by Randall S. Frederick
This evening I opened my laptop and discovered Franklin Graham (son of evangelist Billy Graham) recently weighed in on the issue of racial assault by law enforcement in America. So as to speak directly to the matter at hand, it is important to review Graham’s statements in context:
It is important to note that Graham’s comments predate the arrest of Univ. of Virginia student Martese Johnson on March 17th (see above photo) but could have coincided with last week’s release of “body cam” footage from the Dallas police regarding the murder of Jason Harrison on June 14, 2014. If this is the case, Graham’s above post may have been a response to the murder of Harrison, making his comments exponentially offensive as they ignore the history of race in America and circumvent the contributions of his own father to Civil Rights and racial equality. Further, they are truly, deeply insensitive to those who have mental health issues as well as their friends and family – those who are marginalized and deserve attention, care, and comfort as it is possible.
Graham’s comments, sadly, are not isolated. His misreading of scripture and the perpetuation of civil, domestic, and international unrest are out of step with the legacy of Billy Graham and, broadly, Evangelicalism, which admittedly has a checkered past as evidenced by the almost 200,000 followers who “liked” (and the almost 100,000 followers who shared) his views. This reveals an epidemic of latent racism and mentalism (discrimination and oppression based on a mental trait) that demands immediate attention from religious leaders.
Accordingly, pastor Dominique Gilliard of Oakland, CA (“birthplace” of the Black Lives Matter Movement) responded to Graham by rallying a confederation of pastors to draft a response. Their response is republished here in its entirety:
An Open Letter to Reverend Franklin Graham
Dear Rev. Graham,
We write to you in the spirit of Matthew 18: we aim to reconcile with you. You have sinned against us, fellow members of the body of Christ. While your comments on March 12 were just a Facebook post, your post was shared by more than 83,000 people and liked by nearly 200,000 as of Monday morning, March 14, 2015. Your words hurt and influenced thousands. Therefore, we must respond publicly so that those you hurt might know you have received a reply and the hundreds of thousands you influenced might know that following your lead on this issue will break the body of Christ further.
Frankly, Rev. Graham, your insistence that “Blacks, Whites, Latinos, and everybody else” “Listen up,” was crude, insensitive, and paternalistic. Your comments betrayed the confidence that your brothers and sisters in Christ, especially those of color, have afforded your father’s ministry for decades. Your instructions oversimplified a complex and critical problem facing the nation and minimized the testimonies and wisdom of people of color and experts of every hue, including six police commissioners that served on the president’s task force on policing reform.
In the nadir of your commentary, you tell everyone to “OBEY” any instruction from authorities and suggest that the recent shootings of unarmed citizens “might have been avoided” if the victims had submitted to authority.
And you bluntly insist, “It’s as simple as that.”
It is not that simple. As a leader in the church, you are called to be an ambassador of reconciliation. The fact that you identify a widely acknowledged social injustice as “simple” reveals your lack of empathy and understanding of the depth of sin that some in the body have suffered under the weight of our broken justice system. It also reveals a cavalier disregard for the enduring impacts and outcomes of the legal regimes that enslaved and oppressed people of color, made in the image of God — from Native American genocide and containment, to colonial and antebellum slavery, through Jim Crow and peonage, to our current system of mass incarceration and criminalization.
As your brothers and sisters in Christ, who are also called to lead the body, we are disappointed and grieved by your abuse of the Holy Scriptures. You lifted Hebrews 13:17 out of its biblical context and misappropriated it in a way that encourages believers to acquiesce to an injustice that God hates. That text refers to church leadership, not the secular leadership of Caesar.
Are you also aware that your commentary resonates with the types of misinterpretations and rhetoric echoed by many in the antebellum church? Are you aware that the southern slavocracy validated the systematic subjugation of human beings made in the image of God by instructing these enslaved human beings to “obey their masters because the Bible instructed them to do so?”
Your blanket insistence on obedience in every situation exposes an ignorance of church history. God called Moses to resist and disobey unjust authority. Joseph and Mary were led by the Spirit to seek asylum in Egypt, disobeying the unjust decrees passed down by authority figures in order to ensure the safety of Jesus. And Paul himself resisted authority and ultimately wrote Romans 13 from jail.
In modern times, Christian brothers and sisters abided by Paul’s command to the persecuted Roman church. They presented their bodies as living sacrifices. They refused to conform to the oppressive patterns of this world. Rather, they were transformed by the renewing of their minds. (Romans 12:1-2) Throughout the Jim Crow South, in El Salvador, and in the townships and cities of South Africa Jesus followers disobeyed civil authority as an act of obedience to God — the ultimate authority, the Lord, who loves and demands justice (Psalm 146:5-9, Isaiah 58, Isaiah 61, Micah 4:1-5, all the prophets, Luke 4:16-21, Luke 10:25-37, Matthew 25:31-46, Galatians 3:27-28). Likewise, Christians who marched in Ferguson, Mo., New York City, and Madison, Wis., follow in the holy footsteps of their faithful predecessors.
As one who understands human depravity, your statement demonstrates a profound disregard for the impact of sinful individuals when given power to craft systems and structures that govern millions. The outcome is oppression and impoverishment — in a word, injustice.
