Guns v. God on Campus

Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr.'s shameful grandstanding and naked aggression toward Muslims is an affront to the whole idea of the university and the responsibilities of the office of the university president. Not only did this academic president reject the fundamental intellectual basis of higher education by urging all of his students to take up arms as the first solution to the profoundly serious problem of terrorism, he also displayed an appalling lack of respect for human life and religious freedom by calling on his students "end those Muslims before they walk in here and kill."

As president of a religiously-affiliated institution supposedly rooted in Christianity, President Falwell also seems to have flunked the course in Gospel social justice. It's right there in John's Gospel; even though he knew his crucifixion was close at hand, Jesus did not say, "Go get me a permit and a piece." Instead, he offered peace. Rejecting the Old Testament's "eye for an eye" screed, He said, "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." (John 13: 34-35)

Watching Falwell's preening and posturing speech -- at one point he gestured toward his back pocket and implied he had a gun ready to fire at any provocation, provoking laughs and cheers -- I shuddered to think of the environment for academic freedom and debate on his campus. What pre-tenure faculty member or lowly assistant dean would dare disagree with a president packing heat? Even worse, President Falwell indicated that he leveraged the tragedy in San Bernadino to recruit students from among the children of the police officers and victims, a sad exploitation of the sorrow of others.

What happened in San Bernadino was appalling, to be sure, as it was in Paris, as it is in Syria and Yemen and Nigeria and so many places rife with terror and sadness. But inciting university students to be ready to shoot Muslims because of the acts of terrorists is morally repugnant and utterly irresponsible leadership. It's also historically and socially selective; where was President Falwell's call to be on the lookout for white men frothing with hatred after the Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado, or after ten people were killed at Umpqua Community College, or after Dylan Roof killed nine people at the Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston; or how about going after all of us Irish Americans who spell our names with "Mc" in light of the actions of Timothy McVeigh, the U.S. Army veteran who committed what is still the worst act of domestic terrorism in Oklahoma City? Homicidal maniacs come in all colors, nationalities and faith traditions.

We college presidents have profound responsibilities to ensure the safety and security of everyone on our campuses; we spend millions on security, and countless hours are now devoted to emergency training. Even as we are aware of the many threats, we must remain prudent and level-headed, not contributing to the inflammatory rhetoric that so many pundits and politicians relish, leading our campuses in ways that exemplify respect for all people while ensuring everyone's safety. Our job is to help our students analyze even the worst news stories with some level of critical reasoning, to think through effective remedies that restore peace and security, not exacerbate hatred which only adds to the terror. President Falwell's words were gasoline on the simmering fires of racial and religious hatred that are just waiting to explode in too many places.

College and university presidents have many responsibilities, but above all else, we must be relentless advocates for rational solutions to even the most irrational of social problems. We must be people whose daily behaviors manifest respect for and understanding of the spectrum of God's creation, including those with whom we may disagree vigorously, but whose lives are also precious. Presidents of religiously-affiliated institutions -- like my own here at Trinity, like President Falwell's Liberty University, and hundreds of others -- have an additional responsibility to manifest those values that honor and exemplify the best of our faith. Calling on people to kill other people has no basis in any faith of which I am aware.

If there's one thing that higher education must stand for in these troubled days, it must be the idea that we can find rational solutions to the plagues of so many evils that afflict contemporary civilization. Let the military carry guns and wage war if war be necessary; but our job in higher education is the stewardship of the life of the mind, which, quite often, requires a vigorous advocacy for intellectual steadfastness as the counterweight to raging and bloodthirsty emotions.

In the last week, there was a minor skirmish over the issue of praying after each tragedy. Point well taken; prayer without action is simply a gesture. But of course we should pray -- we should pray for the wisdom and grace to find ways to stop this madness. We should pray for the courage to stand against the rising tide of demagoguery and hatred for others. We should pray for a restoration of the idea that a Good Society does not reach for guns first, if at all; we should pray that the intellectual power that supposedly distinguishes humanity from the rest of God's creation can find ways to combat evil without destroying the very freedoms we cherish as manifestations of God's love for us. We should pray for forgiveness for standing idly by as arsenals grow along with the ruination of so many lives, not only the dead but those who must somehow find ways to go on.

We should pray that the legacy of this year is not an exaltation of vigilantism. If we give in to the impulse for vigilantism, we will lose any hope for restoration of peace.