A group of church leaders have written an open letter to Franklin Graham, criticising his Facebook comments last week about the killing of young black men by police, and are gathering signatories.
The issue of institutionalised racism in American police forces has become a major pressure point for the country's black community, and particularly in Ferguson since the shooting of black teenager Michael Brown in August. Last week two policemen were wounded when they were shot during a protest in the city.
Graham wrote on March 12: "Listen up –Blacks, Whites, Latinos, and everybody else. Most police shootings can be avoided. It comes down to respect for authority and obedience. If a police officer tells you to stop, you stop. If a police officer tells you to put your hands in the air, you put your hands in the air ..."
He continued: "Even if you think the police officer is wrong—YOU OBEY. Parents, teach your children to respect and obey those in authority." He blamed President Obama for not giving a clear lead. "Some of the unnecessary shootings we have seen recently might have been avoided," he said. "The Bible says to submit to your leaders and those in authority 'because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account'."
However, he was condemned by church leaders including Sojourners founder, theologian and activist Jim Wallis, who wrote: "Your Facebook post makes you seem, at best, oblivious to the racial inequity in this country's policing and criminal justice system, which is also still deeply embedded in our American society. At worst, your post reflects your own racial biases – unconscious or conscious."
Now a group of evangelical leaders has crafted a collective response to Graham, with one of them, Sojourners worker Lisa Sharon Harper, saying: "We will not tolerate this type of flippant, patronizing commentary from faith leaders on critical issues that mean life and death for many in the body of Christ and in communities across America."
The letter says Graham's insistence that "Blacks, Whites, Latinos, and everybody else" 'Listen up', was "crude, insensitive, and paternalistic". It continues: "Your comments betrayed the confidence that your brothers and sisters in Christ, especially those of color, have afforded your father's ministry for decades. Your instructions oversimplified a complex and critical problem facing the nation and minimized the testimonies and wisdom of people of color and experts of every hue, including six police commissioners that served on the president's task force on policing reform."
Referring to his advice to "OBEY" the police, the letter says: "As your brothers and sisters in Christ, who are also called to lead the body, we are disappointed and grieved by your abuse of the Holy Scriptures. You lifted Hebrews 13:17 out of its biblical context and misappropriated it in a way that encourages believers to acquiesce to an injustice that God hates. That text refers to church leadership, not the secular leadership of Caesar."
It concludes: "Now is the time for you to humbly listen to the cries of lamentation rising nationwide. We do not expect you to be an expert in racial issues, police brutality, or even the many factors that go in to our complicated and unjust criminal system. We do, however, expect you to follow the example of leaders and followers of Jesus throughout the scriptures and modern history. We expect you to seek wise counsel and guidance first from those who bear the weight of the injustice and second from other experts in the field."
With Harper, those who wrote the letter include Rev Leroy Barber (CCDA and Word Made Flesh), Gilliard (New Hope Oakland), Dr Brian Bantum (Seattle Pacific University), Micky ScottBey Jones (Transform Network) and Efrem Smith (World Impact).
Graham has frequently caused controversy with his comments on Facebook and elsewhere, in which he is often critical of Islam. He also targets President Barack Obama and is outspoken about same-sex marriage, to which he is deeply opposed.