Feb 23, 2018
photo above: Evangelist Billy Graham speaks in Dallas at the 1974 Southern Baptist Convention. (AP)
WN: On the day of Billy Graham’s death (February 21, 2018), I posted a critical commentary on Graham. Today I post a positive reflection by Mel White, who counted Graham as a friend for many years, and who, as you may read in the footnote above, has left his mark on changing attitudes towards the LGBTQ community, etc.
Dr. White in the column highlighted below says nothing of Graham’s commitment to “Christian American Empire”, burden of the earlier post.
What is clear from this article is that Graham’s “handlers” muted the evangelist often enough because Graham had a prophetic heart for the marginalized. The author writes:
Billy wanted to speak truth to power. He was determined to remind Christian believers that God calls us to “do justice; love mercy; and walk humbly [with your God. — Micah 6:8].”
I accept Dr. White’s word on this. But what happened that that message did not seem to get out? To be sure, he would have lost the fundamentalists. And his Evangelistic Association (BGEA) definitely would not have raised $100 million+ a year as we read… Gandhi apparently commented at times that it costs other people lots to keep him poor — meaning, I infer, that his worldwide travels and speaking engagements were at others’ expense. But did Gandhi in fact look more like a Jesus-follower than Graham, the former self-consciously not a “Christian”, the latter…?
As to a “prophetic heart”, one thinks of Amos, who began his prophecy citing the Lord:
“The Lord roars from Zion
and thunders from Jerusalem; …” (chapter 1, verse 2).
In chapter 3, verse 4, we read further:
Does a lion roar in the thicket
when it has no prey?
Does it growl in its den
when it has caught nothing?…
Then in verse 8 there is:
The lion has roared who will not fear?
The Sovereign Lord has spoken—
who can but prophesy?
If Graham was exercised with a prophetic conscience, he rarely to my observation “roared” about it!
Further, those wealthy donors (mostly white without doubt) who supported his Crusades, did not gain or keep their wealth by railing against the “dirty rotten System” (Dorothy Day) like Amos, who called their wives in the day “cows of Bashan” (Amos 4:1) due to their rampant greed.
Perhaps though the crowning summation of the prophetic is Jesus’ blunt statement:
You cannot serve both God and money (Matthew 6:24).
That declaration seems especially à propos here, when an annual haul of $100 million is needed…
If, as the article rightly states, his son and head of the BGEA, Franklin Graham, is in thrall to fundamentalists, where did his son “miss” his dad’s prophetic heart? One presumes the son received the dad’s blessing to lead the BGEA, and much more…
As the article highlighted in the earlier post indicates, Graham’s message seemed powerfully at odds with that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The one enjoyed the favour of Presidents and went peacefully to the grave, the latter was murdered for his message, likely at the hands of the U.S. government.
King’s murder is strangely reminiscent of another we read about in the Bible. That Person was no friend of Herod or of the powers-that-be either. True there was momentarily the “Hosanna Parade”; and Billy led one or more Rose Bowl Parades. But the context is dramatically different! And that same crowd a week later screamed, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” So I just find it hard to believe there was much more of a closer comparison between Jesus and Graham.
William Hughes, in an article juxtaposing Graham with Phil Berrigan (“The Rev. Billy Graham is no Phil Berrigan!“) writes:
Why was I influenced so profoundly by Berrigan? Because he, unlike the timid Rev. Graham, dared to speak the truth to power! He took on the nation’s War Party, whether it was headed by Richard Nixon, LBJ, that union-bashing Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, or Bush 1 or Bush 2. Berrigan courageously acted out his Biblical duties. He spent 11 of his 79 years in prison protesting the excesses of America’s militarism, nuclear weapons’ proliferation, and its War and Death Machine. What was Rev. Graham doing all of that time? Well, he was busy, “praying” with presidents, and traveling around the globe “talking” about the Gospel!
He adds later:
“Knowing God” brings with it a spirituality that embraces the oneness of humankind. This important principle is found in all of the great religions. It only needs to be taught by their so-called “leaders.” Berrigan’s life, as a Christian warrior for peace and justice, was an exemplary lesson of that kind of higher spirituality.
