Catechizing Billy Graham

The “Vergangenheit” episode of season 2 of Netflix’ critically acclaimed series The Crown dwelt at length on the treachery of the ex-King Edward VIII’s and his wife Wallis Simpson’s collaboration with Hitler to restore Edward to the Throne following the supposedly imminent and, at the time, the all-too-possible fall of England and the establishment of a Nazi regime in the United Kingdom. (Incidentally and not unexpectedly, the Prime Minister of a fascist UK would allegedly have been Oswald Mosley, head of the British Union of Fascists.) The true extent of the treason came to light with the publication, in the United States, of what Americans called the “Marburg files,” after the castle in the German state of Hesse, where the documents were discovered – which the English more appropriately called the “Windsor files” – detailing the Faustian bargain Edward VIII, now demoted to being Duke of Windsor, had previously struck with Hitler. But the true epicenter of “Vergangenheit” consists in the much more private issue of Elizabeth’s concerns about the extent to which she can go, both morally and politically, in forgiving Edward – who is a family member – both as a Christian and as head of the Church of England.

Former King Edward VIII, Duke of Windsor

Unfortunately, she chose as her counselor in addressing this question the Rev. Billy Graham, who was coincidentally holding a crusade in London during Edward’s visit there, ostensibly to do research for a book, but in actuality to explore the possibility of a position in the British government that would place him in a position of strategic advantage after a German invasion. (In fairness, the members of the British nobility assisting him in this quest, knew nothing of the Marburg files, which would not come to light until 1945 and not be published until the late 1950s.) So Rev. Graham is in the awkward position of being Her Majesty’s catechist and moral preceptor, a task for which Graham, at least as portrayed in The Crown, proved singularly incompetent.

One can only hope that Her Majesty revoked her permission for Edward VIII to set foot in the UK in spite of Graham’s advice and not because of it. We may all be thankful that, in the actual event of Graham’s audiences with Her Majesty -- supposing them to have occurred at all -- the young Elizabeth proves much wiser than her chosen adviser, both as a biblical scholar and as a moral theologian. At one point, the Queen Mother asks pointedly while watching one of Graham’s sermons, how a man so young had acquired such certitude about life and ethics. (I could have answered the Queen Mother's question:  by being a lifelong fundamentalist Christian evangelical.) One may equally well ask how someone as young as Queen Elizabeth was at the time acquired such sensitivity toward the biblical text.

Whether any of the colloquies between Her Majesty and Graham occurred at all is, as far as I know, pure speculation. And it is certainly speculative what was said during those meetings – again, if they occurred at all. The Queen is certainly entitled to her privacy. In any case, the issues explored in Netflix’ depiction of the conversations remain substantive, even if the conversations themselves turned out to be purely apocryphal. In particular, the salient issue of the conversations – the relationship between forgiveness and trust – is particularly relevant, given the tendency of many progressive Christians to conflate the two issues by assuming that one necessarily implies the other, in the interest of avoiding being -- a dirty word in the progressive lexicon -- "judgmental".

Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II

To her credit, the young Queen, in Netflix' reconstruction of the audience, immediately recognizes and implicitly rejects this fallacy. The question of the relationship between forgiveness and trust is relevant, in the case of the Queen, because she is aware of her uncle's, the Duke of Windsor's, desire for a place in the British government and of her own need to forgive him for his having already conspired to commit treason. (Her Majesty does not know everything that is in the Windsor files, but she knows enough and soon learns more.) She does not trust him. But does this lack of trust preclude forgiveness? This is the question she poses to Graham. Graham replies that Christians are always required to forgive and that, even in His last extremity on the Cross, Jesus pled with His Father to forgive even those who crucified Him (Jesus). If Her Majesty's response is factual history -- which we have no way of knowing -- she must surely go down as one of the most astute moral theologians of the century.

