Thursday, January 27, 2011

Billy Graham's Epistemic Crisis

But the most important issue we face today is the same the church has faced in every century: Will we reach our world for Christ? In other words, will we give priority to Christ's command to go into all the world and preach the gospel? Or will we turn increasingly inward, caught up in our own internal affairs or controversies, or simply becoming more and more comfortable with the status quo? Will we become inner-directed or outer-directed? The central issues of our time aren't economic or political or social, important as these are. The central issues of our time are moral and spiritual in nature, and our calling is to declare Christ's forgiveness and hope and transforming power to a world that does not know him or follow him. May we never forget this.
Billy Graham, Interview with Christianity Today (01.26.11)

I'm for morality, but morality goes beyond sex to human freedom and social justice. We as clergy know so very little to speak with authority on the Panama Canal or superiority of armaments. Evangelists cannot be closely identified with any particular party or person. We have to stand in the middle in order to preach to all people, right and left. I haven't been faithful to my own advice in the past. I will be in the future.
Billy Graham in 1978 after refusing to join Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority

Our task is to be critical because not all ways of seeing things are equally sustainable.
John Howard Yoder, Preface to Theology

At 92, Billy Graham still matters. It seems that everyone wants to know what America's Pastor is thinking about in his last days in Western North Carolina. The only problem is that he never really was America's Pastor. He has largely represented white Evangelical concerns, including many of those in the highest positions of power. No doubt, he spoke out against segregation in the 50s and 60s and even posted bail for Martin Luther King during one of King's legendary stints in jail. However, Graham largely exemplifies an American mainstream or establishment agenda that defines "politics," "morality" and "gospel" according to their own privilege and entitlement. And now, at the end of his eventful life, one of Graham's greatest regrets is that he "would have steered clear of politics." We think this is the wrong solution to the right problem.

Let us consider the British philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, born just a decade after Graham, who enjoyed a long and brilliant career in academia culminating at Duke University--just a 4-hour drive from Graham's home. MacIntyre penned Whose Justice? Which Rationality? in the late 80s describing how concepts like religious and political convictions are defined differently by those in rival traditions. In this era we could think of traditions as competing political parties, media outlets, religions and even sports teams, but also intra-Christian denominations and sub-traditions (Catholic, Episcopalian, Reformed, Lutheran, Evangelical, Anabaptist, Southern Baptist, Pentecostal, etc). It has been MacIntyre who has probably shown better than any other in the past few decades that there is no such thing as "common sense." All rationality is traditioned.

For an extreme (and tremendously relevant) example, most of the American public, whose convictions are largely shaped through mainstream media outlets, has been trained to define "terrorism" as what happened on September 11, but not what the American military does when it kills civilians with drone bombings in Pakistan. One man's "terrorism" is another man's "homeland security." As we've proclaimed on this blog before, this doesn't mean that everything is relative and that we just shrug our shoulders and mutter "anything goes." What it does mean is that we should all be a lot more sensitive about how traditions have formed us and how they have framed our unique understandings of the world and that others have been traditioned in completely different, and perhaps more compelling, ways.

So what does Alasdair MacIntyre have to do with Billy Graham? Addressing Graham's framing of the world, juxtaposing what is political, economic and social with what is moral and spiritual, can illuminate what MacInytre would call an "epistemic crisis" for Evangelical rationality--what the lay person might call a "serious weakness" or "broken logic." I remember--when I was firmly rooted within the Evangelical camp--thinking that "socio-economic-political" issues like war, immigration, tax codes and civil rights were just not as important as "moral" (or "biblical") issues like gay marriage and abortion. In hindsight, I am disturbed that I ever thought that way. But it wasn't me. It was how I was formed within the tradition. It wasn't that I thought through these concepts as some sort of independent, autonomous level, but instead I (like everyone else who participated in our church and ministries) was traditioned by Evangelicalism.

Much of this traditioning has to do, in the past 3 decades, with the tremendously successful Republican courting of white Evangelicals with their message of American exceptionalism, Bible quoting and an economic platform that benefits the mostly white upper middle class and overclass while moralizing about sexuality issues and fear-mongering about the pagan enemies of America (the atheist commies then and the radical Islamists now). The African-American prophetic tradition (think MLK, Jeremiah Wright, Cornel West & Frederick Douglass) would never imagine bifurcating politics and morality because they have experienced horrific oppression (indeed, terrorism) at the hands of political leaders (mostly Christian) and policies throughout the past 400 years. To quarantine politics and economics with a conservative or politically indifferent Biblical reading strategy has never been a privilege for Christians of color and poverty in the US.

Yet North American Evangelicals have basically monopolized the Bible, justifying war games by proof-texting verses like Romans 13 and postulating that Jesus' kingdom was spiritual (saving our souls), claiming "neutrality" while forsaking the political realm altogether (a claim efficiently debunked by John Howard Yoder in his 1972 classic The Politics of Jesus). It was just a little more than a year ago, in the wake of his 91st birthday, that Graham met with Sarah Palin, answering her Bible questions about Iraq, Israel and the End Times. Graham's son, Franklin, had this to say: "Daddy feels God was using her to wake America up." Graham can claim to "stand in the middle" and still anoint an obviously political figure like Palin only by conveniently differentiating between the "political" and the "moral." Graham can claim Palin is "moral" (because of her outspoken Christian faith and her strong "family values" on matters of sexuality, abortion and gay marriage) while apparently disregarding her political, economic and social stances altogether. These Christian leaders can gain approval, distinction, popularity and power by staying "neutral" on political issues while petitioning the world to invite Jesus into their hearts. This is a game Evangelicals are very good at.

