Written by Karl Hand
When I heard the news of Billy Graham’s death, I posted his picture on social media and praised his legacy. It wasn’t intended to provoke anything — but the comments pretty quickly told me that his legacy was not a simple thing. People carry hurt and even rage about it.
Even mainstream news articles are commenting on the ‘painful legacy’ he leaves behind, particularly for gay people.
Other people in my life have been so impacted by him for good that their grief was genuine and deeply personal. I know a few people who came to faith at one of his crusades, and their legacy in my life is incalculable. So, I owe Billy Graham a lot.
And there are some people are sending out misleading information. I saw a meme this morning quoting him as saying “all homosexuals should be castrated”. The person who posted it said to “remember the real Billy Graham”. It only takes 5 minutes on google to find out that nobody had published this quotation before his death, and nobody who has quoted it has bothered to point to a source. This isn’t about a concern for “real” history, it’s about saying “gotcha”.
Our attitude towards the people of Christian history reveals a lot about us. When we pedestal people, or throw rocks, we’re not dealing with the reality of who they are — sinners like us, used by God to do great things.
Dave Andrews says this so well in the intro to his book People of Compassion: “I don’t think it helps us to treat anyone as saints. To hold people up as models of sinless perfection, when they’re not, doesn’t help them, or us. Haloes only serve to create delusions of grandeur that become reasons for discouragement when disillusionment eventually sets in. The relevance of the example of people who have gone before us, depends on our remembering them and reconsidering them as they were -imperfect people in relentless pursuit of the practice of perfect compassion.” (p. 1)
So, let me say a few real things about the man Mel White called the last real Evangelical:
The hurt of many LGBTIQ people about Billy Graham’s views on sexuality and gender is real, and it is dreadful. He held fast to a traditional family morality his whole life, and opposed marriage equality. He was not perfect. He did not have all wisdom and courage about every issue. Neither do we.
I think it was very difficult for people of Graham’s generation to understand the movement for LGBT rights. He once made an off-hand remark about AIDS being a judgment from God. That was an ugly thing to say. He very quickly retracted and apologised about the “judgment of God remark” and fully retracted it.
After that, he was always careful to point out that while he didn’t agree with gay relationships, he believed gay people were worthy of love and respect. Not everyone in his generation was able to get to that place, and it is a position that many LGBTIQ people find hurtful.
Another real criticism is his support of the Vietnam War at the beginning. By the end of the war, he had learned the hard lessons that many Americans learned, and never weighed in on international politics again.
But in 1969, he sent a memo to President Nixon that would haunt him in later years.
Widely quoted on social media, many people are outraged that Graham told Nixon to bomb a million Vietnamese. The source is a CounterPunch article which is excerpted from the book End Times: the Death of the Fourth Estate.
But a closer reading tells a much less exaggerated story. Graham was reporting to Nixon the views of missionaries living in Vietnam. He relates that they were expecting peace talks would fail, and America should withdrew from the war if they did. He says that South Vietnamese could prevent a communist victory by bombing the North’s infrastructure and crashing the North Vietnamese economy.
The strategy is hardly sound military or political advice, and certainly not one which Christian peacemakers should approve. The claim in the article that Graham was an “aspirant war criminal” is just completely wrong. Graham was supporting an indigenous resistance to an oppressive regime, not a bombing of Vietnam by invading Western forces, as it sounds in the Counterpunch article!
It seems he learned from this. After Nixon’s presidency, Graham never signed on to political agendas or endorsed views. He rather gave moral support to disarmament, and was prominent in the leadership of the Lausanne movement, which encouraged evangelical Christianity to remember its commitment to social justice.
So, those criticisms are real, and they are deeply regrettable, and they are being exaggerated by critics. But they are not all that is real.
It’s also real that Graham’s crusades began in the 40’s, were often held in Jim Crow states, and they were racially desegregated. This extremely controversial move made a real impact on American attitudes toward race relationships.
And he wasn’t coy about it. When organisers tried to segregate an audience at a revival crusade in Chattanooga, Tennessee , he personally dismantled the partition, saying that if anyone had a problem with it, they could have the crusade without him.
A few years later, during the Montgomery bus boycott, he brought Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. onto the platform with him at a revival of 2.3 million people in New York.
When King was arrested, Billy Graham posted his bail. Of course King knew that Graham was wrong about Vietnam — but he also saw the bigger picture about Graham’s impact and influence.
It’s also real that Graham received death threats from the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK understood that his example was a colossal blow to the nice, white, churchy suburban values of white supremacy.
Real is the fact that he went to Apartheit South Africa and denounced Aparthiet there.
I thank God for the man’s flaws, because they make it possible for me to have compassion on myself, when I have flaws. I also thank God for the man’s greatness, because it inspires me to see what God can do through a human life.
The good does not make the bad OK.
The bad does not make the good invalid.
We are all complex people.
But the greatest aspect of Graham’s legacy will always be the cause he dedicated his life to: preaching the gospel. It is estimated by his staff that throughout his life, 3.2 million people responded to his invitation to “accept Jesus Christ as their personal saviour.”
It’s hard to imagine what greater legacy a person could leave.
Karl Hand is pastor of CRAVE MCC in Sydney.