REFLECTIONS ON THE LIFE AND MINISTRY OF REV. BILLY GRAHAM
©Wendell Griffen, 2018
Justice Is A Verb!
The Reverend Billy Graham moved from life in God among us to life in God beyond us on yesterday at the full age of 99 years. Known and revered across the world as a congenial preacher of the gospel of Jesus, Reverend Graham’s passing has received the accolades and recollections appropriate for someone who worked so long and was acclaimed by so many. Having been received by US presidents from both major political parties across the years, it is understandable that Rev. Graham is remembered in news accounts as pastor to presidents. We should also, however, acknowledge that Rev. Graham was patriarch to his biological family. As that family engages in the necessary efforts required to honor his life, ministry, and paternal influence, we should include them in our prayers.
Much has been written and said about Rev. Graham’s influence as a religious leader. More will be said and written in the future about his influence on the evangelical Christian movement. I have read tributes to Rev. Graham from faithful people I know who embraced the gospel of Jesus during one of his evangelistic crusades. These people are sincere. Their reflections are moving.
Rev. Graham should also be remembered for refusing to accommodate racially segregated seating during his evangelistic crusades at a time when Jim Crow segregation was followed due to custom and the force of law. That fact is noteworthy because it was a drastic departure from the practice of most white religionists in the US South. Billy Graham Crusades included Ethel Waters singing along with his preaching when few US white congregations would allow black people to worship with them, let alone be featured as soloists. We should not treat that fact lightly in our reflections about Rev. Graham’s ministry.
During his later ministry, Rev. Graham expressed regret that he had not devoted more attention to social justice in his preaching. As one Catholic observer pointed out, “Billy Graham was asked once why he preached only personal salvation and not peace and justice. He said that as people become converted, they would be peacemakers and justice-seekers. He was pressed further. How come he’d been converted, and wasn’t more upfront about these things, then? From that day, to his credit, Graham included more of the dimensions of the Good News in his preaching. Following Jesus, we’re called to make visible the Good News, and that means both putting it into words and showing by our lives what it means in terms of justice and love.” http://www.catholicsocialteaching.org.uk/themes/peace/reflection/ten-reasons-justice-essential-gospels/.
If we are to think and speak accurately and honestly about Rev. Graham’s ministry, we must acknowledge that Rev. Graham’s pastoral ministry to presidents and his worldwide fame as an evangelist did not include much, if anything, about justice and peace. This is not because Rev. Graham was not urged to include social justice in his public ministry. Indeed, Rev. Graham was prodded to proclaim the gospel of Jesus as more than a religion of personal salvation during a visit from Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor when Dr. Proctor served as special assistant to Sargent Shriver in the federal Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). Dr. Proctor succeeded Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. as pastor of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, was personal friend and mentor to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and was a pastoral neighbor and collaborator with Rev. Gardner C. Taylor, who served as pastor of Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn, NY for many years. Dr. Proctor was also president of North Carolina A & T College when Rev. Jesse Jackson was an undergraduate (and football quarterback), and was president of Virginia Union University when Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. was a seminary student at that school.
In his book titled My Moral Odyssey (Judson Press, 1989) - which has a foreword written by Bill Moyers - Dr. Proctor recounted something he experienced while serving in the Johnson Administration as President Johnson was trying to garner support for the War on Poverty.
Once President Lyndon Johnson asked me to visit a widely acclaimed evangelist to solicit his moral support for the war on poverty. I did, and what a shock! He lived like royalty and told me that he did not get involved in such things. He only “preached the gospel.” When I reminded him of what the gospel said in Matthew 25 about feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, visiting prisoners, and taking in strangers, he took refuge in some inane, insipid theological irrelevancies. Without knowing it, he dismissed Jesus as a “liberal.” (pp. 134-35, emphasis by Dr. Proctor)
Dr. Proctor wrote more expansively about this encounter in The Substance of Things Hoped For: A Memoir of African-American Faith (Putnam, 1995) as follows:
One day Bill Moyers called from the White House and asked me to leave fast, go to the airport, and fly to Charlotte, North Carolina, with Billy Graham. We were helping a lot of poor mountain people near where he lived, and we wanted his support.
All through the flight down we talked church, religion, and social change. When we reached his mountaintop home, we had a delicious lunch and more conversation. It all settled down to a stalemate: Dr. Graham felt that his business was to preach the gospel and change the hearts of individuals. Changed persons would then change society.
I countered with the teachings of Jesus in Chapter 25 of Matthew’s gospel, in which he admonished that at the day of judgment we would all be separated into sheep and goats. One got to be a sheep by feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty and clothing to the naked, visiting those in prison, and taking in the stranger. The sheep entered into the Master’s joy. Goats did not do such things and were consigned to a burning hell.
