Franklin Graham, Donald Trump, Social Media…and You.
Settling down after nearly bursting blood vessels in my head open from preaching on Easter, I was getting ready for bed Sunday night when I saw the headline on the internet: “Donald Trump gets surprise endorsement from Franklin Graham?” Admittedly, I did a double take. As you are probably aware of by now, ABC news aired an interview with Graham Sunday as an “Easter special” that has drummed up a bit of controversy. Graham’s comments on the “birther” accusations surrounding President Obama, as well as the exchange about the authenticity of his faith, raised eyebrows. But more surprising to many was his relatively positive evaluation of Donald Trump, stating that while he initially thought his potential bid for the White House was “a joke…the more I hear from him the more he makes sense.” When asked point blank if he would consider backing him, Graham said he would consider it.
Many were surprised to see the story unfold on Easter. Even given Franklin Graham’s tendency to speak his mind, it was largely deemed an altogether “un-Graham” like move to speak publicly at all about preferences in one party’s primary. Aside from that, the prospect of Graham endorsing Trump in particular struck a lot of folks as odd, as he is, well, Donald Trump. Since then, Graham has expressed that he was not trying to upstage the Easter event with politics, as the interview was recorded a week before. He also has claimed that he only attempted to answer the questions asked him casually and honestly, not endorse a candidate per se. Whatever you think about his remarks, I do not doubt his heart or intentions in the matter—I believe Franklin Graham is sincere and passionate in his desire to spread the gospel.
As a fellow brother in Christ and a fellow Charlottean, I have no interest in scrutinizing Graham any further publicly anymore than he is already in the national media—that is not helpful to the body of Christ, and not why I bring any of this up. I will say unequivocally that I am thankful for his leadership of Samaritan’s Purse, an organization that has consistently demonstrated to the world and the Church that it is a false choice to pick between preaching the gospel and serving the world’s most marginalized people. Whatever you think of Graham’s sometimes controversial remarks, I think it should also be noted that he is one of the few evangelical leaders I know who has described “the war on AIDS” as one of the major crises facing the Church today. Whether or not he is not deemed to be as diplomatic as his father in his role as an ambassador of the gospel, the worst Franklin Graham has been accused of is not having rhetoric that lives up to his great work…and there are worse things to be accused of in a world where so many make pious claims without pious activity to back it up. Not many people are accused of practicing better than they preach. A number of folks from Renovatus work at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association here in town—so we have great relationships there, and I have had the honor of speaking to the staff for devotions multiple times over the last few years. So to be clear, this is not intended to be a referendum on Franklin Graham and certainly not on any of the political implications here.
The reason I am fascinated by this particular story is that I find myself repeatedly having to think long and hard about the way not only Christian leaders and celebrities relate their convictions to the world, but all the rest of us. Given the new realities of social media, it is not just the famous and influential who live with microphones and cameras on all the time recording our every thought—that’s everybody now. In a world of such unprecedented access to so much information about our daily lives, the game has changed. I believe Franklin Graham when he says it was not his intention to talk about politics at all in that interview, and certainly not to create a media firestorm on Easter Sunday. He maintains that he just answered the question. Let’s put aside for a moment how you or I would have answered the question. Doesn’t it feel like that in our unprecedented connectivity, any and every political/social/religious perspective is constantly being shoved under our noses for us to comment on? Which pitches do we swing at? Which ones do we let slide by? Most all of us value candor and authenticity to a point. But at what point do we have to deflect some of the questions that are posed to us, or even reject the premise of the question? Or do we have an obligation to always answer?
It is not mine to determine for Franklin Graham of all people what issues he should or should not speak to. I can tell you that for my own part, I find myself, reluctantly and counter intuitively, rejecting the premises of a lot of questions I get posed these days, especially in public. There are some issues, including some controversial ones, that I may be inclined to speak to because they matter or I deem them to be directly relevant to my calling. Then there are some things I feel relatively strongly about—and yet feel like they are not mine to address publicly. I sympathize deeply with Franklin Graham in that I’m the kind of person that wants to give an extremely candid response to any and every question I get, anytime and anyplace—though my flavor and issues are perhaps different.
A few months ago, I wrote a chapter for a book called The Great Commission Connection (a compilation put together by Dr. Raymond Culpepper, General Overseer of the Church of God) on “The Great Commission and Social Media” dealing with this very dynamic. I wanted to share this excerpt of it with you, written 6 months ago, not as a way of responding to Graham per se, but rather as seizing the moment for us all to think a bit more strategically and intentionally about where/how/if we share some of our opinions with the world in a digital age. Because it was written specifically to a denominational audience, I am writing to a Pentecostal context—but I think it can be applied much broader. No matter who you are, in this digital age you have a platform. I pray God will use this to help you pray and reflect deeply on how you use it. What are you going to do with the influence you’ve been given–whatever the scale? (By the way, I did not intend for these first few entries to be novels. It seems I am an LP kind of guy more than EP—but I felt like it was important not to divide this up as to not be taken out of context.)
From the book:
… the common thread in each of these stories is that each of these young leaders demonstrate remarkable intentionality in how they use media. Each of them are reflective, thoughtful, and even reverent about how they use these alternately wonderful and dangerous new tools. And if there is any danger I see in appropriating these tools in a Pentecostal context, it is that we might attempt to use their methods without exercising their caution.
