Saturday, December 5, 2015

Jerry Falwell Jr. is Wrong on Scripture and San Bernadino. Here's Why.

Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, is one of the biggest and most famous Christian universities in the world.  Founded by the Moral Majority bigwig and televangelist Jerry Falwell, the school is now run by Falwell's son, Jerry Falwell, Jr., after Jerry Falwell, Sr. passed away in the spring of 2007.

And while there are tons of horrible stories coming out from San Bernadino right now in the wake of a terrorist shooting by radicalized American Muslim residents/citizens, one that personally pains me is this story from the Washington Post on Falwell Jr.'s convocation address to Liberty after the San Bernadino attack, that was less a sermon and more a rally for more guns in America.  Here are, from the WP story, a few of Falwell Jr.'s quotes:

“I’ve always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in,” he says, the rest of his sentence drowned out by loud applause while he said, “and killed them.” 

 Some theologians believe that Jesus would call on Christians to put down their weapons in the face of violence. In response, Falwell referenced the story from the gospels of Jesus chasing money changers out of the temple with a whip. 

“Jesus said ‘Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s,’ and part of that was to go to war, protecting whatever nation was under control of the king,” Falwell said. “I wouldn’t agree with any interpretation of Scripture that was used to say that a man or a woman shouldn’t protect their families.”

Setting aside the fact that typically, people who ask for more sensible restrictions on assault weaponry are charged with "politicizing" mass shootings--not people who ask for more guns--there are a lot of things wrong with each of these statements.

First, "those Muslims?"  Really?  Falwell Jr. later said that he only meant the Muslims who had carried out the San Bernadino and Paris attacks, but think of the hue and cry that would (understandably and rightfully) arise from the Christian community if prominent American Muslim leaders referred to "ending those Christians" in reference to, say, Robert Dear or Dylann Storm Roof.

But you don't need me to tell you that.  I want to focus on the second and third paragraphs, because there is so much wrong with Falwell Jr.'s interpretation of these two New Testament stories that it is difficult to know where to begin.

However, let's start here: there's a specific reason Jesus chases the moneychangers (and merchants) out of the Jerusalem temple with a whip.  Moneychangers were necessary because the temple economy only allowed shekels to be used as currency, and since Israel was a vassal state of the Roman Empire, overseen by a Roman governor (at the time, Pontius Pilate), the vast majority of Israelites did business not with shekels, but with Roman denarii.  Thus, for Israelites coming to the temple, they would need to change their currency, and the moneychangers--with at least the tacit, if not overt, approval of the temple leadership of Pharisees and Sadducees--would charge exorbitant commissions in order to change the denarii of faithful pilgrims into shekels.

What would these faithful pilgrims use their new shekels on?  Enter the merchants, whom Mark and Matthew both refer to as "those who sold doves" (Common English Bible translation).  Why would people sell doves at the temple, and why were the dove-sellers driven out alongside the moneychangers?  Remember, ancient Judaism practiced animal sacrifice.  But in truth, it was either too expensive or too impractical for pilgrims to bring an animal from home, so the merchants at the temple made available sacrificial animals for purchase.  Doves (and possibly pigeons) were among the cheapest of these sacrificial animals, the animals for people who simply could not afford to make a bigger, more substantial sacrifice.  These sellers, like the moneychangers, likely charged exorbitant prices because they could.

So Jesus is driving out people who are criminally fleecing the faithful flock for their own personal gain.  The story has nothing to do with "put(ting) down their weapons in the face of violence," and in point of fact, that is precisely what Jesus commands His apostles to do when He is apprehended days later at Gethsemane, saying, "Put the sword back in its place.  All who live by the sword will die by the sword." (Matthew 26:52, CEB)

But what about rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar's?  This might be the most egregious dose of Falwell Jr.'s Biblical snake oil, because he is extrapolating gobs of conclusions from a story that is about something entirely different--a story whose moral, in fact, likely undercuts the point Falwell Jr. is trying to make.

