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A Word about Billy Graham upon his death at the age of 99


“History has its eyes on you.”  Perhaps no line is better scripted to outline the century long life of America’s most famous revivalist, Billy Graham.  His death last week marks the official end to the decades of influence his preaching, theology and views about God and community.  In place of Billy Graham and at the helm of the “Empire” created under his watchful eye, is “Franklin the Terrible.”  Franklin Graham is a twisted and perverted dimwit who has used the Christian faith to support his neanderthal hateful and biased views on Islam, Hinduism, and the LGBTQ community.  His public remarks about President Barack Obama have been incendiary and deeply offensive regarding his Christian faith.  

But back to Billy Graham.  I have been reading reports (the majority of them glowing) regarding Graham’s career in Christian ministry.  Without fail, these reports conclude that Graham was responsible for leading “more people to Christ” than any singular figure in modern history.  These words give me pause.  Let me explain.  I believe we are living, America is existing in a “Billy Graham-kind-of-Christian-world.”  A few writers allege that it was Graham who was responsible for posting bail when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. languished in the Birmingham jail.  I have not been able to substantiate that claim.  In fact, I once heard that while King was in the Birmingham jail, his team tried to track Graham down to seek his no avail.  I am not sure which story is true but as I understand history, the truth is somewhere in between.  

We do know that at the start of Graham’s ministry, he received and was taught a Christian religion steeped in the tradition of a pre-Civil Rights American south.  The topography and times were rife with deep seated division and hatred based on racism, false assumptions regarding superiority and a negligible view of God’s presence in all of humanity.  Tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of whites were influenced by such views that were supported by sermons preached, fifty two times a year.  Like all of us, Graham was a product of his environment.  As his popularity began to soar, his preaching did not deepen through exegetical, historical/contextual critique, hermeneutics or any sociology of religion.  Rather his preaching, like his views, remained simple and focused upon a pietistic, introverted understanding of God at work in human history.  In fact, it may be safe to make the claim that Graham (in part because of the reality of his particularity) totally focused on salvation of souls for individuals rather than liberation for those who were oppressed.  Every Christian today should now know that the church must re-program to liberate oppressed people, before the church can talk about salvation.  Graham did not march with Dr. King.  Graham did invite King to offer an invocation at one of his New York City crusades that attracted millions.  Those arguing that Graham was a supporter of the civil rights movement use this as an illustration to his “heart.”  Please know that “an invocation is not a preaching opportunity.”  Years later, William Sloane Coffin (pastor of Riverside Church in New York) would give up his pulpit for a Sunday in 1967 so that King could preach his sermon, “Why I am against the War in Vietnam.”  Coffin’s invitation meant a great deal, Graham’s invitation did not.  

Graham was a white southern preacher who led an advantaged life because of the pernicious system of racism that existed before him and during his life time.  He should have done more preaching and teaching to his massive audiences about the “oneness of the human family.” He should have unabashedly shared that the Bible teaches, “In Christ there is no male or female, slave or master, Jew or Gentile.”  He should have done more to lift the words of Paul who declared, “With one blood God made all nations to dwell on earth.”  He should have done more to decipher and understand the ancient Jewish scribes who wrote, “And God formed man from the dust of the earth and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.  And man became a living soul.”  Not a white man, not a rich man, not a Republican man, but the first man out of whom we all have DNA tracings.  

At the end of the day brothers and sisters, we are also tied to our particularity.  Each of us was born into a family, ethnic group and religion (or no religion).  If we can learn anything from Billy Graham’s life and death (that his son Franklin has not learned) it is this; do not allow your own culture and beliefs to bias and prejudice you against those who are different.  Rather, begin the process of learning to broaden and stretch your vision and heart to catch a glimpse of what Martin Luther King, Jr. shared over fifty years ago.  “I have a dream that one day our nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.”  

A beloved community is loving enough and large enough, to include everyone.  A beloved community is one where every single person is treated with full equality, given total access to equity, where justice is handed down with mercy, and where all people live in harmony with one another.  With all due respect, Billy Graham did not preach this gospel.  Nor did he see this vision.  In fact, Graham criticized King’s dream by saying such things would only happen in heaven.  Graham advanced a belief and religion caught in the quagmire of racial injustice, white superiority, and human division.  Dr. King advanced a belief and religion dedicated in bringing an end to racial injustice, white superiority and human division (by the way, so did Jesus).  As similar as many pundits wish to now make them in death, the marked differences in King and Graham’s lives, must not be forgotten.  Furthermore, hatred found in one belief and type of religion inevitably created the environment for the thirty-nine year old King to lie mortally wounded on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis.  While the other belief and type of religion may well be the cause of extending Graham’s life to ninety-nine years.  Go figure.      

My own belief about Billy Graham concludes; “Now, at last... he does see it.”  Let us pray we can catch a glimpse of it on this side of the chilly Jordan.  If there is a future for us at all, history will have its eyes upon us.

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