Where in Graham’s long life is there an instance “of that kind of higher spirituality”? As Jesus taught:
By their fruit you will recognize them. (Matthew 7:16 Sermon on the Mount)
I wish to be shown I’m wrong about Graham. Perhaps there is yet a corrective to this view…
Hughes’ juxtaposition of Graham and Berrigan is stark. The latter puts us all to shame. That acknowledged, Jesus also taught in that same Sermon on the Mount:
For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)
“Righteousness” in the New Testament amongst other things invariably harkens back to Liberation of the oppressed (compare Matthew 7: 24 – 27). New Testament theologian Christopher Marshall fills out this fuller sense in an article, “Paul and Christian Social Responsibility”. He states:
Paul deliberately, and pervasively, employs the categories and terminology of justice and justice-making. In so doing, he is affirming that the Christian gospel is all about justice.
As with Paul, so with Jesus. In fact the entire Sermon on the Mount lays out the kind of justice-making Jesus meant, that reaches a kind of zenith point here:
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48).
Finally I wonder: What does Mr. White think of “Christian American Empire” that in every way contradicts the Prophets’ and Jesus’ message about power, wealth, and enemies? And what does he think Billy Graham thought about Christian American Empire?
Billy Graham is dead. He was my friend, and I mourn his passing. For two years, I was Billy’s ghost. I travelled with him, met him in hotel rooms and backstage at his massive rallies, and interviewed him for hours at a time. We went on long walks, visited bookstores (to see where his books were placed), ate in restaurants that offered him a secluded corner, and worked with him on writing projects that were dear to his heart. I have to confess that from my childhood Billy Graham was my hero. I had no idea that one day I would be his ghost.
At 12, I began listening to Billy preach on his “Hour of Decision” radio broadcast. At 15, I took busloads of my high school friends to his evangelistic crusade in San Francisco. All through the 1950s and 1960s, I watched Billy’s television specials and the full-length movies produced by Billy Graham’s World Wide Pictures: “For Pete’s Sake,” “Mr. Texas,” “The Restless Ones,” “The Hiding Place.” I dreamed that one day I would preach like Billy and even produce Christian motion pictures of my own. My feelings about Billy Graham shaped in my childhood and youth are rather biased in his favor. Everyone does not agree. While the first President Bush called Graham “America’s Pastor,” Harry Truman labeled Graham a “counterfeit” and a “publicity seeker.”
Whatever history calls Billy Graham, I have to confess that he was a primary influence in shaping my earliest Christian beliefs. So you can imagine my surprise in 1982 when Billy Graham himself called me from Acapulco, Mexico, to see if I would be interested in helping him write his next book. That same night, I flew from Seattle to Acapulco to meet my hero for the first time, and to my surprise, Billy was waiting for me at curbside driving an open jeep. Billy and Ruth were taking a few days off in a beachfront condo loaned to them by a supporter.
During the months that followed, he talked while I recorded his rather passionate feelings about the four horsemen of the apocalypse described by John in Revelation 6: war, famine, pestilence and death.
Billy Graham was the last real evangelical. Evangelical has its roots in the beautiful Greek word “evangel,” or good news. For most of his ministry, sharing the good news was Billy Graham’s primary goal. He was often criticized for not raising his powerful voice against war, famine, pestilence and death.
Until meeting him in Acapulco, I had no idea that Billy Graham was determined to speak prophetically on those issues as well. In the book we were writing together, “Approaching Hoofbeats,” Billy wanted to speak truth to power. He was determined to remind Christian believers that God calls us to “do justice; love mercy; and walk humbly.” In Acapulco, I listened to a man who made it clear that being “born again” is not enough. God’s spirit calls us to work for peace as well, to feed the hungry, care for the sick, and confront the powers that lead to death for our planet and for all those who live upon it. I’ll never forget the stories he told me from his own life that illustrated his change of heart.
