A tumultuous time
It's been a tumultuous few weeks in world politics! The new administration in the USA has acted with swiftness on many of the promises upon which it was elected. Whether you love it or loathe it, the decisions of President Trump since his inauguration on the 20th January have been exactly what he said he would do. Whether you or I agree with it or not, we cannot deny the reality that the various executive orders that have been issued by Donald Trump are exactly what he said he would do before the democratic processes of the American people put him in place. Trump won the election and his policies are what he promised he would do - whether we like it or not.
As a pastor and a theologian, I have never believed that God put Donald Trump in the White House, the American people did. God permits our decisions without necessarily endorsing them. I think it is the task of a pastor and a preacher to listen to culture with one ear and to the Scriptures with the other. I am not ashamed of my views on this, and they are publicly accessible. I preached on the issues around the new American President on the Sunday after the election in November 2016 - you can hear the message here, and I also touched on his inaugural address and its content on the Sunday after his inauguration - you can listen to that here.
What is even more challenging to me is trying to work out what my responsibility is when I hear alleged reports that leading Christians in the US are supporting the policies of President Trump. Some of them have close connections with me or with the agencies I am associated with.
What do I do?
What do I do? As a Christian, a UK citizen and as both a social and political activist, I have asked that question with a number of official hats on. I am the senior pastor of a leading church in the UK, some of whom are Americans. Some of my congregation support Trump's presidency and some do not. Is supporting his policies a new test for Christian orthodoxy? I am the leader of Spring Harvest here in the UK, and a board member of the charity that runs Spring Harvest. Do we have a responsibility to say something? I engage with government at various levels around issues of faith and identity, and I work with a number of agencies across the world to serve to the poor, the excluded and the marginalized. Do I remain silent as I hear the things being reported from the USA or do I say something? This comes into sharp focus for me because of the swirl of comments being made about Franklin Graham, the president and global CEO of Samaritan's Purse, a charity that I am an ambassador for, Gold Hill supports through Operation Christmas Child and Spring Harvest partners with. Do I say something or do I avoid saying anything?
I think it is important to say something. Immediately I do, I am perceived as speaking on behalf of all the groups that I work with, lead or have associations with. So let me try to set out my own thinking and then set out the clear position of, as it happens, both Gold Hill Baptist Church and Spring Harvest.
My own thoughts
- I think the Bible has a clear bias toward those who are marginalized, excluded and poor and so should Christians. I refuse to align myself with reported statements or policies that victimize or endanger refugees.
- I think it is important that we keep our eyes and our attention clearly focussed on the poor and the excluded and honour our commitments to serve and help them. Millions of people around the world are helped by the agencies we work with at Spring Harvest. Our partnership with them does not equate to an endorsement of everything that their leaders say or do. The people that they are serving, and whom we are seeking to help them reach, know nothing or very little of either their leaders reported allegiances or their reported statements on policy issues. I believe it would be wrong to further jeopardise the well-being of those already in grave danger by ceasing the mechanisms of support we provide to those who need it most.
- I will use my voice to challenge those who are doing anything to put the poor or the excluded at risk but in doing so I will not endanger those who are dependent upon aid or relief that we are linked to providing.
- I think Scripture is pretty clear that when we, as believers, speak, we should speak on behalf of the poor and the marginalised and stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves. I will use my position and my privilege to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves. I am willing to risk my own reputation, or that of the Church I lead or the agencies I work with or lead for the well-being of those who desperately need our support and our love. I think this is what Jesus did for us.
- I will not believe everything that the press says without researching it, thinking about it and trying to find out exactly who has said what.
- I will respect the rights of a democracy to elect its leaders or to make political decisions whether I agree with the decisions of the majority or not. In the wake of their decisions, I will not abdicate my responsibility to speak out, but I will do so with grace and with respect for the decisions of citizens. That might mean that I say publicly that I disagree with the decisions or the outcomes of elections and that's okay.
