The Shadow of Death: A Response to Jerry Falwell, Jr.

Calling out Christian college presidents isn’t really how I wanted to spend Advent, but then I didn’t expect one such leader to devote part of a chapel talk to encouraging his students to carry concealed weapons. But that’s just what Liberty University president Jerry Falwell, Jr. did on Friday, two days after the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.

In a sense, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, Liberty has allowed concealed weapons on campus since 2013. “I think somebody that might want to do us harm will not feel good about coming to Liberty University,” said university general counsel David Corry at the time, “because that person might encounter more than just law enforcement that’s armed.”

Candlelight vigil at Virginia Tech after the 2007 mass murder
Among other factors, supporters of the Liberty policy change in 2013 cited the 2007 massacre at nearby Virginia Tech (seen here during a candlelight vigil) – Wikimedia

As someone who works in higher ed, it’s terrifying to imagine the proliferation of weapons in a community made up primarily of young adults who, if not the infantilized narcissists that some imagine them to be, are people in process who perhaps ought not to be entrusted with the power to take human life. Good grief, alcohol and tobacco are not permitted on Liberty’s campus, but you can pack heat?

Now, Liberty is far from alone in allowing concealed weapons on campus. But even if there’s a thoughtful, prudent argument to be made for such a policy, Falwell certainly didn’t make it on Friday: (as quoted by Sarah Pullman Bailey in the Washington Post)

“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.”

“I just wanted to take this opportunity to encourage all of you to get your permit. We offer a free course,” he said. “Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.”

Jerry Falwell, Jr.Kyrie eleison. Christ, have mercy.

Asked for comment by Bailey, Falwell explained that “those Muslims” referred specifically to the perpetrators of the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, but “That’s the only thing I would clarify… If I had to say what I said again, I’d say exactly the same thing.”

Anyone can speak rashly, but it’s hard to imagine a more incendiary brand of foolishness. First, let’s keep in mind that Liberty has 15-20 Muslims in its student body. But also, that according to surveys by the Public Religion Research Institute, large majorities of evangelicals agree that “The values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life” (73%, 2015) and oppose stronger gun control laws (61%, two years ago — before a general upswing in support for gun rights). I don’t know about you, but I’d rather those two powder kegs stay as far away from each other as possible.

Even if we can forget Falwell’s mention of Islam, it’s troubling that the president of the country’s largest Christian university, a would-be “Protestant Notre Dame,” would call so eagerly for followers of Jesus to prepare themselves for violent self-defense. Just a bit less troubling: the number of people in the audience who responded so enthusiastically.

As Shane Claiborne put it: “As I listened to the words of Mr. Falwell, I could not help asking, ‘Are we worshipping the same Jesus?'” Baptist columnist (and Liberty alum) Jonathan Merritt agreed:

While the school claims to put Jesus at the center of its curriculum, its president never referred to the Prince of Peace’s teachings in his remarks about gun violence. The absence is unsurprising. It’s hard to imagine how Jesus’s teachings could support his case.

Now, there’s no easy solution here, particularly for those of us who do profess Christ as Savior and Lord. How many of us who’d echo Claiborne and Merritt’s invocations of the peaceful Way of Jesus also voted once or twice for Barack Obama, who has been called “the first president to make the killing of targeted individuals the focus of our military operations, of our intelligence, of our national-security strategy, and, some argue, of our foreign policy”? How many are planning to vote for Obama’s former secretary of state to succeed him? (Or if not Secretary Clinton, then perhaps a democratic socialist whose record on gun control is not all that encouraging?)

There’s no easy solution, but a better leader would have said so. Instead, speaking to people made fearful by events beyond their control, Falwell offered a simplistic, deceptive, unchristian promise of security.

If nothing else, Falwell (again, speaking in a spiritual service) could have mentioned the tragedy in California and simply asked his students to join him in a prayer of lament. To close with a hopeful note, perhaps the words of Zechariah, so appropriate to this time of year:

By the tender mercy of our God,
    the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:78-79)

So often in Advent, the Christian season of waiting, we pray for Jesus to come again, to bring the light and peace of his reign. But if we are the Body of Christ, then we each have the chance to answer that prayer for others.

