Judging Falwell

Last week, the final stretch of Jerry Falwell's journey on earth came to an end. More than 10,000 people attended the funeral of the man remembered by many as a champion of conservative Christian values but also by many as an agent of intolerance.

And amid the mourning, criticisms still abounded against the controversial figure whose fiery statements at times turned away even the staunchest conservatives, not to mention the majority of Christians.

"No one did more than he to turn fundamentalism from being 'private' religion to being 'public,'" wrote Martin E. Marty, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, in a commentary last week. "He did not anticipate or care about the prices paid.

"No one did more to rally the dispersed and derided fundamentalists and instill in them pride and swagger," the religion commentator added. "No one in public life (except perhaps the Reverend Jesse Jackson) found the word 'Reverend' prefixing his name more, yet he came to be known for his rough-and-tumble style — hardly reverend — and for mixing it up in political affairs."

And only a few days after Falwell's death on May 15, Bill Maher, host of the HBO political talk show "Real Time with Bill Maher," slammed Falwell for his past remarks on homosexuality and feminism and for "launder[ing]" his personal hate "through the cover's of God's will."

"This week, the Rev. Jerry Falwell died and millions of Americans asked 'Why?' 'Why God? Why didn't You take Pat Robertson with him?'" Maher said.

"Now," he added later, "I know that you're not supposed to speak ill of the dead but I think we can make an exception because speaking ill of the dead was kind of Jerry Falwell's hobby."

Undoubtedly, there were many comments which Falwell made during his lifetime that were not only wrong to make by Christian standards but even wrong to make by secular standards. Still, critics should be civil enough to exercise restraint out of respect for those who are mourning his death, if not for Falwell himself.

And while the Bible does instruct us to point out the sins of our brothers, such an act should be done with restoration in mind not for revenge or out of spite.

The best thing to do, in most cases, however, is to leave all judgment to God.

For, as it is written, "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." (Romans 3:23)

Falwell, like all people, was a sinner. But, also, like all people, he had the capacity for good – a capacity that he tried to make use of.

"During a tumultuous time in our culture, he took a stand on the Word of God that emboldened evangelicals to come together to speak in a common voice for the protection of our country's moral and spiritual values," recalled Morris H. Chapman, president of Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, to Baptist Press. "He will be known not only for his leadership on issues debated in the public square, but also for his tireless work to establish ministries to the hurting and those in need."

Also making note of Falwell's compassion projects was "Purpose Driven" pastor Rick Warren.

"Most people knew him as the founder of the Moral Majority, the face of the Religious Right, and because of some of his more controversial statements, many saw only a caricature of the real man," the megachurch pastor wrote in his weekly Ministry Toolbox.

"The story was never told about his compassionate heart, his gentle spirit, his enormous sense of humor, and the millions he invested in helping the underprivileged. Jerry founded the Elim Home for alcoholics, the Center for tutoring inner city children, the Hope Aglow ministry for prisoners, Liberty Godparent Home for unwed mothers, and literally dozens of other compassion projects to help the poor, the sick, and others in desperate need."

While praise does not necessarily have to follow the death of an individual, respect for the mourners should, if not for the dead.

Statements such as those made by Marty – who wrote: "So while Falwell rests in peace, the American majority can experience some measure of peace denied them when he took the pulpit or took to the airwaves" – are unnecessary and certainly un-Christian.

At a time like this, when there are people hurting and mourning, there need to be efforts made to comfort and heal. That, rather than judging, is what we've been called to do.