Thursday, 22 February 2018

The late Rev. Dr. Billy Graham, 1918-2018

It's not often that I feel compelled to write reflections on the death of a fellow-clergy type with whose theology I profoundly differ on a number of points.  The last time I did it, it was following the death of Ian Paisley in September of 2014. 

Today, the news of the death of Billy Graham once again leads me to put pen to paper (or at least to put fingers to keyboard).

While I'll say some critical things about Dr. Graham's ministry and his legacy, I don't want to be completely negative.  To begin with, I wish to make three positive comments about Dr. Graham:

1.  Throughout his entire ministry, there was never a hint of any sex scandal or financial scandal associated with him.  In his particular ministry context (evangelists based in the United States), this was almost unheard of, whether in his own day, in previous decades, and particularly in the time since his retirement.  Both in terms of money and in terms of sex, Billy Graham's ministry was far cleaner than the ministries of many of his evangelical contemporaries.

2.  Even though his own roots were in the Southern United States during the era of "Jim Crow" segregation, Dr. Graham always insisted that the congregations to which he preached were racially integrated.   This stand cost him significant support among the White Southern Protestant evangelicals among whom he grew up.

3.  Another stance which also cost Dr. Graham support among his own people was his insistence, following the Second Vatican Council, that Roman Catholic parishes had the opportunity to be involved in his preaching missions, in any community where they wanted to be involved.  As he (and many of his core supporters) came from a context in which bigotry against Catholics was almost as strong as bigotry against African-Americans, this was also a costly stance.

4.  Even though, to be brutally honest, the majority of "converts" in his preaching missions were already Christians, according to any realistic definition of what constitutes a Christian, Dr. Graham's preaching missions had the result of encouraging many people to move from a passive to an active approach in relating their faith to their lives.

With each of these four positives in mind, there is much about Dr. Graham's ministry that I wish to celebrate.

Nevertheless ....

.... Nevertheless, there are aspects to Dr. Graham's ministry which I believe need to be criticised. 

Here goes.

1.  He helped to keep alive the far too common notion within Christianity - particularly within the "Protestant" strand of Christianity that "getting your theology right" (however otherwise hateful your attitudes and behaviour towards others happens to be) is an essential aspect of being in a positive relationship with God.  This implies the tragic corollary that says that those who "get their theology wrong" (however compassionate their lives happen to be) are destined to become fuel for an eternal BBQ. 

Very few Christians today actually believe this.  Even some fairly conservative Christians don't believe this.  However, the cultural stereotype is that all Christians believe this. 

In a sense, there was a downward spiral.  Ideas that were contemplative, meditative, and prayerful in Paul and other New Testament writers remained at least lyrical and poetic in the early Church Fathers.  These ideas, in turn, became prosaic in Luther and other 16th century Reformers, legalistic in the 19th and 20th century revivalists (including Dr. Graham), and absolute gibberish in the hands of some contemporary evangelicals.

2.  Yet another issue is the fact that, both in the United States and elsewhere in the English-speaking world (including Australia), the association of Dr. Graham's ministry with conservative politicians has led to the notion that Christians of an evangelical persuasion are automatically supporters of the political "Right". 

This flies in the face of a number of historical realities:
  • In many English-speaking countries prior to the Second World War, the majority of evangelical Christian movements have sought to be scrupulously apolitical.
  • In the 19th and 20th centuries, a high percentage of evangelical Christians in public life in the English-speaking countries (particularly in Britain and within the African-American community in the US) were people who were markedly Left-of-centre.
3.  For all the benefits of Dr. Graham's preaching missions, they would also have had a possible side effect that was not positive.  An active lay Christian, of a more reflective and tentative approach to her/his faith, could easily have attended one of Dr. Graham's rallies (or the rallies of any similar evangelist) and responded, "I can never be as definite about my faith as this man is of his.  I believe that, if there is anything in what this man says, if I continue to be an active worshipper at my church, I will merely be a hypocrite."  Thus, tragically, a good and exemplary Christian leaves his/her church permanently.

Nevertheless ...

For all Dr. Graham's virtues, his obvious faults remain.

For all Dr. Graham's faults, his obvious virtues remain.

It's ironic that Dr. Graham died at the age of 99, a few months short of his 100th birthday.  Here in Australia, there was another leader of a Christian church who also died at 99, a few months short of his 100th birthday.  (And, you know, the two of them remind me of each other.)

Like Billy Graham, Archbishop Daniel Mannix (Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne who died in 1963) was a sometimes controversial figure who simultaneously inspired great affection and great criticism, great loyalty and great ridicule.  Like Billy Graham, Daniel Mannix also occasionally dabbled in Right-wing politics (and, for the most part, not in a terribly helpful way).

For both of these almost-centenarian, often-and-usually-unhelpfully-politicised, preachers, for both Billy and Daniel, the last word needs to be this:  May they rest in peace and rise with Christ in glory.