Why Franklin Graham is wrong about Ferguson (and what it means to be people of life)

[Trigger Alert: This post is about Police Officers, racism, and systemic inequality. I cannot stress it enough: this post is not a statement against those who wear the badge (I have a deep respect for our police force), rather it’s written out of a desire to continue conversations that will move us forward to peace and reconciliation.]

franklin Graham

Ferguson is in the news once more.

It’s not that surprising, is it? After all, the topic of the past year has been racial tension and police brutality. It’s been everywhere. Over the past year, we’ve been witness to countless protests, written editorials, panel discussions and pundit opinions (read: diatribes) on this issue.

Jumping into the mix is Rev. Franklin Graham, son of well-known evangelist, Billy Graham. He recently wrote on his public Facebook page:

“Listen up–Blacks, Whites, Latinos, and everybody else. Most police shootings can be avoided. It comes down to respect for authority and obedience. If a police officer tells you to stop, you stop. If a police officer tells you to put your hands in the air, you put your hands in the air. If a police officer tells you to lay down face first with your hands behind your back, you lay down face first with your hands behind your back. It’s as simple as that. Even if you think the police officer is wrong—YOU OBEY. Parents, teach your children to respect and obey those in authority. Mr. President, this is a message our nation needs to hear, and they need to hear it from you. Some of the unnecessary shootings we have seen recently might have been avoided. The Bible says to submit to your leaders and those in authority ‘because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account.'” 

His argument is a common one that goes like this: “If people just listened to police officers, obeyed them, and followed the law, then we wouldn’t have instances like Ferguson and New York.”

On paper, this seems valid. I mean, if I’m honest, his statement jives with my own personal experience. For instance, when I’ve been pulled over by a police officer, I would place my hands on the wheel, have my license and registration ready, and was careful to co-operate with anything the officer requests of me.

To this day, I’ve never been shot, even though I’ve been stopped by police multiple times. My experience seems to prove Graham’s point.

There is one just problem; My experience is not universal. It’s far from it, actually.

There is a vast spectrum of experiences that prove another truth; that co-operation and innocence doesn’t always end in peace, that obedience doesn’t always lead to justice. All around us, the voices of our minority brothers and sisters are pleading with us to listen to their stories and experiences.

Sadly, Graham, and much of Evangelical America, isn’t listening.

Context matters

In his statement about obedience and submission, Reverend Graham is completely ignoring a contextual truth within Ferguson, and within cities across the country; the issue of racial profiling and systemic racial injustice.

The New York Times recently released a study conducted by the Justice Department that found, “Ferguson police routinely violated the rights of blacks.” This article opens by saying,

Ferguson, Mo., is a third white, but the crime statistics compiled in the city over the past two years seemed to suggest that only black people were breaking the law. They accounted for 85 percent of traffic stops, 90 percent of tickets and 93 percent of arrests. In cases like jaywalking, which often hinge on police discretion, blacks accounted for 95 percent of all arrests.

It goes on to say,

The report, based on a six-month investigation, provides a glimpse into the roots of the racial tensions that boiled over in Ferguson last summer…Racial bias is so ingrained, the report said, that Ferguson officials circulated racist jokes on their government email accounts. In a November 2008 email, a city official said Barack Obama would not be president long because “what black man holds a steady job for four years?” Another email included a cartoon depicting African-Americans as monkeys. A third described black women having abortions as a way to curb crime.

Reading Graham’s quote, followed immediately by the Times article, leaves me with two thoughts. 

First, Reverend Graham is letting his politics interfere with his pastoral/prophetic responsibility.

Sound harsh? I don’t mean it to be. Speaking from my experience as a pastor, I know as well as any that it’s nearly impossible to keep one’s politics out of their hermeneutics and, consequently, their Sunday sermons.

We preach what we believe, and we believe in our politics.

