Billy Graham or Martin Luther King, Jr.?By Tom Airey
Christianity’s always had a number of different voices, a number of different streams and strands, and I think we had to keep track of prophetic strands and keep track of priestly strands. There’s always been Christians who are well-adjusted to greed, well-adjusted to fear, well-adjusted to bigotry. There’s always been Christians who are maladjusted to greed, maladjusted to bigotry, maladjusted to fear. So the question is what kind of Christian, which has to do in the end, with what kind of human being you choose to be. — Cornel West
Today, the question is not “Are you a Christian?” but instead, “What kind of Christian are you?” This, actually, has always been the question, because there have always been different kinds of followers of Jesus. Like the four original Gospel writers, each Christian community emphasizes different aspects of who Jesus was and is and each Christian community interprets the life, teachings and death of Jesus in different ways. As it turns out, the diversity of emphasis and interpretation creates different outcomes, shaping the lives of Christian communities (and individuals) in radically different ways.
It is quite useful, I believe, to take as models the two most popular (and, arguably, most influential) American Christians in the 20th century: Billy Graham (born 1918) and Martin Luther King, Jr. (born 1929). These men are deeply cherished by many both inside and outside of the Christian tradition, but they represent tremendously divergent brands of Christian faith. I should know: I grew up (born 1973) in the Graham strand and, in the past five years, have transitioned into the King tradition.
Billy Graham is the face of a mostly white suburban brand of Christianity. It posits that sin is a universal condition that keeps us from the Almighty God. Only a conversion to faith in Jesus Christ can restore this relationship and be the ticket that gets us through the gates of heaven when we die. The primary task of the Billy Graham Christian is to get people “saved,” otherwise they will go to hell. Everything in life is viewed through this lens:
My one purpose in life is to help people find a personal relationship with God, which, I believe, comes through knowing Christ.
Martin Luther King, Jr. believed that to be a Christian, one must take up the cross, which surely meant confronting socio-economic and political injustice. Indeed, this is precisely what Jesus did and precisely what he called his disciples to do in his absence. For King, God’s Love moved people to a gritty kind of empathy, lobbying for the least of the these in the world:
True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
Of course, this compassion transcended charitable giving and paternalism. Real faith meant that laws had to change so that black people would stop being lynched and deemed second-class citizens. It meant that the U.S. government would need to be called to account for military interventions (like Vietnam) that devasted poor and ethnic communities, while at the same time failing to provide for a fair and equitable way of life in America. In short, the Christian experienced and spread God’s love by creatively, strategically and nonviolently transforming the laws that stripped dignity from fellow children of God.
While King was enduring bomb threats and jailings, Graham became known as a preacher to the Presidents, especially Republicans. Texas oilman, Sid Richardson, introduced him to Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and Ike was baptized as a Presbyterian after “consulting” with Graham, “I don’t think the American people are going to follow anybody who’s not a member of a church.” Graham held Sunday services in the Nixon White House and advised him on how to campaign in the evangelical community. He even wrote at least one speech for Nixon.
Graham translated his popularity from Christian revivals into a connection with the highest from of social and political power in the United States. True, Graham was a source of comfort to the most stressed out leaders in the world, but as evangelicalism grew in popularity, Graham became an important pawn used by political leaders to woo their votes and resources.
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