In their obituary, The New York Times described Rev. Will Davis Campbell as:
“A knot of contradictions himself, he was a civil rights advocate who drank whiskey with Klansmen, a writer who layered fact and fiction, and a preacher without a church who presided at weddings, baptisms and funerals in homes, hospitals and graveyards for a flock of like-minded rebels that included Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Dick Gregory, Jules Feiffer and Studs Terkel.”
I don’t think that describes a “knot of contradictions” so much as a sanguine and dedicated human being with his eye on the temporal and metaphysical spiritual ball. He may be the greatest unknown (white) proponent of the Civil Rights Movement and the one “Christian” who might have an inkling what that renegade Jesus Christ was all about..
Campbell’s autobiography (in the universal sense) is, well, downright biblical. Born in pre-Depression, Jim Crow Amite County, Mississippi, Campbell was the son of dirt farmers who lived in a part of the country that failed to realize the Great Depression because everyone was already poor. Campbell served as a medic in World War II, returning after the war to attend Wake Forest, Tulane, and finally the Yale Divinity School. Then, in turn, he led a Louisiana congregation who did not take his integrationist tendencies seriously and becoming the director of religious life at the University of Mississippi, only be run off in 1956 because of his desegregationist views.
Campbell eventually held positions in the National Council of Churches, where he entered formally the Civil Rights Movement. In 1963, Campbell became director of the Committee of Southern Churchmen, which sponsored his activism, documented in the organization’s journal, Katallagete, the title of which is derived from the New Testament Greek for the Pauline phrase “be reconciled,” referenced from 2 Corinthians 5:20:
“Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God.”
Or, in Campbell shorthand, “We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway.” Campbell was dead serious about his Christianity.
Much of this is detailed in Crashing The Idols: The Vocation of Will D. Campbell (and Any Other Christian for That Matter) as well as in many books previously written by and about Campbell. Campbell is joined by his frequent collaborator, Richard C. Goode, together fleshing out Campbell’s often far-flung views and Christian philosophy mixed with the roux of his rural childhood.
While focusing on Campbell’s biography (a more compelling account of which may be found in Campbell’s Brother to a Dragonfly (Continuum, 1977) and Forty Acres and a Goat (Peachtree, 1986)), Crashing The Idols more properly tends to tying a bow around Campbell’s profound and iconoclastic theology while comparing it in parallel with the contemporary thinking of H. Richard Niebuhr (Christ and Culture) and Mark Toulouse (God In Public).
In his obituary for Campbell, First Things contributor Timothy George suggests that Campbell should have spent more time with Reinhold Niebuhr’s concept of fallen humanity, but I fail to see where that would have informed Campbell’s thinking meaningfully. Campbell’s philosophy and metaphysics were distilled to the quick at an early age, as evidenced by his writing detailed in Crashing The Idols. Gratefully, Goode spends much time on Campbell’s first book, Race and the Renewal of the Church (Westminster Press, 1962), out-of-print, but available online at Archive.org.
Race and the Renewal of the Church was a lightening-rod strike into the heart of the Jim Crow-gentrified protestantism of the period in the waning days after Little Rock Central High (where Campbell joined to provided escort to the nine African Americans trying to desegregate the school) and before President Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Act of 1964. Campbell illuminates in published word, the simple and malignant hypocrisy permeating Southern culture and its effect on the Christian church, the same as he had been doing publicly for a decade. Campbell simply states the obvious: Christians cannot claim to be Christians if racial and social exclusivity exist within their institutional ranks.
Thirty years later, Campbell had further refined his thinking, leveling his considerable rhetorical ire at the Southern Baptist Convention during a 1995 address to the Fort Worth-based Whitsitt Society for what Richard Beck in Experimental Theology, called, Campbell’s indictment “…of replacing the gospel with intramural denominational squabbles, witch-hunting and power plays.” While in this address entitled “A Personal Struggle for Soul Freedom,” Campbell’s focus was sharper, his intent can be more broadly applied and is as relevant today as then in every vestibule of every church. The essence of Will Campbell is declared in every molecule of this presentation and that essence is the white hot purity of justice at the most basic level:
“…if Jesus Christ had been a Moderate He would never have been crucified. By definition of the word there are too many options. Had He been a Moderate he would have joined Pontius Pilate who gave him ample opportunity to cut a deal, to compromise.
And just to make sure all established camps are alienated forthwith, I hasten to add that it is further obvious that Jesus certainly would not have been crucified had he been a Fundamentalist for it was they who, in their zeal and certitude, clamored for his blood. Had He been a Fundamentalist He would have been one of them and accepted the crown they offered.”
Campbell did not shrink from a fight and always brought his best with him. He never once abandons the central idea of the Great Commandment. Campbell goes on to point out the obvious:
“Jesus Christ was a RADICAL! And for that he died. Died so that we might be free. Free from religiosity for certainly he was not a religious man. Far from it. Free from the Law. Free from tyranny, especially religious tyranny. Free from piety to save us. Free from certitude and thus free from creedal strife. Jesus was a RADICAL!”