I genuinely don’t begrudge a man or woman for having a political leaning; be they Republican or Democrat. Such is our right as Americans.

do however criticize Graham’s willingness to let his politics stand in the way of speaking truthfully about a very difficult, painful and complicated situation.

As pastors, there are moments when we must stand in unity with our brothers and sisters, and call out those who are being unjust. In doing this, there will times when we must call for others to stand in defiance of those who are in authority over us.

Our Christ-following leads us to protest.

In our protesting, are we as Christians to do it with love, compassion and Christ-likeness? Absolutely.

However, as the church, it’s one of our greatest callings and responsibilities to stand against injustice. What we are seeing in Ferguson is systemic injustice, and Rev. Graham’s words only discount what is happening all around us.

Second: Graham’s call for minorities to respect authority, because it’s ordained of God, is wildly hypocritical.

In an essay he wrote back in May, 2014 titled, “The Flood of Compromise,” Graham wrote:

On the heels of these upheavals [speaking of Gay Marriage], it was particularly jolting when those who call themselves Christians departed from the clarity of God’s Word…The very day World Vision announced its great compromise on a basic truth of Scripture…the Supreme Court began hearings to determine if the Green family, owners of Hobby Lobby, should be required to provide life-terminating drugs and devices in their employee health care plan, contrary to the Christian family’s spiritual convictions. The contrast was stunning. While the Christian-owned business stood up against a federal government bent on forcing them to compromise the right to life…”

Graham, in his own words, speaks glowingly of those who were willing to stand against a government denying rights to life, all the while he refuses that right to those who are angry about the denial of justice to minorities in America.

Instead of acknowledging that there is racial inequality within our justice system, and calling for this change, Graham tells those who are victims of such inequality to essentially “stop being criminals” and all their issues will disappear.

The problem, however, is we can’t have things both ways.

We can’t require of people obedience to civil authorities when it’s politically convenient for us, and then denounce it when it’s politically inconvenient. My friends. That’s text-book hypocrisy.

Life in Technicolor

Should the church fight for pro-life issues? Absolutely.

The value of life is a battle that will be forever worth fighting for. However, in our battling, we must not forget that to be pro-life means we’re required to fight for every life, regardless of where it’s found.

Pro-life means we fight for the care of the immigrant, the minority and the marginalized.

It means we fight for those who are…

Jewish.

Islamic.

Homosexual.

Heterosexual.

African-American.

Native-American.

Republican.

Democrat.

All. Life. Matters.

Farewell to arms

What Rev. Graham is saying, even if he doesn’t mean to, is that life is only worth something if it’s white, middle class and American. The problem is, however, that even if he doesn’t actually mean to preach this message (which, I’m sure he doesn’t), his words still convey it.

Therein lies the real problem; the problem of words.

Words inspire people. These people create and inspire social movements. Those social movements shape our nation’s laws. Those laws then shape social systems, and it’s those systems which oppress people.

The church would do well to remember this.

Rev. Graham isn’t just speaking words into the abyss. He’s speaking words which eventually oppress. Not in some generic, political-correct kind of way, but in a real-life-flesh-and-blood-kind of way.

The church must change her words.

We desperately need to find new words. Life-giving, soul-renewing, justice-loving, grace-restoring words. We need to rediscover our God-given prophetic imagination, and in our rediscovery, we must find our way towards compassion for others; especially when it’s “The Other.”

Because only then will we find our way forward in this divided and broken world.

Friends, we might not always have these chances to speak words that can change the world around us. With this in mind, may we speak our words well, with boldness, and as they leave our lips, may they bring life.

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11 thoughts on “Why Franklin Graham is wrong about Ferguson (and what it means to be people of life)

  1. Michael,

    I would respectfully disagree with several points in your column – but to limit it to just one, I would center on the comment from the New York Times which I’ve heard vocalized from the Department of Justice report:

    “Ferguson, Mo., is a third white, but the crime statistics compiled in the city over the past two years seemed to suggest that only black people were breaking the law. They accounted for 85 percent of traffic stops, 90 percent of tickets and 93 percent of arrests. In cases like jaywalking, which often hinge on police discretion, blacks accounted for 95 percent of all arrests.”

