November-December 2000 – My graduate school encouraged me to take a trip to Amsterdam this summer as a faculty enrichment opportunity. It would, they supposed, be a broadening experience.
Truly, it was. Billy Graham is, of course, one of history’s well-known Christian statesmen whose organization (The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association) aims to promote evangelistic endeavor. Occasionally, Graham sponsors international conferences. This most recent Amsterdam event gathered 10,000 evangelists from 209 nations to the Netherlands for purposes of spiritual growth, planning strategy and mutual encouragement.
Graham, who recently underwent surgery, was unable to attend the nine-day conference but during the last gathering he sent a taped message that admonished those present to keep the faith and to never forsake going into a sinful world to proclaim the gospel of Christ.
At that moment the inquiring mind, if it was paying attention, might understand why Amsterdam was the locale chosen for the assembly. If it’s a sinful world you are concerned about, then what better place.
Not that Amsterdam isn’t charming in its own way. It is so European, with its flowers and trams and buses and tourists and bakeries and the arts and museums.
But the city is known for more than that.
Walk out of a Graham event and you will have heard about God, the Bible, Christian responsibility, the fellowship of the saints. Walk into Amsterdam and you will see empty shells that were once flourishing churches, smell the aroma of legalized marijuana as you stroll past the bars, see an official red light district and notice other places that may as well be. Television and store advertisements are full of the risqué, and natives have adopted a sort of pride that all this can subsist alongside even a weeklong Billy Graham conference.
It had initially escaped my notice that we were in the city where Anne Frank and family hid from the Nazis and then were captured, though not before the world’s most famous diary had been penned and saved. Upon discovering that Anne Frank’s house was a mere stroll from our hotel, I hiked over and toured the canal-side office/ residence where for 25 months the young Frank rested secure from the world turned upside down outside her “Secret Annex.”
And it dawned on me, suddenly. Were she alive today, Ms. Frank would be 71. She could return and visit her annex, mourn the death of her friends and family, remember her diary and her life since.
She could stare out the window of her father’s business with its offices and storerooms and during the week of our conference see a canal filled with partying people.
For it was the week of Amsterdam’s Gay Parade. Thousands of tourists and city folk laughing at homosexuals floating down Amsterdam’s canals strutting their stuff – transsexuals, cross-dressers, lesbians kissing, homosexuals touching, decency and traditional values mocked and derided.
It was quite a contrast. Innocence mocked just 30 yards away from one of the world’s monuments to innocence. A couple of kilometers away stood the red light district – legal prostitution, legal everything.
What better town, I supposed Graham must have thought, to remind the world’s evangelists of their task. And what better place for Americans to be reminded where we as a nation can go, if we choose to, and in so short a time as it takes a precocious child to grow to the age of retirement.
And what of America?
Couldn’t happen here, right?
New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan would beg to differ. Moynihan, hardly a conservative icon, once wrote in the American Scholar (Winter, 1993): “The amount of deviant behavior in American society has increased beyond the levels the community can ‘afford to recognize’ and that, accordingly, we have been redefining deviancy so as to accept much conduct previously stigmatized, and also quietly raising the ‘normal’ level in categories where behavior is now abnormal by any earlier standard.”
Moynihan would become well known in the nineties as the statesman who coined the phrase “defining deviancy down.” And since he wrote those words in the American Scholar we have defined it further down, and down, and down. Abortion, fatherlessness, families asunder, immorality of all kinds flourishing.
Who’s to blame?
Let’s talk straight. We have become experts blaming everybody but ourselves.
I was once on a TV show as part of a panel discussing our Jackson, Mississippi, community. The city council was in disarray as the president and another councilman were headed off to jail. The council president, for his own part, had made a secret deal with a strip club for the purposes of a re-zoning ordinance, was caught in the crime and was sent to a correctional facility.
The moderater, a newslady named Katina Rankin, looked at me during the giveand-take and asked me, “Matt, whose fault is all of this?”
I became, suddenly, agitated. My face began to get red and I prepared to tell her in dramatic on-air fashion that we are a nation of laws and that, frankly, the city council president had looked at that law, trampled on it, tried to get some cash flow he shouldn’t have had as a public official and, well, if we were looking for blame there was only one place to put it – smack dab in his lap as he sat in his well-deserved jail cell. That is what I was going to say. But I never got the words out. One of the panelists sitting next to me was a gentleman named John Perkins – author, teacher, community developer, national evangelical leader. As my finger stiffened and my face reddened, I prepared to answer Ms. Rankin with my vehement tirade but was interrupted by Dr. Perkins before I got a word out.
“Its my fault,” he answered Rankin.
All heads, naturally, turned his way.
“I have lived in this community for decades as a Bible teacher. I should have been able to create an environment where what our council president did would have been unthinkable because of my efforts.
“You want someone to blame? I’ll take the blame. All of it.”
You could have heard a pin drop. I reflected on my own lack of community effort. But he made his point, and one we should remember when thinking about Amsterdam and the direction of America.
Whose fault? Our fault. And that is something we can change.
Matt Friedeman is a professor at Wesley Biblical Seminary. Contact him at P.O. Box 9938, Jackson, MS 39286 or via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.