On February 21, 2018, the American evangelist Billy Graham died at the age of 99. A great deal has been published in the media since about his life, his ministry and his work.
No doubt Graham leaves a mixed legacy, both positive and negative. To his credit, it is clear that he himself evolved. For example, he once held the position that AIDS was due to the judgment of God—a damning position that he later apologized for and changed.
In my reading, however, not one of the tributes or critiques offered about Billy Graham’s life has mentioned a significant transformation that occurred for him at a crucial point in his career. It didn’t get much mention when it occurred. It has gotten no mention now. Sadly, I don’t believe that that is an accident.
In 1978 Graham publicly condemned the nuclear arms race. This was at the height of the Cold War. From that point forward, he consistently publicly opposed the effort by both the United States and the Soviet Union to “defend” their countries with weapons that would destroy the world many times over.
In 1978, when visiting Auschwitz, Graham declared, “The present insanity of the global arms race, if continued, will lead inevitably to a conflagration so great that Auschwitz will seem like a minor rehearsal.” Remarkably, these comments were not reported anywhere in the US media.
Amplifying those comments a short time later, in an interview entitled “Billy Graham: Preaching Against the Arms Race” in Sojourners magazine, Graham wrote,
“Is a nuclear holocaust inevitable if the arms race is not stopped? Frankly, the answer is almost certainly yes. Now I know that some people feel human beings are so terrified of a nuclear war that no one would dare start one. I wish I could accept that. But neither history nor the Bible gives much reason for optimism. What guarantee is there that the world will never produce another maniacal dictator like Hitler or Amin? As a Christian I take sin seriously, and the Christian should be the first to know that the human heart is deceitful and desperately wicked, as Jeremiah says. We can be capable of unspeakable horror, no matter how educated or technically sophisticated we are. Auschwitz is a compelling witness to this.”
I remember this turn in Graham’s thinking when it happened. I was heavily involved in Gospel-driven nonviolent opposition to the nuclear arms race in the United States at the time. His public stand (the fact that it was public was significant) unquestionably had an impact.
Graham paid a price for this. His position was fundamentally at odds with a great deal of his constituency. That meant that the price he paid was also monetary: he lost substantial financial support as a result of this stance. But that did not dissuade him; if anything, it made him more vocal.
Others have written about his deliberate effort to be politically nonpartisan, because he wanted to be a voice for the Gospel equally to people on the left and the right. Still others have noted that, going back to the 1950s, his crusades were virtually the first public events in the United States that were racially integrated: he insisted on that at each event, early on. And he struck up an early friendship with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—again, acts which would have been viciously questioned by many in his constituency.
But no one has written about his commitment to peace.
Regrettably, Graham’s stance remains utterly relevant today. In the face of a nuclear threat from North Korea, we are now witnessing an unconscionable rebirth of the nuclear arms race, the first since the Cold War ended. New weapons of mass destruction are on the drawing tables, supported by a new eagerness to provide massive amounts of funding to create them. In response, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, in their annual “Doomsday Clock,” has now set the clock at two minutes to midnight—the closest to “doomsday” it has ever been since it began the clock in 1947.
Where are the evangelists and preachers speaking out about this offence to the Gospel, this risking of God’s good creation and abandonment of our calling from God? Who are the evangelists today who are politically nonpartisan, so as to effectively bring the Gospel of reconciliation and hope to the increasingly tribal factions of “right “and “left” in our world? Which televangelist do you know of today who is not in bed with the secular ideology of a political party?
Who today, among the preachers and teachers, displays the courage of Gospel conviction of a Billy Graham? And when has a public voice of even greater clarity and courage been more needed than now?
Mark Vander Vennen, MA, M.Ed, R.S.W., is Executive Director of the Shalem Mental Health Network