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Touring with Franklin — 2019

POLK CULPEPPER

The evangelist Franklin Graham will soon launch his 2019 Decision America Tour. This year, Graham and his entourage will stop in eight North Carolina cities including Fayetteville (Oct. 1), Greenville (Oct. 2), and Wilmington (Oct. 5).

The purpose of the Tour, according to Graham, is to lead North Carolinians in prayer and call the nation back to God.

“We all face crossroads in our lives — moments when we need to make important decisions,” Graham is recorded as saying. “Through this event, people will have the opportunity to make a decision that can impact their lives not only now but for eternity.”

The tour promises uplifting music and a message of hope. No doubt, we could all use a little more hope in our lives. But the decision that Graham asks people to make sounds more like a personal, individual one, than a national one. Is it the “Decision America” Tour or the “Decision to Accept Jesus as my Personal Savior” Tour?

If the former, what does a called-back nation look like? What do the citizens of a nation called by God believe about God, humanity, the earth and how to get along with one another? Who/What do they worship? What are they called to do in relation to themselves, peoples of other nationalities, the poor and the earth? In other words, what does God expect of them in terms of priorities, treatment of the poor, how they relate to one another and the world, and who they worship?

In answering these questions, I join Brother Franklin in consulting the most important source about God’s vision for the nations, the Bible. What do the Hebrew and Christian Testaments say about what God expects of the nations of the world?

While crossing the wilderness in their escape from Egypt and settling into the land of Canaan, the Hebrews, called by God to be God’s “chosen people,” formulated religious laws and moral precepts which have continued to influence the world to the present day.

Some seem ridiculous to our modern sensibilities — like the commandment to refrain from eating meat with the blood in it (I’ll take that rare, please) or rounding off one’s hair from side to side (just a little off the top). Others seem excessively harsh, like the commandment to kill any child who reviles his father or mother. (If my parents had taken this one literally, I wouldn’t be alive to write this.)

Other ancient Jewish laws and precepts ground many of our modern legal and moral codes, like the injunction against perverting justice in measures of length, weight or quantity and the law against oppressing those from foreign lands who settle among you. “He shall be treated as a native born.” (Lev. 19:33-34), that is, according to the same laws and privileges granted a fellow citizen.

These are but a few of the expectations God had for the nation originally called by God to be God’s people. But what if they strayed, like Graham implies America has, from what was expected of them? How would God respond?

First, when the religious and political leaders of ancient Israel and Judah chose to ignore or disobey God, Yahweh selected certain of their subjects to remind them that they would be judged not on the size of the national treasury or standing army but on how they treated the poor, the marginalized and powerless. These we call the Prophets.

Later, another Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, prophesized about what would happen to nations who refused to follow the warnings of those Prophets. He imagined a scene in which the nations of the world were gathered in one place and quizzed about their fidelity to God’s vision for the nations.

To paraphrase, “God expects you to feed the hungry (rather than horde food surpluses), welcome the stranger (no matter from which nation he or she may come), house the homeless (even you think they don’t deserve it), and visit the sick and those in prison.”

Notice that nothing is said about one’s fidelity to certain political parties or to any particular elected official; nothing is mentioned about persons of different sexual orientations; and Jesus does not seemed to be impressed with any particular nation’s GDP, naval forces, advanced technology or sense of exceptionalism.

Those who use such markers as proof of greatness miss the point Jesus made on that hill 2,000 years ago. I fear that they understand the call to return to God as nothing more than an effort to use Christian theology as a cover for partisanship and discrimination.

If I am correct, Graham’s call for prayer and a return of the nation to God reveals more about his vision for America than God’s.

Polk Culpepper is a former Episcopal priest and lawyer. He resides in Washington.