It started with a group of students wanting to pray with a well-known Christian author on Liberty’s campus. It turned into a protest/revival featuring a nationally-covered war of words between feuding Christian leaders. And regardless of which side you sympathize with, it’s a sad reflection of the state of dialogue within the church.
In October 2017 author and speaker Jonathan Martin attended the concert of his friend’s band Johnnyswim, a concert hosted on Liberty University’s campus. Martin had long been an outspoken critic of both Donald Trump and Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr., and the students asking him to pray with them shared Martin’s concerns. The impromptu prayer gathering was promoted on the campus, and when the university learned of it they sent police officers into the green room of the concert Martin was attending. Martin was ushered outside, photographed, and informed he was barred from the campus for life and would be arrested if he ever set foot on the campus again.
Incensed, Martin gave interviews with everyone from Christian news organizations to NPR. In a blog post on the incident Martin claimed that “simply telling me that I could not pray with students on campus, or that the meeting could not occur without submitting paperwork, was not considered [by Falwell]. Removing me from Johnnyswim’s greenroom where I was a ticketed, invited guest of the band had nothing to do with stopping the prayer the next morning from happening. The move was designed to bully and intimidate—to send a message.”
Martin decided to send a message of his own, helping coordinate last week’s “Lynchburg Revival,” a gathering of both evangelical and progressive speakers near Liberty University’s campus. In Martin’s words, “Lynchburg has symbolic power as the place from which Falwell, Jr., has so publicly, relentlessly made the case for President Trump’s brand of Christian nationalism, but we believe it can be known as ground zero for a mighty move of God. We are not coming to condemn Falwell, Jr., but to counter the doctrine of “America First,” with the Christian message—that we cannot put allegiance to a nation-state ahead of our allegiance to the kingdom of God as taught by Christ, in which the last are first.”
Shane Claiborne Sends Jerry Falwell Jr. a Request
As the revival neared, another social media-led war of words between Christian figures flared, this time between activist Shane Claiborne and Falwell. Claiborne publicly invited Falwell to pray together with the rest of the Lynchburg Revival, to which Falwell responded by threatening to arrest anyone from the revival who stepped on campus.
BREAKING: I sent @JerryFalwellJr a sincere request to pray with us at the #LynchburgRevival. His response? A letter threatening up to a year in jail and a $2500 fine if we attempt to pray on campus @LibertyU, even with students and alumni. Here are both letters. pic.twitter.com/hiGq3C0Zh5
— Shane Claiborne (@ShaneClaiborne) April 5, 2018
Claiborne’s actions have been criticized by some as disingenuous. Messiah College history professor John Fea responded to Claiborne’s prayer invitation to Falwell by saying “I have strongly criticized Falwell’s comments about Trump, but if Falwell Jr. prays with Claiborne, it looks like he (Falwell) is admitting that he is wrong about Trump and that the Christianity he promotes at Liberty is indeed ‘toxic’ … the fact that Claiborne shared these letters via Twitter makes it look like there is more going on here than just a request for prayer.”
Claiborne responded to the criticism by claiming that he reached out privately to Falwell weeks ago, and that Falwell banning a prayer gathering at the university deserved attention. Falwell, in response, allegedly prohibited Liberty University’s campus newspaper from covering the revival, telling a student reporter “That’s all these folks are here for—publicity.”
Publicity has never been something Falwell has shied away from himself. He has been a public surrogate for President Trump, regularly appearing on cable news networks to defend the president’s actions. He proudly promoted the school’s new firing range and his meeting with NRA president Wayne LaPierre, knowing the national controversy over gun ownership has never been more heated.
Falwell’s two most recent posts on his Twitter account, which has over 50,000 followers, have been retweets of President Trump accusing the FBI and Department of Justice of unfairly attacking him, and two days before the revival retweeted Franklin Graham saying that “progressive” is a code word for “someone who leans toward socialism, who does not believe in God, & who will likely vote against Godly principles that are so important to our nation.”
The Disunity That Looms
Whereas Claiborne and Martin could be accused of unnecessarily airing their dirty laundry to promote a cause, it’s also fair to say that Falwell has aggressively made himself into one of the most visible and divisive Trump supporters in the evangelical world, and won’t hear anyone who opposes that stance out. Even if those people come from within the church.
When Jesus was on earth the political and culture holders of power tried to get him on their side. But Jesus was very clear that there was only one kingdom that was a priority, and we are told by Paul that in that kingdom there are no divisions, only unity in Christ.
Regardless of which “side” a Christian finds themselves defending in the Lynchburg Revival controversy, the fact there are sides at all among brothers and sisters in Christ runs antithetical to the Gospel. If disagreeing Christians can’t figure out a way to pray together, we have a much bigger and more consequential problem than any political issue we will ever face on earth.