    What is the point of this comment? Is criminal behavior supposed to fall along ethnic percentages of communities? Since Ferguson is located next to municipalities that are almost entirely black (Pine Lawn, St. Louis (north), Dellwood, etc.), doesn’t it stand to reason that the majority of those stopped by police would logically be black?

    In watching the televised coverage of the looters in August – and the night the the verdict was made public – what were some common elements that we all saw? In looking at the security videotapes of the hordes of individuals that streamed into these stores to steal the businesses blind, what was the make-up of those who engaged in these activities?

    The answer – obvious to all – is that they were young, black and male. Period. I didn’t see a single white person engaged in those activities. Not one.

    The stark truth of this – at least in the metropolitan St. Louis area – is that the overwhelming majority of crime is caused by blacks; primarily young black males. It’s a monstrously uncomfortable truth…..but that’s just the way it is.

    Truth is truth.

    As a 54-year old lifelong St. Louis area resident, the story of Ferguson (since August) has been the equivalent of watching the circus. The uncivilized behavior, the ‘peaceful’ protests, the looting, the arson; it’s been an embarrassment to watch.

    What a shame.

    What a colossal shame.

    • Please understand that no understanding or reconciliation will take place between those who stamp their foot down saying “truth is truth” and meaning “I refuse to see anything but my pre-formed belief.” We have a precious opportunity to listen to other hurting people, to examine _their_ take on what they consider evidence, and to conduct ourselves in love. This doesn’t mean one changes necessarily one’s own perspective but it does mean one tries to look past the arrogance of assuming one’s own limited interpretation is the only one and forcefully enforcing your belief of your “truth.”

      Also, it is worth considering how very hurtful it is to compare media coverage of the lootings on the night of the verdict announcement with the “overwhelming majority of crime.” The complex context of the lootings allows no inference of data regarding alleged other crimes.

  2. Michael,

    I was born in St. Louis (‘Dogtown’) in 1960. We lived there until we moved to Kirkwood when I was 5 years old/ We only lived there for one year where we moved to University City from 1967 until 1974, so my childhood was essentially there. My schooling was in an integrated setting (Jackson Park Elementary School/Brittany Woods Middle School) and we attended Pilgrim Congregational Church (United Church of Christ), a heavily integrated church one block north on Union at Delmar. We moved to Midland, Michigan for 2.5 years, but my father was transferred back in 1977 and we moved to Chesterfield upon his return to the area. Since that time, my I’ve lived in West County and have raised a family in Ballwin and Chesterfield.

    • Well, John, I am extremely grateful you have taken the time to come and read my posts, and am thrilled you took the time to comment, however it seems as though we’ve come to an impasse. Maybe it’s best to shake hands and move on. I always welcome your participation in this blog, but I am not going to spend my time continually arguing the point of whether African-American’s are reaping what they sow.

      Peace to you.

  3. I am challenged with why it was necessary to comment or discredit another person. It would have been possible to make your point without calling out a name.

    Michael you mentioned “Context Matters” I respectfully disagree. Context gives perspective, but it does not reveal truth. The standard is and always will be, what does God’s word say?

    The issue of profiling — does God give us permission to disobey authorities? Even in the face of persecution, does God say to disobey the governments he established to complete his purposes? (Romans 13: 1-7) Yes we stand in unity and express a voice when a person or group of persons are doing right according to he Bible. However, I don’t see where the Bible ever says we, as citizen Christians, are allowed to disobey the government. The exact opposite is true!

    In the case of governments and militaries fighting. As much as I don’t like war and fighting, the governments of the world are God’s tools to accomplish what he wills, even if we don’t understand the bigger picture. If a Christian wants to change the government they should strive to be in the government. Otherwise be content with living within the systems of communication established by God’s government.

