The elephant in the room everyone seems to be avoiding on the blog this week is the sudden death of the Rev. Jerry Falwell.
Although I emphatically reject many fundamentalist notions of Christianity, I once heard Falwell on a PBS program explain fundamentalist interpretation of Scripture in a clear and engaging way. I often wished Id seen more of that side of him.
But at odds with that friendly face on the PBS special was the man who not only denounced what he perceived as sin, but went so far as to claim that some of the worst global and national tragedies--AIDS, 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina--were Gods punishments.
How are Americans remembering Jerry Falwell? One way to get some sense of the breadth (if not depth) of opinion is to google a specific phrase, in this case, "Falwells death is " Sadly, those gloating over Falwells death were running about three to one over those lamenting his demise.
Not surprisingly, several writers turned Falwells own propensity to brand various disasters as punishments from God against him:
--"Falwell's death is the wrath of a just God against hate-filled bigots...."
--"falwell's death is God's way of telling the conservatives to back off ... "
--"Falwell's death is the wrath of a just God against hypocritical religious fundamentalists. ..."
I cant reprint many of the comments from the blogosphere, so high were the levels of vitriol. Suffice it to say that most were of the "dancing on his grave" variety. A sampling of the milder comments (spelling and punctuation have been left intact):
--"I actually believe that Falwell's death is soemthing as welcome to you as Saddam's or Osama's. You cannot distinguish between nuisances ..."
--"Watching the media coverage of Jerry Falwell's death is pretty nauseating. He is largely being portrayed as a man who inspired many and generally did good ... "
--"my only personal "gut" reaction to Jerry Falwell's death is but: "Another phony con-man bites the dust."
--"While rev. falwell's death is a loss to family and friends, it is no loss to those who seek equal rights for all men and women to pursue the american dream. ... "
A few bloggers like this one called for some restraint in the grave dancing: "I did not believe his celebrating Matthew Shepard's death was in any way appropriate, and I don't feel celebrating Falwell's death is appropriate."
In the end, what was Jerry Falwell to us Catholics, and why should we care what legacy he left?
For starters, Fundamentalists perpetuate errors about Catholicism that many of us find ourselves having to correct. No, we dont worship saints or the Virgin. No, we dont worship graven images. No, we do not believe that those who are not baptized go straight to hell. No we dont believe that everything in Scripture is literally true.
Falwell, with his well-publicized comments about punishments from God-many of which he tried to backpedal on-made God look like a monster. Catholics do not believe in a God that wants little children to die of AIDS as a punishment for the sins of society. Or a God who would take out half the Gulf Coast with a hurricane in a snit over New Orleans gay parades.
What seemed to enrage Falwells detractors most was his triumphalism and belief that he could read the intentions of the Almighty. Using those same tactics as Catholics will not win us friends, converts or the salvation of others.
Finally, Falwell was such a master at the sound bite that his most outrageous statements attracted press coverage. And when he tried to be more thoughtful and to enlarge on matters of faith, he was largely ignored. The press must take some blame for that. But Falwell himself, nobodys fool whatever you thought of him, also fed the beast. Our faith--and that of Jerry Falwell--deserves better.