In this edition of “A Joyful Journey,” Bishop Bard traces the social justice dimensions of his faith to Billy Graham.
When Billy Graham died on February 21, one week into the season of Lent, I posted a brief note on Facebook. “The ministry of Billy Graham touched many lives, including mine.” In sharing my journey of faith, I often refer to an important turning point, my eighth-grade Sunday School class at Lester Park United Methodist Church in Duluth, Minnesota. The teacher of that class told me about God’s love in Jesus in such a way that I gave my life to Christ. The teacher had an important impact on my life, but her impact was reinforced by Billy Graham. I reaffirmed my commitment to Jesus watching Billy Graham on television. I engaged in his Bible studies through the mail. I subscribed to Decision magazine, listened to his radio program, The Hour of Decision, sent a couple of dollars when I could. I still have on my book shelf The Christian Life New Testament from The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. I read a few of Billy Graham’s books, the first being Peace With God.
A neighborhood friend gave me his paperback copy of Peace With God, and I still have it. Originally published in 1953, my copy was part of the 44th printing, dated 1973. The book’s first two parts could be seen as an elaboration of the basic message Billy Graham preached. Part One delineates the human problem, which has to do with human sin. Part Two provides the solution in God’s love in Jesus Christ. Then there was a Part Three, which was about living the Christian life after making a commitment to Jesus Christ. It included a chapter on “social obligations of the Christian.” My introduction to the idea that Christian faith has something to do with seeking a better world came from Billy Graham. Graham encouraged Christians to be good citizens and to demonstrate hospitality. Furthermore, he encouraged Christians to take a Christian attitude toward labor-management relationships, toward economic matters, and toward race relationships. I remember writing these broad principles down and posting them on the bulletin board that hung over my bed. The idea that my faith had these social dimensions was a pretty heady one for a 14-year-old. The idea has stuck with me.
One week before Graham’s death was Ash Wednesday, and this year we were reminded not only of our mortality, but of our vulnerability as a horrific act of violence was perpetrated at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The image of a distraught mother, with an ashen cross on her forehead hearing the news of the shooting will be indelibly etched on my memory. What might a Christian response to this act of violence, to the multiple acts of gun violence in our society, be? Sadly, as I am writing this on Friday March 2, I have heard initial reports of a shooting on the campus of Central Michigan University, where two have died.
While there is no single answer to the question of a Christian response to gun violence, for there are numerous ideas put forward by many persons who follow Jesus, I would like to suggest three ideas that I think should be part of a Christian response.
It has become routine for persons to respond to tragic incidents of gun violence by saying that now is not the time to discuss politics. I agree that initial responses should focus on care, concern and love. Yet how often the difficult conversation about what might be done never rolls around.
It seems different this time, and I would suggest that encouraging the conversation is one Christian response to gun violence. As Christians we should encourage conversations informed by solid data and information. In the days following the Stoneman Douglas shooting I read an essay by a radiologist who treated some of the shooting victims. The doctor discussed the extraordinary damage done by bullets fired from an AR-15 as opposed to those fired from a handgun. This should be part of our conversation.
Currently there is on the books a law in the United States which prohibits the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using any money to “advocate or promote gun control.” The effect of this law has been to stifle government-funded research on gun violence prevention. This is not helpful to us. We need to encourage conversations about background checks and mental health and domestic violence. As Christians who care about our communities we should encourage informed conversation and then let such conversation inform our actions.
In addition to encouraging informed conversation, as Christians we should help move the conversation beyond some of its typical contours. I am a proud citizen of the United States. When someone says that the three greatest legacies of our country are baseball, jazz and the Constitution, I nod in agreement, even though the statement is hyperbole. The second amendment to our constitution guarantees rights to gun ownership, though not unlimited rights. Rights describe what we can do, legally. They do not necessarily define what we should do, and that is a faith question. As Christians are we asking ourselves, beyond the question of the right to own a gun, questions like: “Why do I have these guns?” “Am I keeping the guns I own stored safely?” “Am I doing all I can to make sure my guns do not find their way in to the wrong hands?”
Finally, I think part of the Christian response to gun violence is to acknowledge that nothing we do will end all such violence. We live in a world where people act sinfully and selfishly. We live in a world where we do not adequately care for the hurting and damaged. No policy or law will absolutely guarantee our safety. That is not a reason to do nothing. John Wesley encouraged followers of Jesus to do all the good they can. Paul encouraged followers of Jesus, “do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). We cannot do it all, but I believe we can do better. We can encourage deeper and better-informed conversations, and let such conversations lead to more thoughtful action, all in the name and Spirit of Jesus.
~photo: Billy Graham went on the road with Youth For Christ at the age of 27. Creative Commons 2.0 Generic