Now that the Rev. Jerry Falwell has apologized for his ignorant misapplication of Christian thought, we can reflect on one or two questions lying about in the rubble.
What Jerry Falwell said on the "700 Club" program was that the sins of the nation incurred the wrath of God. Pat Robertson agreed. After a day or two of pretty general clamor, including a disavowal by President Bush, the language was slightly changed. What happened, Falwell elucidated, was not a direct aggression engineered by God, but the forfeit of God's special protection.
That refinement didn't do it. So finally Mr. Falwell said that his remarks were "insensitive, uncalled-for at the time and unnecessary." He apologized for making them. Among the protesters was the Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record, whose editorial said that "people who hold positions of religious leadership have a responsibility to think before they speak and to consider the implications of what they are about to say. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson failed that test in a most revolting way. They have forfeited any claim to Christian leadership."
Certainly they have reminded the community in general, and the Christian community especially, that even ordained ministers of the faith are able terribly to misteach Christian thought.
What Falwell did was to accumulate his complaints against the engines of a secularized America and invoke God as an avenger. His complaints against abortion, gay rights and the end of prayer at school boiled down to God vs. the ACLU, the attack on the World Trade Center being a divine shot across the bow of the Supreme Court.
Transcriptions of God's manners in such fashion lend themselves to massive, if facile, retribution. "Falwell and Robertson," the economic analyst Andy Tobias wrote on his Web site, "have convinced themselves that when a hurricane hit Virginia Beach (Robertson's neck of the woods), there's no meaning to it, and that when a hurricane fails to hit Orlando as predicted in retribution for Disney's equal rights policies for gays, there's no meaning to it, and that when AIDS devastates the (straight) population of Africa, or 6 million innocent Jews and 3 million innocent Cambodians are exterminated, God merely works in mysterious ways.
"But when religious fanatics crash planes into the World Trade Center because they believe it will take them to a special place in heaven, this is not caused by a fanatic religious certitude greater in degree but not entirely dissimilar from their own. Rather they conclude that it is caused, at least in part, because people like me" -- Tobias is gay and the treasurer of the Democratic National Committee -- "have made God mad."
The Old Testament's most inscrutable book is Jonah's, recounting the passage of God's emissary to Nineveh to advise of the impending apocalypse brought on by affronts to the Word. Jonah survives the whale that swallowed him, reaches Nineveh, and is dismayed to learn that God has forgiven the wicked of that place. But then, "Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?" Jonah acknowledges the mercy of God, but roils at the humiliation done to him, preaching a false message. He informs God that he wishes to give up his own life, "for it is better for me to die than to live." Then said the Lord, Doest thou well to be angry? And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death.
Christian teaching is not irrelevant simply because we dismiss as preposterous the notion that on Sept. 11 God was the hijackers' co-pilot. God does not shield his creatures from the malevolent exercise of free will. From Luke 13: "Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? ... Or those 18 on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem?
"I tell you no," said Jesus, "but unless you repent you will all likewise perish."
As it is true that the acts of terrorists befall everyone, it is no less true that there are reasons for everyone to repent, in this context most notably Osama bin Laden, but also Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, and yea, even members of the Supreme Court.