Franklin Graham and the Problem of Reaction

Franklin Graham recently posted the following statement on his Facebook page:

“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.’”

Certainly there is a degree of wisdom in these words. That many police shootings would be avoided if the individual who finds himself confronted by a law enforcement official complies with all instructions, makes no threatening movements, and is generally polite seems an unassailable proposition. But one wonders to whom this statement is directed.

It does not appear to be directed to those who recently suffered the devastating loss of a loved one at the hands of a police officer. It lacks the empathy and compassion that surely Mr. Graham would evince if he were speaking face-to-face with such a person. Surely Mr. Graham would not respond to the grieving mother ushered into his office with such sound advice about how her remaining children are to avoid such instances in the future. Surely he would not console her with the conclusory “It’s as simple as that.” Looking into her eyes, he would know better.

For much the same reason, Mr. Graham’s remarks do not seem to be directed at the thousands of black Americans who feel alienated from the larger society and fear that the recent shootings are the product of an ongoing pattern of institutionalized racial prejudice. Again, were such a person ushered into Mr. Graham’s office seeking to share his grievance with an influential member of the community, it stretches credulity to imagine Mr. Graham reducing the litany of recently reported black deaths and injuries at the hands of law enforcement to mere instances of black children failing to be taught by their parents or their president to submit to authority. I could be wrong, but this is difficult to imagine.

More likely, Mr. Graham’s remarks were directed at elements in the media who have been variously referred to a race baiters, racial arsonists, inciters, propagandists, racial racketeers, race hustlers, and race grievance industry leaders. I shall refer to these elements as reactionaries. Although Mr. Graham’s remarks are technically addressed to “Blacks, Whites, Latinos, and everybody else,” the confrontational and moralizing tone of what follows suggests that the intended audience is in fact anyone that has erred in framing situations such as Ferguson as ones which can only be understood in terms of racial prejudice and victimization. If these reactionaries are Mr. Graham’s intended audience, the tone—ill-suited for the grieving mother or alienated black American—becomes easier to understand.

However much we may understand Mr. Graham’s tone given his likely intended audience, one wonders what he hoped to accomplish. Did Mr. Graham expect that he would persuade the reactionaries that they misunderstood the situation entirely and should retract their statements and abandon their advocacy on behalf of a group they believe to be victimized? Not likely. Mr. Graham is much too intelligent for that. Perhaps then he was simply blowing off steam, railing against those “on the other side” who so wantonly and irresponsibly poison public discourse, heap ridicule on public authority, and needlessly incite grievance among a segment of the population. Would this not mean that Mr. Graham was playing the role of counter-reactionary? To borrow the old adage, there are at least two ways to fall off a horse. The reactionary and the counter-reactionary are both unbalanced; they push against one another and fall together.

There is yet another potential audience to consider: fellow counter-reactionaries. Mr. Graham’s remarks apparently struck a chord with many readers, several of whom were willing to go even further than Mr. Graham himself:

“It would also help if our President would stand behind those who protects and serve instead of dividing us.”

“Maybe some of these people don’t have respect for authority because our President doesn’t exactly encourage respect for himself either. Just a thought.”

“tell your babies to get morals. what other people sucker punch 80 – 90 year olds. the black race is useless.”

The first two statements quite disingenuously take further occasion to wrap an albatross around the neck of President Obama. The last, of course, is outright racist. Now, I would not accuse Mr. Graham of sharing these sentiments—especially that last statement. But I would be careful about dismissing these remarks as merely the work of internet trolls. These respondents and many more like them at least felt that their remarks were consonant with the sentiments expressed by Mr. Graham, a notion that should give pause not only to Mr. Graham but to all those who occupy positions of influence. If the impulse behind Mr. Graham’s remarks were to rail against those who poison public discourse, heap ridicule, and needlessly incite grievance, he should take heed lest he fall.

Christians are called to be the peacekeepers and a redeeming influence upon society. We cannot do that so long as we allow ourselves to become partisans in a battle of reaction and counter-reaction. Loving our neighbor does sometimes mean confronting their sin, but often a focus on the sin of our neighbor is a way to (1) avoid truly taking them seriously, for to do so would impose burdens on us; and (2) avoid confronting our own sin, for to do so would require contrition and repentance—better for us but far less gratifying.

So how should Christians respond to circumstances like Ferguson? First, don’t let the distractors distract you. Our battle is not against the dreaded “liberal elite.” In truth, this phrase is often invoked to end all real thought and discussion rather than lovingly and thoughtfully engage those with whom we disagree.

