In recent months Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, has been in a downward spiral that continually seems to generate a lot of buzz around the internet. The progressively intolerant rhetoric recently cumulated with his call to ban the immigration of all Muslims to the United States– even though US wars and policy supported by Graham have left the Middle East in shambles and resulted in countless Muslims needing to be granted refugee status away from their homeland.
Graham’s downward spiral has been sad to watch, but I do think it is a learning opportunity for all of us. Here are some of the more important lessons I think we can learn in all of this:
1. The quest for power and relevance is a path that leads us away from Christ and his Kingdom.
I take no pleasure in what I’ve watched unfold in the life of Franklin Graham- it’s really a tragic story that demonstrates the danger of wanting relevance, fame, and power instead of being a humble servant of Christ and his Kingdom. Franklin had the pinnacle of what so many Kingdom people dream of: tremendous means to tangibly help people around the globe. His organization Samaritan’s Purse has done untold good in meeting the physical needs of the hungry and homeless, and presumably has the long-term financial means to keep going. A beautiful legacy if it ended there!
However, it seems in recent years that Franklin’s passion wasn’t so much feeding the hungry as it is being a powerful influencer in the political realm. This has actively harmed the Kingdom work that used to be so important to him, as he continues to alienate just about everyone with his over-the-top political rhetoric– even alienating many mainstream evangelicals. While his father was a gentle pastor to politicians it seems Franklin desires to be a politician to pastors, and those two quests produce very different fruit.
2. There is anti-religious persecution in America.
And it’s Muslims who are the victims of it. Ever since 9-11 Muslims have been uncharitably painted with a broad brush that none of us would want applied to ourselves. As a result, Muslims– not Christians– have become the only religious group who it is completely acceptable to discriminate against solely on the basis of their religious affiliation, because such discrimination is easily clothed under the guise of “national security.” All this despite the fact that most terror attacks in America since 9-11 have been perpetrated by white conservatives.
3. If you dehumanize a group of people long enough, it will become easy to eventually advocate for their deaths.
When we perpetuate negative stereotypes and label people we ultimately dehumanize them in our own minds. Franklin has been engaged in a systematic process of allowing our Muslim brothers and sisters– people with stories, families, hopes, and dreams– to be reduced from real people to a mental image that doesn’t reflect the truth. As a result, it’s an easy step for Franklin to now advocate that we refuse entry to Muslims even though so many of them are refugees who would die if not granted entry into the United States. Once you’ve removed a person’s humanity in your own mind, it’s much more palatable to actively or passively advocate for their death.
4. It’s easy to like Jesus but not the things he actually said.
I believe Franklin Graham is a fellow Christian, and I believe deep down in my heart that Franklin loves Jesus. However, what we see in this current situation is that it’s easy to like Jesus without liking the things he actually said. Whether openly advocating violence against enemies instead of Christ’s command to love them, or indifference toward the suffering of our neighbors when Christ commanded we love and welcome them in, it seems clear that while Franklin loves Jesus, he’s not in love with his ideas.
It’s an easy position to arrive at if we’re not careful.
5. The dominant version of Christianity in America is actually just a civil, nationalistic religion that is confusingly called “Christianity.”
Once upon a time Christianity was set apart (aka, “holy”) or as Jesus put it, “not of this world.” Franklin is demonstrating that this is not the case in the United States. In the US, much of Christianity is actually a nationalistic religion and not the original thing at all. If you look carefully at Franklin’s Facebook posts, you’ll see the religion being articulated by him is not a Jesus-centered Christianity that is set apart or different, but a religion that is nation-centered and hopelessly entangled with nationalism.
6. When pledging allegiance to both God and America, America will usually win.
Jesus taught his disciples that it is impossible to serve two masters– it just can’t be done. While Jesus said it was impossible, Franklin has valiantly tried anyway and the result should be a learning moment for all of us. Mark my words: when trying to be loyal to Jesus and loyal to America, America will usually win. When America wins, as it did with Franklin, it will invite us abandon the teaching and example of Jesus in order to protect and preserve the nation, instead of to build and expand the Kingdom.
One cannot pledge allegiance to both Jesus and America– you’ve gotta pick one. Franklin certainly has, and you’ll have to make a choice too.
7. More than ever, we need to evangelize American Christians with the message of Jesus.
If there’s one important thing we can learn from the spiral of Franklin Graham it’s that more than ever, we need to be evangelizing American Christians. Out of all the people groups in the world this is the group that perhaps most desperately needs to hear the message of Jesus and to be invited to repent and join the Kingdom. As we can see from Franklin’s growing popularity, there is no shortage of those who have been lured into the false religion of Americanized Christianity. We must love them, grow to better understand and communicate with them, and reach them with the message of Jesus.
In the end, what’s happened with Franklin Graham is tremendously sad. His life story could have been that of a humanitarian who was dedicated to feeding the hungry and clothing the naked in the name of Jesus, because that’s historically been his story. Yet, having succumbed to the tempting invitation of nationalistic religion and the ensuing desire for political clout, we see that his story is changing– and not for the better.
And that’s sad, because Franklin Graham has the potential to be a major force for good in the world. I for one will be praying that Franklin Graham’s story does not end here, and will try to glean as many lessons from the situation as I am able.