Those who cling fearfully to the swords and shields of this world for protection cannot possibly come in the name of Christ and bring peace to those who sit in darkness. They can only extend the shadow of death.

16 thoughts on “The Shadow of Death: A Response to Jerry Falwell, Jr.

  1. Well, leave it to the internet and some perpetually professionally offended victim to figure out how to properly voice his unique flavor of offense at something…

    This is beyond stupid. really.

    The average police response time EVEN AT MASS SHOOTINGS is over 5 minutes. This college president can’t afford to put an armed policeman in every corner of the campus. But he can afford to offer trained and vetted citizens the opportunity to exercise the very rights granted to them by our nation’s founders.

    It is well worth noting that these rights were considered important enough that the founders listed them 2nd ONLY TO the right given to this article’s author – that of being allowed the freedom to run your trap in public, whether smart or stupid, and to not lose your head as a result.

    So, yes, please feel offended. really… And please tell us how unchristian it is. and how thoughtless/insensitive/unsafe it is. Really.. keep on. Meanwhile the real sheepdogs didn’t bother asking your opinion – we’ve been silently carrying our guns EVERY DAY for years, because maybe, just maybe, we might find ourselves in such a terrible situation.

    I’d like to have to teach my son how to use a gun, than have him stand at my funeral and tell others how I & a dozen other of my colleagues died under a table, because I thought it just wasn’t sensible to bring a gun to a gunfight….

    Somehow I don’t think those folks who mowed down a bunch of people at a Christmas party would’ve decided to show up on Liberty’s campus, knowing that the cute little coed in the 2nd row may well send them off to see Alla with a few extra holes.

    While you were busy pontificating on the insanity and nastiness of it, did you mention how there have been no mass killings, no accidental shootings, no “OK Corral” actions on Liberty’s campus, despite this HORRIBLE affliction being foisted upon Christianity?

    1. If enough good people have guns, it should make the bad people think twice about shooting up a place. I’m glad that there are people who choose to carry weapons to defend thems loves and the rest of us. No, I do not carry a gun, and yes, I am a Christian.

  2. Dear Chris, I appreciate how you put this; I remain speechless that Mr. Falwell would use the “breathtaking NRA logic” that only “a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun” – without ever questioning the epistemology of who is good. Coincidentally, I post this article that provides a link to your post:
    May there be “peace on earth”…

  3. Hi Chris,
    I had a different feel for what Pres. Falwell said.

    He seemed to be advocating people steeping up to defend their neighbors if the need arises. He is advocating people putting themselves in harms-way to keep worse things from happening. I don’t really have a problem with this.

    Also, in VA one must be 21 or older to obtain a concealed carry permit. I think your hoplophobia is a bit misplaced, and also seems uninformed as to the hoops and training needed to obtain a concealed carry permit. It seems you are conflating knowing how to use a tool with a desire to use to do harm.

    There is a school of thought that can be summed up as ‘I am my own first responder.’ These are the people that know CPR, First Aid, and Life Guarding, and sometimes have a permit to carry. No one ever wants to use any of these skills, but when thing don’t go smoothly they are necessary. One can either wait for the government to arrive or one can be prepared to step into the mess and keep it from getting worse. Sometimes, Kyrie eleison is through the hands of people on the ground at the moment things go wrong.

    1. Hi Andrew, I confess I did not see this story as you did through your lens. I didn’t see the more noble aspect that you did, because of the way Mr. Falwell called for his student body to “end those Muslims before they walked in.” Admittedly – I guess he was talking about “those Muslims who have guns and bad intent.” Perhaps I got caught up in the clumsy wording of his speech. I also confess that I have conflated “knowing how to use a tool (gun) with the desire to use it to do harm.” This comes from my prejudice that “when we have a hammer – everything begins to look like a nail” – when we have a gun, we tend to use it more/broadly rather than find other solutions. I fear though that we’d be talking past each other; I don’t expect to convince you any more than your post did anything to convince me that Mr. Falwell’s remarks were prudent or wise or gracious. I am sorry. I offer a different angle in:
      Peace to you. Sincerely.

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