Dear Mr. Falwell,
In the tradition of your father, you made some reckless and inflammatory statements to your students the other day.
Just as I appreciate it when peace-loving Muslims, Hindus and others repudiate hostile and reckless statements made by prominent members of their religions, I feel impelled by conscience to repudiate your words as not being representative of authentic Christianity as I, and thousands like me, understand it.
For us, authentic Christianity is the loving, peaceful, just and generous way of life embodied in Jesus. It is characterized more by self-giving than self-defense, by pre-emptive peacemaking rather than pre-emptive violence.
Your message faithfully represents a longstanding (and ugly) stream of American culture and politics. This tradition goes back to those who argued against the equal human rights and dignity of the Native Peoples and African-American slaves, often abusing the Bible to justify white supremacy under its various guises.
It was also manifest in the Protestant prejudice against Catholic immigrants, in centuries of morally repugnant anti-Semitism, and in the unethical treatment of the Japanese during World War II. During the McCarthy era, it launched witch hunts using “red” and “Communist” as its epithets.
In this ugly American tradition, your father used antipathy towards gay people to rally his base, and now, you are doing the same with Muslims. You are being deeply faithful to a tradition that is deeply unfaithful to the life and teaching of Jesus… not to mention the broader American ideal that upholds the dignity and equality of all people, whatever their religion.
My friend Shane Claiborne speaks for many of us when he says, “It’s hard to imagine Jesus enrolling for the concealed weapons class at Liberty University. And it is even harder imagining Jesus approving of the words of Mr. Falwell as he openly threatens Muslims.”
I don’t doubt that your conscious intentions were simply to protect your students from a terrorist attack. But it’s the unintended consequences of your words that concern me most. I doubt many if any violent Islamist Fundamentalist extremists woke up one day and decided to become hateful, cowardly, immoral murderers. Instead, they were led down that path by degrees, and those who radicalized them convinced them that they were becoming purer, more faithful, and more orthodox believers in the process.
Your reckless words can easily render your students vulnerable to more extremist influences (perhaps including some who are running for president), and the result could be catastrophic. You could spiritually form a generation of people who think of themselves as “Champions for Christ” but who actually become a mirror image of the violent religious warriors you fear and reject, different in degree, perhaps, but not in kind.
According to a Washington Post story, you later said that when you referred to “those Muslims,” you were referring not to Muslims in general but to Islamic terrorists. OK. But I hope you realize that your audience in that convocation applauded, not your intent as later explained, but your actual unqualified words. And you approved of their approval. That is scary. That is ugly. That is wrong.
How would you feel if you saw the president, faculty, and students in a radicalized Muslim university somewhere applauding and laughing about killing Christians and “teaching them a lesson?” Do you see how you are helping your students become the mirror image of such a scene? And do you see, apart from any issue of moral conscience, the way that those reckless words could be used by ISIS and other such groups to stir up their apocalyptic us-versus-them fervor? The Bible we both revere has a lot to say about the danger of unwise words… how much more important in an age of Youtube.
Can you imagine how much more beautiful it would have been if you told the students that you were going to offer free classes in nonviolent conflict transformation — the kind that is taught not far from you at another Christian university that has a very different understanding of Christian character and discipleship?
Perhaps you owe it to your students to invite some Muslims to campus to explain to you, your faculty, and your students the damage done by your words. Maybe it would be a good time to invite some Christians who are risking their lives as peacemakers to come to your campus as well.
I hope your words will inspire millions of us to respond, not with the applause and laughter displayed by your students and faculty, but with unequivocal repudiation — and a commitment to embody a different kind of Christianity than the one you purveyed in your recent comments.
Just as there are many ways to be Muslim, some more and some less peaceful, there are many ways to be Christian. May more of us seek and find those more peaceful ways.
In a positive response to your negative words, I hope that this week, millions of Christians and other Americans will speak in neighborly kindness to their Muslim neighbors (along with their Sikh and Hindu neighbors, who at Oak Creek and elsewhere have suffered so much harm from Islamophobic violence). I hope they will repudiate the flippancy of your comments about taking human life, and instead, I hope they will speak of solidarity, mutual respect, and hospitality across religious lines.
And I pray that someday, students and faculty at Liberty University will look back on your comments, and their applause and laughter, with deep regret and a deep commitment to live more in the way of Jesus.