Will D. Campbell: The Loss of a Giant

June 9, 2013

Will CampbellI was greatly saddened to learn this week of the passing of Rev. Will D. Campbell, the renegade preacher whose life and ministry were shaped by the tumultuous changes that occurred in the landscape of 1950’s and 1960’s America. Perhaps no other writer or theologian helped shaped my views more than he did.

Campbell, often dismissed as a flaming liberal, a rabble-rouser or agitator, was in fact not so easily pinned down. He worked in the area of civil rights, yes. He denounced institutions that denied civil rights to poor, non-white Americans. He denounced churches that by wink and nod, allowed the perpetuation of the disenfranchising of the less fortunate and those of different skin color.

But he also was right at home with Klansmen, redneck society (he gladly admitted to being a redneck himself) and staunch conservatives who either shared or rejected his views, but loved him just the same. His easy movement between both worlds, liberal academia and redneck conservatism, earned him many detractors. I can think of One who also had similar criticisms.

There are many whose words are similar. They too, have, spoken forcefully for change and a better life for those affected by racism, economic disadvantage, and other societal pressures that break the backs of those Jesus called “the least of these my brethren.”

But Campbell didn’t preach his words from an office in an ivory tower. He found it impossible to work in any conventional churches. The steeples, as he called them, too often existed as repositories for exclusiveness and institutional demagoguery, in spite of the creeds which commanded them to love all people, and do unto others as they would want done to them.

As such, his congregation consisted of his farm, his animals, and the many who called upon him for advice and counsel. He was at times a profane man, quite able to to let loose a string that would make a sailor proud. He appreciated a fine sipping whisky, and was known to make a batch of moonshine from time to time. He chewed and spit tobacco.

He was also a brilliant writer and theologian. His star rose following his ouster as chaplain at the University of Mississippi, and during his appointment as race relations specialist with the National Council of Churches. He met with leaders in the civil rights movement far and wide, and even met with Robert Kennedy and other leaders in the White House to help the young attorney general form a picture of what needed to be done. Kennedy mentioned to the men present that the government was beginning to use the new wiretapping technologies to gather information on those committing the crimes. Campbell writes, “Most of us in the room were thinking the same thing. But none of us said it: Doesn’t this man know that our telephones are already being tapped–and for the precise reason he was suggesting–national defense, subversion?”  Following his tenure with the National Council of Churches, he began a long career as a writer, writing a veritable armload of delightful fiction and non-fiction alike.

My acquaintance with Rev. Campbell began in 1984, I believe. I went on a mission trip to Comer, GA, with our Wingate College campus minister, Dr. Jim McCoy. We had some great discussions on faith and practice during the week. At one point, our speaker was discussing the death penalty (with a definite left-leaning approach). I thought about it and ventured a view that the punishment really isn’t the issue. At heart, to me, is the issue of forgiveness according to Jesus’ words. Whether death or life in prison, a criminal is nonetheless removed from society. The question to me was, are we capable of being forgiving to those who do us wrong, even an ultimate wrong? I recall Jim looked at me and raised an eyebrow, and smiled.  I knew he had something up his sleeve for me.

After the group broke up from discussion, he went over to a library on site and pulled Campbell’s incredible memoir Brother to a Dragonfly. (Proceed directly to Amazon and order a copy for yourself. It is that good, and that worthy, the kind of book you want to grab people by the lapels over to let them know it’s there).

Jim found a passage related to what we were discussing and asked me to read it. I immediately grasped that this was no ordinary book. It was astonishing. I proceeded to read the entire book over the next three days, returning it only with great reluctance when we left. As soon as we returned, I purchased my own copy.

In short, Campbell upended my own naive, thou-shalt-not, Sunday School lessons-based faith and forced me to realize how pitiful were my own shallow attempts to follow Christ. He never saw the need to use Church Talk, constantly sprinkling conversation with “Praise the Lord!” or “Amen!”  to let people know he was a Christian. His life was his faith. Acted out, performed, lived, and Will Campbell couldn’t care less what you or anyone else thought of him, especially when he went contrary to social norms and mores of the day.

Oh yeah, leftist and liberal on some issues. But I know many conservatives who would be nodding and grinning at his recounting the days of the New Deal in the 1930s when his father got fired from a WPA job, and the brutally painful opening of one’s private life to government agents so they could receive assistance. The assistance was mostly food, but they lived on a farm. They had plenty of food. At the height of the Great Depression, they needed money to pay the bills with. As he pointed out, government programs were inefficient, wasteful and begun at the wrong end of need.

Gradually, as the narrative unfolds, we see Campbell’s own understandings of the world around him take shape. Unlike so many who complacently accept it without question, Brother Will would begin to wonder why things were they way they were. Would they, could they, not be different?

A quick glance at the book, if that’s all right.

Brother to a Dragonfly is a memoir of Will’s relationship with his troubled brother, Joe, who died of a drug overdose. And a memoir of his work in the civil rights era.

P.D. East was a like-minded liberal who didn’t believe much in the way of God. Not surprisingly, Campbell was his friend. The two of them and Joe were drinking one evening, and P. D. had pushed Campbell for a definition of Christianity in ten words or less. Because he, P. D. East, didn’t understand it. Ten words.

Campbell mulled it over and came up with, “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.”

Earlier in the day a preacher and civil rights worker Jonathon Daniel and his friend were shot to death by a rural deputy, Thomas Coleman, for no apparent reason than the fact they were civil rights workers. Campbell knew Jon Daniel, and called connections in the Justice Department and other government offices, using words like “cracker, backwoods, wool hat, Kluxer,” and many others. He as angry and distraught. But P. D. saw something else.

