Franklin Graham, Islam, and the Future of Progressive Christianity

Franklin Graham, Islam, and the Future of Progressive Christianity July 31, 2015
Screenshot from Franklin Graham's Facebook Page
Screenshot from Franklin Graham’s Facebook Page

Franklin Graham recently made a stir with his 2.1 million fans on Facebook when he posted about the murder of four US marines in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He wrote,

Four innocent Marines (United States Marine Corps) killed and three others wounded in ‪#‎Chattanooga yesterday including a policeman and another Marine–all by a radical Muslim whose family was allowed to immigrate to this country from Kuwait. We are under attack by Muslims at home and abroad. We should stop all immigration of Muslims to the U.S. until this threat with Islam has been settled. Every Muslim that comes into this country has the potential to be radicalized–and they do their killing to honor their religion and Muhammad. During World War 2, we didn’t allow Japanese to immigrate to America, nor did we allow Germans. Why are we allowing Muslims now? Do you agree? Let your Congressman know that we’ve got to put a stop to this and close the flood gates. Pray for the men and women who serve this nation in uniform, that God would protect them.

Franklin Graham is the “mouth piece of God” for many Christians throughout the world – a modern day prophet for his millions of fans. But, sadly, Franklin misunderstands the very nature of God.

I share Graham’s concern for the victims of this violent act and pray for their families, but his statement about how Christians should respond to that violence also concerns me. Graham’s understanding of God is contaminated by fear and exclusion that responds to violence with more violence. He believes that Islam is a great threat to America and that we should respond by excluding Muslims from the United States because “they do their killing to honor their religion and Muhammad.”

I’m pleased that many Evangelicals have already critiqued Graham’s misunderstanding of Islam, but here I’d like to offer a progressive alternative to his understanding of Christianity.

But first, I should note that humans have misunderstood the very nature of God throughout our history. According to anthropologist René Girard, humans have managed our internal violent conflicts by channeling them onto a scapegoat who has been deemed to be a great threat to our security. This scapegoat became a victim as the community united against him. The scapegoat was sacrificed or excluded from their midst. Where there was once the threat of violent conflict, there was now peace. Of course, that peace was only temporary because the true cause of the conflict was never addressed. Conflicts re-emerged and a new scapegoat was found to thrust our collective violence upon.

The peace and unity that emerged from the sacrifice was so powerful, so profound, that it was deemed a gift from the gods. And this is where the radical misunderstanding of the gods developed. Divinity was misunderstood to desire sacrifice in the name of peace. It’s a misunderstanding because the sacrificial mechanism was a purely human phenomenon. The one true God had nothing to do with sacrificial violence. As Girard points out, this misunderstanding led to the idea that violence and the sacred were woven together.

By attempting to exclude Muslims and labeling them a dangerous threat, Franklin Graham is simply repeating this ancient ritualistic pattern of archaic sacrificial violence. But a Christian understanding of God has nothing to do with fearing and excluding others. In fact, the culmination of Christian theology claims that “Perfect love casts out fear.”

God’s whole project in Jesus is to save us from the fear of death so that we can be free to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Jesus frees us from the archaic scapegoating mechanism that blames others so that we can love others, including those we call our enemies – those who have become our scapegoats.

Jesus reveals that God has nothing to do with our violent forms of sacrifice, exclusion, and death. He was very progressive as he confronted those who were bound up in conserving the ancient human scapegoating mechanism that was based on exclusion. As he confronted the sacrificial system, it turned against him and nailed him to the cross. But instead of returning violence with violence, he took that violence upon himself and offered divine forgiveness in return. From the cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Jesus radically changed the human perception of God. God has nothing to do with violently excluding those we perceive to be a threat to our security. That’s the ancient human project of scapegoating, not the divine project of nonviolent love that embraces everyone, no exceptions or exclusions.

I know all of this, and yet I’m struck by a strong temptation to scapegoat Franklin Graham. Those of us who identify as Progressives can mirror that very same acts of exclusion that we condemn in those who seek to conserve the sacrificial mechanism of exclusion. We can start to scapegoat people like Franklin Graham, accusing them of being the “real” threat and damaging our attempts at real progress. Scapegoating the scapegoaters is a huge temptation for me and when I do that, I actually conserve the ancient pattern of scapegoating. I show that, like Franklin Graham, I don’t really understand God, either.

In his book Raising Abel, James Alison claims that Christian theology should be guided by the statement “God is love.” He states, “The perception that God is love has a specific content which is absolutely incompatible with any perception of God as involved in violence, separation, anger, or exclusion.”

God is love means that God has nothing to do with expelling or hating Muslims, nor does God have anything to do with expelling or hating Franklin Graham.

So, how might Progressive Christians stand up for justice in the face of those who are caught up in the scapegoating mechanism? Understanding the ways in which we ourselves get caught up in the scapegoating mechanism is a good place to start, but Ephesians 6:12 takes it a step further,

“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

Inasmuch as Franklin Graham is scapegoating Muslims, he is only a pawn in the sacrificial mechanism of scapegoating. The same could be said of people like me when we unite against Graham. When we mimic one another in this way we only strengthen the spiritual forces of evil that is based on the scapegoating mechanism. The only alternative to participating in the forces of evil is to participate in the Kingdom of God, where we love our enemies as we love ourselves.

Christians can no longer afford to conserve the ancient human ways of responding to violence with more violence. If we take Jesus seriously, then we will leave the ancient ways of violence behind and progress toward a more loving and peaceful world.

Read other article in The Future of Progressive Christianity series on Patheos here.

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  • Sean

    Many people in history responded to violence with non-violence. Guess what happened?

    The Sikhs, who were, and still are, a peace-loving people, were pacifists until their fifth guru. By that time, Sikhs had been so brutalized by Muslims in their native land, that they recognized they would not survive unless they changed. Their fifth guru, Arjen Des, began to promote self-defense as a virtue, and Sikhs to this day carry a ceremonial knife called a kirpan as part of their religious garb. Can we draw a lesson from this? In fact, we can. Islam has been a violent faith for 1400 years. The best way we can avoid fighting Muslims is to not live with them among us. If we choose to let them in in great numbers, we will end up defending ourselves or being victimized by their more radical members.

    As for the Muslims who are already here, by all means love them and try to convert them to the Christian faith and non-violence.

    • Jeff Brown

      Sean, before I respond to your post, I need to know how familiar you are with scripture. Expert, very, somewhat or not at all. The reason why I am asking is then I know to what detail I need to scripturally support my point of view. If we are going to discuss our faith (Christianity) then I think it is important that our position be Biblically supported. Even then there maybe several points of view.

      • Sean

        Hi Jeff,
        I did years of bible and theology study at various Christian schools, including Biola, but I am no longer a Christian, and rusty. But let me say that you do not have to convince me of the scriptural basis for pacifism or the loving treatment of non-Christians. I am familiar with this. Since I am no longer a Christian, I have no right to lecture Christians about what to do on a spiritual basis. Respect to you and other believers to make those decisions.

        What I am concerned with in this article is the propagation of the idea that Islam should be approached by Evangelicals/Christians just like any other religion. It should not. Christians are woefully ignorant of Islam if they think that Islam does not promote exactly what Graham says it does: the killing and conquest of non-Muslims.This is a foundational doctrine of Islam that cannot be excised from the religion.

        Mohammed is considered by Muslims to be “al Insan al Kamil”, the Perfect Man, and they must follow and approve of his example as set forth in the hadiths and Koran, or be branded as apostates.This normalizes a devil’s brew of sick and immoral practices for Muslims and brands them as moral. This includes slave capture, the ownership of women as sexual chattel, constant battle against the non-believer, child marriage, killing of apostates, the imposition of abusive jizya taxes on non-Muslims and much, much more.

        I would urge you to go online to Muslim forums and fatwa boards and read the material there. Go to MuslimMatters and ask some of the Muslims there to condemn sexual slavery as practiced by Mohammed and see if they will do it. Look up the founder of the Tennessee/Chattanooga Muslim community, Yasir Qadhi, on Youtube and watch his lecture on “shirk” and slavery in Islam and then ask yourself if the Muslims of Tennessee are being honest to you about their beliefs. Let me know what you think.

