A group of Christian leaders has penned an open letter to evangelical activist Rev. Franklin Graham in response to his recent Facebook post that they say was sinful and patronizing to American race relations. Graham’s post, which has since gone viral, was dated March 12 and read as follows:
“Listen up—Blacks, Whites, Latinos, and everybody else. Most police shootings can be avoided. It comes down to respect for authority and obedience. If a police officer tells you to stop, you stop. If a police officer tells you to put your hands in the air, you put your hands in the air. If a police officer tells you to lay down face first with your hands behind your back, you lay down face first with your hands behind your back. It’s as simple as that. Even if you think the police officer is wrong—YOU OBEY. Parents, teach your children to respect and obey those in authority. Mr. President, this is a message our nation needs to hear, and they need to hear it from you. Some of the unnecessary shootings we have seen recently might have been avoided. The Bible says to submit to your leaders and those in authority “because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account.”
At the time of this writing, nearly 200,000 Facebook users had liked the post on Graham’s profile, more than 83,000 had shared it and more than 18,500 had commented on it.
The responding open letter was collectively written and published by Sojourners’ Lisa Sharon Harper, Rev. Leroy Barber of CCDA and Word Made Flesh, pastor Dominique Gilliard of New Hope Oakland, Dr. Brian Bantum of Seattle Pacific University, Micky ScottBey Jones of the Transform Network and Efrem Smith of World Impact. The open letter reads as follows:
“Dear Rev. Graham,
We write to you in the spirit of Matthew 18: we aim to reconcile with you. You have sinned against us, fellow members of the body of Christ. While your comments on March 12 were just a Facebook post, your post was shared by more than 83,000 people and liked by nearly 200,000 as of Monday morning, March 14, 2015. Your words hurt and influenced thousands. Therefore, we must respond publicly so that those you hurt might know you have received a reply and the hundreds of thousands you influenced might know that following your lead on this issue will break the body of Christ further.
Frankly, Rev. Graham, your insistence that “Blacks, Whites, Latinos, and everybody else” “Listen up,” was crude, insensitive, and paternalistic. Your comments betrayed the confidence that your brothers and sisters in Christ, especially those of color, have afforded your father’s ministry for decades. Your instructions oversimplified a complex and critical problem facing the nation and minimized the testimonies and wisdom of people of color and experts of every hue, including six police commissioners that served on the president’s task force on policing reform.
In the nadir of your commentary, you tell everyone to “OBEY” any instruction from authorities and suggest that the recent shootings of unarmed citizens “might have been avoided” if the victims had submitted to authority.
And you bluntly insist, “It’s as simple as that.”
It is not that simple. As a leader in the church, you are called to be an ambassador of reconciliation. The fact that you identify a widely acknowledged social injustice as “simple” reveals your lack of empathy and understanding of the depth of sin that some in the body have suffered under the weight of our broken justice system. It also reveals a cavalier disregard for the enduring impacts and outcomes of the legal regimes that enslaved and oppressed people of color, made in the image of God — from Native American genocide and containment, to colonial and antebellum slavery, through Jim Crow and peonage, to our current system of mass incarceration and criminalization.
As your brothers and sisters in Christ, who are also called to lead the body, we are disappointed and grieved by your abuse of the Holy Scriptures. You lifted Hebrews 13:17 out of its biblical context and misappropriated it in a way that encourages believers to acquiesce to an injustice that God hates. That text refers to church leadership, not the secular leadership of Caesar.
Are you also aware that your commentary resonates with the types of misinterpretations and rhetoric echoed by many in the antebellum church? Are you aware that the southern slavocracy validated the systematic subjugation of human beings made in the image of God by instructing these enslaved human beings to “obey their masters because the Bible instructed them to do so?”
Your blanket insistence on obedience in every situation exposes an ignorance of church history. God called Moses to resist and disobey unjust authority. Joseph and Mary were led by the Spirit to seek asylum in Egypt, disobeying the unjust decrees passed down by authority figures in order to ensure the safety of Jesus. And Paul himself resisted authority and ultimately wrote Romans 13 from jail.
In modern times, Christian brothers and sisters abided by Paul’s command to the persecuted Roman church. They presented their bodies as living sacrifices. They refused to conform to the oppressive patterns of this world. Rather, they were transformed by the renewing of their minds. (Romans 12:1-2) Throughout the Jim Crow South, in El Salvador, and in the townships and cities of South Africa Jesus followers disobeyed civil authority as an act of obedience to God — the ultimate authority, the Lord, who loves and demands justice (Psalm 146:5-9, Isaiah 58, Isaiah 61, Micah 4:1-5, all the prophets, Luke 4:16-21, Luke 10:25-37, Matthew 25:31-46, Galatians 3:27-28). Likewise, Christians who marched in Ferguson, Mo., New York City, and Madison, Wis., follow in the holy footsteps of their faithful predecessors.
As one who understands human depravity, your statement demonstrates a profound disregard for the impact of sinful individuals when given power to craft systems and structures that govern millions. The outcome is oppression and impoverishment — in a word, injustice.
Finally, if you insist on blind obedience, then you must also insist that officers of the justice system obey the U.S. Constitution, which protects the right of all to equal protection under the law. Yet, reports confirm unconscious racial biases in policing, booking, sentencing, and in return produce racially disparate outcomes within our broken justice system.
Likewise, you must also call on officers to honor their sworn duty to protect and serve without partiality. The Federal Bureau of Investigations director, James B. Comey, acknowledges that law enforcement has fallen short of this mandate : “First, all of us in law enforcement must be honest enough to acknowledge that much of our history is not pretty. At many points in American history, law enforcement enforced the status quo, a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups.”
Let us be clear: We love, support, and pray for our police officers. We understand that many are doing an excellent job under extremely trying circumstances. We also understand that many officers are burdened by systems that routinely mete out inequitable racialized outcomes.
For the past nine months, many of your fellow Christian clergy have been engaged in sorrowful lament, prayerful protest, spirit-led conversations, and careful scriptural study to discern a Godly response to these inequitable racialized outcomes within America’s justice system. We have wrestled with God like Jacob, begging God to bless us with peace in our streets and justice in our courts.
Rev. Graham, as our brother in Christ and as a leader in the church, we forgive you and we pray that one day you will recognize and understand the enduring legacy of the institution of race in our nation.
Now is the time for you to humbly listen to the cries of lamentation rising nationwide. We do not expect you to be an expert in racial issues, police brutality, or even the many factors that go in to our complicated and unjust criminal system. We do, however, expect you to follow the example of leaders and followers of Jesus throughout the scriptures and modern history. We expect you to seek wise counsel and guidance first from those who bear the weight of the injustice and second from other experts in the field.
Ultimately, we invite you to join us in the ongoing work of the ministry of reconciliation.”
Harper, after sharing the letter on the Sojourner’s blog, added a scathing comment: “We will not tolerate this type of flippant, patronizing commentary from faith leaders on critical issues that mean life and death for many in the body of Christ and in communities across America. We won’t tolerate it, even one more day.”
Other Christian leaders who signed the letter after it was posted include Dr. Curtiss Paul DeYoung of Community Renewal Society, author and blogger Rachel Held Evans, Rev. Soong-Chan Rah of North Park Theological Seminary, Sojourners president and founder Jim Wallis and president of Kilns College Ken Wytsma.