Just Published - I hope you will find time to read this..
The Revenge of the Racists and the Silence of those who Worship the Lamb | Greg Smith
In a provocative and timely new TempleTract, Greg Smith provides a sociological and theological reflection on populist nationalism, religious prejudice, xenophobia and racism in the contemporary context of the United Kingdom and especially England, with comparisons with the USA and Europe. Drawing on new empirical research on religion and Brexit voting trends, along with decades of activism in the church, Greg considers how we can better respond to the challenges of xenophobic and racist social attitudes.
Franklin Graham is the son of the world renowned evangelist Billy Graham and has for a number of years sought to continue his ministry through the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association of which he is the President and Chief Executive Officer. He has been invited by a group of Evangelical Church leaders in Lancashire to be the keynote speaker at the Lancashire Festival of Hope which is scheduled to take place at Blackpool's Winter Gardens in September 2018.
I am an evangelical Christian (until two years ago on the staff of the Evangelical Alliance) committed to the mission of God in the world, the growth of Christ's Kingdom and I long to see people converted, saved, their lives transformed, them coming into active membership of local churches and growing as disciples of Jesus. Yet I want to suggest that there are numerous powerful reasons why British evangelicals should not support Franklin Graham's proposed mission in Lancashire. Some of these are theological or missiological, others are more pragmatic and political (with a small p).
Why should this matter to evangelical Christians in the UK? We believe in freedom of speech and the man has a right to his opinions, even though we may find them distasteful and wrong headed. Yet it seems that in supporting and tolerating Franklin Graham we are condoning his intolerance. One evangelical Baptist, Steve Holmes, has called him out as someone who has departed the Baptist dissenting tradition with a blog which I would urge everyone to read with the remarkable title "Mr Graham, you ain’t no Baptist, bruv" .
Yet, surely it is important in our post Christian society that the gospel of Jesus is clearly preached and people are called to repentance and faith? From the 1950s to the 1980s his father led numerous campaigns alongside British churches that bore substantial fruit, carefully building a wide coalition of churches from different denominations. In 1982 Billy preached in Blackpool at the Winter Gardens. Many people responded to the gospel call and continue as faithful Christians to shape the life of our churches today. Might something similar happen through similar methods in the 21st century?
The first problem with the invitation is that the choice of Franklin Graham to lead the mission has already brought division and disunity to the churches in Blackpool and the surrounding area. It is not surprising that some of the more inclusive churches in the district have been appalled and moved to opposition. Two Anglican clergy have written an open letter to the Bishop of Blackburn expressing their opposition and asking him to oppose the invitation. Other Christians whom I know, who would in normal times have been enthusiastic about an opportunity to share the good news, have become extremely cautious or concerned. The Lancashire Festival of Hope has tried to portray itself as a strongly united ecumenical movement - while they may hope and pray for this to be the case, to present it as such is an untruth. The division puts at risk much of the good collaborative grass-roots mission in word and deed that has been put together over recent years in one of the most deprived and forgotten towns in the country. We know that political parties if disunited have great difficulty in winning elections. How can we expect church which disagrees publicly to convince people of the truth of the gospel?
Graham perceived as a purveyor of hate, not Christian love.
Secondly the statements that Franklin Graham has made mean that he is perceived by many as a purveyor of hate rather than of Christian love. Expressing extreme hostility to Islam as he has done, may increase the personal risks faced by Christians who are serving as missionaries or aid workers in majority Muslim settings and is unhelpful to global missions strategy. ( Graham and others were challenged on this by Clive Calver and other evangelical leaders as long ago as 2003) . To point out all people are sinners who need to repent is indeed an important biblical doctrine. However, to make repeated statements which may be taken to imply that large categories of people such as Muslims and the LGBT community are despised by Christians and by God, has already closed the ears of these people. The brand of Christianity and network of churches with which Graham associates carries more than a taint of racism which will make many Black people suspicious of his message. It is also likely to offend the vast majority of British people who are comfortable and positive about living in a tolerant and diverse multi faith Society. It means that people like me have few friends and acquaintances whom we could comfortably invite to a meeting to listen to Franklin Graham. A full-time evangelist friend of mine says that his favourite line for starting a conversation with people he meets on the streets is "have I told you that Jesus loves you?”. I am sure this is a much wiser opening gambit than to say “you and everyone like you are going to eternal punishment in Hell unless you believe in Jesus”. Sadly, that is how Franklin Graham's gospel is now commonly heard.
A cheerleader for Trump
Next there is the problem that Franklin Graham openly supports the presidency of Donald Trump and the policies he has proposed and most candidates of the Republican party including the disgraced and now defeated Roy Moore. Many evangelical Christians in the USA seem to believe that Trump is God's anointed leader for such a time as this (though Franklin Graham does not use that phrase). Most of the world considers Trump to be a sexually immoral liar, who has brought the name of the United States into disrepute, and there is a mass movement in the UK to protest any visit by the current president to this country, which led 1.8 million to sign a petition. Thus the majority of British people are likely to think of Franklin Graham as unwise, if not delusional in his support for the President. Many will be unable to trust his judgment and find it hard to believe his version of the gospel. This could be especially so for women who will be appalled on his silence about Trump's philandering and misogyny. Furthermore the policies Trump advocates, such as building walls to keep out Mexicans, banning Muslims from entering the country, reducing taxes on the rich, repealing Obama care, increasing military spending, support for the gun culture of the USA, and his failure to condemn far right extremists and racists, all seem questionable in terms of Christian values. They seem to have little relation to the cries for justice of the prophets, the message of good news for all the nations of the earth, and the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount that we should love all people, even our enemies.
