Wait to find the information in the details, not the headlines
by Paul Schratz
There is no way 34 Christian leaders can object to a guest speaker at a 15,000-person Christian rally, put it in writing to event organizers, and not expect it to generate publicity.
Everyone involved with the Feb. 24 letter signed by Archbishop Miller knew it was going to irritate some people and inspire others.
What wasn’t anticipated was the Washington Post writing a story about the Festival of Hope disagreement. Suddenly, accounts of the Vancouver Christians’ domestic dispute appeared on church and secular news sites alike, igniting a firestorm of comments from readers aligning themselves on either side of the controversy.
In the words of the Vancouver Sun’s Douglas Todd, it was “a perfect storm” for opponents and supporters alike to weigh in on the letter.
Catholics were among them, more than a few upset the archbishop wasn’t standing behind evangelist Franklin Graham as a Festival of Hope speaker. Many others supported the letter signed by the archbishop.
One parish asked if they should discourage parishioners from attending the Festival of Hope. I told them the letter was not a call to boycott and in fact the letter signers wished the organizers a successful event through which “many will find new life in Christ.”
Oddly, most of the comments about the letter seemed to focus more on the fact it was written and less on what it actually said. Opinions varied, but they generally reflected the correspondents’ attitudes toward religious engagement – fire and brimstone (pro-Graham and anti-letter) versus touchy feely (anti-Graham, pro-letter).
The result of both sides largely not reading the document in question was that comments related to a letter that bore little resemblance to the one written. To sum up today’s news environment: “who needs details when you have a tantalizing headline?”
Yet it turns out details are important because the headlines would lead you to conclude Christians are angry people who issue scathing rebukes, try to stop rallies, block speakers, and boycott events featuring bitter hatemongers.
Sample headlines: “Liberal Pastors Try to Block Rally” and “Church Leaders Slam Franklin Graham.”
In actual fact, there was no blocking or slamming. The harshest thing you could say about the letter was it admonished the organizers in a tone not unlike the one used on Martha for fretting too much.
Vancouver Sun writer Douglas Todd came closest to accurately describing the imbroglio: “A leadership group representing more than half of Metro Vancouver’s one million Christians issued a public letter on Friday expressing deep concerns about the rally to be held here by American evangelist Franklin Graham.”
Indeed, the letter was essentially a heartfelt missive to festival organizers explaining why Graham’s political stances and inflammatory rhetoric could “compromise Jesus's mission of love and justice for all.”
The leaders, who prayed, discussed, and agonized before sending the letter, were ultimately concerned any message of love and reconciliation would be lost if Graham’s contentious remarks became the story.
Which in fact is what happened in the days preceding the event, as the controversy over the keynote speaker threatened to drown out the Gospel message.
Did the letter from the Christian leaders contribute to the controversy or help to mitigate it? There’s no way of knowing, but it isn't hard to speculate about the perils of doing nothing.
Secular Vancouver is a challenging enough place to share the Gospel. If Graham had waded into some of the controversial territory he’s famous for, or if protesters had tried to disrupt the festival, the media narrative would have been one of Christian hatred and division.
When Mayor Gregor Robertson and city officials injected themselves into the disagreement at the last minute, looking for ways to stop Graham from speaking, the stakes were ratcheted up substantially.
Suddenly civic government was taking notice and if the matter wasn’t handled deftly, the conflict could encroach on issues of religious liberty, freedom of speech, and church-state relations.
Fortunately, meetings between the city, the organizers, and the dissenting religious leaders didn’t lead to any action. Perhaps officials were satisfied the Christian community had the situation under control and hate speech was not on Graham’s agenda.
In hindsight, however, the whole dustup could serve as a teachable moment on how controversial discussion, debate, and religious disagreement can be handled.
Consider the outcome. Despite substantial difference of opinion, the Christian community was able to present a face of brotherly love.
The leaders’ letter outlined the disagreement, but also the desire to continue working together in charity – that while we disagreed with each other, the love of Christ prevails.
At a time when rational debate often takes a back seat to insults, flame wars, unfriending, and attempts to silence dissenting viewpoints, the Franklin Graham incident speaks volumes about the benefits of civil discourse.
It also says a great deal about the progress being made by extremely divergent Christian voices in Vancouver learning to find common ground and work together. The Archdiocese of Vancouver has been a full participant in Vancouver’s major ecumenical initiatives and projects since at least the More than Gold movement at the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Over the years, we’ve worked with our Christian brothers and sisters on Voices Together, Missions Fest, the ongoing Vancouver Consultation, and countless other initiatives.
The culmination of the Franklin Graham dispute was a letter from 34 Christian leaders in which they wished the Festival of Hope organizers a successful event, adding that they looked forward to building on the “tide of cooperation” developing among Vancouver’s Christian communities.