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Homage to Pilgrimage


By William E. McKibben

You may multiply your prayers, I shall not listen Your hands are covered with blood wash, make your selves clean Take your wrongdoing out of my sight Cease to do evil Learn to do good, search for justice help the oppressed, be just to the orphan, plead for the widow." Isaiah 1:15-17

BILLY GRAHAM, golf partner of presidents. Billy Graham, who ducked the towering moral issue of his lifetime, the civil rights movement. Billy Graham came to Harvard this week. Memorial Church was one stop on the evangelist's tour of New England, one more evening in an endless stream of come-to-the-Lord nights for, barring the Pope, the most popular preacher on this planet. But his stream is not unchanging, every night has not been the same. The sermon he gave Wednesday was a stop too on an intellectual and ethical pilgrimage for Graham, a lifelong journey from what he was to what he will become.

His topic, loosely defined, was "Peace in a Nuclear Age." And though he paid sample attention to the time-honored forms of the evangelist, he also said nuclear weapons must be done away with, decried the "chasm" between rich and poor in Central America, and declared that racial injustice in South Africa must cease. What's more, his actions of the past few weeks indicate Graham will practice what he preaches the Reagan Administration urged him to boycott a Moscow conference of religious leaders on disarmament. Graham, a longtime friend of the White House, mulled it over and then made up his mind. He leaves in two weeks for the Soviet Union.

In other words, Billy Graham is a far cry from Jerry Falwell. That will come as revelation to that large number on this campus who count anyone serious about their religion as infantile or disturbed. From the days of Elmer Gantry, evangelists have never enjoyed much support in circles like ours; though Graham drew respectable crowds, he stirred up relatively little fervor at still-Godless Harvard (where apathy has replaced atheism, non-belief being almost as taxing as faith). At the risk of sounding like a Good Book-thumping proselytizer, that pervasive lack of interest is a shame, especially for those who hope for the thoroughgoing change of this nation and this world into places where justice thrives. Graham's continuing transformation helps show why the Bible offers a chance, perhaps the best chance, for such a revolution.

CONSIDER--more human beings have seen Billy Graham with their own eyes than any other person in the history of our earth. In this land, Christianity claims the prime allegiance of vast numbers of the population. Count up all the people who go to church on Sunday (not to mention all the people who go to church via Zenith and Sony) and you have the greatest social mobilization America knows. It's more popular than football, even, and its always in season. And where is the American church strongest? Where can you find three meetinghouses in a block, all filled on the Sabbath? Right in the conservative heartland that America's Right counts as its unassailable base of support.

That conservative politics dominates the Bible Belt proves, of course, not only the potential of Christianity for fueling radical change, but also its proven capacity to support the status quo--an ability demonstrated, indeed, since the Holy Roman Empire, when the Church turned from thorn-in-the-side to a flying buttress of the state, legitimizing each of the degradations the powerful have historically devised for the weak. America is no exception--our rulers have always been good to Christianity, and in return the church has supported the traditional distributions of power and privilege.

But there is in our recent past an exception. Beyond any doubt, the most important force in the civil rights movement was the Black Church, personified by Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, and organized around the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Who organized the Montgomery bus boycott? Ministers. What did they sing at Selma? Spirituals and hymns. And there is an exception in the world--Latin America, where the Catholic Church has emerged as part of the vanguard movement for freedom. In the name of Jesus, priests and bishops have finally begun to withdraw their support from the murderous re-games of that region, spawning a theology of liberation. At Harvard, the fledgling Christian left is best represented by the William J. Seymour Society, a group composed mostly of Black Christians, which called Graham to account for his history during his visit here.

Old Testament and New, the Bible can be a profoundly radical document. That fact lay at the base of King's movement, it has allowed the Latin American church to awaken as a social force, and it accounts for the potential beneficial impact of a committed Christian movement. Though it has had vastly more impact on Western history than any other book more Harvard students have delved into the Ec 10 workbook than the Bible. When you read it, or re-read it, consider the Old Testament as first and foremost the story of God's intervention to help free an oppressed people from slavery. Moses is greeted with these words: "And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. Come I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring forth my people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt." (Exodus 3:9-10) Their rescue effected. God's chosen soon turned oppressive themselves; the prophets lament their injustice. The New Testament mission of Jesus is peculiarly concerned with the poor and oppressed, the sick and the hungry and the sinning--it is they who have most need of his message.

The overt political themes of the Bible--what the Latin American theologians term God's "option for the oppressed"--is but one dimension of the radical message inherent in the Gospels, however. Even more, it is the disturbing, moving words of the Sermon on the Mount. "But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." (Matthew 5:441) that suggest a change in lifestyle and commitment more revolutionary than anything Mark ever imagined.

LIBERATION THEOLOGY'S tenets may indicate the direction in which Graham's thought is evolving. As he said during his Kennedy School lecture, he is still grappling with the question of corporate sin--the sinful system, as opposed to the immoral individual. Answering one question about world poverty, he said the issue must be addressed in the future by political solutions. "I don't see much from charity alone." But, as he stressed, Graham comes from a tradition that exalted charity, the role of the missionary. The difference gives liberation theology its passion. A hundred 707s filled with food will do little to stop the misery that engulfs most of the planet; only deep-rooted change will do.

At the height of his sermon, Graham declared the Gospels were "the only way out of the human dilemma." His faith is certain, secure and powerful, and that is why what he thinks is so important. For the Bible is not a tool to be used by left or right. First must come the belief, and then the action, for truly radical change is internal and individual, and only then is it infectious. Christ, says Leonardo Boff in his Latin American classic Jesus Christ, Liberator, is "the one who disconcerts," the "one who provokes a radical crisis." In white America, though, where oppression at least seems to be somewhere else, it will be much tougher to argue the necessity of a theology of liberation, only when personal transformations are begun--some victories over selfishness won--will the impact begin to be felt.

ARGUING THAT CHRISTIANITY should influence politics--arguing, indeed, that a recommitment to its doctrines might change this country and this world--begs for quite correct historical rebuttal. Organized religion, particularly Christianity, has rarely been a weapon for justice, and often a tool for subjugation. To answer, there is only the still developing idea that a new sort of Christianity is possible. Or rather, an old sort--a Christianity along the lines suggested by King, by the Latin Americans, and by Christ himself. And then there is this. No other solution, from secular Marxism to rational capitalism, has changed the world too much for the better either.

I feel inestimably uncomfortable writing about religion in these pages: it is as close to a taboo subject as there is in this community. But Boff describes Jesus at one place as the "omega point" of evolution--a goal to be aimed at, though not achieved. I don't know; my journey is only recently begun in earnest and may yet be sidetracked or derailed. But if Graham's eloquent example proves nothing else, it is that such a goal must at least be considered.

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