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Forgiving Jerry Falwell

Falwell's lies and distortions should have been combated by every means necessary, but that doesn't mean that the retribution he exacted on others must be taken on him now, in any form.
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In my book The Messiah of Morris Avenue, I try to dramatize the vast chasm between the Christianity that is (and will be for a while) driving America's destiny - the Christianity of self-obsessed nonsense like The Rapture, of toxic racial, social and sexual phobias, of people who call themselves 'pro-life' wallowing in the vision of the returned Christ murdering billions of their enemies; a Christianity of damnation-induced terror, brutish retribution and hate-based political initiatives, in short the Christianity of Jerry Falwell; and the beliefs and values, which as far as I can tell from the skimpy historical evidence and the oral traditions passed down by those who claim to have known him, the guy from Nazareth actually preached.

To sugarcoat this possibly indigestible pill, I chose a satirical mode: America some 10-15 years from now, in which Christian Dominionists have achieved all of their fondest dreams. I won't detail the juicy stuff that flows from that premise, because I've done that elsewhere and anyway scoring satirical points isn't my aim. Rather it's to share the surprising -- even stunning -- discovery I made this week, when Falwell died and I felt an overwhelming urge to dance a triumphant two-step on his grave...

I came slap-bang up against the message of my own book.

Its' central character, the man in whose hands the immense power of 'knowing' the hour and nature of God's Judgment is concentrated, is the Rev. James Zebediah Sabbath. Sabbath is based to some degree on Jerry Falwell: from the Rugged-Old-Cross roots from which Falwell sprang, to the sleek, corporate theocrats whom Falwell helped spawn. Christians like Ralph Reed and Tony Perkins whose idea of total immersion runs more to K Street than muddy creeks.

The brutal retributive spirit that drives my Falwellian theocrat is best expressed by the vast penal complex in West Texas that's his pride and joy, where ten 'cardinal sinners' can be executed simultaneously. Above the complex rises a 150-foot rotating crucifix. On one side is a huge LED legend: "CHRIST DIED FOR YOUR SINS" The other side reads: "NOW IT'S YOUR TURN!"

Into Sabbath's Dominionist heaven (or hell) on earth, comes a young man who might well be the true Christ returned. He's far from the buffed superhero packing overwhelming firepower Sabbath hopes for. Just like the first time around he's poor, from a forgotten corner of the empire (the Bronx) and not of the dominant race (he's Latino). And just like the first time around, the most subversive concept he preaches - and lives - is that fundamental Christian act, to which fundamentalists pay only the scantiest lip-service, forgiveness.

Why subversive? Because revenge, the opposite of forgiveness, makes the world go round. Individuals, groups, corporations, nations operate on the principle that pay-back is normal, that if you do ill to me, I am justified, even legally obliged, to do at least as much ill to you. But in truth revenge is self-destructively futile. Life is not an action movie where the good guys pay back the bad guys and live happily ever after. In the real world, no-one believes themselves or their cause to be evil; so no act of revenge goes un-revenged. The endless daisy-chain of payback, preaches the new Messiah - whether it's mass murder masquerading as national 'defense' or the legal murder of those who've murdered - must be broken.

Forgiveness is the only way to do that. But while the world believes forgiveness to be weakness, in truth it takes great courage. Just as killing those you feel threatened by is far easier than learning to live with them, payback is the weak and spineless option, the way out no-one will give you a hard time for. Forgiveness on the other hand takes true grit. (If for no other reason than that payback is big, big business. The Pentagon's new budget, almost three-quarters of a trillion bucks, will make it the tenth largest economy in the world. But I digress, because of course the Pentagon is not in the business of payback).

Subversive forgiveness may be, but, unfortunately, it's the core message of the guy from Nazareth. What's not to understand in the preachment: love your enemies? And even if the Aramaic (via the Greek and Renaissance English) is open to a slightly different translation, his choice not to defend himself against his enemies -- or even allow himself to be defended -- when they came to arrest him, is unambiguous. It's what defines Christianity against the other two Abrahamic faiths. You don't have to believe that the story's historically true; the example of its protagonist in the defining narrative of Christianity is unmistakable. Violence even in your own defense, is not acceptable. You cannot be a follower of Christ and kill your enemy; you cannot be a Christian and not forgive him. The history of Christianity is largely the history of grappling with this highly inconvenient truth and its manifold implications.

So it goes in my retelling. As Mark Twain famously said: if Christ did return, the Christians would crucify him. The Messiah of Morris Avenue preaches precisely the same core message as before: in the Dominion of Christ this is both blasphemy and - Church and State being one - treason. The Reverend condemns him as the Anti-Christ, hunts him down, tortures him and has him crucified (on the cruciform gurney of a lethal injection chamber). Then, just to make sure there's no hanky-panky about resurrection, he orders the mortal remains cremated.

But -- just like the first time around -- the Messiah does rise from the dead and appears not just to his followers but to his arch-enemy the Reverend. What finally cracks open that hardest of hearts, is not the miracle of resurrection, but that the man he condemned, tortured and murdered and whose body he burned to ashes, embraces him as a brother, forgives him for every one of his hate-filled acts. 'I was the Anti-Christ', the Reverend realizes in that moment 'and still you forgave me'

I saw Jerry Falwell as an enemy. I believe he was America's enemy and for good measure Christianity's. (As his ilk still are). And I agree with that fine old atheist Samuel Clemens that if Christ had returned, FalIwell would have crucified him. And while Falwell's lies and distortions should have been combated by every non-violent means necessary, and the evil and hurt he caused, documented and remembered, that doesn't mean that the retribution Falwell sought to exact on others or threatened to, must be taken on him now, in any form. Which includes crowing that death has somehow found him out, or hoping that he went in pain or that he's up to his eyes in hot sewage in the Ninth Circle of hell or -- as was my intention -- dancing a triumphant two-step on his grave.

No, this is the moment for forgiveness. I hope that Jerry has met again and been reconciled with, the force of love and forgiveness that at some point in his life, he must have encountered. And while I never imagined I would ever write these words: may his turbulent and misguided soul -- however far it may have gone astray -- now find its way home and rest in peace.

PS The Messiah of Morris Avenue is now in paperback. Check it out over there on the right.

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