When finished, Billy’s book, “Approaching Hoofbeats,” was rich in personal stories that illustrated what must be done if we are to stop the four horsemen: war, famine, plague and death. “Even in Eisenhower’s time, we could hear the hoof beats,” Billy told me. “But now they are upon us and when we don’t answer Christ’s call to do justice and love mercy,” he warned, “when we don’t feed the hungry and house the homeless, when we don’t welcome and care for the outcast, we sin, and the Bible promises that we will be judged for that sin.”
Coming from Billy Graham, this new sermon was strong stuff especially since the stories came directly out of the life and experiences of an evangelist with a prophet’s heart. But when galleys of the book came back from the editors and the all-too-protective members of Billy’s team, many of the most dramatic stories were missing. I understood why it was risky to condemn the rich for neglecting the poor when the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association had to raise $100 million or more a year, much of it from wealthy donors. I knew it was dangerous to confront the politicians who sat on the stage at Billy’s crusades for ignoring the world’s needs, and I realized that the more fundamentalist pastors in Billy’s camp would accuse the evangelist of getting off track with his sudden interest in “the social gospel.”
But during our time together, it was exciting to hear Billy Graham raising his powerful voice on behalf of people who were hungry, thirsty, sick, naked, homeless, outcast and in prison. And it broke my heart to see Billy’s entourage—for whatever reason—force him to focus on saving souls and, in the process, silence the prophet in their midst.
Now, looking back, I can understand why Billy’s handlers didn’t want their man to get into more trouble. He was already under fire by supporters for taking his stand against the arrogant and dangerous spirit of fundamentalism in newspaper interviews, news conferences and talk shows. Billy was using his own quiet voice to show the difference between an evangelical and a fundamentalist, and those same fundamentalists, once his most loyal friends, were howling.
Fundamentalist Christian leaders accused Graham of “breaking down the walls of biblical separation between sound and apostate churches,” and for “sending thousands of converts back into Roman Catholic and modernistic churches that preach heretical gospels,” and for “claiming that Pope John Paul II was a moral and spiritual leader and that when he died surely went to heaven,” and for “accepting an honorary degree from a Catholic university,” and for “inviting Catholic bishops, Jewish Rabbis, and even Muslim clerics to sit with him on the platform of his citywide evangelistic campaigns.”
Perhaps fundamentalists were most angry at Billy Graham because he dared to imply that people could find God through other religions. They claimed that in a 1985 newspaper interview, Graham expressed the belief that those outside of Christ might be saved. In fact, he just left the judgment in God’s hands when Los Angeles reporter David Colker asked Graham: “What about people of other faiths who live good lives but don’t profess a belief in Christ?” Graham replied, “I’m going to leave that to the Lord. He’ll decide that.”
Graham infuriated fundamentalist Christians when he said, “I used to think that pagans in far-off countries were lost—were going to hell—if they did not have the Gospel of Jesus Christ preached to them. I no longer believe that. … I believe there are other ways of recognizing the existence of God—through nature, for instance—and plenty of other opportunities, therefore, of saying yes to God.”
Billy Graham is dead, and I’m grieving because I won’t be able to see my friend again. I’m grieving because over the decades his prophetic voice was silenced by associates who had to “protect” his ministry from controversy and financial loss. I’m grieving because Billy was too ill to condemn Donald Trump’s assault on our democracy and on the war he and his Republican colleagues are waging against my LGBQ and especially my trans sisters and brothers, against Americans who were brought here as children and are now facing the possibilities of deportation, against people of color especially black men, against Muslims and people of other faiths, against immigrants with or without papers, against the disabled, the poor and the homeless. And I’m grieving because Billy’s son, Franklin, thinks he’s representing the views of his father when, in fact, he’s simply parroting the views of his fundamentalist friends and undermining every good thing his father said or did.
Goodbye, Billy. History will remember you as the 20th-century evangelist who called billions around the world to be born again. But I will remember you as the man who said, “Being born again is not enough. We are also called to do justice, love mercy and live humbly. Those who are born again,” he added, “must also feed the hungry, care for the sick, house the homeless and confront the powers that lead to death for our planet and for all those who live upon it.”
