Monday, September 24, 2012

Billy Graham or Martin Luther King?

Christianity's always had a number of different voices, a number of different streams and strands, and I think we had to keep track of prophetic strands and keep track of priestly strands. There's always been Christians who are well-adjusted to greed, well-adjusted to fear, well-adjusted to bigotry. There's always been Christians who are maladjusted to greed, maladjusted to bigotry, maladjusted to fear. So the question is what kind of Christian, which has to do in the end, with what kind of human being you choose to be.
Cornel West

Today, the question is not "Are you a Christian?" but instead "What kind of Christian are you?" This, actually, has always been the question because, in fact, there have always been different kinds of followers of Jesus. Like the 4 original Gospel writers, each Christian community emphasizes different aspects of who Jesus was and is and each Christian community interprets the life, teachings and death of Jesus in different ways. As it turns out, the diversity of emphasis and interpretation creates different outcomes, shaping the lives of Christian communities (and individuals) in radically divergent ways.

It is quite useful, I believe, to take as models of these different streams, the 2 most popular (and, arguably, most influential) American Christians in the 20th century: Billy Graham (born 1918) & Martin Luther King Jr (born 1929). These men are deeply cherished by many both inside and outside of the Christian Tradition, but they represent tremendously pictures of what Christian faith looks like. I should know: I grew up (born 1973) in the Graham strand and, in the past 5 years, have transitioned into the King tradition.

Billy Graham is the face of a mostly white suburban brand of Christianity. It posits that sin is a universal condition that keeps us from the Almighty God. Only a conversion to faith in Jesus Christ can restore this relationship and it functions as the ticket that gets us through the gates of heaven when we die. The primary task of the Billy Graham Christian is to get people "saved"...otherwise they will go to hell. Everything in life is viewed through this lens:

My one purpose in life is to help people find a personal relationship with God, which, I believe, comes through knowing Christ.

Martin Luther King believed that to be a Christian, one must take up the cross, which surely meant confronting socio-economic and political injustice. Indeed, this is precisely what Jesus did and precisely what he called his disciples to do in his absence. For King, God's Love moved people to a gritty kind of empathy, lobbying for the least of the these in the world:

True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

Of course, this compassion transcended charitable giving and paternalism. Real faith meant that laws had to change so that black people would stop being lynched and deemed 2nd class citizens. It meant that the US government would need to be called to account for military interventions (like Vietnam) that devastated poor and ethnic communities while at the same time failing to provide for a fair and equitable way of life in America. In short, the Christian experienced and spread God's Love by creatively, strategically and nonviolently transforming the laws that stripped dignity from fellow children of God.

While King was enduring bomb threats and jailings, Graham became known as a preacher to the Presidents, especially Republicans. Texas oilman Sid Richardson introduced him to Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and Ike was baptized as a Presbyterian after "consulting" with Graham. (Ike apparently said, "I don't think the American people are going to follow anybody who's not a member of a church.") Graham held Sunday services in the Nixon White House and advised him on how to campaign in the Evangelical community. He even wrote at least one speech for Nixon.

Graham translated his popularity from Christian revivals into a connection with the highest form of social and political power in the United States. True, Graham was a source of comfort to the most stressed out leaders in the world, but as Evangelicalism grew in popularity, Graham became an important pawn used by political leaders to woo their votes and resources.

Graham's popularity grew out of his charismatic personality (he was a darling of the press), but also from the kind of message he pitched. His version of the gospel focused on a personal decision for Christ that transcended the ugly socio-economic and political realities of the world. For Graham, the only hope we have is in Christ's return and a disembodied heaven when we die. His response to King's 1963 I Have A Dream Speech was telling:

Only when Christ comes again will the little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children.

It should be noted that Graham and King, for a short time, worked together on revivals in the South. King was appreciative of Graham's willingness to press Southerners towards desegregated church services and rallies. Indeed, hard-core fundamentalist Christians--a 3rd brand of Christian faith still alive and well today--detested both Graham and King.

And both Graham and King had their flaws. Graham was recorded in the White House making anti-semitic remarks and King had sexual affairs while on the road. These were imperfect men. But the differences in how these imperfections became public are quite illuminating: King was bugged by the FBI who constantly kept tabs on him while Graham's comments only came to light decades later when the Nixon White House audio tapes were made public.

There are two basic reasons I have for why I believe the King brand of Christianity more compelling than Graham's:

1. The Bible: I believe that King's vision of "the Beloved Community" accurately reflects what Jesus was getting at in the Gospels when he referred to the Kingdom of God. As a Christian, I see my biblical task as following the prophetic tradition through the Hebrew Bible and into the life, teachings, ministry and death of Jesus of Nazareth. The writers of the New Testament documents quote the prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos) + Deuteronomy (the prophetic voice of Moses!) far more than anything else from the Hebrew Bible. This is deeply significant. It places Jesus in the same line of prophetic voices that deeply God by confronting the injustice of the powerful establishment. The prophets taught that when the status quo works really well for only a few and not at all for many, it is demonic to remain neutral (as Graham did). God’s prophetic people must take sides in the great socio-economic and political debates of the day. And Jesus and the prophets always take the side of the poor, the widow, the orphan and the immigrant.

2. The Politics: A couple of years ago, the 92-year-old Graham told Christianity Today that, if he had to do it all over again, he would have "steered clear of politics" and that sometimes he "crossed the line." Just before that interview, he had endorsed Sarah Palin ("Daddy feels God was using her to wake America up," reported Graham's son Franklin) and, since that interview, he came out with a full-page ad campaigning against same-sex marriage in North Carolina:

The notion of "steering clear of politics" would be absurd to both Jesus and Martin Luther King. Both were killed for the their non-violent direct action campaigns against those in power. Steering clear of politics means batpizing the status quo...which is terrible news for those who live in unjust circumstances. Graham (and the Evangelical Tradition he signifies) always interpreted "the kingdom of God" as either in the believer's heart or a heavenly dwelling after one dies. King, on the other hand, translated the kingdom as "the beloved community," extending peace and justice to all God's contemporary children.

There's no sense trying to conflate Christianity into a synthesis of King and Graham. They are two very different Traditions altogether. We have a clear choice to make. Steering clear or revolution? A lot of poor and vulnerable people greatly depend on it.


  1. As an advocate of progressive Christianity let me extend a hearty Amen!!

    That said, I'm not sure it's quite as "either/or" as you seem to put it. John Wesley stressed the importance of wedding personal piety with social holiness -- and that wedding is thoroughly biblical and in sync with Jesus' way and teachings.

    The problem comes with the extremes. Unjust status quos are never challenged if people cloister themselves and focus solely on personal or even churchy devotional practices. And similarly, pursuits of social justice wane if they aren't supported and sustained via vital worship, devotion, and prayer lives.

    The 13th chapter of my book "Kissing Fish" is devoted to the Beloved Community and ways to help usher it in.

    Thank you for getting us thinking!

    Roger Wolsey,

  2. Thank you for this.