Campbell believed that all human institutions, including, and maybe, in particular churches and organized religion were fundamentally corrupt, self-serving and self-sustaining and tainted with an original sin more real than any conceived by an implacable Augustine writing in fourth-century northern Africa. Campbell sees what he calls “zeal and certitude” as being similar to the doctrinally bean-counting Pharisees of Jesus’ time, establishing a multi-tier spiritual and social system that flies in the face of everything Jesus Christ taught.
Today among the tribes of Christians is too much of “we are the true Christians and better Christian’s than you” (or, more plainly stated MSDS [“my shit don’t stink”] Christians). It is that superior, unbending sentiment that may be found in every Letters-to-the-Editor section in every Southern newspaper addressing the Four Gs: “God, Guns, Gays and Gestational Prerogative. It is about being better than and, therefore, being right…and there is only one RIGHT. Campbell scoffed at this thinking, highlighted it by saying:
“…on one occasion when a certain prophecy didn’t come to pass, Jeremiah said that it was not good to be too sure of God. Today we are bombarded with a theology of certitude, and even cocksureness. A creed that might well begin, “My god can whip your god.”
Before Campbell completes his dissection of the Southern Baptist Convention, he turns the white hot light back on himself and his audience:
“Judgment? But we were better than they are. Were we? Where were we as a denomination in the sixties and seventies when cities were burning, when black Americans were being gunned down for no greater crime than the color of their skin and their quest for freedom? Where were we during those long decades when human beings were denied the ballot, had to drink from designated fountains, could not go to parks, theaters schools?
If you don’t recall I’ll remind you…
We were sitting in silence, minding our own altar fires and tea parties, building tall spires and fine steeples, watching God’s world crumble around us. Ah, but now we have apologized for all that. Have we now? If we bump our neighbors off the sidewalk and into oncoming traffic and say, “Excuse me,” and walk away, we have served the neighbors not at all. It is only when we bind their wounds and see them through the ordeal that true reconciliation is in evidence. Biblically it is called the story of the Good Samaritan. Politically it is called affirmative action. We await some timely word on that currently controversial moral issue called affirmative action from the Christian Life Commission, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship or any other Baptist faction.”
Replace “Baptist” with any other established denomination or non-denominational “Bible” church or “conservative” think group and we might begin to understand the enemies in Campbell’s universe. More topically and forward thinking:
“And some day we’ll apologize for what we are doing to Gay and Lesbian Christians and non-Christians. But not yet for we ride the waves of culture. I mention that, not to dramatically inject into the discussion the most explosive issue on so many agendas today–well, that, too–but to suggest that we always take our cue from culture, from Caesar. We discern the signal of culture, rush out and clothe the sight in vague and misinterpreted Scripture, never taking the Bible for what it is, a book about who God is, but as a buttress of the biases of culture. We did it with slavery. We do it with war, gender exclusionism, poverty, and now we’re doing it with homophobia. And some day we’ll apologize. Someday we’ll call the fireman when the fire is out. We joined the Civil Rights Movement when the prophets were safely dead. Jesus was a RADICAL! There comes a time!”
Campbell must have been a firebrand in the pulpit, and here he was just warming up:
“…Jesus, quoting Isaiah, said that he had come to proclaim the opening of the doors of prisons, and letting the prisoners go free, bringing good news–food and housing–to the poor, seeing-eye dogs for the blind. Jesus was a radical. So should I care who the next president of some man-made, yes man-made, convention, fellowship or what have you may be? Does it really matter in the glaring white heat of Isaiah and Jesus’ words? I say you nay. Am I going to alter the course by the latest utterance of some institutional pimp who appears to spend most of his time blow drying his hair and in his free time dismisses some of his finest teachers and scholars, seeking to make robots and handmaidens of a once-gifted faculty? I say you nay…”
So much for organized religion…Campbell was having none of it. Campbell finds himself at the same point as Bonhoeffer at the end, suggesting a “religionless” Christianity and a behavioral system executed “as if there were no God.” Walk the walk.
Campbell’s own bona fides were often questioned. Regarding his own calling and ministry, Campbell noted:
“… there was a contract out on my life for a time when I was involved in the Civil Rights movement. The community was much upset about Will Davis’s carryings on with the colored people. I had been writing about it, speaking widely, and it was being reported. There was a movement to strip me of my ordination. Two things prevented it. One, they didn’t know how to go about it. (One of the beauties of Baptist polity). And two, a couple of crusty old Navy veterans sent word that if they tried to take Will Davis’s ordination away they would come up there and filibuster until hell froze over. At the risk of disharmony within the fellowship the matter was dropped.
