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.”
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.”
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.
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.