How could he, after all these years, miss the point?
You’d think, after 75 years in Christian ministry, after studying the Bible even longer, after preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ in every corner of the world, my Baptist colleague, Billy Graham, would have gotten the point.
But there he was, in full-page ads in major newspapers across the country, missing the point.
Here’s the message he shared in those newspaper ads:
“The legacy we leave behind for our children, grandchildren and this great nation is crucial. As I approach my 94th birthday, I realize this election could be my last. I believe it is vitally important that we cast our ballots for candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles and support the nation of Israel. I urge you to vote for those who protect the sanctity of life and support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman. Vote for biblical values this November 6, and pray with me that America will remain one nation under God.”
“Biblical principles” reduced to support for the modern nation of Israel? A nation that has recently been criticized by 15 religious leaders of Christian denominations in America for its continuing violation of human rights, U.S. policies governing military aid, and international law?
“Biblical principles” reduced to protection of “sanctity of life”? Now a code phrase for being against any form of contraception and abortion after conception in its narrowest meaning?
“Biblical principles” reduced to a definition of marriage as only between “a man and a woman”? Even though the Bible itself contains a variety of forms of marriage and the family?
The Gospel of Jesus Christ and the understanding of the Christian life, including Christian citizenship, reduced to these “biblical principles” and “biblical values”?
I don’t doubt that some faithful Christians in a democracy could come to similar conclusions with Graham about the State of Israel, reproductive rights and same-sex marriage, based on their reading of the Scriptures.
But are these the foundational principles of the Bible upon which the Christian life and Christian citizenship are to be based?
In Mark 12:28-34, there is the story of religious and political leaders arguing with one another about what is foundational to a life of moral and religious integrity.
A scribe overhears this dispute and goes to Jesus (because Jesus has responded impressively to the disputers’ interrogation of him on questions about marriage) and asks the simple question: “Which commandment is first of all?”
Jesus answers without hesitation or qualification.
“The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Sovereign is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
The scribe responds affirmatively and repeats the first and second commandment, and adds that these commandments are more important than all the rest, including those that relate to sacrifices and burnt offerings.
Jesus tells the scribe that he is not far from the dominion, the reign, the community of God.
And the story from Mark concludes by indicating that no one then dared to ask him any more questions.
How could my elderly Baptist preacher and colleague – of all people – miss it?
The “biblical principle,” Jesus teaches, is love: God’s love for us and for the creation, our love in return with our whole selves, and our love for all whom God loves.
Everything – every single thing – follows from those two commandments. Every other commandment and every other value is judged and, yes, is transformed by that fundamental principle, that fundamental reality.
From those two commandments, then, our personal and public lives, our private and political lives, are to be shaped: how we are to relate to the poor, the sick, the hungry, the imprisoned and enslaved, the stranger and the foreigner, the depressed and the dispossessed.
All the things, it seems, the current election is about.
How could he miss it, after all these years? How could we be guilty of missing the point?
Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence for The Common Good Network.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.