On October 30, 2017, I went to Liberty University for two reasons: to see my friends Johnnyswim in concert and pray with a handful of students the next morning. These were students who have consistently expressed concern about Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s, explicit support of the politics of Donald Trump (and at the time, Steve Bannon) — especially with regards to race and the conflation of Christianity with nationalism.
The response of the university was to send police officers to come get me out of Johnnyswim’s greenroom after their show, escort me outside, photograph me, and tell me I was barred from the campus for life — subject to arrest “if I ever put one foot on the property.”
It seems that while Falwell, Jr., openly encourages his students to carry guns, he fears public prayer from Christians who openly embrace nonviolence. Like the thin-skinned president for whom he regularly serves as an apologist, Falwell Jr., does not easily tolerate robust dissent.
Liberty later released a statement saying that this action was necessary because of security concerns, that a small prayer gathering we had planned for the following morning would require a permit. Sending armed police officers to remove me from a concert the night before was evidently “the only effective way to prevent the unauthorized event from happening.”
Evidently, 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. 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.
But this is the irony of Jerry Falwell, Jr.: He shills for the president weekly in front of cameras on cable news, but when anyone criticizes or contradicts him (such as the Liberty University graduates who send back their diplomas to protest his alignment with Trump), it’s “grandstanding.” A notorious media hound dismisses any meaningful dissent as merely a plea for publicity. The unnecessary way I was removed was a stunt, but Falwell, Jr., claimed it was a stunt for anyone to tell about it.
Falwell, Jr., himself is a master at self-generating publicity — the president of a Christian institution of higher learning defending President Trump’s “fine people on both sides” equivocation after Charlottesville, or publicly calling for evangelicals to partner with the white nationalist Steve Bannon to oust “fake republicans.” His views do not represent those of many of his students or faculty, and directly harm the witness both of the Liberty University community, as well as the larger church he ostensibly represents.
The response of his administration only exposes the problematic nature of the far-right Frankenstein’s monster that Falwell, Jr., has helped create out of Christianity: nationalism and civil religion. And as much as he wants to, this time I don’t think the Liberty community is going to let him change the subject.
What excites me now, is that Liberty students, the ones I planned to pray with — like so many Christian college students I meet across the country — are starting to rise up. The cultural earthquake that is shaking the foundations of both church and empire is actually setting them loose. Unlike many of their fathers and mothers, they will not bow to the idols of nationalism. They will stand with Jesus, alongside those who are marginalized and oppressed.
This is why I’m so passionate about the Lynchburg Revival: nothing less than the public witness of the Church is at stake in these volatile times. 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. We are not looking to demonize anyone, but rather to proclaim the One at whose name demons tremble. We are believing God for the Lynchburg Revival to be a powerful counter-witness to white Christian nationalism — marked by fasting, repentance, prayer, preaching, worship, and foot-washing.
Instead of embracing Trump’s politics of fear and demonization, we want to embrace the political implications of the claim that “Jesus is Lord.” We want to move from “the-important-thing-is-to-be-polite-to-Pharaoh” religion to “let-my-people-go” religion. This sort of religion has all too often made the captives mannerly, whereas Jesus came to set the captives free.
America is in need of nothing less than an exorcism from the principality of white supremacy and the distortion of Christian nationalism, proclaiming instead the radical witness of the kingdom of God.
That is what the Lynchburg Revival is all about.