Finally, if you insist on blind obedience, then you must also insist that officers of the justice system obey the U.S. Constitution, which protects the right of all to equal protection under the law. Yet, reports confirm unconscious racial biases in policing, booking, sentencing, and in return produce racially disparate outcomes within our broken justice system.
Likewise, you must also call on officers to honor their sworn duty to protect and serve without partiality. The Federal Bureau of Investigations director, James B. Comey, acknowledges that law enforcement has fallen short of this mandate : “First, all of us in law enforcement must be honest enough to acknowledge that much of our history is not pretty. At many points in American history, law enforcement enforced the status quo, a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups.”
Let us be clear: We love, support, and pray for our police officers. We understand that many are doing an excellent job under extremely trying circumstances. We also understand that many officers are burdened by systems that routinely mete out inequitable racialized outcomes.
For the past nine months, many of your fellow Christian clergy have been engaged in sorrowful lament, prayerful protest, spirit-led conversations, and careful scriptural study to discern a Godly response to these inequitable racialized outcomes within America’s justice system. We have wrestled with God like Jacob, begging God to bless us with peace in our streets and justice in our courts.
Rev. Graham, as our brother in Christ and as a leader in the church, we forgive you and we pray that one day you will recognize and understand the enduring legacy of the institution of race in our nation.
Now is the time for you to humbly listen to the cries of lamentation rising nationwide. We do not expect you to be an expert in racial issues, police brutality, or even the many factors that go in to our complicated and unjust criminal system. We do, however, expect you to follow the example of leaders and followers of Jesus throughout the scriptures and modern history. We expect you to seek wise counsel and guidance first from those who bear the weight of the injustice and second from other experts in the field.
Ultimately, we invite you to join us in the ongoing work of the ministry of reconciliation.
Faith in New York
Dr. Brian Bantum
Associate Professor of Theology
Seattle Pacific University
Rev. Leroy Barber
Global Executive Director, Word Made Flesh
Chair of the Board, Christian Community Development Association
Rev. Phil Bowling Dyer
National Director, Black Campus Ministries
InterVarsity Christian Fellowship
Austin Channing Brown
Resident Director and Multicultural Liaison
Dr. Mae Elise Cannon
Author, Social Justice Handbook and Just Spirituality
Co-author, Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith
Dr. Christena Cleveland
Associate Professor of Reconciliation Studies
Rev. Dr. Orlando Crespo
Latino Leadership Circle
Board Member, National Latino Evangelical Coalition
Rev. Léonce B. Crump Jr.
Dr. Curtiss Paul DeYoung
Community Renewal Society
Rachel Held Evans
Author, Blogger, Advocate
Rev. Dominique Gilliard
New Hope Covenant Church in Oakland, CA
National Director for Urban Programs
Intervarsity Christian Fellowship
Lisa Sharon Harper
Chief Church Engagement Officer
Dr. Troy Jackson
Director, The AMOS Project
Co-author, Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith
Micky ScottBey Jones
Director of Training and Program Development
Intervarsity Christian Fellowship
Rev. Michael McBride
The Way Christian Center in Berkeley, CA
CEO and President
The Impact Movement
Rev. Soong-Chan Rah
Milton B. Engebretson Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism
North Park Theological Seminary
Rev. Alexia Salvatierra
Coordinator of Welcoming Congregations Network
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Dr. Andrea Smith
North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies
Rev. Efrem Smith
President and CEO
Rev. Gail Song Bantum
Organizer, Advocate, Speaker
Blogger, College Student Organizer, Poet
Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove
School for Conversion
President and Founder
Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner
President, Skinner Leadership Institute
Co-Chair, National African American Clergy Network
Personally, I think this letter says much of what I would wish to say to Graham’s face – that he has forsaken basic Christian convictions, has participated in “race baiting” by provoking racial tension at such a sensitive time, has forsaken the legacy of his father as well as respected religious leaders who united during the Civil Rights Movement, and (this is the most egregious offense to me personally) has knowingly and intentionally directed his comments towards those with mental, emotional, and cognitive impairment. In other words, he has stimulated racism and mentalism in the hearts and minds of Evangelicals. As a representative for Christendom, he has knowingly and intentionally sowed hatred during a sensitive time in this nation’s (America’s) history, and should either submit himself toward seeking forgiveness and reconciliation or should step down from all public functions.
In a New Years Address from 2014, Graham stated
“If we Christians banded together and took a stand, perhaps we wouldn’t be losing so much ground in what the media is calling the ‘cultural war.’ However, it is not a cultural war — it is a religious war against Christians and the biblical truths we stand for.”
Using this same line of thought, his behavior proving so unbecoming for a minister of Christianity, we must “band together” and sadly now condemn Graham for his growing insensitivity.
Whatever his course of action, I join my sisters and brothers in Christ, I join with those of religions not my own, and I join with those who neither possess or seek religious affiliation, in condemning the words and actions of a man like Franklin Graham and encourage you to do the same. No public representative should be allowed to mislead a nation in this way. History, and especially the last century, has already shown time and again the results of misogyny, racism, homophobia, and intolerance on the basis of culture and religion wielded under the banner of “godliness” and “purity.” Despots and tyrants excel at stimulating the ignorance of millions for their own political, material, and social profit. Exploiting and capitalizing on the hatred found in humanity does not make one right, just, or good. It makes them deeply flawed and in need of redemption.