Someone recently asked me how I answer critics of the Open Letter to Franklin Graham that I co-authored last week. The points of particular interest were these:
1. In the spirit of Matthew 18, how do you justify writing an open letter to Graham without first going to him and speaking with him in private?
2. Your letter seems to advocate disobedience to the police. Is that what you’re saying?
Great questions! They’re especially relevant as we close the season of Lent and look forward toward Holy Week. For it is Holy Week when Jesus himself had the most interaction with the earthly authorities of his day.
The first line of the first paragraph of our letter explained that we write in the spirit of Matthew 18 in order to reconcile. Our intent in that was not to bash Dr. Graham; it was to make him aware of the need for reconciliation.
But why didn’t you go to Graham privately first, some have asked.
Notice the actual language of Matthew 18. Jesus says “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”
Jesus does not say, “If another member of the church sins against millions, and hundreds of thousands begin to follow his lead on the issue, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”
This is a very important point. There is a difference between sin that affects one person and the sin of a leader that has potential to oppress and lead the church astray.
In Galatians 2:11-17, Paul publicly confronts Peter when his sin threatens to harm the whole church.
Paul and Barnabus had established the church at Antioch — the first multiracial (Jew and Greek) church in history. Peter had already been convicted that “God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34) and had already made the case to church leadership that God wants a mixed-race church (Acts 11:1-19). But when Peter visited Antioch, he backtracked. Under fear of political pressure from folks who weren’t down with the reconciliation thing, Peter took his plate and sat at the Jewish lunch table. He distanced himself from the newest, most vulnerable members of the church — the gentiles. Paul, by his own account, “opposed” Peter by confronting him “before them all” (publicly).
Paul explains: “the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy.” And he saw that “they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel.”
So he spoke up, quickly, lest more be led astray.
God appoints leaders to lead the church into healthy, fruitful relationship with God, with each other, and with the rest of creation. Leaders are appointed to watch over the flock — to care for them, protect them, serve them, and cultivate the image of God within them. When Peter folded under the political pressure of ones fighting the call to honor God’s image in ones they previously called unclean, he sent a clear message — not just as Peter, but as a leader of the church. He communicated to Jews and gentiles alike that gentiles are “less than.”
Graham’s Facebook post hurt millions of ethnic minorities inside and outside of the church because it said to them your experience, wisdom, and understanding are irrelevant. It was shared more than 80,000 times and liked nearly 200,000 times within five days. It led hundreds of thousands to think this kind of behavior was OK.
Consider Jesus. He confronts the Pharisees in the temple and calls out their corrupt financial arrangements. He calls them white-washed tombs and a brood of vipers and asks the most powerful religious leaders of the day: “How can you escape being sentenced to hell?” (Matthew 23:25-33)
And he does all of this publicly. Why? I believe it is because they were leading masses away from the heart of God and were justifying the economic oppression of the ones Jesus would talk about only two chapters later — “the least of these.” (Matthew 25)
On the second point: We did not advocate random disobedience to the police. Our open letter expressed clear support and prayers for police officers.
Yet, we recognize that there are times when disobedience and resistance to unjust authority is right, just, and biblical. Paul wrote his letter to the Romans from jail. While Paul did not resist the authority of the officers who arrested him, he did resist the authority of the unjust policy that declared he could not preach the gospel. He said: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:1-2)
People of faith will continue to resist. As we approach Holy Week, I am struck by Jesus’s own acts of resistance and disobedience to unjust authority in his day. Jesus overturned the moneychangers’ tables in the temple. He refused to answer Pilate’s direct question. And he publicly called out the Pharisees and scribes inside the temple. Then he was hung on a tree by unjust authorities.
Imagine what it would look like to follow Jesus’ footsteps of resistance this Holy Week. What would it look like to resist the moneychangers in the temple today? What would it look like to take communion and share in the sufferings of Jesus’ broken body this Maundy Thursday? What would it look like to gaze upon Jesus lifted high on that tree alongside lynched bodies considered criminals by society: Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Jonathan Crawford, Ezell Ford, Eric Garner, and, and, and … so many crosses … so many lynching trees.
And what meaning would Easter Sunday hold in the light of this present darkness? What glory can we hope for in the light of resurrection?
This Holy Week, as an act of spiritual formation, I will walk from day to day through the footsteps of Jesus asking a single question: What are the current day implications of Jesus’ resistance to unjust authority? One group of students in New York is working on a similar project. You can check it out here.
May this Holy Week lead us all ever closer to the heart of God and the call of the Gospel — the ministry of reconciliation.
Lisa Sharon Harper is Chief Church Engagement Officer for Sojourners and co-author of Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith.