taking the words of Jesus seriously


In these days of mean politics, the prophets’ words are piercing. They will not let us be silent. We must cry out against injustice in our land.


But I have to confess, I’ve been challenged by the way Jesus lives the prophetic tradition in this election season. Because Jesus knew something about mean politicians (one tried to kill him while he was still in diapers, after all).


Still,  Jesus doesn’t aim his prophetic words at politicians.


Jesus’ woes are for the preachers who prop up mean politics and lead God’s people astray.


Which brings me to the recent issue of Decision magazine from the “nonpartisan” Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.


Because I am a life-long evangelical Christian, this publication of the BGEA is part of my cultural world. Billy Graham invited me to give my life to Jesus at a football stadium when I was 10 years old. I read his biography, Just As I Am, the year it came out (by then, I was 16). Two decades later, my faith has been challenged and stretched by other voices. Still, I drug my kids through the Billy Graham Library after it opened a few years ago in Charlotte, North Carolina. I wanted them to know this story. I wanted them to understand how millions of Americans were introduced to Christianity in the 20th century.


So, I’m on the BGEA mailing list. I just read my copy of their special election issue. In it, Franklin Graham, heir of the Graham mantel, claims that “if the forces of evil that are allied against the free exercise of our faith succeed, ” then we as a nation are doomed. This election is, he sincerely believes, “the most significant since Abraham Lincoln was chosen to guide a divided country through a bloody and protracted civil war.”


What moral issue in the 21st century could demand the shedding of American blood? What so threatens the “free exercise of faith” in America?


This issue of Decision makes clear in multiple articles that executive and judicial decisions about equal protection under the law which protect the rights of LGBTQ citizens are the “evil forces” which threaten faith in America. This is the supposed “attack” which Franklin Graham sincerely compares to the enslavement of African-Americans. Reaching for every ounce of moral indignation in the American psyche, the back cover of the issue shows Jewish women and children being taken by the Nazis to the death camp at Auschwitz. This, the BGEA suggests, is what has happened to Christians under the Obama administration: we have been attacked in ways comparable to slavery and the Holocaust by an insistence that the Constitution guarantees equal protection under the law to gay and transgendered Americans.


I disagree with Franklin Graham on how the equal protection clause should be interpreted. So does the Supreme Court. But that’s not why I hear Jesus saying “Woe unto the BGEA.”


Brother Franklin is not simply saying that he disagrees with gay marriage.


He’s not even just saying that the federal government should mandate that his interpretation of marriage is the only legitimate interpretation.


He—and the BGEA with him—are saying to millions of evangelicals in the midst of a contentious and violent campaign season that President Obama’s administration has assaulted the Christian community in ways comparable to the assault of Southern slaveholders against African-Americans and the assault of Nazis against European Jews.


For anyone who believes in just war, this is a call to arms. A major institution of evangelicalism is suggesting that its readers have a moral obligation to resist an assault which is equivalent to historic wrongs which have demanded the lives of millions in war.


And all of this in the name of evangelism?


Whatever your politics, I don’t think evangelicals can claim to follow Jesus in America today without saying to one another and to our neighbors:


This is wrong. Not in our name.


The Constitution protects Franklin Graham’s right to believe and teach whatever he wants about our Lord. (Though, by any measure, his call for war on the Democratic Party is not protected by the IRS’s code for a 501(c)3 organization like the BGEA.)


Still,  using the name of Jesus to offer justification for people “defending” themselves against their political opposition isn’t just a violation of tax code. It’s wrong. Americans died in both the 1860s and the 1960s because preachers talked this way.


Our Lord was killed because preachers and religious teachers talked this way.


The BGEA’s “evangelism” isn’t sharing good news; it’s creating bad news. This is the sort of evil that compelled Jesus to cry out with the prophets against the false teachers of his day. Those of us who follow him must decide how we are called to do likewise today.


About The Author


Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is a celebrated spiritual writer and speaker. Together with his wife, Leah, he co-founded the Rutba House in Durham, NC, where he also directs the School for Conversion (www.schoolforconversion.org). Jonathan works closely with the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II to spearhead The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Jonathan's newest book is "Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion" (InterVarsity Press).

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