I've shied away from commenting on Jerry Falwell's death this week. Many people have done it better than I, commenting on his mixture of intolerance and moral certainty, and their dismay that somehow he became, for some people, the definition of the word "Christian." For some reason, I haven't been able to work up that much passion regarding Rev. Falwell. I am sorry for his family. He was a child of God and a brother in Christ, even though he might not have been as inclusive about that as I am.
But his death has got me thinking about one thing: his ability to go public and to act on behalf of something he felt passionately about. How was it that he became, in some people's minds, the definition of what is means to be a Christian? He stuck his neck out and spoke up about something. Now we may argue (and some have) that it wasn't so risky, because he gave voice to opinions that were popular in his own community. But it doesn't explain how he could become so identified with the Christian community. Except for one thing: there were not other voices willing to stick their necks out with alternative visions, alternative definitions of theword "Christian." Or perhaps they were not loud enough. Or perhaps not interesting enough for the media.
For myself, I'm thinking about what it means to stick my neck out about things I'm passionate about, risk getting in the paper, and letting people disagree with me.
A couple of years ago, I went with a few people from my congregation and other churches to our local City Hall, to advocate for a group of people that aren't very popular in my community. I'm not by nature a very courageous person. More than I should, even for a preacher, I keep my opinions to myself. After the meeting, a reporter for the local suburban paper interviewed me, and then quoted me in the paper. I remember a feeling of dread. What would happen when my name got in the paper?
A week later, a young man came up to me after one of our church services. He said to me, "That sounds like a good cause you are involved in. I want to know more about the work you are doing."
When you stick your neck out, it's true that your enemies might come out to hurt you. But friends might come out too. Maybe Jerry Falwell knew that. It's one thing that all of us who are passionate for truth, for compassion, and for justice need to learn as well.