Monday, January 17, 2011

With both lungs

I learned once that Billy Graham and Martin Luther King Jr. had been good friends, and that they had originally thought of going into ministry together. For whatever reason, whether for disagreements or mere differences in vocational leanings, they did not. “You stay in the stadiums, Billy,” King (or “Mike,” as Billy called him) wrote to Graham, “because you will have far more impact on the white establishment there than you would if you marched in the streets.” Perhaps he did. Perhaps.

But their divergence was not only strategic; it was certainly somewhat ideological. Graham was unsure of King’s methods of civil disobedience, saying that “No matter what the law may be—it may be an unjust law—I believe we have a Christian responsibility to obey it. Otherwise you have anarchy.” King responded with the words of St. Augustine: “an unjust law is no law at all.” Over time as King began to speak out against the Vietnam war and poverty in a time when Communism was a looming threat, the divergence between him and his old friend became more pronounced.

Nevertheless, their friendship remained intact, and Graham took some radical stances for desegregation at his crusades. He invited King to join him on the pulpit and paid his bail to have him released from jail, and King’s famous declaration that “Eleven o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America” is actually a quotation from an article of Graham’s.

Years later Graham confided to some Civil Rights leaders that he wondered what would have happened if he had taken to the streets with his friend, and I suppose we cannot know the answers to questions like that. What indeed might have happened if the iconic figures of liberal and conservative Christianity, figures whom both sides respect even if they disagree, had found a way to share their ministry? What kind of ministry would it have been? It might of course have been a loss to the great good that both of their ministries accomplished, but I cannot help but wonder if it might have muddled some of the sharp distinctions between liberal and conservative Christianity that I have grown up among.

Pope John Paul II, when calling for reconciliation between the eastern and western divisions of Christianity, spoke of the need for the Church to “breathe with both lungs.” Here in America, I am reminded of our lop-sided breathing in every walk from my poor neighborhood to my rich university, every transition from conversations with my Mennonite friends to my Catholic, every Sunday morning stroll by a white church to a black.

I’ve been told many times that Church unity is something we will not see “until heaven” (as if “heaven” were so ephemeral as to be identified by a time rather than a physical place). Today on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which happens to come the day before the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity begins, it seems as good a time as any to remember that our Lord has taught us to pray that his Kingdom come and his will be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” Amen. Come Lord Jesus!

1 comment:

Jennwith2ns said...

Fascinating. I grew up the granddaughter of friends of Billy Graham, but I never heard the stories you've just shared. I'm also intrigued because I'm currently working on a paper for a church history class about the fundamentalist/modernist split in the 1920's--a split which surely had its effect on what you describe here. Thanks for furthering my thinking and my questions.