Because we are often so eager to embrace fresh ways we see the Spirit at work in the world, we Pentecostals are sometimes quick to dive into new expressions of Great Commission work without thinking strategically. If you have ever seen a Mel Brooks comedy, you know that he hurls a hundred goofy jokes a minute at the screen and hopes a couple of them will stick with the viewer. That is a precise analogy for how many of us experiment with our ministries. Given the new realities of technology in our world, this is a toxic practice for the Church.
When we have such powerful tools at our disposal, making it possible for us to broadcast our every thought and whim to the world with such ease, the key to using media in our mission may lie as much in our restraint as in our creativity. Within a matter of seconds, I have the capability to share my opinions about any conceivable topic or issue with the world in a matter of seconds. But just because I can, doesn’t mean that I should.
In a recent reading of Daniel, especially the court stories of the first six chapters, I was struck that Daniel and his friends didn’t resist when they were assigned new Babylonian names. I can’t think of a more sinister attempt to erase a person’s history and culture than to re-name them. It was a flagrant effort to try to re-program these young Hebrew men, erasing their faith and their heritage and embedding them with the king’s propaganda. On the other hand, when the edict is given for everybody to bow before the golden statue, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego famously resist—and God shows up to their rescue. Why did they refuse to speak out in the first case but speak out so dramatically in the second?
The simple take-away from this contrasting narrative is this: you can’t swing at every pitch. There may be times and places where God’s people have to take a hard, unpopular stand, one that will cost a friendship, a job, money, or even our very lives. But they don’t come along every day. We have to have the wisdom and discernment to know when to put up a fight, and when to walk away.
The principle is especially for those of us who would dare to utilize these new tools for the sake of fulfilling the Great Commission. For those of us who are in some level of ministry leadership, used to speaking into people’s lives with a certain mantle of authority, an occupational hazard of our task is that we become very opinionated about most everything. And having opinions is not inherently a bad thing. Sharing them in a cavalier manner, on the other hand, can be devastating in our attempts to use media to help make disciples.
We should not hesitate to share our convictions out of a fear of rejection. But we should be calculated about when and how we share our convictions through media. It’s not about shying away when we feel that God has given us something bold to say, but about having a proper sense of weight to our calling and to our words. Let me reiterate: these new storytelling tools at our disposal are indeed quite powerful. It is imperative that we are measured and thoughtful about how we use them!
The fact that we may have strong convictions about a variety of issues does not mean it is wise or necessary to speak to all of them, just because we have a new platform. If we swing at every pitch, we aren’t going to have the credibility required to be taken seriously when God really does call us to boldly use media to proclaim His message.
I don’t feel the need to give my opinion on every single controversial topic I see debated through every form of social media. My commitment to pursue the Great Commission above every other assignment in my life means I gave up that right. I don’t need to give my opinion about every political or eccliesiastical dispute. The very worse thing I could do is prowl around on online forums (or offline forums, for that matter), and go around weighing on every issue I’ve ever thought about in the shower. I am neither a pope nor a president. I bear witness to the gospel in the world, and I bear witness to a handful of convictions that are critical to me within the Church.
Now I know this runs contrary to our instincts, since these new platforms are so addictive and after all, we have SO much insight to share about SO MANY THINGS. Without intending harm, let me suggest that none of us are so enlightened that the world or the Church can’t live without us having to stake out a position on everything and everybody.
If we are to be taken seriously in this age of constant access, we’ve got to be willing to be quiet sometimes. I know it seems unfair. We see people who share everything they ever think about every issue on twitter or on a blog. And I’ll be the first to admit, there are times I wish I could be that guy, going around saying whatever I think and letting the chips fall where they may. But part of the price of my calling as an ambassador of the gospel is that I must choose my battles wisely. What God has given me to say and do is far too important for my witness to be compromised by sharing too much too often.
You can make a totally credible argument that it would have been as important for the Hebrew boys to protest their new names as it was to refuse bowing down to the statue. But they didn’t. If they would have been big-mouthed critics who needed to be heard every time they felt the weight of Babylon bearing down on them, they would have only been historical footnote. But because they didn’t swing at every pitch, they were able to take a big stand in a defining moment—and the rest is history. Even before the Great Commission was given, they used their platform to bear witness to the faithfulness of God before an entire empire. If you know when to pull your punches, you are exponentially more likely to find the weight of heaven with you when you have to throw them.
God has provided us with many new tools to use as we continue our mission of making disciples of all the nations. For the sake of Christ and the sake of His kingdom, use them! But for the sake of Christ and the sake of His kingdom—use them well, use them wisely, use them cautiously. The urgency of our task and the power of our tools are far too great for anything less.
The most crucial task is that we use these tools to share our stories, stories of sin and redemption, of death and resurrection. The complexities of technology can all too easily distract us from the essential simplicity of our work. Like those early Pentecostal pioneers, we find ourselves in the midst of a testimony service, only on a grander and more dangerous scale. In this global conversation, we are surrounded by stories that horrify and stories that inspire. We overhear testimonies to erotic love, testimonies to corporate greed, testimonies to political systems, testimonies to weight loss products. In the context of this swirling maze of testimonies, how peculiar and how wonderful it is to hear a story of being saved, sanctified and filled with the Holy Ghost.
Jesus was not only a storyteller, He was himself a story. In the words of Frederick Buechner, “Jesus is the Word made flesh, the truth narrated in bone and bowel, space and time. That is the story He is.” Against the temptation to utilize technology for escapist fiction or a more sophisticated soapbox, media gives us a platform from which to join our mothers and fathers in the Lord in sharing our redemption stories. In the clutter of so many meaningless stories, there is a new audience for a story as odd and wonderful as our own.