I have a couple of questions for Franklin Graham.
For years I have granted him a sort of “don’t criticize” card because of my respect for his father, Billy Graham. But as Franklin has become more and more political and partisan, he has opened the door for an evaluation of his own argumentative claims. And he recently claimed he is not a preacher of hate.
Here are my two questions for Franklin: If you say you are a preacher of love, why would you ever need to give a speech insisting you are not a preacher of hate? How could the message of love be confused with hate?
A biblical perspective on love
There is a preacher of love in the New Testament who offers us a template for considering this puzzle. His name is John, the beloved disciple of Jesus. For the sake of argument, we will forego questions of which books in the New Testament John wrote and credit him with the Gospel of John, 1 John, 2 John and 3 John.
In his Gospel, John says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” John recorded Jesus’ words of love: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” And, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
John centers his message of love in the love of the Father for the Son and the love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Karl Barth remarked, “To say ‘God is’ is to say, ‘God loves.’” As Stanley Hauerwas reminds us, “We can say God loves because the Father would have the Holy Spirit rest on the Son so that we might participate in the very life of God. The love that was in the Trinity was before we were, yet it is the same love that called us into existence … . Through love we have been made participants in God’s very life.”
“A preacher of love has a message of love for the world — including all persons, creatures, and entities.”
By these parameters, a preacher of love has a message of love for the world — including all persons, creatures, and entities. There’s nothing that falls outside the love of God for the world. This includes the powers and principalities that have chosen to exist in rebellion to God’s love.
Turning to John’s epistles, the message of love cascades down around us from heaven’s heights: “For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.” And, “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love the brothers and sisters. Whoever does not love abides in death.” And, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers and sisters.”
There’s more about love in John’s epistles, but there is no confusion about the preacher of love being confused with a preacher of hate.
When claims of love sound like hate
Now, Franklin Graham is on a “God Loves You” tour and part of his message is this: “I’m not a preacher of hate; my message is love.”
I am not addressing Franklin Graham as a person. He had a wonderful mother and daddy. His Samaritan’s Purse does a lot of good in the world. I don’t doubt his sincerity. The problem is his words don’t match his sincerity or his claim of a message of love. When a preacher claims to have a message of love, and his words reek of judgmentalism, he may be a preacher of hate. When a preacher claims to have a message of love, and his words cause harm to others, he may be a preacher of hate.
Devout religious people can confuse love and hate. The Pharisees hated Jesus, and we all know how that turned out.
Graham on police and Nazis and Muslims
Graham has weighed in on the issue of white cops shooting African Americans who are unarmed: He insisted for “Blacks, whites, Latinos, and everybody else” to “listen up” and stop resisting police officers. He claimed recent events of police brutality could have been avoided if the victims had simply learned to “obey.”
Graham flirted with Nazi ideas of blood and purity when he joined the “birther” movement against President Obama and chirped that “the president’s problem was that he was born a Muslim” because his father was and “the seed of Islam is passed through the father.” Obama’s father was an atheist. President Obama is a member of the United Church of Christ.
Much of Graham’s angst and paranoia has been reserved for Muslims. He has called Islam a “very wicked and evil religion” that leads people to beat their wives and murder adulterous children. He demanded that Muslims not be allowed to immigrate to the United States. He criticized the Episcopal Church’s National Cathedral in Washington for permitting its first Muslim prayer service. On his Facebook page he wrote: “It’s sad to see a church open its doors to the worship of anything other than the One True God of the Bible who sent his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to earth to save us from our sins.”
Graham on LGBTQ persons
With no love in evidence, Graham frequently attacks the gay community. At the end of one Gay Pride Month, Graham posted on Facebook about how horrible such a celebration is. His comment included, “It’s like setting a month aside to celebrate lying, adultery or murder (which includes abortion), or anything else that God says is sin.”
Graham voiced support for Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on the rights of LGBTQ people. There has been increased discrimination and violence against LGBTQ persons in Russia — including beatings, abductions and public humiliation. “Putin is right on these issues,” Graham said. “He has taken a stand to protect his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda.”
Graham has faced withering criticism from LGBTQ activists. He responds to the criticism with an old political ploy: “Their criticism is a lie.” If the problem is not in him but instead in his critics, then he can dismiss the accusation that he is a preacher of hate.
God is on his side
Graham’s claim of being a preacher of love makes two irrational and disgusting claims. One, he insists he is preaching the Bible and therefore makes the Bible complicit in his message. Two, he claims he is simply telling us what God says and believes.
To his credit, Graham doesn’t back away from the reasons for being accused of hatred. “The reason they say I’m a preacher of hate is because I say that marriage is between a man and a woman. And it is. …. Gay marriage is a sin. That’s what the Bible calls it.”
“There’s no nuance here, only certainty that one contested point of view is the Bible’s point of view.”
There’s no nuance here, only certainty that one contested point of view is the Bible’s point of view. Graham manages to turn the Bible into a book of hate. This is the very charge he levels against Muslims and the Quran when he says their religion is a religion of hate.
After using the Bible to defend his harsh statements about gays, Graham doubles down by dragging God into the arena of the accusation of hate. Graham points out, “They say, ‘Well, you’re offending a lot of people. I’m not offending them, but God’s offending them, because it is what God says. But my message is not against gay people, or people that think differently or worship differently from us. My message is about love.”
There it is in the wide-open public. God is the chief offender. Graham is only the conduit of God. “Don’t shoot the messenger,” Graham seems to say. In his view, he is only telling people what God hates and what offends God.
Graham presumes he knows the mind of God. He sounds as if he has just come down from Mount Sinai after a 40-day conference with God and has brought back that word for the people.
What the Bible says
Now, the Bible does contain the account of another preacher who had a list of what God hated: “There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that hurry to run to evil, a lying witness who testifies falsely, and one who sows discord in a family.”
By this reading, God hates what is going on in our fractured nation where the lies being told are so huge many people feel they must be the truth. The list doesn’t include any hatred of the people Graham routinely disparages, hurts and assails with his weaponized rhetoric. When rhetoric is used as a weapon, it can’t be an instrument of love.
“When rhetoric is used as a weapon, it can’t be an instrument of love.”
Graham traffics in the language of dissension and hate. He goes out of his way to offer messages that are not rooted in love.
As a child, I was frightened when a visiting evangelist rolled up his big black leather Bible like a club, raised it above his head, waved it around and around, as he screamed, “God loves you.” I missed the part about love because I thought he was going to hit me with his Bible.
If Franklin Graham is a preacher of love, why doesn’t he talk more about love and less about Muslims, gays, immigrants, politics and hell? If he really means what he says, why do his words come across with the exact opposite meaning?
When a self-proclaimed preacher of love keeps facing charges of being a preacher of hate, the preacher needs to rethink his words.
Rodney W. Kennedy currently serves as interim pastor of Emmanuel Freiden Federated Church in Schenectady, N.Y., and as preaching instructor Palmer Theological Seminary. He is the author of nine books, including the newly released The Immaculate Mistake, about how evangelical Christians gave birth to Donald Trump.
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