Calling for a degree of religious humility and self-examination strikes me as a reasonable thing to do. Clearly there are many people who don’t agree. Franklin Graham, son of the famous preacher Billy Graham and founder of Samaritan’s Purse, are among them. Or at least he and others don’t agree when it is done by President Obama. After the recent National Prayer Breakfast conservative religious and political voices accused the President of “throwing Christ and Christians under the bus.” One pundit declared, “Obama basically equates ISIS with Christianity.” A former Governor called Obama’s comments “the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime.”
Essentially all the President did was to remind the group gathered for prayer that not only Islam but Christianity as well has been used to justify horrible violence and war. What he said was not far from Jesus’ words: “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:2). Likewise, he sounded a bit like the apostle Paul who warned not to “pass judgment … and yet do the same things” (Romans 2:3).
Many on the right want to justify or minimize the violence that has been done by Christians in the name of their faith. Or like pundit Sean Hannity, they suggest that even if Christians once did horrible things, those things were done long ago. Apparently the statute of limitations has passed. Ignore the fact that currently tens of thousands of Muslims are fleeing Christian militias in the Central African Republic or the terrorist attacks done by right wing Christians in recent years.
Graham believes the President’s words will ruin the reputation of Christianity and call into question the claim that Christianity is a religion of peace while Islam is, you know, a war-mongering religion.
You might think Graham is a pacifist as he distances himself from the violent people who distort Christianity. “But Jesus taught peace, love and forgiveness,” Graham insists. “He came to give His life for the sins of mankind, not to take life. Mohammad on the contrary was a warrior and killed many innocent people. True followers of Christ emulate Christ – true followers of Mohammed emulate Mohammed.”
But if you think Franklin Graham is an advocate of nonviolence who opposes Christians engaging in violence and deadly conflict you would be mistaken. When Jerry Falwell, the founder of the old Moral Majority and Liberty University, boldly proclaimed, “God is pro-war,” Franklin Graham didn’t object. To the contrary, at the time he was in full agreement. While Graham has stated, “I don’t advocate war,” he was quick to qualify that claim by adding, “it’s important to support our government.” And he specifically meant “support our government” in bloody conflict.
Graham stood shoulder to shoulder with the other well-known evangelical leaders who helped guide the overwhelming 87 percent of all white evangelical Christians in the United States to support the attack on Iraq 2003, an effort not one church body outside the U.S. supported. Franklin Graham was not echoing the Prince of Peace when he said: “Let’s use the weapons we have, the weapons of mass destruction if need be and destroy the enemy” (CNN, September 14, 2001).
Unlike many religious leaders throughout the world, Graham didn’t view the invasion as an unjust venture and unnecessary tragedy. He looked on it as an opportunity. He knew there would be refugees and people who have lost their homes or are sick and hungry as a result of the war. However, he saw the upside: “I believe as we work, God will always give us opportunities to tell others about his Son….We are there to reach out to love them and to save them, and as a Christian I do this in the name of Jesus Christ.”
Graham is not one prone to quote Jesus’ words, “Blessed are the peacemakers; they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). That line doesn’t easily tumble from the lips of someone who can say, “There’s no excitement and thrill like the complexities of war. It heightens perceptions. The smell of gunpowder. The sound of shrapnel hitting a building. Everything in you slows down, except your reflexes. They become quicker, because all of life’s emotions are played out on a razor’s edge. Your instincts take over…. War satisfies my need for danger. I love to go places where bombs blow up.”
Billy Graham was advised to carry a gun. He refused. Not so with his son Franklin. He carries a .38 pistol strapped to his ankle when he travels. If he goes someplace where it is illegal for him to carry a gun or knife, Graham carries a metal pen that he says he can use to “stick in the eye of any terrorist trying to hijack my plane.” He likes to shoot machine guns. Several years ago, a friend asked him for help chopping down some trees. He showed up in a jeep with a machine gun mounted on a tripod and went about blasting through the trunks of tree with burst of gunfire loud enough that neighbors called the sheriff.
Graham’s organizations Samaritan’s Purse and World Medical Mission have done a tremendous amount of good alleviating suffering. These are praise-worth efforts. But his support of war and violence and his hypocritical criticisms of the President are not. I happen to agree with Graham that Jesus taught peace, love and forgiveness and did not take life. I also wholeheartedly agree with him that “True followers of Christ emulate him.” I hope Graham will remember these things the next time there is an opportunity to choose peace and nonviolence over deadly force.
I hope Graham will turn from his war-friendly ways – ways he accuses followers of Mohammad of embracing – and walk according to the example of Jesus who “did not retaliate and when he suffered, he made no threats” (1 Peter 2:21-23). The world needs more religious leaders who issue a resounding, “NO!” to war and violence.