Perhaps there's something tacky about celebrating someone's death. Perhaps, but I'm doing it anyway.
I remember when Ronald Reagan died. There were eloquent eulogies from conservatives and liberals alike. The New York Times, for instance, said that Reagan was "right on some of the bigger questions of his time," notwithstanding the fact that the Times now opposes some of the answers to those questions as implemented by George W. Bush. Are we obliged to say nice things about the dead, even when they were evil, destructive people while living?
Jerry Falwell blamed the September 11th attacks on abortion providers, feminists and gay people because, he explained, "God will not be mocked." Yeah, take that, God! We've clearly done wrong by you in demanding rights and liberty for all. Though, of course, it's not actually our fault: Tinky Winky hypnotized us with his homoerotic cooing.
Falwell also blamed AIDS on gay people. Actually, going a step further, he said AIDS is "God's punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals." Apart from appreciating the implicit victory over heteronormativity that Falwell's statement implies, reading his quotes in rapid succession suggests gay folks should not only feel self-loathing on a personal level but much more broadly guilty for the all the awful things we cause in the world. I saw a pothole this morning. Maybe that's my fault, too.
If he had just a few more weeks, Falwell could have pinned the failures in Iraq on the ACLU. Sorry we had to miss that one. Remember, Falwell once said, "The ACLU is to Christians what the Nazi party is to Jews." Yeah.
He also said that, "If you're not a born-again Christian, you're a failure as a human being." Paired with his other statement that, "Christians, like slaves and soldiers, ask no questions," we realize that Falwell's vision for the world is an army of people who blindly accept his translation of God's word into hate. A mindless majority.
There are many wonderful Christian leaders and leaders in other spiritual traditions who do not pit religious values and justice against each other, as Falwell did, but rather see them as deeply intertwined. In writing against the war in Iraq, the Reverend Peter Gomes has preached on God's words, "I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth; for in these things I delight." The Reverend James Lawson has said, "Certainly from the perspective of Jesus, violence, war and hatred are always unfair, unjust, ungodly." These are countless other examples of sane and loving voices in religious traditions.
One of the greatest questions for our future is whether these voices will triumph going forward. Will faith and spirituality be a path to liberation for all, the window through which we see our commonality with all beings and join together to pursue fairness and equality? Or will religion divide us, emphasizing our differences more than our similarities and privileging certain religious "truths" over others? From the sectarian struggles in Iraq to the Pope's invective against liberation theology that has helped so many in Latin America to Falwell's poisonous legacy, the danger in this second path is clear.
To take some "moral high ground" and praise Falwell even though he was a rabidly racist, sexist and homophobic asshole would be disingenuous at best. Yes, where we most depart from Falwell is in believing that we're all in it together, equal and interconnected, children of God — which, presumably, includes him. But holding hands with Falwell's corpse and singing "Kumbaya" would suggest that his vision of hate and our vision of love can co-exist, that we can all just get along. Instead, perhaps the appropriate response to Falwell's vengeful moralizing is some moralizing of our own, calling a spade and spade and saying that Falwell was destructive and wrong. Period.
Falwell once said that gay folks are "brute beasts" who are "part of a vile and satanic system that will be utterly annihilated and there will be a celebration in heaven." So I don't feel badly for one moment in hoping heaven is now celebrating Falwell's death.
Sally Kohn is director of the New York-based Movement Vision Project, working with grassroots organizations across the United States to advance our shared values of family, community and humanity. She has interviewed progressive leaders across the country on their vision for the future.