So P. D. pursued him. “Come on, Brother, let’s talk about your definition…Was Jonathon a bastard?”

(Campbell) I said I was sure that everyone is a sinner in one way or another but that he was one of the sweetest and most gentle guys I had ever known.

(P. D.) “But was he a bastard?” His tone was almost a scream. “Now that’s your word, not mine. You told me…that everybody is a bastard. That’s a pretty tough word. I know. Because I am a bastard. A born bastard. A real bastard. My Mamma wasn’t married to my Daddy. Now, by god, you tell me, right now, yes or no, and not maybe, was Jonathon Daniel a bastard?”

(Campbell) I knew that if I said no he would leave me alone and if I said yes, he wouldn’t. And I knew my definition would be blown if I said no.

So I said “Yes.”

(P. D.) “All right. Is Thomas Coleman a bastard?”

(Campbell) That one was a lot easier. “Yes, Thomas Coleman is a bastard.”

(P. D.) “Okay, let me get this straight now. I don’t want to misquote you. Jonathon Daniel was a bastard. Thomas Coleman is a bastard. Right?”

Joe the Protector was on his feet.

(Joe) “Goddammit, P. D., that’s a sacrilege. Knock it off, get off the kid’s back!”

P. D. ignored him, pulling his chair closer to mine, placing his huge, bony hand on my knee. “Which one of these two bastards do you think God loves the most?” His voice now was almost a whisper as he leaned forward, staring me directly in the eyes…

…Suddenly everything became clear. Everything. It was a revelation. The glow of the malt which we were well into by then seemed to illuminate and intensify it. I walked across the room and opened the blind, staring directly into the glare of the street light. And I began to whimper. But the crying was interspersed with laughter.

…”P. D.?

“Yea, Brother?

“I’ve got to amend the definition…We’re all bastards but you’ve got to be the biggest bastard of us all.”

“How’s that, Brother?”

Because, damned if you ain’t made a Christian out of me. And I’m not sure I can stand it.”

Campbell writes that that moment was a true conversion for him. The point where he finally understood the full nature of grace and forgiveness. For if Jon Daniel, a servant and minister of Christ, was loved, then grace means that the evil Thomas Coleman, who murdered him and his friend–two innocent men–was also loved. And if loved, forgiven. His ministry took a radical turn then, no longer focusing on “liberal” causes such as race relations. He became a minister to all people, focusing his time and attention to bringing the Good News to liberals, conservatives, fundamentalists, rednecks, Ku Klux Klansmen, and so on.

Reading his words was a revelation, and an affirmation, for me as well. I had already begun to be disheartened at what I viewed as lip service to those in need by the institutions purporting to help them. When injustices occurred, where was the outrage? Isn’t following Christ supposed to be a radical experience? Putting us at odds with society when society is engaged in hurting or oppressing those who aren’t exactly like us? All too often, I saw the church as not only complacent in these matters, but actually partners in the kind of evil Campbell resisted. These days my ire has been directed more at corporate America, those bastions of unimaginable wealth who work in harmony to insure the poor and middle class stay appropriately poor and strained.

Unexpectedly, my own path became one quite similar to Campbell’s. Yeah, I preached sermons that some folks disagreed with, and one fellow actually walked out on. Yeah, I was shown the door a few months later. I can chuckle over that now. I figure, if I can preach a sermon that makes folks uncomfortable, I’m probably doing something right. I exited the ministry in the early 1990’s, at least full-time, church-sponsored ministry. But I have continued to do counseling, have performed marriages, funerals and other sundry duties of the office. That is what my calling is, not dressing up in a fancy robe and occupying a plush office in a nice, affluent church. The trappings of the job are never the job, and I’m grateful to Campbell for making sure I understood the difference early on.

It’s funny, I actually communicated with him in the late 1980’s. As my education was nearing completion I was contemplating the ordination process, and wondered who might help conduct the ordination service. I immediately thought of Will Campbell. And I noted with no small amount of glee he was in North Carolina at the time, as a writer-in-residence at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. I wrote to him, care of the University, and inquired if he might be available.

Two weeks later he wrote back, the letter banged out on his typewriter with a heavy hand, complete with smudge marks and correction fluid. After some preamble, he said, “Morris, I thank you for your kind words, but you must understand. I’m not trying to gather disciples, I’m trying to BE a disciple! For your ordination, the steeples do a fine job preparing you for that, and I would encourage you to look closer to home.” I folded his letter and smiled. Once again, he had managed to teach me a lesson.

Grace is something that compels us to look twice and think again, that moment where you suddenly say, “Oh!” That evening with P. D. East and his brother Joe, Will Campbell was given pause to think again over his previously held assumptions on what it means to be a Christian, and to be the forgiver, a true forgiver. He experienced grace, with a capital G.

And in reading his works, he has elevated me to understand that compassion is not a matter of sympathy. I often had little sympathy in treating patients on my ambulance, knowing full well they often brought their misfortune upon themselves. But in practicing compassion, I made sure they received the best care I could give, regardless of my feelings. And I’ve been moved to fill a tank of gas for someone a long ways from home, or hand over a few dollars to a beggar, unsure if they were really needy or if their money had been spent on drugs or whatnot. It doesn’t matter. I want to give, if someone really needs it.

Compassion is what I do, not what I feel. And somehow, I think grace is understanding the difference between the two.

So, I thank you, Brother Will. I thank you for your writings, your lessons, and your kind words to me. I grieve your passing, but I have no choice but to celebrate your life. So, my little glass of Jack Daniels is raised in a toast to you.

Godspeed, good brother.


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