Unless you’ve been living under a rock, by now you’ve heard about Liberty University President, Jerry Falwell, Jr., son of the late Moral Majority founder, making anti-Muslim remarks and gesturing to the handgun he was carrying during a chapel speech to Liberty University Students. Referring to the 2015 San Bernardino shooting, Falwell Jr. said that if those who’d been attacked “had what I have got in my back pocket right now…we could end those Muslims before they walked in…” He added his personal confusion that President Barack Obama’s answer to repeated incidences of mass gun-violence was to appeal for stricter gun control laws, then let students know they could take free “concealed carry” classes offered by the university. Several days later, Falwell Jr. authorized concealed weapons in dorms at Liberty University.
Predictably and rightfully, Falwell’s remarks and actions were condemned by progressive Christian leaders like Shane Claiborne and Brian McLaren, and also by more conservative voices like the students at Wheaton University. Even a Liberty University student found Falwell Jr’s remarks appalling, and she certainly wasn’t alone. I was contacted by a number of friends and colleagues at Liberty University who expressed their embarrassment. Here’s a clip from one message I received:“Will you please write something about how the there are countless faculty and students who are thoroughly embarrassed by Jerry Jr.? People like me who, if I posted something on Facebook, might reap serious consequences. That asshole doesn’t speak for LU, just himself.”
I’ve always said there are some good folks at Liberty.
But just when I thought the dust had settled, Falwell Jr. asked Donald Trump to speak at Liberty University on Martin Luther King Day 2016. And in one final, and somehow, still shocking blow, Falwell Jr. endorsed Trump for President.
How does one make sense of all this?
When I was a kid, my brothers and I had an Atari-2600. I still have the original one, as a matter of fact, complete with the “Why would you put this on a children’s toy?” metal knobs on top that could poke out an eye. One of my favorite games was called “Keystone Kapers.” In it, Officer Keystone Kelly, a police officer in a blue uniform, chases Harry Hooligan, a criminal in a vintage prisoner outfit, around a four-story department store where Hooligan is on the loose, no doubt after a recent prison-break where he was rightfully doing time for crimes he’d actually committed. It was all very simple and straightforward, really. And not at all like real life.
Video games aren’t like that anymore. In everything from the legendarily controversial Grand Theft Auto to more recent games like Watch Dogs, the player is left to dictate what kind of actions his or her character will take, presumably because players have so much more command over the character. They’re not just relegated to running the four levels of the Keystone Department Store in control of a law enforcement agent. They command ambiguous characters with motives as yet to-be-determined in a game of life that isn’t otherwise particularly directive. There are consequences to the actions players take, sure, but they can still drive around a city, talk to people, enlist their support, have sex with them, run them over, beat them up, rob them, or do pretty much anything else they want (or not). Each player has to determine what code of ethics they’ll follow, what kind of person they’ll be. It, on the other hand, is far more like real life than we’d perhaps care to admit.
Films have undergone a similar evolution. A few years before he ever became a darker and more brutal James Bond, Daniel Craig starred in a brilliant film entitled, The Layer Cake. Like today’s video games, crime is depicted in a more realistic way, at least conceptually.
As the film makes clear, gone are the days of cops vs. robbers, heroes vs. villains, good guys vs. bad guys. In fact, those days never really existed — things are endlessly more complex and multi-layered than that. It shows the difficult to swallow reality that criminals are sometimes very likable, otherwise upstanding people whose ethics (and their commitment to them) often puts the rest of us to shame, law-breaking perhaps being the major exception. The film also points to the notion that what constitutes “illegal” is ever-shifting, as the increasing number of states legalizing marijuana seems to equally point out. Drug dealers once viewed as social pariahs can now legally sell their goods in states like Colorado. And as the families of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and the 13 African-American women sexually assaulted by rapist and former police officer Daniel Holtzclaw know, what constitutes a “good guy” is heavily determined by your vantage point.
Let me bring this home.
You can’t call some people once and for all “good” and others “bad.” Or, well, you can, but that doesn’t make it so, and it doesn’t make you exempt from the other category. This isn’t relativism, it’s reality. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t some really good people and some really evil people, just that our ability to figure out which is which is limited, and the more time you spend convincing yourself you’re one of the “good guys” and spending all of your time around others who think the same way,
Falwell Jr. just doesn’t seem to get this, or to see the utter inconsistency in his positions. When he condemns all Muslims for the violent acts of a few, then turns around to spit in the face of a martyred avatar for peace and reconciliation on the holiday that bears his namesake and lend his public support to an ignorant, small, and divisive pseudo-celebrity in his bid to be the leader of the free world, he helps us remember something crucial. Left to our own devices, we are all “bad guys,” each prone to avarice and violence, clamoring for power and selling our souls to vilify those we believe threaten our interests and double-mortgaging them to support whomever we believe will protect them.
St. Paul seemed to get this in his letter to the Romans, when he invoked the wisdom of King Solomon: “There is none righteous, not even one.” Pronouncing yourself and your tribe “good” and others “bad” isn’t a virtue, and certainly not a Christian one. Christ “did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage,” and in fact, repeatedly refused to defend himself when he was wrongfully accused of crimes that eventually lead to his crucifixion.
In short, there are no “good guys.” And you’d think this would go without saying, but Donald Trump is definitely no exception. Ironically, the more you claim yourself or someone else to be a “good guy,” the less likely it is to be true, and the easier that claim is to unmask for what it is – just another half-baked layer to the bizarre cake you’re making.
I won’t be having any dessert this evening, thank you.
This post also appeared in modified format at Ryan’s Huffington Post Blog.