Terrorism is on the rise globally and at home, and ISIS has made it clear they are willing to hit anywhere, anytime. Colleges are no sanctuary. In April, the group Al Shabab massacred 147 students at Garissa University College in Kenya, for instance. Perhaps American colleges have some reason to be concerned.
Frankly, I don’t know what Jesus would do, tactically speaking, if faced with a highly motivated terrorist organization. But according to Liberty University’s President, Jerry Falwell Jr., Jesus’ 18- to 22-year-old followers on campus should be armed and loaded to “end those Muslims,” should the largest Christian university in the world come under terrorist attack.
There are obviously dangerous ramifications to his idea. Encouraging more than 14,000 residential students with underdeveloped frontal lobes to carry concealed weapon sounds like it might have some unintended downsides. Heaven help the Muslim who harmlessly wanders onto campus. And let’s not even bring up liability insurance.
But leaving the irresponsibility of such advice to the side, Falwell’s rhetoric — unfortunately — shouldn’t be a surprise. It is a handy summary of two overlapping problems that beset American Christian fundamentalism, and that rear their heads in times of crisis and fear: Biblicism and the tired rhetoric of “Christian America.”
Biblicism is the idea that the Bible functions as something like a Christian field guide to faith and action: Since the Bible is God’s word, and therefore inspired by God, every word of it reveals true, reliable, and incontrovertible information about what God is like — and what it means to follow God faithfully.
This Bible happens to contain quite a bit of tribalistic, violent rhetoric against the enemies of God, the most famous of which is God’s command that the Israelites exterminate the Canaanites and take their land. Elsewhere, Israel’s enemies are impaled, and women and children are taken as spoils of war. In the final book of the Christian Bible, the apocalyptic book of Revelation, the blood of the ungodly flows for 200 miles as high as a horse’s bridle.
Divine violence in scripture, either done or commanded by God, is hardly a momentary lapse. According to fundamentalist logic, this revealed aspect of the divine must be taken seriously.
Falwell’s rhetoric about arming young Christians against the enemy isn’t difficult to justify on Biblicistic grounds.
Jonathan Merritt correctly noted in a recent Atlantic essay that Falwell never actually cites the Bible to support his view, which seems to suggest that he is ignoring the Bible in favor of hate speech. But that misses the deep structure of fundamentalist thinking.
Falwell may be ignoring Jesus’ teachings about being peacemakers, and on that score he fails miserably. But Jesus’ teachings will not deter him. Nor will the long and honored history of Jewish and Christian thought on this very issue, nor how disturbingly similar his rhetoric is to that of Islamic extremists.
Falwell is a Biblicist, and that simplifies matters. As long as his Bible contains divinely sanctioned models of conduct against the enemies of God, his public comments are anything but surprising.
Biblicism ties in to another well-known characteristic of American Christian fundamentalism: the rhetoric of America as a Christian nation. With a presidential election looming, we hardly need to be reminded of how casually Christian fundamentalism and the state get tossed together.
There’s no more odious notion to the Christian faith.
Israel’s ancient prophets were known for their annoyingly persistent critiques of the political status quo. The Gospels and the letters of Paul undermine any attempt in their day to fuse together the will of God and any political regime — not only the oppressive imperialism of the Roman Empire with its worship of Caesar, but the wish of some of his Jewish contemporaries to oust the Romans and reinvigorate Jewish independence. As Jesus sums up: “My kingdom is not of this world.”
Falwell’s rhetoric ignores all this. It feeds off of the fantasy that the creator of the universe shuttles back and forth between Washington, D.C., and Lynchburg. America is ancient Israel revived, God’s nation, and, like the Holy Land of old, needs to be protected. True Christians are doing God’s work by arming themselves to guard and defend their American freedom and safety against outside threats.
Terrorism is a threat, and it must be addressed effectively and without a minute to lose. But it must be addressed with wisdom rather than inflammatory rhetoric.
Christian leaders should do a better job of modeling wisdom and leading young Christians to think of truly God-honoring solutions to serious and complex problems of the day. Encouraging Christian college students to pack heat is foolish, dangerous rhetoric that feeds off of a simplistic reading of scripture and bad Christian theology.
Falwell’s rhetoric isn’t an expression of true Christian faith. It is a problem that true Christian faith seeks to correct.
Peter Enns is the Abram S. Clemens Professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University. His latest book is “The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable To Read It.” He blogs at The Bible for Normal People.