Jerry Falwell, Jr. misquoted Jesus in a scripture reference Wednesday, while talking about why he supports Donald Trump. Falwell was being interviewed at the Republican National Convention, and he combined two stories from the Gospel of John, in comments about Trump’s moral character and why Christians would support him.
The interviewer asked, “Is his (Trump’s) personal life, or any candidate’s personal life relevant to you?”
Here is Falwell’s answer:
“Well, I think Jesus said we’re all sinners. When they ask that question I always talk about the woman at the well, who had five husbands and she was living with somebody she wasn’t married to. And they wanted to stone her, and Jesus said ‘he who is without sin, cast the first stone.‘ I just see how Donald Trump treats other people, and I’m impressed by that.”
Listen to the interview here.
At the beginning of this quote, Falwell seems to be comparing Trump to a woman Jesus is compassionate toward, suggesting Jesus is forgiving of Trump’s past moral failings. But by the end of the quote, he seems to be inferring a parallel between Trump and Jesus himself, suggesting that Trump treats people in a loving, Christ-like way.
It’s worth pointing out that Falwell gets his scripture reference completely wrong, by combining separate stories and characters.
The ‘woman at the well’ he refers to, who has had many husbands, is a character from John, chapter 4. She is a Samaritan woman, who is wary of interacting with Jesus, because of the gender and tribal divide. Jesus bridges that gap, teaches her about the spirit of God, and shows that he knows and understands her life story. Then she goes off to testify about Jesus in her community. Interestingly, Jesus never condemns her relationships with men in their conversation (this is a detail biblical commentators often overlook).
There’s another story, in John chapter 8, when Jesus is teaching in the temple, and religious leaders bring in a woman who has been caught in adultery (the man she was caught with is not brought in). They tell Jesus that they have the right to kill her for what she’s done, according to the law of Moses. Jesus responds, “he who is without sin, cast the first stone.”
These are two completely different stories with different people involved. Nobody was trying to stone the woman at the well. So Jerry Falwell Jr. screwed up his scripture reference in a pretty major way.
Now, this post is not meant as ‘gotcha’ attack on Jerry Falwell, Jr. I actually hate those kinds of posts, and I do know that this kind of referencing mistake could happen to any bible-reader. You mix up the stories, to err is human, and all that.
It is concerning that the mistake comes from such a high-profile evangelical leader, the president of a school that wants to be known for excellence in Christian education. But I don’t want to make too much of the goof, itself. Everybody, regardless of station, makes mistakes and gets things wrong sometimes. I know I do!
But mistakes like this are also helpful as opportunities for self-reflection. Whenever we realize that we’ve gotten things wrong about what is in the bible, or the US Constitution, or any other resource we want to inform our civic life, we’re reminded of our own fallibility, and ought to ask some follow-up questions.
If I got this wrong, is there anything else I’m getting wrong?
If I overlooked this part of the story, is there anything else I’m overlooking?
If I thought the story goes like that, but it actually goes like this, do I need to go back and re-learn the story?
Most of us don’t feel like going back to re-learn the story, once we’ve made up our minds as to what the story is.
Many people who say they are devout Christians are now supporting Donald Trump for president, and because the campaign has been going on for a year, there’s been plenty of time to develop intricate explanations as to why it’s a fundamentally Christian choice to support a candidate who speaks and acts the way Trump does.
We’ve reached the ‘echo chamber of talking points’ part of the campaign. Everybody has got their ‘it all comes down to this’ statements about why they’re supporting their chosen candidate.
But just because we’ve practiced our lines, doesn’t mean the lines are right.
If some of our lines justifying our choice of a leader come from the Bible, we should keep reading the Bible carefully, day after day, to make sure that it says what we think it’s saying.
With that in mind, I think Falwell’s scripture reference is meaningful and helpful, because his misstatement about the bible draws attention to something very important.
While he unwittingly mixed up two bible stories, he actually brought together a couple of characters that have some important things in common, and Jesus’ reaction to these two different women is consistent and relevant to our consideration of life, culture and politics in 2016.
Both the women in these stories are vulnerable and shamed in their communities. The first is ostracized in her village (she comes to the well in mid-day, probably to avoid interacting with people who judge her for her life circumstances). The second is a target of violence because she’s broken sexual norms (the question of her agency in the adultery, and whether or not she was being exploited and abused by a man who is not being prosecuted is an additional layer of the story we could discuss, if we had all day).
In both cases, men enter the scene (Jesus’ disciples in the first story and the scribes and Pharisees in the second) and they expect Jesus to pass judgment on the women. And also in both cases, Jesus builds a connection of grace and compassion with the women – in the second story he literally saves the woman’s life.
If we want to use these stories as a resource for determining whether a Christian should support Trump (or any candidate), we ought to ask which characters in these stories Trump most resembles.
Trump loves to say that he’s a victim of mistreatment and attacks by his opponents, and his Christian defenders may wish to compare him to biblical characters that Jesus forgives and defends.
But Trump’s entire message and brand is about attacking. His own words, day after day, are about how strong he is, how great he is, and how stupid, weak and awful everyone is who opposes him. He’s the best. He’s no victim. He wants people to admire him for destroying his opponents. He’s a guy who will hurt you if you cross him. He attacks his enemies mercilessly, and if facts align with or conflict with the stories he’s telling about the people he’s attacking, it makes no difference to him.
Which characters in the stories Falwell mashed-up actually remind you of Donald Trump?
The woman at the well? The woman being judged for adultery? Jesus Christ, friend of the weak?
Or is it the men with the stones, the men that the vulnerable fear, the ones ready to kill?