Franklin Graham, son of the highly regarded evangelist Billy Graham, is in the gun sights of Vancouver city council. Graham is scheduled to speak at the Festival of Hope in Vancouver in early March. Organizers expect the crusade to attract about 25,000 people.
Together with a growing number of Christians, city officials want to “no-platform” Graham. Although respected for his humanitarian work with Samaritan’s Purse, Graham’s negative comments on Islam, immigration and homosexuality have ruffled more than a few feathers.
Municipal politicians are worried that Graham poses a threat to public safety, particularly in light of the recent shootings at a Quebec mosque and a rise in hate crimes against Muslims. They’re also concerned about potential negative consequences arising from his condemnation of homosexuality. Vancouver city Coun. Tim Stevenson, quoted in a Vancouver Sun article, said, “The mayor is concerned about safety. The kinds of statements Graham makes about Muslims and gays can really inflame the situation.”
A group of prominent Vancouver Christian leaders sent a letter to Festival of Hope leadership committee last June asking that it reconsider Graham as the headline speaker. They denounced his statements as contrary to the joyful witness of Christian love, describing them as “incendiary and intolerant.” Because of his polarizing profile, they questioned his ability to exemplify the gospel message to new believers, and expressed concern about the impact of “his ungracious and bigoted remarks” on the Christian witness in Vancouver. They offered to suggest alternative speakers.
An online petition is circulating. Its goal is to “demonstrate that not all Christians in the City of Vancouver agree with Franklin Graham.” It says the petitioners don’t believe Graham’s presence will help “establish and bring shalom (peace),” and that they wish to stand in solidarity with those groups that Graham has denigrated. At my last check, 1,000 people had signed the petition.
While some of Graham’s comments cause me to cringe and raise my eyebrows, we’re getting into dangerous territory when we try to no-platform those with whom we disagree. Leaders must take care that their good intentions to encourage tolerance don’t lead to the repression of unpopular opinions, or restrict speech to that which the state or institution approves. We don’t build religious tolerance by silencing those who express ignorant views about a particular religion or about religion in general. Nor do we create a more inclusive society by shutting down voices that question the society’s prevailing sexual mores.
Having said that, in the opposition to Graham, a collective wisdom of mutual concern has emerged. Graham and the organizers of the festival would do well to take heed of the objections. Why? Not because Graham should be silenced, but because the body of Christ – the community of believers who strive to live the teachings of Jesus – deserves better.
The purpose of the three-day crusade is evangelism, the bringing of individuals to Christ through the repentance of sin and a proclamation of faith in Jesus. A crusade is a time of healing and conversion. It should also be a time of unity for the local church. Christians are to be one in the Lord.
In the present socio-political climate where exclusion, suspicion and hatred seem to be gaining momentum, the world desperately needs the witness of an alternate vision. A polarizing and controversial figure whose comments frequently fan the fires of discord may not be the best choice for a religious festival of hope. There are others who could lead the Vancouver crusade, including Graham’s sister, Anne Graham Lotz, whom their father has described as “the best preacher in the family” and who does not come with the baggage of her brother.
There’s already strong support among Christians in Vancouver for the Festival of Hope. Given a different speaker, there would be unqualified support. Graham and the organizers of the crusade are letting an unprecedented opportunity for unity among the body of Christ slip away.
Louise McEwan has degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation.