Billy Graham died today at the age of 99. While from a theological perspective, I could find a dozen ways to criticize the man (and have done so), today I set those mostly aside in order to remember him for one major example of courage in the face of dangerous hatred.
In a documentary segment posted a couple years ago, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association celebrated his stand against segregation in the 1950s, when it mattered most.
The white evangelical world largely hated him for it. Howard Jones, associate evangelist, described how a lot of whites damned Bill Graham for befriending and helping Martin Luther King, Jr. Why would you want to hang out with a Communist, after all? Jones said,
Bill told him, “No, he’s my brother.” Billy told him, “There was a time when I didn’t take a stand for the race problem, and I preached to segregated audiences. But I got to know Martin Luther King, and I felt what he felt, and I took a stand for an open crusade.”
Most people in my generation and the decade or so prior don’t realize that the opposition here was not merely a matter of bad taste or inappropriate manners. Millions of people were intensely charged over segregation, and any preacher defying the color line in the South in the 1950s was exposing himself to physical harm and even death.
In an interview recorded at the time, Graham himself related,
Today, it’s almost impossible for the present generation to understand what things were in those days, and what it took to be that way—how many threatening letters we got, and how many threats against my family as a result of the stand that we took at that time.
The story is told in the video of how at one of his early 1950s crusades, Graham asked the head usher to take down the ropes used to segregate blacks from whites. The usher refused. So Graham walked down off the platform and took down the ropes himself.
I don’t care what you say, that’s courage right there. Not many of the sanctimonious, Bible-thumping culture warriors who should have done it did anything like that.
(Just for the record, I consider myself a Bible-thumping culture warrior.)
Truth be told, I doubt many of the tough talking ones today would have put their own neck on the line to do it either.
Billy Graham did.
Yes, I know he compromised in places. He made compromises I would utterly condemn. He said a thing or two that have made me cringe. The eschatology drives me batty. His squish on abortion is abysmal. It has helped bolster the pro-life compromise and the murder of millions, especially in the name of “exceptions” like rape and incest. That absolutely must change. The heirs of BGEA must absolutely fix this error.
Of course he was not a Christian Reconstructionist. But you know what? With social justice action like he did in the 50s, based on nothing but the cross of Christ preached and applied—applied without flinching in the face of opposition and danger—that is Christian Reconstruction.
I will take on young Graham over a hundred would-be experts on Bahnsen who geek out over doctrinal minutiae while sitting on their hands.
Graham actually did it, and he did it when it was tough, and when it mattered; and that’s what we should remember.
Graham, when he was at his best, was not just a preacher of the Gospel. He was a social justice warrior in his message and his actions, and when he did it, he did it the right way.
If we would have had more Bible preachers like this, we would not had slavery or segregation, and we would not have needed a civil rights act, because we would have been living it already. We also would not have legal abortion, and I must say we also would have had a different Billy Graham in the latter half of his life, too. My advice, follow the example of the young Billy Graham.