The Rev. Jerry Falwell died recently. So, too, did Yolanda King, who was the eldest child of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King. Falwell was the founder of the movement known as The Moral Majority and one of the originators of that group that is referred to either as “conservative, evangelical Christians” or as “the religious right.” Ms. King and her family represented the entirely opposite side of American public and political life. It could be said in truth that Jerry Falwell and Martin Luther King, Jr. spent most of their lives working for a vision of America that would have looked entirely different depending upon which one of them would have prevailed.
For the last 30 years, Jerry Falwell advocated a less activist Supreme Court and for less government intrusion into people’s lives. For the last 50 years, the King family has been an equally compelling force in American life but pointing in a different direction. They have worked for more inclusion, more diversity, more emphasis on peace and justice. All of that being said, it is hard to imagine anything but death linking the names Jerry Falwell and Yolanda King. I cannot think of a single Christian leader in this country with whom I have more regularly disagreed than I have with Jerry Falwell.
I share some of the uneasiness of this week’s association of these two names. Falwell and I probably would disagree on almost every one of the outlandish statements he made during the years. None of them was more outlandish than his suggestion that “people who perform and receive abortions were partly responsible for the attacks on this nation on September 11, 2001, along with gays, lesbians, and the ACLU.” Falwell suggested the attacks on 9/11 were the judgment of God upon a nation that had lost its moral compass. Of course, he later recanted those remarks and decided it really was terrorists and hijackers who were responsible for those attacks.
I make haste to say I do not call into question his earnest and sincere faith in Christ. I do not doubt his respect and reverence for the word of God. In fact, I have every confidence that he was an able and capable spokesman for his own understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ. There were clearly tens of thousands who called him their pastor and there were millions who supported his various movements. His death will create a great void within a very large section of the body of Christ. Therein is my dilemma: How does one disagree with someone over theology or politics without forgetting our union with them like members of the family because of common faith in Jesus Christ?
His death has not simply resulted in the end of an epic life; it also has resulted in a profound and troubling question, the answer for which could forever change how life in the church of Jesus Christ works from this day forward. What do you do with people with whom you disagree? How do you pray for them? What do you pray for them?
I do not doubt there are some Christians who are not praying to God for Falwell’s soul to rest in eternal peace. However, I am not in that number. I find myself in a different place as I think about his death and as I reflect on his life. I pray for Jerry Falwell in the same way I would pray for myself, not because we share a common point of view, but because we share the Savior.
Some might ask why an African-American pastor from Cleveland, Ohio, could show any sympathy at a time like this. I was nurtured to faith during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, a movement Falwell resisted. I was tutored in the faith in the ‘70s and ‘80s by some of the schools and seminaries despised by Falwell and his followers. He was a staunchly conservative Republican, and I am a somewhat moderate Democrat. He saw the issue of abortion as the major moral crisis of our time, and I probably would have placed racism and militarism in that category. We lived in different worlds, and we worked for sometimes very different ends, but that does not change the fact that he was in the family of faith.
I doubt I would worry over this matter so much if it were not for some actions taken by Jesus on the day He called His first twelve apostles. There is something about the strange and unusual configuration of that group of men that has long bothered me, amazed me, and now causes me to reconsider some of my views and attitudes about people inside the church with whom I have experienced some disagreement.
Listen to the names Jesus uttered as He called His first disciples; at first they flow like a stream of “solid sameness.” There were two sets of brothers from the same hometown; Peter and Andrew, and James and John. Those four men all came from the same town of Capernaum along the coast of the Sea of Galilee. Not only were all of them fishermen, but they all worked together for a fleet of fishing boats owned by a man named Zebedee who was the father of James and John.
If those were the only men Jesus had called, or if all the others had also come from Galilee or had also been fishermen, I would not find anything in that arrangement that would make me believe Jesus cared anything at all about diversity or working with people who hold sharply different points of views. Because Jesus Himself came from Galilee, it would not be surprising for Him to select as His disciples people who shared His values, His cultural perspective, and, as we learned later in the garden of Gethsemane, they even shared His distinctive Galilean accent. The selection of Peter and Andrew, James, and John sounds like what most churches in America look like today; people who look the same, think the same, and basically believe the same thing.
However, if you look a bit deeper into that passage in which the names of the disciples are listed, there are two other names that do not fit together as easily as Peter and Andrew, or James and John. Those two names are Matthew the tax-collector and Simon the Zealot. There could not have been two men in all of Palestine who would have been less likely to do anything together than a tax-collector and a zealot. Matthew the tax collector basically worked for the Romans gathering taxes from Jewish people to support the Roman army, which occupyied their country.
Most tax-collectors were noted not simply for gathering the amount of tax was required by Rome. They had a remarkable work incentive that allowed them to keep for themselves any and all funds they raised above the amount they owed the Romans. As a result, most tax-collectors were rich, yet viewed by their countrymen as collaborators with the enemy. It must have seemed strange to everyone when Jesus announced he was calling a tax-collector to become one of his disciples.