To be fair Franklin Graham does express compassion for the sufferings of the sick, the poor and persecuted Christians and has raised and channelled vast amounts of funding and material aid through his charity Samaritan's Purse, for which he reportedly received an annual salary of (only) $620,000 in 2015. But one might have expected a Christian leader of his stature to have questioned more directly some of Donald Trump's behaviour, policies or ill-judged tweets as Pope Francis and Justin Welby have recently done. Thus it can be argued that many of the things Franklin Graham has said or written seem to directly hinder and implicitly contradict the work of the gospel.
The Archbishop of Canterbury has expressed his confusion at the popularity Donald Trump enjoys among some Christians in the United States. Numerous writers have tried to analyse the link between extreme right wing politics and many sections of the (mostly white and male led) evangelical church in the United States. A Financial Times article in April 2017 seeks to explain “How the Bible Belt lost God and found Trump” and concludes that they have lost their moral compass. One scholar interviewed in the piece suggests “evangelical Christians are mainly mobilising against the sins they either do not want to commit (homosexual acts) or cannot commit (undergoing an abortion, in the case of men). They turn a blind eye toward temptations such as adultery and divorce that interest them.” Jim Wallis, perhaps the most well known radical evangelical leader, and his Sojourners community have frequently put forward a different view to the Christian Right, for example in a post on the recent Alabama election . According to Mark Galli in Christianity Today the biggest “loser there was the Christian Faith itself”. Wallis has argued at length that “America's problem with race has deep roots, with the country's foundation tied to the near extermination of one race of people and the enslavement of another. Racism is truly our nation's original sin.”
Therefore, personally I have come to question whether Franklin Graham and many sections of the white evangelical church in the United States, in adopting so strongly the populist nationalism (and indeed cultural racism) that helped Trump to power, have in fact slipped into idolatry of the flag and the nation. I fear that they could be worshipping political power, rather than the Lord of Glory who emptied himself of riches and power for our sakes. At the very least as the Guardian reported recently Paul Bayes, the bishop of Liverpool, said “self-styled evangelicals” risked bringing the word evangelical into disrepute, and added there was no justification for Christians contradicting God’s teaching to protect the poor and the weak.
No culture wars here please.
Finally the invitation of Franklin Graham to Blackpool presents the prospect of bringing the bitterness of the North American culture wars to this country. Blackpool itself has a very significant LGBT community and choosing to hold this sort of mission in the town has been perceived as a provocation. Lancashire as a whole has a large Muslim community and for the most part there are peaceful and positive relationships between Christians and Muslims and other faith communities as they collaborate together on practical issues and learn to talk openly and honestly about their religious differences. Community cohesion is now at risk because of Franklin Graham.
The legal framework on equalities and against discrimination on the grounds of race, religion, and sexuality is not always an easy one to work with for evangelical Christians, but it does provide some protection against discrimination for vulnerable minorities. The laws against inciting hatred are also significant and many people are claiming that Franklin Graham has already contravened them. This puts the authorities, especially Blackpool Council in an impossible position, as they are obliged to maintain these laws, and their own stated diversity policies. This may mean that they will need to refuse permission for the events of Lancashire Festival of Hope to take place on council premises. One can foresee a long trail of litigation in which Franklin Graham's Christian supporters will be tempted to play the persecution card and cast themselves in the role of victims. Such a costly legal battle will be counterproductive in terms of the gospel and will jeopardise future goodwill and collaborative working with the council. Already some councillors are saying that the church is behaving recklessly and the three most local MPs (all of them professing Christians) are supporting the campaign to stop Franklin Graham . The positive relationships and partnerships which work for the common good on issues of poverty, financial inclusion and employment, which have been captured in the recently adopted Faith Partnership are at risk.
Medieval Crusades or a better way?
In the late 20th Century in Billy Graham's generation mass meeting evangelism was remarkably popular and effective. In the 1980s I personally supported and attended his Mission England events and saw the blessing they brought to enquirers and to the church as a whole. I am however not convinced they are going to make much impact in our current diverse society, with its network of individuals connected mainly by electronic social media. The model of evangelism comes out of a tradition of the revivalism of American camp meetings and has hardly changed since the late 19th Century when Moody and Sankey brought it across the Atlantic. There are many other appropriate (and biblically evidenced) methods of reaching unbelievers today. The best of these include the whole people of God in welcoming seekers to a community of believers and exploring together what it means to believe the gospel and follow Jesus. In Alpha courses and similar programmes small groups allow honest discussion of contemporary concerns in the light of Scripture and have proved at least as effective as preaching at people.
Crusade evangelism (the term itself is offensive to many Muslims) is based on a rather thin theology, where the “decision” is almost the only thing that matters. David Fitch, a leading American evangelical scholar offers a trenchant critique of evangelicalism in North America where the church is fixated on three master signifiers, the inerrancy of the Bible, the need to make a decision for Christ and the concept of the Christian nation. These issues although so poorly defined as to be empty of meaningful content, become the boundary markers by which evangelicals distinguish themselves from unbelievers, including liberal Christianity. The result is a section of the church which rejects science and scholarship, accepts cheap grace without the need for repentance, conversion and transformation of lifestyle and has sold out to right wing conservative politicians.
There is already much fine work taking place for the evangelisation of the people and town of Blackpool. This is documented in a recent Church Times article and the Together Lancashire report a Tower of Strength built upon Rock. More recently there has been excellent news of substantial funding from the Church of England for an expansion of the community based evangelism of parishes serving deprived areas in Blackpool's social housing estates, and an expansion of the Ministry Experience scheme for mission apprentices. Devoting local church resources to event based evangelism could be a distraction from this valuable mission work, and could do great damage to it because the lead evangelist is so controversial.
Thus there are about half a dozen key reasons for not supporting the invitation to Franklin Graham to speak in Blackpool. Disunity amongst Christians and conflict with the council will not provide an environment in which the gospel can be heard. The political statements of Franklin Graham ensure that he will be greeted with hostility by large sections of the public, possibly by pickets and demonstration, and that the ears of many more will already be closed. Many Christians will be embarrassed by the contradictions between what he has said and the love of Jesus that they have personally experienced and want to share with others. The effort expended in the festival could be a distraction from and do damage to some of the valuable mission work already taking place in Blackpool.
For all these reasons I want to urge and advise my Christian brothers and sisters in Lancashire and across the country, and all local churches, to have nothing to do with the Lancashire Festival of Hope as long as Franklin Graham is the keynote speaker.
I want to urge the Christian leaders in Lancashire, all of whom I respect and many of whom are doing fantastic work in the mission of the Kingdom, to think again and withdraw the invitation. There are many other fine evangelists, some of whom are more locally rooted in the North of England who could deliver a powerful Gospel message.
Finally I would urge the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association to withdraw from this event and to consider carefully and prayerfully how their mission strategy can be brought closer in line with the mission priorities of the Lord they seek to follow.
There is now (January 2018) an open public controversy about the proposed Lancashire Festival of Hope and the invitation to Franklin Graham to speak at an evangelistic mission in Blackpool in September 2018. Up to this point I have refrained from making a public statement about my views on this issue because of my role in Together Lancashire as a connector and enabler of mission activity in the area and have expressed views mainly in private meetings and channels of communication. I have been much agitated and prayed hard about this issue but I can no longer remain silent and keep my head “below the parapet”. I have share my concerns over the last six months with a small group of Christian friends and have valued their encouragement, wisdom and prayer support.
The appeal I am making and the views expressed in this article are my own personal ones and should not be taken as those of Together Lancashire, the William Temple Foundation or any other organisation with which I am associated.
From the moment in Spring 2017 I heard of the proposed invitation to Franklin Graham I had grave misgivings. Aware of his track record I instantly knew that such an event would prove divisive in the local churches, would be seen as provocative by LGBT communities and Muslims in the area, and risk immense damage to the good relations that I and colleagues have worked hard to establish between the churches and the local authority. I suspected that the attempt to hold such a mission in a Council owned venue in Blackpool would lead to nasty and counterproductive litigation.
Seeking to follow what I understand as the Biblical principles for dealing with disagreements between Christians, in May 2017 I made these concerns clear privately to some of the organizers of the event, and then in June accompanied by a small number of colleagues met privately with them. Though they listened courteously they were unwilling to change their plans.
There is now an online petition sponsored by the LibertyChurch calling the Home Secretary to ban Franklin Graham from entering the country and numerous media articles and press releases arguing the same case. I have not signed this because do not think petitioning the government to ban him is the best way because
a) I have a tender conscience about asking the secular authorities to judge issues between Christians
b) I don't think there is really any chance that the Home secretary will even look at banning FG from the UK. But now there is a big public controversy I have to speak out
I agree with a number of local colleagues that there has been a serious lack of leadership from the senior church leaders in Lancashire in (not) addressing this issue. In consequence my goal in writing this is to persuade the organizers and church leaders in the region who are backing the visit to withdraw the invitation to prevent further division and damage to the church and the cause of the Gospel.
"Shame on the politicians who are trying to push blame on President Trump for what happened in #Charlottesville, VA. That's absurd. What about the politicians such as the city council who voted to remove a memorial that had been in place since 1924, regardless of the possible repercussions? How about the city politicians who issued the permit for the lawful demonstration to defend the statue? And why didn't the mayor or the governor see that a powder keg was about to explode and stop it before it got started?" Graham asked in a statement on Facebook.