Second, look to those who are hurting and take them seriously. Decline the temptation to lump together those who are genuinely hurting and the reactionaries. As they say, don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Christians should be the first to empathize with the alienated—How often do Christians feel alienated even in a society wherein a majority claim to be Christians!—and only within a relationship of earned trust counsel the hurting on how they can do better.

C.S. Lewis put the matter squarely in his wonderful short essay, “The Trouble With X”: “We don’t like rationing which is imposed upon us, but I suggest one form of rationing which we ought to impose on ourselves. Abstain from all thinking about other people’s faults, unless your duties as a parent or a teacher make it necessary to think about them. Whenever the thoughts come unnecessarily into one’s mind, why not simply shove them away? And think of one’s own faults instead? For there, with God’s help, we can do something. Of all the awkward people in your house or job there is only one whom you can improve very much. That is the practical end at which to begin. And really, we’d better. The job has to be tackled some day: and every day we put it off will make it harder to begin.”

Third, we must not confuse how genuinely tired or uncomfortable many of us are with talking about race with the need to talk about it. As many husbands soon realize, whether one wants to discuss a matter is no certain gauge of whether the matter needs to be discussed. White Americans may not realize how difficult it is to forget about race when one is a racial minority. For the minority, everywhere one turns there are reminders that one is an other. The matter is only compounded when such disparaging distinctions historically turn on the difference. It was not until 1865 that it was declared that blacks could not be someone’s property. Despite the claims of universal liberty in America’s founding documents, it took a constitutional amendment to end the lawful forced servitude of black Americans. Still, for the next 100 years, both law and custom conspired to nullify that liberation.

Does the legacy of slavery or present-day racial prejudice explain every ill that besets the black community? Certainly not. I and many others have written elsewhere to this effect. But when events occur which are suggestive of white-on-black racial hostility, a nerve is struck and the reaction is often fierce. It is no response to this reaction to defensively counter-react or dismissively cite statistics of black-on-black crime rates. Such a response is standard fare for Fox News but unworthy of a Christian.

Black reaction arises from a deep-seated conviction that, even when unstated, blacks are not welcomed in this country. That notion fuels an insecurity in some which expresses itself in myriad conspiracy theories wherein whites are imagined to be meeting in secret councils concocting new forms of exclusion and subjugation. Every time we get even a little distance from those crazy theories, an incident like the racist fraternity chant at the University of Oklahoma seems to confirm deep fears that black lives truly do not matter in this country. I think we should recognize an over-reaction when we see it, but never dismiss it. It comes from a real place.

We often need a little distance from things to see them clearly. Suppose the following: Suppose a man is discovered after many years of marriage to be cheating on his wife. He repents and reconciles with his wife. A few years pass and things appear to be on track with the man. But now, every time he appears to smile a little too warmly at another women or fails to check in during a business trip, she freaks out. Is she over-reacting? Probably. The smile may have been innocent and the delayed phone call may have resulted from absent-mindedness during a busy day. But how should he respond? Should he dismiss her? Should he be equally angry and reactionary? I think a mature, humble, and godly husband would be patient. He knows she is hurting and that her fear arises from a real place. He takes himself out of the equation and asks if there is anything he can do to aid his weaker brother (or, in this case, sister) truly heal. Here we have assumed that he is perfectly innocent in every case. But it is plausible that occasionally his stare does linger longer than is appropriate—all the more reason for him to be understanding of her fear and reaction.

Suppose one change in the above scenario. The current husband is not the one who caused the initial hurt, but a previous broken relationship. I’m not sure that changes the analysis. He claims to love her, and so has an obligation to bear with her and redeem her. We as Christians are called to be the godly husband.

Now, I tend to approach racial reconciliation like mediation. Any good mediator knows that there are things each side needs to hear that is only for that side. If I were talking to “the other party” I would have a different truth to communicate. That remains for another day and another audience.

Analogies are all well and good, but how does that map onto a concrete situation such as Ferguson or the University of Oklahoma where young men’s futures hang in the balance? I think this is more difficult and reasonable minds may differ. We must wrestle with this question. What we must not do is dismiss.

A.K. Shauku is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alabama, where he also teaches. He is an adjunct in the Department of Government at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and researches in American Politics, Public Policy & Administration, and Comparative Politics. A.K. blogs at EconomicsandInstitutions.com.

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