Every year about this time, old content from the Baptist News Global website starts lighting up, due to searches for “Operation Christmas Child.” As it turns out, people are not just searching these words because they love the program and want to support Franklin Graham and his most prolific outreach. Instead, many of the hits come from people looking for “alternatives to Operation Christmas Child.”
When I was a schoolboy and learning from my Christian parents, like many of you, I heard if I didn’t have anything nice to say about someone, I shouldn’t say anything at all. Well, I understand that admonition, which often is sage advice. But I also was raised on the Bible, reading and believing every word, and the book of Ephesians says, “Speak the truth, in love.” Let me give that a try.
Operation Christmas Child has been a wildly successful program since its inception, in Charlotte, N.C., in 1993. That first year, Samaritan’s Purse, the parent organization, distributed 28,000 shoeboxes — packed with toys, school supplies and hygiene items — to needy children. The organization’s website says, “Since 1993, more than 188 million children in more than 170 countries and territories have received an Operation Christmas Child shoebox.”
It’s hard to imagine the kind of organization, participation and logistical coordination it takes to collect, coordinate and convey that many boxes around the world. And if there have been 188 million boxes delivered, the smiles delivered make that number pale in comparison.
If we have the security and welfare and development of children in mind, though, we owe it to the children to think deeply about what really constitutes the best gift. We ought to consider this carefully, even if doing so opens us to a criticism of being callous. “Who could be against children getting toys?”
I am not, but I never have been able to get excited about Operation Christmas Child. I find it difficult to celebrate boxes filled with a specifically, tokenly American Christmas being exported to needy children around the world. It may be the most wonderful time of the year, but reflections of the commercialism that lands so many Americans in debt for increasing portions of the year is not what we need to be exporting to poor children and their hungry parents.
All those smiles are heart-warming and genuine — no one can doubt that — but you do have to wonder how long they last (not unlike our own children the day after Christmas) and what lesson the children ultimately take from those boxes. After all, how long can a Western-dressed Barbie doll satisfy a malnourished girl from the Sudan?
To be honest, I’m equally concerned about the gift-collection programs we offer kids in our own cities. A piece of fruit, a pack of chewing gum and a pair of socks in their stockings satisfied our parents. A generation later, we’re slavishly filling lavish gift orders for children whose parents cannot afford to put good shoes on their feet or feed them a nourishing meal on the weekend. We seem obsessed with providing a glimpse of conspicuous consumption for needy children — at Christmas — which should make us wonder who is really getting the most out of the giving. Is it their emptiness or ours we’re trying to fill?
So, if you’re looking for an “alternative to Operation Christmas Child,” I suggest you look no further than the Title I school closest to your church.
So, if you’re looking for an “alternative to Operation Christmas Child,” I suggest you look no further than the Title I school closest to your church. And don’t wait until the holidays in December. When you talk with the principal and the social worker and agree to take on a mentoring program, support a reading program, and make regular contributions of backpack snacks to satisfy weekend hunger, you should make your commitments last year-round. It will be Christmas, all year long.
The other reason I can’t support Operation Christmas Child, if I can speak the truth, is Franklin Graham himself. In recent years, he has been one of the most vocal leaders of American evangelicalism, and after decades of unrelenting, maybe overbearing, evangelical jeremiads on the necessity of personal morality in politics, the manifest hypocrisy of the evangelical witness in recent years is shameless. People are leaving the church in droves these days — and not because liberal churches are preaching love, demonstrating welcome and teaching equality. The damage done to the church at large may never be understood.
Through his vocal and visible support of a presidential administration that many historians regard as the most contentious and among the most corrupt in the nation’s history, Graham has aligned evangelicalism with some of the most questionable morals, petty partisanship, and hateful and divisive rhetoric we have witnessed. Further, claiming to be an ardent supporter of “life,” he also has defended the largest military budget in U.S. history, an alarming increase in executions, and the most xenophobic-inducing, anti-immigrant rhetoric we’ve ever heard. Because of his unrepentant partisanship, he also is a vocal opponent of countless measures designed to make programs like Operation Christmas Child obsolete.
Franklin Graham is passionate about filling shoeboxes for children. The intention is admirable — but if he displayed a fraction of that passion in advocating for policies that could actually change the plight of the world’s children, his passion might change the world.
I was raised in the evangelical church. I used to love the evangelical church. Because I know the power of that passionate expression of Christian faith, it grieves me deeply to see how decades of fear and misunderstanding have led evangelicals to a misplaced and unalloyed political partisanship.
As the research is now making clear, the conservative movement is much more about political identity and power than theological fidelity. As Ryan Burge has noted: “Evangelical” has come to mean “Republican” much more than “Christian.”
“Evangelical” has come to mean “Republican” much more than “Christian.”
He explains: “The second factor bolstering evangelicalism on surveys is that more people are embracing the label who have no attachment to Protestant Christianity. For example, the share of Catholics who also identified as evangelicals (or born again) rose to 15% in 2018 from 9% in 2008. That same pattern appears with Muslims. In fact, there’s evidence that the share of Orthodox Christians, Hindus and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who identify as evangelical is larger today than it was just a decade ago.”
That evangelical leaders cannot see how they are being used as pawns in a political game is embarrassing. That they cannot see the insidious danger of accommodating Christianity to nationalism is frightening.
The data gleaned from those leaving the church validate my fear that evangelicalism has become corrosive to Christianity itself, so any support of Graham — and the programs that contribute financially to his theology of absolute partisanship — only accelerates the decline of Christian faith as a counter-cultural voice, a subversive correction to a culture’s obsession with money, power and violence.
I will not support Operation Christmas Child, nor Franklin Graham. My church will continue to support the Title I school in our neighborhood, and I will continue to try to speak my truth in love and pray that Christianity might yet be experienced as something much bigger than a shoebox.
Russ Dean serves as co-pastor of Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C. He holds degrees from Furman University, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Beeson Divinity School. He and his wife, Amy, have been co-pastors of Park Road since 2000. They are parents of two sons. Russ is active in social justice ministries and interfaith dialogue. He is author of the new book Finding a New Way.
Franklin Graham, toxic charity concerns send churches packing from Operation Christmas Child / News by Jeff Brumley
Stuffing shoe boxes for the world’s poor? Maybe you should reconsider / News by Blake Tommey
10 alternatives to Operation Christmas Child | Opinion by Mark Wingfield
Franklin Graham terms opposition to Trump ‘almost’ demonic / News by Bob Allen
The blasphemy of Franklin Graham | Opinion by Rob Sellers