Grace Verses Condemnation: Which Song Do We Sing?

Call it the collision of two choirs. One lobs paranoid epithets from a grim cloister and hogs the microphone; the other - in which I recently bathed in a week-long conference featuring evangelical academics, scientists, and ecological activists at Gordon College in Massachusetts - sings with gentle conviction and grace. It's soothing.

Fortunately, spokespersons from the second voice are stepping up for a sound check.

Franklin Graham served up a sample of the first voice in his July 16th Facebook entry, which he wrote immediately after the Chattanooga killings of four US Marines. He blamed "a radical Muslim whose family was allowed to immigrate to this country from Kuwait." His proposed solution: "We should stop all immigration of Muslims to the U.S. until this threat with Islam has been settled." After all, "we didn't allow Japanese to immigrate to America, nor did we allow Germans."

I stagger. Apparently, Graham would bar persecuted Sufis, whom militant Islamists view as heretics, and oppressed Burmese Muslims fleeing nationalistic Buddhists. Never mind that the United States negotiates with countries, not religions, and that it is obligated to protect its six million Muslim residents, 77% of whom are citizens. And just how do we break the news to Turkey, a NATO ally? Do we slip a note under its embassy door? We'll scribble: "About ninety-eight percent of your people are not welcome, but no worries. We're still BFFs."

Perhaps Graham has fallen prey to the "cocoon syndrome:" A legitimate quest for affirmation prods us to seek the like-minded. We surround ourselves with living bobble-head dolls, cut-off from the outside world and encased in our own unchallenged logic. The syndrome carries otherwise reasonable souls into absurdities such as holocaust denial, repudiation of human-induced climate change, and morally tenuous immigration proposals.

Alas, Graham's voice is heard along with Tony Perkins' of the Family Research Council, Calvin Beisner of the misnamed Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation (environmentalism is the "greatest threat to Western civilization"), and San Antonio megachurch pastor John Hagee. They, along with others, sing in a growling chorus often mistaken as the pitiless evangelical consensus.

I wish more heard other evangelical voices - such as Bill and Lynne Hybels and Andy Crouch of Christianity Today - or the recent chorus in Massachusetts. Roughly a hundred activists, scientists, and academics heard the summons of the Lausanne Creation Care Network, led by the jovial Ed Brown, and traveled from all regions of the United States and Canada to Gordon. Their mission: How to prod North American evangelical Christians into nation-wide climate-change action. Similar conferences were already held in the Philippines and Africa. Future gatherings are slated for Latin America and other regions.

The task may seem daunting. Many American evangelicals cling to the myth that climate change is a left-wing plot brewed in the minds of introverted scientists. Hagee and Beisner stoke the myth (Graham has remained quiet). But hope has always sailed on the horizon. Climate-change skepticism never strangled evangelical intellectuals. They've been signing petitions, writing books, and issuing calls for over a decade. What's more, international evangelicals have been running ahead of the curve: Four thousand conveners at the Lausanne Movement's 2010 Congress in Cape Town, South Africa, issued the "Cape Town Commitment," which asserted that climate change was "probably the most serious and urgent challenge faced by the physical world." Another Lausanne consultation met two years later in Jamaica and issued a "Call to Action." The outcome: A ten-point invitation to a simpler lifestyle; "robust" theological work; invigorated leadership; mobilization; environmental missions; sustainable food production ... Etc.

In other words, evangelicals beat Pope Francis to the punch - but few heard the thud.

The Gordon College gathering was, in part, a temporary think-tank on how we can haul the thud into an echo chamber. Luminaries and authors such as Katharine Hayhoe, Peter Illyn, Allen Johnson, Dorothy Boorse, Howard Snyder, Jonathan Moo, John Elwood, Lowell Bliss, and Nancy Sleeth spoke on a variety of topics - often weaving in hope and messaging - and there were break-out sessions and field trips. Meanwhile, follow-up steps were already afoot before the conference began. Brian Webb, Houghton College's sustainability coordinator, is spearheading Climate Caretakers, which he characterizes as a "campaign at mobilizing Christians to prayer and action." Webb is also ramping up a plan for an evangelical presence at the United Nations Paris COP gathering in December.

But, for me, the conference meant far more than plenary and breakout sessions and multi-point plans. I was hearing the gracious chorus once more. No one growled paranoia. No one proposed unworkable schemes. The participants reminded me of the gentle, joyful, and warm evangelicals who wooed me into the faith when I was a teenager. I remembered my seminary professors at nearby Gordon-Conwell, from which I graduated in 1989, who taught me about the distinction between literally-minded fundamentalists and more broad-minded evangelicals, who still hold a high view of Scripture while wielding more sophisticated methods of interpretation. I dropped in on one of my favorites, the recently-retired Garth Rosell. His bear hug emblemized the grace of that second choir.

A few non-evangelicals attended the Gordon conference. On the final day, one admitted that she came with trepidation. Her fears were allayed. She loved the prayer, the worship, and the empathy. Her image of evangelicals crumbled and re-formed, and she now saw a group of loving "allies."

Her praise compelled me to rev-up my prayers: may the second chorus sing louder in the unfolding months. Perhaps Franklin Graham, whose sincerity I do not doubt, will eventually join and sing the song of grace.