However, things turned from strange to bizarre when the name of Simon the Zealot was added to the list. Zealots were Jews who hated Roman rule, Roman soldiers, Roman taxes, and especially hated the Jewish tax-collectors who worked with and for the Romans. Zealots were known for conducting violent attacks against groups of Roman soldiers. It was well known their ultimate goal was to have the Romans driven out of their country. How do you think Simon the Zealot felt, not only when he was called to be a follower of Jesus, but when he found out one of the people with whom he would be associated in the family of disciples was a tax-collector named Matthew?
Why would Jesus ask two such men to work together with Him? Why didn’t He simply stay with Peter and Andrew, and James and John? Surely it would have been easier for everyone if sameness and uniformity of opinion was the first requirement, but apparently those requirements were tossed aside with the addition of Matthew the tax-collector and Simon the Zealot. Obviously, Jesus was out to make another point, not only about whom He wanted working with Him, but also about who He wanted working with one another despite their differences of politics and perspective.
How different might the church look today if we had paid more attention to the fact Jesus called a tax-collector and a zealot? How different would the church look today if we realized he called the modern equivalent of the most right-wing Republican and the most left-wing Democrat to come together and be his disciples? Before we go any further, it might be important to note Matthew and Simon accept the offer to follow Jesus. They presumably and apparently find a way to work together. Whatever continuing differences they had did not make it into the passages of the Bible. Most interesting of all, it was neither Matthew nor Simon who denied knowing who Jesus was – that was Peter from Galilee.
It seems to me we need to learn a lesson from this text and then apply that lesson to the heart and mind and soul of the American church as quickly as possible. I believe the lesson of Matthew and Simon is this: The church never was meant to be a bastion of segregation along lines of sameness, be that sameness in regard to race, ethnicity, economics, social class, ideology, politics, church polity, or doctrinal issues. So many of those things are matters of our human invention, not things based on revelation from Scripture. Most of our divisions as denominations – and congregations – were born out of personality conflicts and personal power struggles, not over a serious debate about what it actually means to be a Christian.
It is outrageous that in modern times, with few exceptions, the racial makeup of most Christian congregations largely is unchanged since a man named Liston Pope said in 1961 that “11 a.m. on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America.” Thank God that many of the restrictions, whether de facto or de jure (meaning by cultural practice or by legal statute) have been lifted so more churches are reflecting more diversity in every area of life. Nevertheless, despite how far we have come not only as a nation, but also as a church, we still have a great deal further to go until our churches stop looking like Peter and Andrew, and James and John, and start making some room for Matthew Simon.
That is the text that confronts me as I think about Jerry Falwell. There was much about which we did not agree, but there was one thing on which we completely agreed: Jesus Christ is Lord. Our theology may have been different, and our politics may have different, but how do we handle those differences if we are united in our faith in the same Lord?
This is as awkward as our own war history in America. Has it ever occurred to you what God must have been thinking when he heard Englishmen and Colonial Americans praying to God during the Revolutionary War that God would give them victory? Most of those who fought were members of the same denominations but were divided by politics and economics. What do you say to God about your brother in Christ on the other side?
Consider the Civil War in the 1860s, when members of the same family often found themselves on opposing sides of the fight. No doubt God heard prayers from both sides to give them power to destroy the enemy. The same was true during both world wars when essentially “Christian nations” tried to wipe one another off the face of the planet. Undoubtedly, those wars never would have happened if we had truly been “Christian nations.” Jesus was fairly explicit in his views of “living by the sword.” In times of war we ask God to take our side and join us in punishing our enemies.
However, does my being an enemy of yours make me an enemy of God? If you don’t like me or agree with me, is that sufficient grounds for you to ask God to allow me to be vanquished? I might have approached this question differently had it not been for Matthew and Simon. I might not agree with all for which Falwell stood, but I better be careful how I pray for him and those who agreed with him. Jesus did not just call his countrymen from Galilee; he also called a tax collector and a zealot. If Jesus could stand that much open diversity within the inner circle of his movement, why can’t we allow for more diversity of appearance and expression within our churches, our seminary faculties, our denominational headquarters, and our Christian publishing houses?
Before you answer this question, remember Jesus had a chance to speak a word about the very people who put him to death on the cross; there is no greater statement of political difference than a Roman crucifixion. What was it that Jesus said at that critical moment that we celebrate every Good Friday and then tuck safely into the back of our minds and at the bottom of our priorities so it does not conflict with our personal prejudices and preferences concerning diversity? What he said was, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Whoever else Jesus may have intended with the appeal for a divine pardon, it certainly had to include the people who disagreed with Jesus so vehemently they either sought his death or actually put him to death. Wouldn’t it be a shame if you and I actually think more like the people who were responsible for the death of Jesus than we think like Jesus himself?
Church life would look much different if we learned the lessons Jesus was teaching when He included Matthew and Simon among His band of followers. Sometimes the only thing people may have in common is Jesus, but in church that ought to be enough. It may not be enough to get married. It may not be enough to go into business together. It may not be enough to establish a professional relationship; it may not even be enough to maintain a factious political alignment. However, within the life of the church, it ought to be enough that we have Jesus in common. If Matthew and Simon could stay together and work out their differences, then we have no excuses.
Rest in peace, Jerry. I hope to meet you in heaven where we can praise our Lord together throughout eternity. If Matthew and Simon could do it, then so can you and I.