What they didn’t understand was that my ordination certificate, with misspelled words and the marred grammar of country people…hangs above my mantle, glued securely and forever on top of my college and university degrees, hiding them from the eyes of the world. That’s my marching orders and no one can ever, ever take that away from me. Not ever. Those Baptist people did that to and for me and it can never be undone. Not with anyone’s words, resolutions, or actions…That’s what soul freedom is all about. Are you listening, you who wreck schools of learning, who pass absurd resolutions, who place limitations on God Almighty as to what gender He can and can’t call to preach His gospel? You don’t scare me, you ecclesiastical bullies, you blind guides who strain at a gnat and swallow a camel, who devour widows’ houses, who bind heavy burdens and lay them on the shoulders of the poor and lift not a hand, you who for a pretense make long prayers, you who compass sea and land to make one convert and when he is made make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves. Woe unto you! Whited sepulchers outside; inside full of the bones of the dead, and of all uncleanness.”
No. Will Campbell was having none of it.
”I was a pastor, a university chaplain, an employee of the allegedly most free religious institution in the world. I didn’t keep any job for long. But through it all I discovered one thing. All institutions, every last single one of them, are evil; self-serving, self-preserving, self-loving; and very early in the life of any institution it will exist for its own self…True soul freedom cannot be found in any institution… If they will pay you, let them. I did it too. But never trust them. Never bow the knee to them. They are all after your soul. Your ultimate, absolute, uncompromising allegiance. Your soul. ALL OF THEM. Jesus was a RADICAL! And His Grace abounds.”
Campbell closes his presentation with the story of 16th Century Dutch Anabaptist Cecelia Geronymus awaiting the soldiers at door during a time unkind to the Anabaptists. Bringing the parable full circle into the present, Campbell closed with:
”So listen carefully now. Do you hear the hoofbeats? Do you hear the chilling anger of the federal agents as they approach. They have documents. It is altogether legal. Caesar has the power. They are coming closer. Do you hear the loud pounding on the door there, the rattling of the latch chain? They are here. We must go with them. We will not cry out.
I don’t hear anything at all. There are no agents, no soldiers there. No hoofbeats. We are not pathetic and certainly we are not huddled in fear. We are rich and secure. Safe from the power of Caesar. We are free to go now. Free to return to the prisonhouse of our own unfaithfulness. The agents are not at the door.
It was only the wind.
But perhaps, maybe, the wind of John 3:8, the only source of authentic soul freedom.
Campbell’s evocation of John 3:8 is powerful: “”The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John’s admonition lays waste to the certitude of modern-day Pharisees remains Campbell’s own justification, spiritual and social.
This is the sum of all this pure intellectual and spiritual fire that is captured in Crashing The Idols: The Vocation of Will D. Campbell. Campbell, like Pope Francis, confronts the Church for missing the point of it ALL, wasting too much attention on dogmatic trivia and theological accounting rules while wholly neglecting our true mandate…to love and take care of each other.
It has been proposed that we live in a Post-Christian period. Campbell even speaks of it in his Race and the Renewal of the Church, now 50 years past. The Church (with a capital C), Campell’s “…self-serving, self-preserving, self-loving…” institution, has no one to blame but itself for its flagging social and cultural significance. Ill-found certainty, Pharisidic privilege and malignant spiritual stasis dooms the precious status quo for all conservative religious: Christian, Jew or Muslim. Scripture is not allowed to be kinetic and dense theological pronouncement leave no room of inevitable evolution (that cursed word). No growth, no life…no life, no worth.
The atheist side of the coin is equally as bad, criticizing believers for believing and agnostics for straddling the fence. The same Ill-found certainty, academic privilege and malignant secular stasis afflicts the committed atheist, emboldening them as religiosity does the religious. On one side: too much cultural ring-kissing, and brute bully attitude. On the other side: denial of 2000 years of history and thought, smug and sure…certain and intolerant.
Who Campbell appeals to are the Christians-cum-agnostics, those who are not simply unsure, but those who fail to see the value in the certitude and intractable manners of both the religious and irreligious. Love, care and goodness cannot breathe is such an environment, no matter what is “believed.” Campbell’s indictment of Fundamentalism is equally applicable to the secular. White or Black…either, or…there is no grey in this thinking when, in reality, all there is is grey.
Dismissal of 2000 years of Christian philosophy and thought is not in the least bit prudent. Allowing that Scripture is a human work, riddled with human imperfection, it is much easier to dismiss the sillier parts of the Old Testament and the anachronistic thinking it is in favor of blessed The Beatitudes. There is no reason to throw the mythic baby out with the bathwater. This is not simply picking and choosing what we like over what we dislike in Scripture, it is understanding the power of the myth and gravity of the message. When America’s last great theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, wrote:
“…give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, Courage to change the things which should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other…”
he was encouraging the reciter to think critically, seeking what is important. This is where religious and secular fanaticism fail: they are too preoccupied with being “right” at the expense of doing what is right. What Will Campbell spent his life trying to teach was it is our charge to “distinguish the one from the other” and no one else’s.Powered by Sidelines