|Billy Graham with Charles Fuller (L) and Edward Carnell (R) at Fuller Seminary -- circa 1960s|
Yesterday we learned that Billy Graham died at the age of 99. His life stretched from the end of World War I to the second decade of the 21st Century. Yesterday Facebook and Twitter were awash of remembrances from people across the religious/political spectrum. Inn this day when we are extremely polarized in our politics and our religion, Graham has engendered respect and appreciation even from those who do not abide with his evangelical beliefs. Perhaps that is because he conducted himself in a manner far different from many religious figures of our day (including his own son). Here is a man, who was theologically a conservative evangelical, and yet he partnered with Mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox Christians. He was committed to racial justice and the relief of the poor.
If you are near my age, you grew up with Billy Graham crusades (that's what they called them back then) on TV. I was never in a position to hear him in person, but I remember him say simply "The Bible says." He would preach. He would offer an altar call. People would stream forward to the tune of "Just As I Am." Although he partnered with congregations, the criticism of his method was that it led to conversions, but not to discipleship. People came forward, but never joined churches. So how deep did the conversion go? Nonetheless, he was a man of faith, who seemed humble and gentle. He did fly close to the political fire, and he got burned by Richard Nixon. He was more careful after that to make sure he was not being used for political purposes. I read a headline yesterday that suggested that he was the last bipartisan evangelical leader. Hopefully that isn't true. But no one currently on the scene has his stature and ability to stand above the fray.
Billy Graham wasn't perfect. Yet, he made some important moves that need to be affirmed. While he wasn't on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement, his decision to integrate his evangelistic meetings in the south at a time when the fight against segregation was in full force needs to be acknowledged. Could he have done more? By all means. Had he partnered with Martin Luther King, perhaps his legacy would have been even more powerful. Unfortunately, he was not alone in standing aloof from the movement. May we all do better.
Billy Graham wasn't a theologian, but he respected theologians. As a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary, I know of his influence and support of the seminary. He may have left the Board of Trustees long before my arrival (he served from 1959-1968), he always gave his support to the school, which was important as the school moved past its more fundamentalist roots and allowed for more expansive biblical interpretation and theological work. Ultimately, he was a preacher, whose audience stretched across the far corners of the earth. One need not embrace his rather simple theology to regard him fondly. I may have moved leftward theologically over the years (starting with my time at Fuller) he was my brother in Christ. Now, he has embraced by the one whom he served. May God bless his memory.