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Loving from up close

Tele-evangelists might be up there with lawyers and reality TV stars when it comes to people we love to hate. The sleazy, money-hungry caricature of the TV evangelist was epitomised—and possibly in part created—by the notorious Jim Bakker.

He, along with his wife Tammy Faye, exemplified the excesses of the 1980s with their television network PTL (Praise the Lord), which attracted 12 million viewers and requested about a million dollars a week in donations. They even had a theme park, Heritage USA, which was the third largest in the States. It would have seemed like an appalling parody—except you couldn’t make this up. (I mean, check out their cat in this photo!)

So far, so dubious. But things took a far more sinister turn in 1987 when it was revealed Jim had paid off a woman who alleged he and another man drugged and raped her. A year later, Jim was convicted of 24 counts of fraud after a scam that took the money of hundreds of thousands of supporters.

At best, Jim and Tammy Faye were a laughing stock. At worst, they were a cancer on Christianity. Recently, in Others magazine—an Australian Salvationist publication—Danielle Strickland told this story:

Jim was in solitary confinement (for his own protection). The most hated man in the United States, the despised TV evangelist crook. His wife had divorced him and married his ‘best friend’, his kids didn’t want to see him and his ministry had been split up and divided among bidders. He was at rock bottom.

A prison guard collected him to meet a visitor. Jim assumed it was his lawyer, the only person who ever paid him a visit. When he entered the visitation room what he saw took his breath away. Sitting there, waiting for him, was Billy Graham. Jim was speechless—ashamed. He described the feeling he had as ‘dirty’ and he desperately wanted to tell Billy to run away from him as fast as he could …

But Billy broke the silence and simply said: ‘I’ve come to see how you are doing, Jim. Ruth and I are praying for you every day and we wondered if when you get out of here you’d like to come for dinner.’

Suddenly the story of Jim Bakker becomes not so much about his sin, as about my sin. I feel angry that tele-evangelists give Christianity a bad name. I laugh at their ridiculous big hair and consumerist Christianity. I scorn their prosperity gospel. But it would have never, ever occurred to me to show them compassion.

In that moment, within that jail, Billy Graham teaches me what it means to follow Jesus—he showed love to the worst of sinners. Just like Jesus would have done.

Why is it so easy for us to accept that Jesus befriended prostitutes and tax collectors (and what was Jim, if not a modern-day tax collector?), but so hard for us to reach out with compassion to the sinner in front of us?

Embodying Jesus means taking the harder path—not judging from a distance, but loving from up close—perhaps around our own dinner table.


by Ingrid Barratt (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 21 October, pp3
You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.