The Blame Game

Week of Monday, September 24, 2001

Two days after the tragic events of September 11, Jerry Falwell appeared as a guest on Pat Robertson's television show The 700 Club. Both men expressed sorrow and outrage at the events, then turned their attention to who, in addition to the terrorists, might be at least partly responsible for the attacks.

Throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools. The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way—all of them who have tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their faces and say, “you helped this happen.”
His host Robertson replied, “Well, I totally concur.”

A day or two later, Falwell apologized, somewhat, saying his remarks had been taken out of context and reduced to sound bites, and that he holds no one other than the terrorists responsible for the attacks. For Robertson's part, a spokeswoman said “of course” he did not blame gays or atheists for the attack.

Here on the west coast, on September 17 Mayor Willie Brown hosted San Francisco's Day of Remembrance. Of the two dozen religious and political leaders who spoke, none received a greater ovation than Amos C. Brown, pastor of Third Baptist Church in San Francisco and a former city supervisor. Like Falwell, Brown raised the question who, in addition to the terrorists, might be responsible for the attacks.

“America, what did you do in the world order to contribute to these conditions?” He then unleashed a caustic critique against American isolationism and arrogance, against those who refused to support the Durban World Conference Against Racism, those who failed to embrace the treaty on global warming, and then those—surprise—guilty of homophobia. Only in San Francisco could such a performance then be described in the press as a plea for toleration and peace.

To me, Falwell and Brown are two peas in a pod. They both engaged in hateful scapegoating, the only difference being the objects of their wrath.

Oddly enough, when you think about it, taken together the accusations of both men sound eerily like those of Osama bin Laden and other Muslim extremists—that America is decadent, arrogant, isolationist, secularized, pagan and so on. Further, both preachers are guilty of a form of bearing false witness against one's neighbor. Their assignment of guilt and blame simply is not true, or at least this side of eternity one could not be certain if it is true. Finally, their inflammatory rhetoric is precisely what Christians (whether conservative or liberal), and all people of good faith (religious or not), should categorically repudiate. In vilifying their predictable list of political foes, both of them have proven the wisdom of James 3:1–12, that “the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark...The tongue is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness. My brothers, this should not be.”

Of course, it is reasonable to have one's own political view of the world, whether liberal or conservative, and to decry moral decay wherever you see it and however you define it. It is also not unreasonable to believe that the God who created the world and oversees human history raises up and puts down, that He does in fact judge all the nations (Psalm 110:6) in any number of ways. On both these points Falwell and Brown should have their say. But to move beyond theological generalizations about human history, and political ideologies left and right, to specific scapegoating and finger pointing—as when Falwell also claimed, then later apologized for proclaiming, that the Antichrist was probably living and was a Jewish male (February 1999)—is irresponsible.

Aligning the politics of God and the politics of man is rarely so simple. Human history is too tangled and complex, and we its interpreters are too enmeshed in the story, to make such confident judgments as those by Falwell and Brown. To take two examples, imagine that at one point in history God describes the pagan Cyrus as His shepherd, His anointed one who will rebuild Jerusalem and return the exiles (Isaiah 44:28, 45:1); or that Paul, that Hebrew of Hebrews, describes Israel as God's irrevocably called people but also, as far as the Gospel is concerned, “enemies” (Romans 11:28–29).

We can't pretend that the extremist rhetoric of people like Falwell or Brown is too uncommon in our Christian communities, for to say that would free ourselves of responsibility for it. We must, therefore, own up to it and repudiate it. We can, however, insist that remarks like theirs do not represent the core of the Gospel to love our neighbor and to do good to all people (Mark 12:30–32; Galatians 6:10), any more than that the terrorists who bombed the World Trade Center represent Islam, or that Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 39 Muslims who were at Friday evening prayers in a mosque, represents Judaism at its best. There are plenty of lunatics in all of our religious traditions, and, unhappily, good reasons why there are so many treatises on the connection between religion and violence.

What is admirable in both Falwell and Brown is that as Christians they have tried to make a prophetic critique of society, to engage Christ and culture. That is a necessary task for the Christian, but it is also a dangerous task because, by definition, the prophet audaciously attempts to speak for God. I try to gauge prophetic critique by at least one broad measure. If the Christian's prophetic critique of society becomes uniformly politically predictable, either in a conservative or liberal direction, then I am suspicious. Falwell and Brown, for example, will always be politically predictable and that is sad because, at the end of the day, the Gospel stands over and judges all politics.

So choose your political potion, left or right. Think critically about points of convergence and divergence between it and the Gospel, which is another way of saying that the Gospel must never become captive to any political ideology. Demonizing your neighbor is always wrong, because over and above us all stands a loving Father who causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, sending rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. He is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked (Matthew 5:44–46, Luke 6:34–36), and we should be too.

The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2001 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.