For in that response, she reminds Graham of the coda to Jesus' request of God the Father:  "for they know not what they do".  In other words, granted that forgiveness is required, do those seven words imply that forgiveness may, at least at times, be predicated on innocence of intent through ignorance? And the question latent in that question, in turn, is:  even if forgiveness should be required for an act the offending party knew to be evil when s/he committed it, must the aggrieved party, as part of forgiveness, trust the individual one forgives? Does forgiveness necessarily entail trust as a consequence? So, even if Her Majesty's Christian ethic requires that she forgive the treasonous Duke, is there necessarily a corollary requirement that, as a tangible token of that forgiveness, she approve Duke Edward's appointment to some position of trust in the British government? (In Netflix' portrayal, Graham deftly skates over all these issues.) To the latter question, she evidently decides "No," Graham's amateurishly un-nuanced exegesis of the meaning of forgiveness notwithstanding. Consequently, withdrawing the requisite permission of the Crown for her uncle to visit the UK, Her Majesty commands him to leave immediately, which he does. Would to God we could deal with Trump that summarily!

Oswald Mosley

And speaking of Trump, the Queen was much wiser in the matter of the Duke of Windsor's duplicity than many progressives are in the matter of those who, either directly or indirectly, aided and abetted in the election of Donald Trump as the Nation's first overtly fascist President. I will insist, first of all, that the matter of intent has already been settled, and that pleading ignorance ("Jeezus pleez-us, we din't know what Trump was like!") is "always already" from the get-go prima facie evidence of either a serious cognitive deficit or a lack of intellectual conscience -- of bad faith in the sense of mauvais foi:  pretending to not know that which there is simply no excuse for not knowing. Donald Trump was quite the opposite of a pig in a poke:  anyone who voted, directly or indirectly, for Donald Trump knew precisely what was in the package they were buying. Period. Full stop. "Here endeth the lesson".

The same question about trust-as-corollary is relevant to us vis a vis Trump voters just as it was relevant to Her Majesty in the matter of her treasonous uncle.  The answer is also the same.  Even if forgiveness is mandatory, trust is not. One may be, as Graham argued, forgiven "on demand" -- however, see the caveat immediately following in parentheses -- but trust always must be earned, especially after it has been broken. (As a matter of fact, one can make a pretty strong case that even forgiveness itself need not be mandatory or unconditional.  Jesus admonished His followers to always forgive, but John the Baptist required as a prerequisite to baptism, an outward sign of prior forgiveness, that those requesting same "manifest evidence commensurate with repentance" [my translation]. Catholic priests hearing a person's confession are required to elicit a sign of sorrow -- an "act of contrition" -- as a prerequisite to the granting of absolution [i.e., forgiveness]. But be that as it may ... ) Some would say that the Queen and her latter-day counterparts, despite their professions of forgiveness, held or hold grudges:  the Queen against the Duke of Windsor; I, against Trump voters.

With a clear conscience and a smile on my face, I cheerfully say "Of course I do! Of course I hold a grudge against Trump supporters!" I am willing, even eager, to forgive, but only on condition that, like the Pharisees who came to John the Baptist for baptism, they "manifest evidence commensurate with repentance". So far, very few have done so, just as the Duke of Windsor did not repent of his treason. So I follow Her Majesty's example and require that they exile themselves from my life just as she required that the Duke exile himself from the United Kingdom. Forgiveness without repentance is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer probably would have called "cheap grace". And without forgiveness, the hard labor of rebuilding trust cannot begin. So some grudges must be held, absent countervailing evidence, and failure to hold them is itself an additional act of betrayal.

Otherwise, you have no cause to be nervous if your daughter has a blind date with O. J. Simpson.

James R. Cowles

Image credits

Billy Graham black and white ... Library of Congress ... Public domain
Queen Elizabeth ... Archives of Canada ... Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic
Edward VIII / Duke of Windsor ... National Archives ... Public domain
Trump ... White House ... Public domain
Oswald Mosley ... National Portrait Gallery ... Public domain

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