Ambivalence and human legacy
By the Rev. Kadin J.G. Williams
Editor’s note: The ministry and recent death of the Rev. Billy Graham evokes passionate recollections for many. The Christian Citizen is publishing divergent perspectives on his life and legacy for your consideration.
On Wednesday, Feb. 21, I led a ministerium meeting that represents 13,000 Christians — Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Congregationalist, Baptist and Tamil — in three towns. Yet, surprisingly, no one thought to mention Billy Graham’s passing. He was loved, and no one should cherish his passing. He loved and served God. Of that, I am certain. Yet, I cannot help but wonder if the silence of seven congregations on this topic illustrates something about his legacy.
As much as any other preacher, Billy Graham was a man of the conversion experience. His crusades offered people a moment of salvific experience — a moment that could shape their lives. And yet, Billy Graham was not a man of action. Unlike the generations prior, he did not push the sanctifying message of a social Gospel. Like the neoliberalism of the latter 20th century, Graham lifted up the individual. It was, perhaps, this rejection of the preaching that preceded him that led him to make decisions and statements that foreshadowed the ideologies so evident in his son.
As the Civil Rights Movement grew in the 1950s and 1960s, Graham became increasingly critical of the movement. After the publication of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” Graham told reporters that King needed to “put the brakes on a little bit.” Graham found the basis for this criticism in his view that Christians should not try to find justice through confrontations meant to inspire legislation or government intervention. Like many white Christians, Graham sympathized with desegregation, but felt that the Civil Rights Movement had become too extreme.
Graham’s opposition was primarily because he was enamored with eschatology. In his book “The Jesus Generation” (Zondervan Publishing, 1971), he argued that young conservatives “don’t put much stock in the old slogans of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier and the Great Society. They believe that utopia will arrive only when Jesus returns.” Like many conservatives, his disillusionment with the New Deal era led to a view that God could not, or perhaps would not, use the federal government as an instrument. In short, Graham’s theology blinded him to the best means for making progress on the road to racial equality.
It was his Gospel for the individual that led to his opposition to the most critical moment of justice and liberation in the latter half of the 20th century. Likewise, in his later years, Graham went on to deny Global Warming. He argued that the federal government has no business passing laws to protect the Earth because it does not possess the power to save the Earth — a feat that only God can achieve through an apocalypse and second coming.
In short, Graham was a deeply pessimistic thinker. He offered no way forward — only an escape. His theology was liberatory only insofar as it offered a hope not of this Earth. His was a Gospel devoid of sanctification. Salvation was but atonement and eschatology. Perhaps that’s why none of the pastors or priests at my ministerium meeting mentioned him. We are all committed to the active and present work of Christ’s Spirit in the world and its capacity to make the world a more just and equitable place.
Perhaps there is also a bit of poetry in the fact that we unwittingly voted to send a large sum of money from our affluent white community on to a nonprofit in a poor black community on a day that the world mourned the loss of a great preacher who yielded to nihilism.
The work of the Church never ceases, and it will not be held back by the yoke of despair, nihilism or any other form of surrender.
The Rev. Kadin J.G. Williams is pastor of Exton (Pa.) Community Baptist Church.
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.