Christopher Hitchens, author of the recent book God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, has been making the rounds on Slate and CNN weighing in on the death of Jerry Falwell and what it all means, dancing on Falwell’s fresh grave and kicking dirt in the eye of his grieving family. I could weigh in on Hitchens, but I want to read his book first. I will say that, having read some of his Slate articles and half-listening to his debate with Al Sharpton, I find Hitchens to be something of a hypocrite. He claims to be fighting some sort of Good Fight against religion and all of its evils (and I will grant willingly that many, many evils have been done in the name of religion, including things said by Falwell himself). My problem is not that Hitchens is flogging a dead horse, but that he seems to have no problem causing a bit of evil himself. In the debate with Al Sharpton, for instance, he refers to Mother Teresa as an “old bitch” (Hitchens was called by the Vatican to argue against her canonization, an argument which ultimately failed). In his world of subjective morality, such things are allowable; I am allowed to offend you, but you are not allowed to offend me.
Now, on to Falwell. Are the things that he said (particularly after 9/11) awful, horrendous, evil things? Yeah, I think so. His comment that “abortionists, feminists, gays, lesbians [...] ACLU, and People for the American Way” were responsible for the attacks is an absolutely awful thing to say, particularly coming as it did the very week of the tragedy. As a fellow Christian, I have often lamented the words and deeds of Jerry Falwell and have been long disgruntled that his face seems to be synonymous with Christianity in America. In other words, I didn’t like Jerry Falwell. Not one bit.
But I acknowledge his humanity and, perhaps more importantly right now, the humanity of his family. Dealing with the loss of a loved one is hard for every family. I can only imagine what the Falwell family has been going through these last two days. Slate (again, Slate; to be fair, they are a very balanced site, I just happen to be citing articles that I disagree with) had a list of “The Most Despicable Things Jerry Falwell Ever Said” before the sun went down on Tuesday.
I would argue, though, that Christopher Hitchens — or anyone who has made sport or become downright pornographic in their glee over Falwell’s death — is no better than Falwell himself. To feel joy at one’s death, and by extension the suffering of one’s family and followers, is just as evil as any of the actions Falwell committed. Yes, Falwell did horrendous things and made life miserable for a great many people; that does not give anyone an excuse to do the exact same thing. It’s an ugly cycle of hate. I have no doubt that there will be Christians who jump for joy when Christopher Hitchens dies, and that too will be a sad day. The fact of the matter is, when you laugh at a dead Jerry Falwell, you become Jerry Falwell.
As a minor aside, I would also like to mention that one of Hitchens’ favorite sayings is that it is remarkable what a person can get away with if they are given the title of “Reverend.” He cites Falwell, Jim Bakker, Ted Haggard, etc, as examples. But these are men who did not get away with anything. Bakker went to jail and lost any national credibility he once had as a pastor (no grace). Haggard lost his congregation and presumably his family. And Falwell is being eulogized as a charlatan. These men all did wrong things, but by no means did they get away with anything in the eyes of the public nor in the eyes of God. Conversely, Hitchens is being lauded as a wonderful public intellectual for his recent book; he has quickly become a very famous man, and he has used that fame (in this case) to spew a message of utter Hate. In this regard, Hitchens is nothing more than a reversed image of Fred Phelps, albeit a Fred Phelps that is much, much easier to stomach.
Humanity depends on us all caring for one another. Very few — very few — will argue against the inherent goodness of the Golden Rule. We all want to be treated well, after all. The problem is when it comes to our relating to others. We are quick to decry the hypocrisy and hatred of Jerry Falwell, but how often do we miss it in our own dealings?