Reverend Graham smiled and said that I was making Jesus into a “liberal.” It was odd, though, that while he officially avoided political involvement, he often boasted of advising several presidents. (p. 123)
As a follower and preacher in the religion of Jesus, I join the rest of the world in acknowledging the long and wide preaching ministry of Rev. Billy Graham. I join the rest of the world in praying for his family in this time of bereavement. No one should deny that he influenced many people in ways that were personally profound.
Yet, as we reflect on Rev. Graham’s ministry in the world and the reception he enjoyed among presidents and other powerful figures in the US and elsewhere, it is fair to point out that Rev. Graham was not involved in the March on Washington in 1963. Rev. Graham did not openly endorse the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that outlawed segregation based on race, sex, religion, and national origin. Rev. Graham did not support the war on poverty. He did not oppose the war in Southeast Asia.
When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called for an end to US military involvement in Southeast Asia, Rev. Graham’s strong voice was strangely silent. As indigenous people in India and Africa were struggling to throw off oppressive colonizers from Europe, Rev. Graham’s powerful voice was strangely silent. When Africans were being slaughtered and Nelson Mandela was jailed for decades in South Africa, Rev. Graham’s voice was strangely silent. When Palestinians were being thrown off their ancestral lands by Zionist Jewish settlers and the United Nations was adopting resolutions declaring Jewish settlements illegal, Rev. Graham was silent.
Rev. Graham was silent when the Reagan administration engaged in illegal gun-running by allowing drug cartels to smuggle cocaine into the US and accelerate mass incarceration through the hypocrisy of a war on drugs. He was silent about racial profiling, mass incarceration, violence against women and girls, and people who are LGBTQ. One searches in vain to find Rev. Graham relating the struggles of working people to the gospel of Jesus, despite the fact that Jesus hailed from a working class family.
That strange silence about social justice, more than anything else, may be the most lasting effect of Rev. Graham’s long and wide ministry, for all its otherwise laudable contributions. Whatever else one may say or think to commend Rev. Graham’s ministry, the recent words of George Will in the Washington Post are indisputably true. Rev. Graham was “no theologian… Neither was he a prophet.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/billy-graham-was-no-prophet-thats-why-america-loved-him/2018/02/21/398ce31a-1722-11e8-92c9-376b4fe57ff7_story.html?utm_term=.4ed7e3d10740.
For if anything is obvious from the US presidential election of 2016, four out of five people who self-identify as “evangelical Christians” voted for Donald Trump, described in one BBC news article as “a thrice married casino-building businessman.” As I wrote in The Fierce Urgency of Prophetic Hope (Judson Press, 2017): “On November 8, 2016, 81 percent of the people who profess to be evangelical followers of Jesus in the United States refused to proclaim by their votes that God cares about people who are hungry, thirsty, homeless, frail, imprisoned, and unwelcomed” (p. 141).
Perhaps their pastors are imitating Rev. Graham, whose understanding of the gospel of Jesus somehow did not move him to challenge US presidents, other powerful people, and the multitudes who attended his evangelistic events to see God in our hungry, thirsty, sick, imprisoned, and immigrant brothers and sisters. Perhaps that is why people are rejecting the term “evangelical” in their religious identity as followers of Jesus. This is not comfortable or pleasant to contemplate as we reflect on Rev. Graham’s life and ministry, whether now or at any other time. Most people prefer to not contemplate it at all, but instead limit their reflections about Rev. Graham to eulogies and platitudes.
That discomfort and preference, however, does not change the truth we know. Despite all that Rev. Graham did to proclaim the love of God, the evangelical movement that celebrates his legacy and that he represented is widely – and sadly – identified with and supportive of policies and practices that are racist, sexist, patriarchal, militaristic, imperialistic, homophobic, economically dismissive or oppressive towards workers, poor and otherwise vulnerable and frail people and the creation, and xenophobic. In that regard, the evangelical movement now lionizes Billy Graham while it pays lip service, at best, to Jesus.
As we remember Rev. Graham’s ministry to the world, his pastoral relationships with several US presidents, and the enduring effect of his ministry on people who call themselves evangelical Christians, one wonders how different and better the last fifty years might have been if Rev. Billy Graham had joined his voice with that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Bill Moyers, Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Rev. Gardner Taylor, and Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor. One wonders as we ponder Rev. Graham’s influence on the people who occupy pulpits, pews, and voting booths. And one wonders as we think of the issues and people Dr. Samuel Proctor urged Rev. Graham to advocate for and include in his preaching during the day they spent together over fifty years ago.
We may never know. We who are followers of Jesus can only strive to embrace and embody a prophetic faith that is much deeper and wider than personal salvation, however much that was valued by Rev. Graham and is emphasized by his evangelical followers. The religion of Jesus is not only about God saving individual souls. It is about God saving the world. Rev. Graham had many opportunities to make that plain to multitudes and by his personal ministry to the powerful and privileged. Sadly, he refused to do so.
We should not follow that example.