GOD SQUAD: A rabbi’s eulogy for Billy Graham
Published 12:00 am, Sunday, March 4, 2018
I interviewed Billy Graham. I spoke with him privately. I listened to many of his televised sermons. I admired him and learned from him. Had I known him more closely, I think I could have loved him. This is why.
I admired his humility. The first consequence of national fame is the death of humility. Fame is like rocket fuel for the ego, and Billy Graham was one of the most famous Christians and the most famous evangelical Christian of the last century. And yet he remained authentically humble. It’s hard to know if a televangelist is truly humble. They all talk a humble game and some of them are truly humble men and women, but most of them — in my experience — are just faking it. It’s not all their fault. Fame is at fault. Fame incinerates humility in most people. Billy Graham reminded his admirers to never forget that that his position, platform and fame were all about God and not about him. He really meant it.
Another proof of his humility was that he never became his own television channel. Instead he chose by far the hardest path any preacher could choose. He chose to travel around the country and the world in an exhausting schedule of preaching that would have crushed a weaker man.
He also never formed a church of his own, sucking members and money out of existing churches. Instead he created community revival meetings that strengthened Christian faith and local Christian churches. His was a bridge, not a torpedo to local Christianity.
What I think I most admired was that he stood by his good values and he publically atoned for his bad values.
Billy Graham was very much the product of the rural south in North Carolina after his birth in 1918. He was a product of its faith and its fractures. It was, I believe, his highest achievement that he overcame the prejudices of his past.
Billy Graham understood how deeply racism had affected American culture. He atoned publically for not doing more to support the civil rights struggle of the 60s. However, it must be said in his defense that Billy Graham was never a racist. In fact he integrated all his crusades, all his revivals and all his sermons. Whenever and wherever he spoke he demanded that any person of any color be let in to sit wherever he or she wanted. To do that in the America of the 20s and 30s was a heroic and path-breaking achievement.
As to his anti-Semitism, I spoke about it with him personally. With President Nixon in 1972, Billy Graham was caught on tape making anti-Semitic remarks about Jews. When the tapes were exposed in 2002 he was humiliated and shamed. He could have tried to deflect the comments or say that they were out of context, but he faced what he told me was “the ugly part of my upbringing.” He told Newsweek at the time, “If it wasn’t on tape, I would not have believed it. I guess I was trying to please. I felt so badly about myself — I couldn’t believe it. I went to a meeting with Jewish leaders and I told them I would crawl to them to ask their forgiveness.”
I do not judge people. That is my boss’ job. But I do admire people who are capable of shame and who own their failures. I came away from my private meeting with Billy Graham believing that I had just met a truly repentant Christian.
Moses broke the first tablets of the law in anger with the people who had made the golden calf when he was away from them on Mount Sinai. When he placed the whole second set of tablets into the ark, Moses was commanded to also place the broken pieces of the first tablets in the ark as well. This was true of Billy Graham and it is also true of each of us. Our broken and whole parts are together in the arks of our lives. This is the truth of the way God has made us. True for Billy Graham. True for each of us.
I have always found it pathetically hypocritical that people who listen to preachers who are constantly preaching about how we are all broken and sinful and in need of God’s forgiveness expect those same preachers to be perfect. Billy Graham wasn’t perfect. He was broken and whole at the very same time. Now, after nearly a century of life he is in the place where nothing is ever broken and where every whole word he ever spoke will adorn his soul forever.
Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at email@example.com. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including “Religion for Dummies,” co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman.