Over the weekend, I got a text from someone asking how I felt about Franklin Graham’s decision to move his organization’s significant funds from one bank to another.
As you may have heard, Graham was upset by Wells Fargo’s decision to include a lesbian couple in a television ad. In an act of defiance, he moved his money to BB&T. This caused no small amount of eye-rolling, as BB&T has been quite vocal in its own support for marriage equality. Likewise, a few people have taken great delight in pointing out the irony of Graham announcing his decision over Facebook, a “vehemently pro-LGBT” organization.
My honest feeling on Graham’s decision is that it’s pretty dumb—something I’d probably feel even if I didn’t support LGBT rights.
And I meant to tell my friend just that. The first thought that crossed my mind is one I’ve heard many times. It’s one we tend to use whenever these sorts of things happen:
“It sends the wrong message.”
Which, I think, is true enough. But it got me thinking. The question “What sort of message does that send?” is a common one, and it’s one I’m ready to give up.
On the surface of it, the theology behind “What sort of message does that send?” looks biblical. The Gospel message is one of love. Boycotts and protests are decidedly not very loving, which betrays a conflicted message. Possibly a message that’s even antithetical to the message of Jesus.
But the problem with “What sort of message does that send?” is that it’s really not all that theologically-minded. It’s a business decision.
It’s a page pulled from the book of advertising companies and branding campaigns. We’re not being motivated by love, but market savvy. We want to project a solid, consistent brand to the world in hopes of getting them to buy our product.
It makes good business sense, but Christianity is not at its best when it’s being run like a business.
I need hardly give examples of that here, but I might give a few examples of Jesus himself, and how little he seemed to worry about “the message he might be sending.”
He spent a good deal of time with tax collectors and prostitutes. This you know, but it bears repeating, because of what a poor message it sent to the Jewish community. If his message was one of blamelessness, consorting with such ruffians was no way to cement it in the public conscious.
But what’s often forgotten in this line of thought is that Jesus was also a frequenter of high-end and well-to-do parties. There are numerous occasions of him eating apparently friendly meals with Pharisees. Very off-brand. What sort of message did that send?
This is to say nothing of his cleansing the temple. Or affirming the faith of the Centurion. Or missing a great opportunity to tell Pontius Pilate who he really was. All these things sent a pretty bizarre message, which is why he spent his life falling in and out of public favor. His methods looked erratic. Every time a Pharisee, Zealot or Roman leader thought he could be part of their cause, he jumped ship.
The reason is simple enough: When you’re motivated by honest love instead of messaging, it’s going to look erratic, because love is almost inevitably going to veer off-brand.
Love is going to say you can find a scientist’s ugly, sexist joke about women in the workplace to be despicable without shaming him and his wife into hiding.
Love is going to say the systemization of racial violence in this country is in dire need of reform, but doesn’t condemn all police officers in the process.
Love is going to demand a lot more than you’re willing to give and, yes, sometimes love is going to alienate you from people who want to send the right message.
But we don’t love people because it sends the right message. We love without agenda, motive or endgame. We love because our nature is God’s, and God’s nature is love.
And here’s the secret about loving, if we can take Jesus’ life to be any sort of example. If you prioritize loving people over sending the right message, you end up sending the right message anyway. When you prioritize the right message over love, you’re likely to do neither.
So, I still don’t think Franklin Graham should have made a big deal about pulling his money out of Wells Fargo—for a lot of reasons. But I don’t really care about the message it sent.
I care that it just doesn’t seem very loving.