This kind of apolitical (or what church historian George Marsden calls "ambivalent") posture is actually quite political, baptizing the status quo as God's Will. Pastors who portray the world this way campaign even better than political leaders themselves, never ruffling the feathers of those in their base while remaining silent on sensitive subjects that might be abrasive to the agendas of those in their congregations and beyond. Those from rival Christian sub-traditions (as well as "progressive Evangelicals" like Jim Wallis, Richard Cizik & Brian McLaren) are left to the vocation of standing in the gap to unveil just how unbiblical Palin's stances on war, immigration, race and economics are, not to mention her blatant and consistent disregard for the truth.

When MacIntyre's construal of the world is not taken into account, we miss out on the significance of Graham's jargon in the wider drama of competing traditions within North American Christianity. This ignorance (or naivete) in regards to MacIntyrean traditioning is a harmful situation for (1) Evangelicals who have no idea that the way they frame these concepts is quite different (and not as faithful to the way of Jesus) than how many other Christian sub-traditions do (I've observed many post-Evangelicals leaving the Christian faith altogether as a result); (2) Christians from non-Evangelical traditions who are too often morphed into this Evangelical apolitical tsunami or tirelessly discouraged that so many Christians think these ways (leading to apathy and cynacism); and (3) non-Christians whose understanding of Christianity is unfortunately equated with a narrowly comprehended Evangelicalism.

All this to say, Graham's conviction that pastors of Evangelical and non-Evangelical traditions should steer clear of being identified by any party or leader is compelling, but we believe that all pastors should be speak out on matters of "politics" and "economics" because they are all issues of phenomenal biblical or moral value. Indeed, if Jesus is the Lord (Romans 10:9) and if the earth is the Lord's and everything in it (Psalm 24:1), then those who follow Jesus are called to follow him everywhere. Graham is correct in calling all Christians "to reach the world for Christ" which must meant that we nonviolently confront injustices of all sorts, including entitled elites and their privileged policies (afflicting the comfortable) and that we pursue solidarity with all those who are marginalized and oppressed and abandoned by our society (comforting the afflicted). But, of course, that's just my own postmodern Anabaptist traditioning speaking. Hopefully, it will be just as heartening to you (as it has been for me) to know that America's Pastor has many worthy rivals.


  1. I struggle with the seeming contradictions of your stances...

    In many posts (this one included) you advocate unity in the Kingdom. "Pursue solidarity with all those who are marginalized", and "confront injustices of all sorts", and yet conclude your post saying that you are "heartened" that there are "rivals" to a man like Billy Graham.

    I get frustrated reading your posts because I often agree with small parts of them while disagreeing with the over-arching 'theme'.
    I simply cannot reconcile my own beliefs about Scripture and who Jesus was/is with your own.

    While I understand your goal (as you stated it to me in a personal message), your posts over the past months seem to take the form:
    1)Here's what Evangelicals say
    2)Here's why that's wrong
    3)Here's why that's wrong
    4)Evangelicals ought to be more like 'this'

    I guess I just don't see how that adds anything to the discussion.

    My dad, who I consider to be a Godly man and one who has devoted the better part of his life to God's Word and Will, has told me countless times
    "Any way you cut the pie, it has to come out Jesus."

    I don't read your posts and think at the end, "That had Jesus written all over it"

    I read them like a media news outlet that lines up on 1 side of the political spectrum. By that I mean, if I tune into Fox, I know I'm going to hear the conservative side of the story. If I tune into MSNBC I know I'll get the liberal side.

    When I read your posts, I know I'm going to get the postmodern Christian side.

    Perhaps that's a result of the incompatibility of my hermeneutics and yours. Who knows...

    I just felt that this post - pointing out where Billy Graham could have done more to be "better" - severely misses the point.

  2. Taylor, I agree with your dad (and so does every Christian I know): "Any way you cut the pie, it has to come out Jesus."

    But then the key question emerges (and answers vary greatly among every Christian I know): whose description of Jesus are you most compelled by? Billy Graham or Martin Luther King? N.T. Wright or John Piper? Rick Warren or Cornel West? We could go on and on about different conversation partners, but not all of them are right about everything (we can agree on this point because neither of us are relativists).

    You might say that these EY posts are spaces to initiate dialogue (and prayer and study and deep thought) about who exactly Jesus is and what it means to follow him in the world today (these are both greatly contested concepts). I dedicated this post to examining the weakness of Graham's political convictions (an understanding that has greatly affected Evangelicalism...starting long before Graham...and then magnified by his presence).

    My life has been greatly enriched in the past 7 years mostly because I have been introduced to very different understandings (from my Evangelical background) of who Jesus was and is from my Catholic, Anabaptist, Reformed, Eastern Orthodox, Liberation Theology, Anglican, Black Baptist (etc) brothers and sisters. Before I met them, I thought Christianity was I am compelled that it is a beautiful mosaic of rivals.

  3. Love this post, it encapsulates and articulates many conversations I have had over the past few years.