        • Jeff Brown

          I love you. Very smart man. May I ask where you landed after your journey from Christianity? I came to Christianity from another faith. I may have been coming in the door as you were leaving and we just missed each other.

          I have read the Koran through once and parts many times since and many years ago I had three Muslim roommates from Iran for a couple of years, one of which whose father was an Shia Imam from Qom. So we had a few spirited discussions to say the least.

          Fundamentalism, whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim can typically justify the most distasteful conduct based on Holy Scripture. Torah is filled with commandments (Mitzvot) that are horrifying to modern ethics and sensibilities. Including most of those you have listed concerning Islam.

          Most modern Christians don’t think it is okay to impregnate their daughters or to lay with a servant or etc….etc..Even though the Bible told me so. (Get it, pretty funny right there). Most Muslims have modernized their view of the Koran as have most Jews and Christians regarding the Torah and the Bible. Every faith has ferocious nut jobs that want to drag their faith back to their roots or dark ages. For Christians and Jews it is using the Torah and Talmud as a road map to barbaric behavior and justifying their bigotry. Did you see the Orthodox Jew in Jerusalem who stabbed that poor girl to death or Fred Phelps’s wack job church protesting funerals?

          You are correct in what you wrote about the Koran, but I think your generalization is too broad in support of Graham’s thesis. For every wack job (I like that phrase) Muslim, Jew or Christian there stands thousands, tens of thousands of peaceful, faithful and kind believers behind them. Islam is a faith of peace, ask any Sufi. Judaism is a faith of peace although a few Palestinians, Sumerians and Amorites may have a different viewpoint. Christianity is a faith of peace but then again there maybe a few Jews, Native Americans, Africans, Asians, Muslims, and Martians that may dispute that also. Leave off Martians we haven’t landed there yet.

          Sean as an ex Christian and someone who has studied the Bible, not only are we to believe, but we are commanded to forgive 70 X 7 and not just for the benefit of other Christians . I see very little of God’s grace, as I have come to understand it, in Franklin Graham’s point of view. The Gospel of Christ is a gift to everyone, friend and foe, believer and non believer. I simply do not see Jesus in his message, maybe the NSA, but not Jesus.

          Shalom brother.

          • Sean

            Hi Jeff,

            I appreciate your thoughtful reply. I just want to address a few points.

            The first is about your comments about the Old Testament as it connects to Christian belief. It is very important to put the OT in the correct context, which is one of the aims of covenant theology. I’m sure you know that covenant theology is the Christian doctrine that God has established covenants during different time periods with different groups of people. The historical activities of the OT represent an early covenant God made with the Jews and some God-fearing gentiles. They followed God and were subject to revealed laws and the leadership of a series of prophets. At the coming of Jesus, a new covenant was established. This covenant was between God and the body of Christian believers. Jesus dismantled the complicated legalism of the OT covenant and asked believers to love God and love their neighbors as themselves. Christians are not called to be circumcised, eat Kosher, ritually immerse in the mikvah or perform sacrifices in the temple. Jews, like Muslims, are still people of the law. Christians have been taken from under the law’s yoke.

            The result of this is that Christians do not need to justify or defend the practices of the Old Testament legal system and the fringe of individuals that may try to follow them. Christians may simply say, “Our law is love and our covenant is the new covenant”.

            Sadly, Muslims and many other people do not understand new covenant theology, and Christians seem reluctant to explain it to them or anyone else. It baffles me, because this seems to be the whole message of Christianity: Christ has atoned for you. Legalism will not make you righteous, nor should you follow religious legalism for political reasons. You have been freed from the Law.

            The second point I must make is that I understand that many Muslims are peaceful people. However, it could easily be argued that these are good people, but bad Muslims who have strayed from Islamic doctrine. And this IS being argued by the Wahhabists and salafists who are the major influence for Muslims today. The reason I have become aggressive in confronting Islam, is that we are watching the fundamentalist elements “reform” Islam in widespread swathes of the world, while everyone looks on stupified. This is an emergency, it has happened before and we will pay in blood if we do not wake up and discuss it in frank, if painful, terms.

