to encourage all of you to get your permit. We offer a free course. Let's teach 'em a lesson if they ever show up here."

These remarks were greeted with loud applause in the arena.  If Twitter is any indication, the Liberty community seems to be supporting their president on this issue.  Check out Falwell's Jr.'s Twitter feed.  He is retweeting all of the positive tweets.  In fact, he claims that he has never received more positive feedback.

I understand that Falwell Jr. has made efforts to bring Liberty out of the separatist, fundamentalist, politically conservative world of his father, Jerry Falwell Sr., the founder of the institution.  Liberty has a long way to go on this front, but Falwell Jr.'s decision to invite Bernie Sanders to speak on campus was a step in the right direction.  This kind of gesture will never be enough for hard-line liberals and secularists who despise the very existence of a place such as Liberty University, but the invitation of Sanders, when taken in historical context, was a significant breakthrough.

I am thus sympathetic with the thoughts of evangelical monastic Shane Claiborne. Perhaps Falwell Jr. just got caught up in the moment, like his father did on more than one occasion. His father was not above apologizing for his brash comments, including his remark that gays and lesbians were responsible for the terrorist attacks on 9-11-01.  

I hope that Falwell Jr. eventually realizes that his words were poorly formed and that he needs to apologize. To do so would be an act of Christian courage far more meaningful than the arrogant remarks he made last Friday.  Perhaps he could also admit that his remarks were the unfortunate product of a nasty, politically-charged culture war mentality that has defined the Lynchburg campus since its founding.  Old ways die hard.

But if Falwell Jr. apologized he would disappoint the Liberty faithful who are currently praising him for his remarks.  His followers might think that he is a coward who is caving in to attacks by the "liberal media."  How the president responds in the next few days will tell us a lot about the direction he wants to take Liberty University. 

I am also afraid that Falwell Jr. may have hurt Liberty University's reputation as a "safe" place for young conservative evangelicals to attend college.  Schools like Liberty are advertised as "safe" because students are taught correct doctrine, meaning that there is a good chance that they will graduate with their faith in tact.  But Liberty is also "safe" because the parents of young evangelicals believe that their children will be protected from the evils and dangers of the outside world.

Is Liberty as safe today as it was before Falwell Jr.'s "bring it on" convocation address on Friday morning?  It is a question worth asking. I know that there are  many on the Liberty campus who are asking this question right now.

I also wonder about the wisdom of encouraging college students to carry concealed weapons. From what I understand, guns are allowed on the Liberty campus, except in the dorms.  Why not in the dorms?  And why doesn't the logic that keeps guns out of the dorms apply to the campus as a whole? Where do students put their guns when they are in their dorm rooms?  Just curious.

There also seems to be a theological issue here.  I am guessing that Liberty University teaches that human beings are born sinful and are thus prone to act in sinful ways.  If they really believe this doctrine, wouldn't arming the student body be a bad idea? 

In conclusion, I would encourage the Liberty University community to read Marilynne Robinson's recent essay on fear.  (She is one of my favorite Calvinists!)  Here is just a small taste:

There is something I have felt the need to say, that I have spoken about in various settings, extemporaneously, because my thoughts on the subject have not been entirely formed, and because it is painful to me to have to express them. However, my thesis is always the same, and it is very simply stated, though it has two parts: first, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind. As children we learn to say, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.” We learn that, after his resurrection, Jesus told his disciples, “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” Christ is a gracious, abiding presence in all reality, and in him history will finally be resolved.

These are larger, more embracing terms than contemporary Christianity is in the habit of using. But we are taught that Christ “was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made….The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” The present tense here is to be noted. John’s First Letter proclaims “the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us.” We as Christians cannot think of Christ as isolated in space or time if we really do accept the authority of our own texts. Nor can we imagine that this life on earth is our only life, our primary life. As Christians we are to believe that we are to fear not the death of our bodies but the loss of our souls.