I recently posted on my personal Facebook account the tension and “struggle” I had over the death of Rev. Billy Graham. I know I ruffled the feathers of some of my evangelical friends who hold Billy in high regard. The truth is, I do keep Rev. Graham in high regard, enough to reflect on his life honestly and truthfully. Perhaps the tension I feel is equally about the missed opportunities in his life to stand for justice causes wholeheartedly. But also, the legacies he helped create in modern evangelicalism.
My tension goes beyond the life of Billy Graham. It goes to back to the dualistic nature of modernist evangelical thought in itself, the reductionism it produces and the doggedly racist tendencies that a pietistic, individualistic gospel propagates. For example, part of Billy’s charm was in his simple, straightforward message of Christianity. It was contextualized as good and evil, life and death, a simple choice and prayer gained you an entrance into eternal bliss. It worked for many. They heard the Gospel. It produced life change. On the other hand, he failed to publically recognize the deep structural issues of bondage that creates pain, evil and sin and the Church’s role in addressing those issues.
Often at Able Works we are critiqued about the nature of our work. Are we a faith-based organization? Is our work “Gospel work.” My friends in Christian Community Development circles often face the same challenges. Somehow, in many Evangelical circles, we are forced into a binary choice of either “preaching” the Gospel or doing social justice work. I reject that choice and contend that no gospel is complete without both.
Efforts that share the salvation message of Christ are essential, but also works of advocacy, community development, and service to the poor are also acts of salvation. Yes, we must address the spiritual dimension of sin and shame, but it is incomplete without addressing the worldly structures that propagate injustice. While Able Works may not “preach” in the same manner as Billy, we preach Christ by our actions and efforts to serve the poor, the immigrant, the prisoner and those oppressed by sinful structures.
In this is the essence of my critique of Billy. He lived his life faithfully, but the gospel of modern Evangelicalism he helped create feels hollow and incomplete without the “other side,” especially if viewed through the eyes of the oppressed. He is an example, not the example.
In the end, I honor Billy for a life lived in service. But in acknowledging his legacy, we must also learn from his greatness and his failures, and the impact on our Church.
Rest well, Rev. Graham.