Falwell: A Spiritual Bully

When doctors pronounced the Rev. Jerry Laymon Falwell Sr. dead at 12:40 p.m. EST Tuesday, I was sitting in the departures lounge of the Key West airport in Florida with a dozen other journalists who had just attended a three-day conference on religion and politics.

As word spread --a producer for National Public Radio got the first call-- my colleagues scrambled to their cell phones, BlackBerries and laptops in preparation to write stories and, as was the case with a few, give live radio interviews about the impact of the Rev. Falwell's death.

Knowing I didn't have a deadline to meet that day, my first thoughts were not of what to say or write.

In fact, my very first thought upon hearing of the Rev. Falwell's passing was: Good.

And I didn't mean "good" in a oh-good-he's-gone-home-to-be-with-the-Lord kind of way. I meant "good" as in "Ding-dong, the witch is dead."

But that thought -- good riddance, I suppose -- was not meant to be cruel or malicious. After all, the faith that the Rev. Falwell and I share teaches us that he was, at that moment, in a far better place, with Jesus in heaven, and not roasting on a spit in Hell's kitchen.

By shrugging off his mortal coil, the Rev. Falwell had ceased to suffer the pain of humanity.

Still, I'm not particularly proud of my knee-jerk reaction. But there it is.

My first thought was not sympathy for his grieving family and friends, or for the students at Liberty University who surely were shocked by the sudden passing of the school's founder in his office on campus. I didn't think of the Rev. Falwell's best intentions, nor about what good he might have contributed to the world during his nearly 74 years on this Earth. That came much later.

My initial reaction to the Rev. Falwell's death was, and remains, relief -- not unlike the ease I felt when a particularly nasty bully who used to spit at me on the playground and threaten to beat me up after school moved to another town.

The Rev. Falwell was a spiritual bully. He was the Tony Soprano to Pat Robertson's Paulie Walnuts.

People who know both of us have told me over the years that we'd probably have liked each other, the Rev. Falwell and I, that he was an affable, almost jolly man, not nearly as smug and awful as his public persona made him out to be.

I'm sure, were he real, Tony Soprano also would make a charming dinner companion, sharing his lasagna and an expensive bottle of Orvieto while telling great stories and asking how your grandmother's doing in the home. And then he'd have you whacked and thrown over the side of his deep-sea fishing boat. But he'd send flowers to the funeral.

After all, as another famous Christian leader once told me by way of explaining how some evangelicals turn on each other (never mind their perceived enemies): "We shoot our own."

I will not miss the Rev. Falwell, though the faith he and I share assures me we'll have plenty of time to catch up as we spend eternity together in God's house of many mansions.

Who knows whether, at this moment, the Rev. Falwell is polishing one of the many crowns he's stored up in heaven from his good work for the kingdom on Earth, or is on day three of his seminar with Jesus about what the Gospel really meant and how the reverend had royally screwed up the message? Only God is privy to that kind of insight.

And if there's one thing I learned from the Rev. Falwell's example, it was to heed Jesus' warning to "judge not."

I won't miss having to apologize for the insensitive, mean-spirited, sometimes downright hateful things the Rev. Falwell said in the name of Christ. I won't miss having to explain that not all evangelicals are like the Rev. Falwell, that not all of us are that self-righteous, judgmental and holier than thou.

The Rev. Falwell's absence from this realm will mean one less voice telling my gay and lesbian friends that they are somehow less loved by God, that AIDS is God's wrath, that they are to blame for calamities such as 9/11 or Katrina. I really won't miss the pain in my friends' eyes when they ask me how the Rev. Falwell and I could both be Christians but be so different from each other.

I will not miss seeing him on CNN, pontificating about what God's intention was in allowing and/or causing the latest natural disaster, massacre, plague, famine or terrorist attack.

I will not miss the Rev. Falwell's voice or point of view.

But at the same time, I cannot dismiss the good he somehow managed to accomplish, despite the pain he inflicted. Lives were changed for the better by his ministry, his college, and the flip side of the endeavors he made in Jesus' name.

There is no denying that some people came to know a loving God through the efforts of the Rev. Falwell. I'm not arrogant enough to presume that God can't work through any means available.

Surely the Rev. Falwell was a cracked vessel for the spirit of God, but aren't we all.

Now he is enjoying his eternal reward.

May he rest in peace.

And may grace fill his absence.

Cathleen Falsani is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and author of the book The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People. This essay originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times.