Falwell and King: Domesticating and Sanitizing, Grace and Truth, with Condolences

In our natural tendency to look for historical figures we can claim as our own, we face the twin dangers of domestication and sanitization. That is, when the historical figure’s entire belief system, including early views later discarded or recanted, are so radically different from our own philosophy (or theology), we tone down or clean up what was said in order to make our hero look like one of us and share our views. Equally so, when we have angst with one of the heroes of others, we tend to vilify that personality, as in the case of many who vilify Calvin in order to support their rejection of Calvinism.

As I read of the death of Jerry Falwell, I wonder how history will view him. For many evangelicals and social conservatives, Falwell is a hero who held to conservative family values and challenged our country to do the same, for which I am thankful. But as I read commentary and tributes on the life of Falwell, such as the one by Al Mohler (whom I highly respect), I feel almost sickened by the lack of acknowledgment of Falwell’s early racism and racial-separatist views.

As an evangelical Christian, I firmly believe in the grace of God to conform saints to the image of his Son. This is the process of sanctification. So I believe that a Jerry Falwell, though once overtly racially-separatist, could see the error of his thinking by being confronted by the word of God, repent from that sin, and learn to embrace African Americans in love, as I believe he did. However, does the work of grace mean that we who hail heroes tone down, ignore, or attempt to clean up the early picture of Falwell or anyone else?

If so, I believe evangelicals, by and large, will need to change their rhetoric about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Yes, King denied the Virgin Birth of Christ (although it would seem that he compartmentalized the Virgin Birth and Christ’s deity, still holding to the latter); King dabbled in communist thought; King was an adulterer; and the list goes on. But does that mean that King should not be thought of as a hero to Americans, to evangelical Americans, and not just to African Americans, especially since King held to a conservative view of justice and challenged our country do the same? Although I enjoy what Dyson has written on King, I would not go as far as to say that it is the flaws of King that make him worth hero or icon status. But as the rhetoric on King tends to be vilification, I think Dyson proposes some things that can help lovers of the Truth make good correctives.

A few years ago, I remember reading Sherard Burns on Jonathan Edwards the slave owner. (It is what it is.) I was struck by these comments toward the end of his paper about the tension of seeking to make sense of our history (particularly as African Americans) in light of the word of God:

“The reality of this tension is captured in a provocative statement by a friend of mine, Ken Jones, pastor of Greater Missionary Union Baptist Church in  Compton, California. In a discussion we had regarding this issue some years ago, Pastor Jones commented that ‘the challenge of the African American within the Reformed context is that we are called to embrace the theology of our oppressors and to reject the theology of our liberators.’ This means that the odd and ironic position of the African American who seeks to be shaped by orthodox theology must reject, in many respects, the theology of a Martin Luther King, Jr., and embrace the theology of a Jonathan Edwards or Robert Dabney. While I admire Dr. King for his work and efforts in fighting for the freedom of African Americans in this country (my freedom), I am not hesitant to note that he will not offer much help in theological precision. While, on the other hand, Edwards never held the mantle as a social liberator, his theology will saturate a man in orthodoxy.”

After reading Burns comments, I scribbled these notes in the margin of my book: “Was King’s theology of justice correct? Was Edwards’? We are still exonerating Edwards by selectively emphasizing one aspect of his theology (i.e, theology proper and/or soteriology), over another (ecclesiology (and the ‘diakonology’ of King, cf. James 2, 5)).”

I am grateful for the work of Falwell and the work of King. But I am concerned about sanitizing and domesticating. What do such attempts say about us? Are we domesticating and sanitizing the errors within ourselves as we muzzle and spray-wash our heroes, making ourselves feel good about ourselves and not just our heroes? Are we deceiving ourselves about our own error when push our heroes’ skeletons into the closets of forgetfulness? Are we vilifying those we hate because their opposing views challenge (or allow us to ignore) the criminal-like thoughts in each of us?

I believe we need to be people of grace: The flawed Falwell, King, and Calvin are transformed by the free grace of Christ alone. Yet we also need to be a people of truth: In God’s grace, like all of us, our heroes preached the truth as men with the stains of sin.

Thank you for indulging my musings without feeling the need to sanitize a saint named Burns. For he, like me, is being sanctified by the One who is faithful. That same Faithful One has completely sanctified Falwell, King and Calvin. I can imagine them standing next to one another around the throne of grace shouting “Hallelujah to the Lamb of God, vilified for my sins!”  (Ed Gilbreath, Carl Ellis, Anthony Carter, and John Piper have given good props to hold up our fallen hero, King. My condolences to the family of his daughter, Yolanda, about whom I hope to see some good blog comments. My condolences also to the family of Jerry Falwell.) 

4 responses to “Falwell and King: Domesticating and Sanitizing, Grace and Truth, with Condolences

  1. I am some what offended that so many white evangelicals are holding this man up as an example and still promoting & racial reconciliation diversity in their churches. It’s like they are taking out of both sides of their mouth.

  2. I think an important aspect that you brought out through citing Calvin and Edwards is historical precedent. Modern evangelicals seem to forget that there are not many (if any) church history figures that have had a ‘spotless’ life. With this perspective in mind, I do not know why so many want to sanitize Falwell. Can we accept all the great things that God did through Luther while recognizing that he made anti-semitic statements? Can we accept Calvin’s advancements in theology and pastoral insights while recognizing that there were questionable incidents, including the one involving Michael Servetus? Can we accept Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer and Forty-Two Articles while at the same time questioning his six recantations (essentially denials of the faith)? In all these cases we can accept these things and we often do. I do not see why it is so hard to note the many good things that Falwell did in this life (through God’s grace and power) while recognizing (not glossing over) the fact that he was wrong in some areas, particularly race, and that he made some unwise and unnecessary statements in his public life. I agree with Ronjour that we need to admit these errors so that we do not look like hypocrites.

  3. I agree that we should allow the wrinkles and warts to show, because I believe it magnifies God’s grace and kindness in the midst of our “heroes'” sinfulness and imperfections. But was it Dr. Mohler’s intent to give a full-fledged biography of his life, or was it to highlight political achievements of his career in light of their historical context? Either way, I do hope that Dr. Mohler, and others for that matter, would comment on Dr. Falwell’s comments against Brown v. Board of Education in the fifties and the civil rights movement in the sixties, and in favor of South African apartheid in the eighties. This would keep the church from being labeled again as “hypocrites”, and it would keep us from deifying sinners saved by grace.

  4. I was thinking through some of the same issues.

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