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Memorial Day

Dr. Jerry Falwell (en, d. 2007), the founder o...

Dr. Jerry Falwell (en, d. 2007), the founder of Liberty University (en), was a Christian pastor and televangelist. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Copyright © 2007 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.

April 16, 2007; Blacksburg, Virginia. Virginia Tech University student Seung-Hui Cho, 23, shoots 32 fellow students and faculty members before killing himself.

May 17, 2007; Lynchburg, Virginia. Jerry Falwell, the Bible Belter who brought the Republican Party into the revival tent, claiming God for the GOP, dies at the age of 73.

Falwell must have had some opinion about the terrible events of April 16, which took place only seventy miles from Lynchburg and the evangelical Liberty University he founded there. But if he sermonized on the matter, the result is not part of the public record.

I am guessing he would have agreed with the Blacksburg preacher interviewed the day after on NPR’s Morning Edition, who remarked that evil was a fact of life, and we needed God to help us come to terms with it.

Showing us how is an evangelical website maintained by one “Abraham,” which copies a list of comforting practices for “lovers of an all-powerful God,” first devised in response to 9/11, including the following:

7. Declare that this murder was a great evil, and that God’s wrath is greatly kindled by the wanton destruction of human life created in his image.

8. Acknowledge that God has permitted a great outbreak of sin against his revealed will, and that we do not know all the reasons why he would permit such a thing now, when it was in his power to stop it.

9. Express the truth that Satan is a massive reality in the universe that conspires with our own sin and flesh and the world to hurt people and to move people to hurt others, but stress that Satan is within and under the control of God.

In other words, God is riled by the taking of human life but for reasons we can’t comprehend does nothing to stop it, while the Satan that impels humans to such violence acts under God’s control. Even if one regards God and Satan merely as metaphors, this explains everything.

After all, we all know that the young men who flew the passenger jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were devout believers. They believed that they were acting in harmony with His Will by attacking the capitals of Western civilization, which they associated with Satan.

If they attacked because they hated our “freedoms,” as we were redundantly told, recall that these were the same freedoms reviled by our home grown fundamentalists: the above-named Jerry Falwell memorably saw God’s hand in 9/11, a hand which removed its protection because of our tolerance for feminists, gays, and liberals.

God, all fundamentalists seem to agree, can kill all the people He wants, no matter how much they look like Him, and many are called to help him at this task.

Seung-Hui Cho heard the call. Raised in a conservative Presbyterian household, Cho had seemed serious and shy as a child, but increasingly withdrawn as he moved through his teens, conditions exacerbated by typical high school bullying and race-baiting. His Christian upbringing notwithstanding, he carried a heavy load of anger to college, which came out in violent revenge fantasies in his creative writing classes. Just last summer his mother sought spiritual counseling at One Mind Church for his issues of withdrawal and anger, interpreted at the church as an affliction of “demonic power.” On the day of the bloodbath, Cho justified it in his recordings to NBC as punishment for the hedonism and “debauchery” of his targets. In short, he did not see himself as evil; he was destroying evil.

How many times have believers followed God’s order to kill? Recall Andrea Yates, the Texan housewife who in 2001 heeded the voices of God and Satan both, and sent five of her children to Heaven by drowning them in the bathtub. The jurors of Texas passed up the chance to send her to a mental institution — apparently hearing supernatural voices is considered normal in Texas — and sent her to prison instead. If she was following orders from God, shouldn’t she have been locked in a church? All she wanted was to send her babies into the presence of her loving Lord.

Of course Yates, like Cho, had mental problems; these, not any belief in a higher power, were the prime movers in their acts. The point is that, in their own minds, they were not committing evil but fighting it.

Which brings us to another true believer from Texas, the current occupant of the White House. Since the awful events of September 11, we have endured the awful events of ever afterward, couched in terms of “evil-doers” and “bad guys,” the unsophisticated language of fantasy and the playground. To the 3000 dead of Ground Zero, we add the three to six thousand of Afghanistan and the mounting dead of Iraq: a hundred thousand Iraqis, 3450 Americans and counting. And, all sides agree, they all died in the cause of fighting evil.

If Andrea Yates was crazed (or guilty, under Texas law) for sending five children to a happier place, if Cho was disturbed for punishing 32 for their sins, if the young Muslims who kill themselves and others in Allah’s name are “evil,” what should we say of any individual, or nation of individuals, who claim a holy right to rain death upon their enemies — not to mention the collateral damage? As Pascal said, speaking from the standpoint of the French Enlightenment, to really do evil, one needs religion.

For good or ill, the power of faith makes it possible for mere humans to do things they otherwise might not have the strength or courage or will to do. There are commendable examples from history: those who fed the hungry and tended the sick, the unarmed who lived peace and laid their lives down to protect others, the Quakers who were among the first to oppose African slavery, and who risked their own freedoms to help the enslaved because it was the right thing to do, eventually to be joined by abolitionists of other faiths — even as many others continued to justify slavery with the Bible.

In the latter nineteenth century, the social gospel movement of the U.S. and the U.K. struggled to alleviate the poverty and violence bred by laissez-faire capitalism, leading to the liberal social policies of the 20th century. Faith assisted the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King, Jr., even though his opponents also argued from the pulpit.

In the 1980s, Quakers, Catholics, and liberal Protestants from the U.S. exercised their faith in Central America, where they stood up to the right-wing governments, terrorist cells, and death squads that were massacring teachers, nurses, union organizers, and common peasants by the hundreds. In December 1980, four American nuns were raped and killed by El Salvadoran death squads. After he took office the following month, Ronald Reagan actively supported those same right-wing governments and terrorist cells to promote his version of American Judeo-Christian values.

And Jerry Falwell, of course, supported Reagan. But Falwell did not represent all Southern Baptists.

In the June issue of the Smithsonian magazine, an article by Robert M. Poole, “The Ethiopia Campaign,” follows our most Christian president, Jimmy Carter, to Africa, as his Carter Center brings affordable medical supplies to the disease-ravaged population along the Blue Nile.

It is not religion alone that makes such charity possible, but religion plus humanism. In fact, the humanism is the more important. At most faith may provide the extra power, the sense of higher purpose, that allows one to transcend narrow self-interest or crippling cynicism and actually act.

On the other hand, a religion that does not value postpartum human life — i.e., religion without humanism — can be worse than no religion at all.

Conservatives often like to assert that, without a God-centered belief system, nothing prevents one from committing crimes against others. But turn that around: once you believe that the terrible things you want to do have God’s endorsement, what is there to stop you?

So the holy wars go on and the bodies pile up. Onward, Christian soldiers! Think of how many we will have to honor this time next year.

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