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- Winner of the ACLU’S National Civil Liberties Award, the Rev. Dr. Mel White is the Co-Founder of Soulforce and the author of “Stranger at the Gate: To be Gay and Christian in America.” White’s book “Holy Terror: Lies the Christian Right Tells Us to Deny Gay Equality,” was published in 2012, and his latest book “Grace and Demion: A Fable for Victims of Biblical Intolerance,” was published in 2014. Dr. White is a member of the Organizing Committee of the National Council of Elders, “Leaders of 20th century civil rights and justice movements organizing to support similar nonviolent movements of the 21st Century.” Mel and his son, filmmaker Mike White, were a popular team on two seasons of the Amazing Race (CBS). [Contact: Soulforce1@aol.com]↩
- Marshall writes in part about “justice” in Paul:
Liberation of the Oppressed: Paul’s Theology of Divine Justice
The first theme is that of God’s righteousness. Modern scholarship is virtually unanimous that the leitmotif of the epistle to the Romans is the ‘righteousness of God’. The phrase recurs eight times in the letter, and righteousness-terminology features more than 60 times. Paul announces the theme at the outset: ‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith”’ (Rom. 1:16 – 17; cf. 3:21 – 26).
For Paul, the Christian message is about the manifestation of God’s righteousness in the life, death and resurrection of Christ, and the accompanying promise that human beings are justified by faith’. From this it follows that the church’s mission is essentially the proclamation and appropriation of this epoch-making event. So far so good. But what most modern readers fail to realize is that when Paul defines the gospel in terms of God’s righteousness, he is using justice language. That is to say, in order to explain what God has accomplished in Christ, and its radical implications for human experience, Paul deliberately, and pervasively, employs the categories and terminology of justice and justice-making. In so doing, he is affirming that the Christian gospel is all about justice. We often miss this because our English translations obscure a significant fact. The Greek terms for ‘righteousness/justice/justification’ derive from the same lexical root (dik stem), as does the corresponding Hebrew terminology (sdq root). They are part and parcel of the same basic concept. But in rendering these terms into English, translators employ terms deriving from two different language stocks — the Latin terminology of justice/justification’ on the one hand, and the Anglo-Saxon terminology of ‘right/righteousness’ on the other. As a result, English readers do not readily perceive the intimate connection that exists between the biblical language of ‘righteousness’ and the notion of justice. The problem is compounded by the fact that in modern English, ‘righteousness’ and justice’ have quite different connotations. Righteousness carries the sense of personal moral purity and religious piety, while justice is concerned with social policy and legal rights. One term belongs to the private realm, the other to the public realm.
But this is not so in Scripture. In biblical usage, righteousness and justice have closely related, often identical, meanings. The basic idea behind the biblical notion of righteousness is ‘doing what is right’, living in a condition of ‘all-rightness’, maintaining right relationships, both with God and with other members of the community. To be righteous is to do justice, that is, to bring about harmony and well-being in all one’s relationships, both individual and communal, and especially by defending the oppressed. Righteousness and justice are relational categories before they are moral or legal ones. So when the biblical writers ascribe righteousness to God (as Paul does in Romans ), they are referring primarily to God’s faithfulness in his relationships with people, and to God’s actions in the world to secure justice for the oppressed. The righteousness of God is the essentially the saving action of a faithful, covenant-keeping God on behalf of those in need.
Consequently, when Paul speaks in Romans of the manifestation of God’s righteousness in the gospel, he is identifying the work of Christ as God’s definitive intervention of saving justice. The gospel is all about justice. It is, on the one hand, about the vindication of God’s justice: that God has proven himself to be a just God, a God who, in Christ, has acted justly towards Israel, and indeed to all humankind. On the other hand, it is about how God has secured justice on behalf the oppressed. In Christ, God has worked justice for those oppressed by the tyranny of law, sin and death, those unable to free themselves from these cruel oppressors. Paul states both sides of the justice-equation in Romans 3:16: ‘This was to prove’, Paul writes, ‘that God is just and that God justifies [or secures justice for] those who have faith in Jesus.↩