          • Jeff Brown

            Having been a Jew and having lived under the old covenant I have come to appreciate that Christ freed us from not only the Laws of Torah, but from the enslavement of sin. What kills me is how fervently so many Christians try to rechain themselves to the law and think that they can avoid enough sin to be good enough for God? I typically just shrug my shoulders and shut up. Many, too many, Christians seam not to understand the true significance of sacrifice and what a earth shattering thing God/Christ did on that cross. He atoned for all of our past, present and future sins. End of story. The only thing he couldn’t cover seams to be blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, but I may have that wrong.

  • lilycarol

    The only way I can remain a Christian is by understanding God’s presence in my life without scapegoating, hatred, and judgement. Thank you, Adam, for your perspective.

  • We are under attack by Muslims at home and abroad. We should stop all immigration of Muslims to the U.S. until this threat with Islam has been settled. Every Muslim that comes into this country has the potential to be radicalized–and they do their killing to honor their religion and Muhammad. During World War 2, we didn’t allow Japanese to immigrate to America, nor did we allow Germans. Why are we allowing Muslims now?

    This is complete common sense. Adam Ericksen’s commentary is foolish in the extreme. When followers of an evil ideology are attempting to destroy a civilisation and assimilate or subjugate Wester/Christian civilisation, then non-violence, “dialogue” and pacifism enables them to do just that. Such essays as this are not only foolish, they are evil and traitorous attemts to mislead people as to the nature and magnitude of the threat which we face.

    Only last week, Islamic State slaughtered 16 Christians in Chad, for the simple fact that they were Christian ( ). Mr Ericksen, when you pretend that followers of islam are just like another type of Christianisty, Judaism or Hinduism, you are either showing complete ignorance of the Bible’s description of good vs. evil, or you are evil yourself.

    Ultimately, the only way to defeat islam is to educate ourselves and others of its real evil nature, and establish God conscious societies, free from mass abortion and animal slaughter.

    • Jeff Brown

      No, Mr. AJ Liberphile, Adam is right. Not one of the church martyrs fought back against their killers, they went to their deaths in prayer and singing God’s praise. In fact it was a judged a horrible sin to participate in any act of violence up until the first crusade. Early Christianity was a pacifist faith. They did what Jesus did and forgave those who persecuted them. The followers of ISIS can and will be forgiven if they come to believe. Jesus says that all things can be forgiven except one, blaspheming the Holy Spirit. You can curse Jesus’s name, you can turn from God and return again. God’s justice is beyond our understanding and rational. What we would never forgive in others or ourselves, God will. Paul the Apostle was ISIS in his day. Be very careful about doing God’s job and judging what you do not understand. Satan loves nothing more than a vengeful Christian.

      • Thanks for correcting me Jeff. Christianity must indeed be a pacifist religion for Christians to have taken so many hundreds of years to launch the Crusades against the barbarian savages who killed so many of them and invaded all of North Africa and half of Europe, destroying the Byzantine Empire.

        I think I’ll stick with the Bhagavad Gita thanks: BG18.78 “Wherever there is Krishna, the master of all mystics, and wherever there is Arjuna, the supreme archer, there will also certainly be opulence, victory, extraordinary power and morality. That is my opinion.”

        • Jeff Brown

          And I absolutely 100% respect your opinion. I believe in Jesus, but I also believe there are other spiritual relationships with the creator of all things. I won’t say I am right and therefor everyone who doesn’t believe as I do is wrong, what I will say is that I have faith in my God and that is enough for me. I sincerely wish that your faith gives you peace and comfort and helps shield you against the harshness of this world. Many blessings on you and your family.

        • Jeff Brown

          A warrior never retreats. Do not yield to unmanliness, O son of Prithā. It does not become you. Shake off this base faint-heartedness and arise, O scorcher of enemies! (2.3)

  • Jeff Brown

    I absolutely agree with everything said in this essay. I will use this in church this Sunday. I pray for Mr. Graham that God brings a truer understanding of the Gospel message.