- There has been much reported about alleged comments made recently by Franklin Graham concerning the US Administration's policy on immigration. Rather than try to second guess his statements, here is what he said publicly on the 31st January:
“There have been a lot of protests and discussion about President Donald J. Trump's executive action on immigration. Some people seem to have forgotten that the priority of the president of the United States is protecting the Constitution and the safety of Americans. That’s exactly what President Trump is trying to do. Taking action to secure our borders had to start somewhere. Is it perfect? Maybe not, but it is a first step. As they work on solutions during this 90-day travel ban, unfortunately there are some innocent families caught in this time of transition.
I think that a thorough vetting process really needs to apply to people coming into the U.S. from all countries—not just 7. We have to be sure that the philosophies of those entering our country are compatible with our Constitution. If a person does not agree with our principles of freedom, democracy, and liberty, which we cherish, they should not be allowed to come. Without question, Sharia law is not compatible.
Some are also criticizing Christians who support the president’s position on immigration—and I’m one of those being criticized. But we have to realize that the president’s job is not the same as the job of the church. As Christians we are clearly taught in the Bible to care for the poor and oppressed. At Samaritan's Purse we have been working in the Middle East for over 30 years. We’ve provided things like food, heaters, blankets, coats, shelter plastic, and more for tens of thousands of refugees there and in other places around the world. We just opened a 55-bed field trauma hospital in northern Iraq where we’re treating Muslims who are being wounded by other Muslims in the fight over Mosul. As Christians we are commanded to help all, regardless of religious background or ethnicity, like the Good Samaritan Jesus shared about in the Bible. Our job is to show God’s love and compassion. I believe the best way to help is to reach out and help these people in their own countries. I support the establishment of safe zones inside Syria and Iraq that would be protected by the international community until a political solution is found. We need to pray for political solutions that would bring peace and allow them to return to their homes as they desire.”
I don't agree with everything that he has written here but I do not think that what he has written can be dismissed carte blanche either. There is nothing in his position that would cause me to cut off my relationship with Samaritan's Purse, or to feel that I should ask Gold Hill or Spring Harvest to severe our links with Samaritan's Purse. I want to remain a critical partner of Samaritan's Purse, and I have written privately to Franklin Graham in order to express some of my concerns and my prayers for him and for the ministry of Samaritan's Purse. Samaritan's Purse do an amazing job around the world. I've seen, first hand, the remarkable men and women who work for this organisation and who daily risk their lives for the sake of the poor and the excluded. I am proud to associate with them and I am humbled by the difference God is making in the world through them.
I think we should pray for Franklin Graham more than we pull him apart and ask that God will give him grace in how he conducts himself and wisdom in how to use his avenues into the Trump Administration so that Franklin and other Christians can be a source of truth, wisdom and grace to an administration that needs those qualities in spades right now.
Spring Harvest and Gold Hill
And what of the official position of Spring Harvest and Gold Hill? Whilst they are separate and independent of one another, the position of each on this issue is the same. Spring Harvest is in partnership with Samaritan’s Purse UK. We work with them to identify, promote and support specific projects through prayer and fund-raising. It’s great to be able to give our guests some experience and understanding of practical action and spiritual outreach among the poorest nations of God’s world. This year, our focus will be on funding development work in Rwanda where churches are working together to assist local farmers. Gold Hill partners with Samaritan's Purse to provide practical support to children around the world through their Operation Christmas Child appeal. Both Gold Hill and Spring Harvest believe that our partnership with Samaritan's Purse is making a positive difference in the lives of vulnerable people and we will continue to partner with them.
Spring Harvest and Gold Hill also repudiate and will not support attitudes or policies that are sexist, racist, discriminatory or homophobic.
Spring Harvest and Gold Hill are committed to making sure we do not cause those we are seeking to support even greater distress. We will put the needs of the poor first.
That doesn't mean we are passive on the issue, it means we are seeking to do what we believe is right for those whose voice is not heard in this debate.
In the end, I am willing to take the criticisms that come my way for my personal position on this and as the Lead Pastor of Gold Hill. As the leader of the Spring Harvest team I am willing to take the criticisms for our position there too. I believe that in putting the poor and the excluded first, whilst at the same time having the hard conversations that we need to have, we are doing what Jesus would do. He would not let the poor suffer to protect his own reputation and I don't think we should either.