    Abortion — When the government is disobeying God’s law, then yes we are to disobey man’s law rather than God’s law. Thus Hobby Lobby was in the right to not pay money to the abortion industry through a government agency. Hobby Lobby, as Christians, would be sinning if they submitted to paying, they chose to fight it within the law. I submit there is no difference in the government asking us to commit abortion or to kill our neighbor. (Exodus 20: 13) Both are against God’s law.

    In regards to a government denying the right to life versus the right to justice. Is justice and equality a human right? I am sorry that there is injustice and inequality in the world. Is it unfair that one person makes thousands of dollars an hour and another makes a few or is unemployed? God’s ways are not mine. I may not like it but God has His reasons. Where does the Bible call citizen Christians to disobey and rebel against the law for injustice and inequality? God says justice is His and He will address it in due time. (Deuteronomy 32:35 and Romans 12:19)

    Yes we should be a voice for those that are in need and less fortunate. Yes we should get mad with a righteous anger. We should be even working hard at meeting their needs at our own personal expense. (Romans 12:18, Matthew 25: 31-46, Acts 2:45) But we should never disobey God’s word in the process.

    • FIrst off, Mark. It’s been far too long since we’ve chatted! I trust all is going well with you, friend!

      I really appreciate your thoughts, and even more so appreciate you would take the time to write them out here. I have a few thoughts that might explain where I’m coming from here.

      First: Why would I use a name in talking about this. Were it a schmuck like myself who wrote the status, I most definitely wouldn’t have used a name. The reason I chose to do so is two fold:

      1. He has a significant platform, and influences many, many people with it (this includes many of my own friends).

      2. He’s a public figure who is vocal about his stances, and as such, he must expect that people will be vocal about ways in which they disagree with him. I did my best to not condemn him, or slander his character. I tried to point to the good he has done (albeit, I did that more in the subsequent thread than in the post), and point out that I am only questioning this particular situation.

      Second: (follow me here for a second) You make a very good point about Christ commanding us to obey authority- “Give to Caesar what is Caesars, but to God what is Gods.” Another way of interpreting it is, give what caesar demands of you (Taxes, obedience to laws, etc), but give to God your heart.

      So what does it mean to have God’s heart?

      Over and over in Scripture, God tells us that justice is his, however, over and over, he rebukes Israel for refusing justice to those who are being mistreated. Micah 6 being one of the more well known passages:

      What does the Lord require? To live justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your God.

      Jesus echoes this in his rebuke of the pharisees in Matt 23. He tells them, they follow the law down to the very smallest detail, but they have refused to live out justice, mercy and faith. Thus, they strained out a gnat (an impure animal) and swallowed a camel (impure animal); the size difference also being an important part of this image.

      Yes, we’re to follow authority. We’re to obey the laws of the land and we’re to respect those who are placed in authority over us. However, we’re commanded to give God what is God’s. To me, this means finding ways to point out and protest injustice. Now, this might be a place of irreconcilable disagreement (if so, we can shake hands and move on), but I believe that the state of our justice system and the experiences of our African American brothers and sisters counts as injustice. With this belief, should I (or the church) refuse to deal with this, I believe we’re going to find ourselves in the same shoes as the Pharisees; living our lives too busy fighting for things like tithing, and refusing to stand in solidarity with an injustice in our world.

      3. You won’t find any disagreement on abortion. I am staunchly for the defense of unborn children. However, I refuse to stop there. Sadly, the church can often be pro-life only until birth. Where as, I believe, to truly call yourself pro-life, means you must fight for life where ever it is found. Be that a uterus, a slum, or the white house.

      I hope this helps you understand where I’m coming from, Mark! I look forward to hearing your thoughts in return.

  4. Pingback: Various & Intriguing | LifeInCocoon

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