Jesus is in the temple complex, and His opponents try to trick Him by asking whether people should pay taxes to the Roman emperor not.  It is a trick because if Jesus says yes, taxes should be paid, it would expose Him as not the Messiah many Israelites had hoped for, a Messiah who would lead them to glorious victory against the Romans and eventual independence as a nation.  If Jesus says no, taxes should not be paid, it could be interpreted by Pilate as inciting insurrection against Rome by undermining its imperial authority.

Jesus's rejoinder, then, is absolutely brilliant.  He first asks for a denarius--which by itself discredits His accusers on spec.  Remember what I said about shekels being the only legal tender in the temple?  By being in possession of Roman coins, Jesus's opponents are revealing themselves to not follow the laws they claim to be the rightful custodians of.

But second, the denarius acts as a helpful prop for what Jesus is about to say: "Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God."  Jesus is juxtaposing a tiny, dime-sized coin with the entire massive, sprawling Jerusalem temple complex.  So give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, indeed--for those things which belong to Caesar are dwarfed by the things that belong to God.

In other words, Jesus is trying to make a point--without falling into His questioners' trap--about the limited scope of empire's true powers.  What the emperor owned of the Israelites was tiny compared to what God owned of the Israelites.  The Israelites were and are God's people.  The emperor, by contrast, was simply a man.

Which means that this story has nothing to do with "go(ing) to war, protecting whatever nation was under control of the king."  The story conveys the exact opposite meaning: rather than the emperor controlling even more of you, Jesus was saying the emperor controlled even less.

But wait, Eric, doesn't that mean that Jesus wants more of us to own guns, because the government should control less of us than God?

Not really.  Firstly, Jesus's aforementioned quote about how all who live by the sword will die by the sword puts that theory to pasture.  But secondly, Jesus demands radical self-sacrifice from His followers.  The void that is left by liberating oneself from the oppression and domination of empire is meant to be filled by the governance of God, not of self-governance.

This, more than anything, is why Falwell Jr. cannot possibly say "I wouldn’t agree with any interpretation of Scripture that was used to say that a man or a woman shouldn’t protect their families" with any truth to the statement.  Jesus's core apostles were defined by their willingness to follow Jesus, to submit to God's governance, even to the point of leaving their families vulnerable.

When Jesus encounters the brothers James and John fishing with their father Zebedee in Matthew 4 and Luke 5, the brothers leave their father behind.  In so doing, they are knowingly sentencing their father to a quickly impending financial insecurity.

Parents in Biblical times would teach their trade to their children so that their children could not only carry on the family trade, but so that the parents would have someone to provide for them in their own old age once they became too weak to make a living in the variety of back-breaking occupations that defined ancient civilizations--and fishing was no exception.  By abandoning Zebedee, James and John are--again, knowingly--dramatically increasing the risk of death prematurely felling their father should anything happen to him.  And Jesus permits this.

And we frankly should not be so surprised that Jesus does--after all, this is the same Jesus who says this:

Then Jesus said to someone else, “Follow me.” He replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead. But you go and spread the news of God’s kingdom.” Someone else said to Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say good-bye to those in my house.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for God’s kingdom.”

(Luke 9:57-62, CEB)

While I have my own opinions on our plague of gun violence and what public policies ought to be enacted to stem it, this post has not been about that.  Part of my job as a seminary-trained and ordained pastor is to be able to differentiate good Biblical interpretation from bad Biblical interpretation, and it worries me that someone like Jerry Falwell Jr. has such a huge platform with which to spread misinformation about what the Bible does and does not say and teach.  Because of that platform, he has a moral obligation to not be so fast and loose with Scripture, and to be not so quick to force it into his worldview.

On the contrary, we ought all to be placing ourselves into Christ's worldview.  Especially after a tragedy like what has just taken place in San Bernadino.

It is something that I too struggle mightily with at times.  But it will neither exhaust or expend us to continue trying, and I firmly believe that we will all end up better for having done so.

Vancouver, Washington
December 5, 2015

Image courtesy of

No comments:

Post a Comment