My last blog post, on the passing of Rev. Will D. Campbell, brought a flood of memories to me. Mainly of my time in seminary and the work I did to answer God’s call, all in the context of a looming shadow slowly drifting over the Baptist landscape of the time.

A bit of history. In the 1970’s, two prominent Baptists viewed with alarm at what they considered “liberal” teachings at our Southern Baptist seminaries. They, Judge Paul Pressler and the Rev. Dr. Paige Patterson, helped engineer a conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, beginning in 1979. The church I went to was very conservative and my pastor warned me about the evils of liberals in those institutions. Especially at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY, and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC. I chose to go to Southeastern, calmly assured my faith was strong and unshakable.  Naturally, I believed in the inerrant and infallible Word of God.

It didn’t take long for my professors to start making an impression on me. I began realizing when you start adding doctrines and theories such as the writers of the Bible merely being “human pens” so that God could write his Word, it didn’t make a lot of sense. I can’t find a theory or explanation of the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible in the Bible. Thus, it is merely a human idea, and thus, not one worthy of my time or energy to defend or promote.  I considered it a lesser theory because it leads, in my opinion, to faith being built on shaky ground. My faith is built on the Bible, not theories about the Bible. It is, I think, crucial to understand the difference.

So, I tossed inerrancy and those related theories out the window. But the conservative movement had continued to grow, fueled by Reagan’s presence in the White House and the near-hysteria of the proponents of the movement in insisting on the removal of the “liberals” from our churches and seminaries. And believe me, these conservatives most certainly did believe those theories. In their entirety.

The stage was set then for a major clash.

When the conservatives finally gained a majority on Southeastern’s Board of Trustees, students and faculty alike staged massive protests. We painted signs, wore ribbons to signify “courage” and vowed to sit in the trustee meeting and not move if they made a move to go into executive session. The conservatives lashed out at us, deriding us for creating “an orchestrated climate of intimidation.”

You betcha! I was in the thick of it, being on an ad-hoc steering committee that worked to get the signs painted, prepare responses and spread the word to those around us. We wanted the conservative trustees to understand how we felt, that this intrusion into academic freedom was not a welcome thing. As baptists, we don’t believe in creeds. Our guiding principle is the preisthood of the believer, the belief that God will work miracles in his own way in his own time with each individual, and that does not depend on following a rigid belief system for it’s efficacy. Faith is not a pick-and-choose menu.  Our little movement spread to all the seminary campuses, but not for long.

Of course, they did what they came to do. Within five years, all but one professor had left. The seminary and its marvelous faculty was gone, dispersed like seeds in the wind. Some have passed away now, and a few are still teaching. I count it a great tragedy that the conservatives sought the ouster of these talented and compassionate men and women.  Oh, and by the way, I only met one professor at the seminary I could call a “liberal,” and even that is debatable.

And we all moved on. Graduated, moved out to begin ministry in all kinds of settings. I am proud of my involvement in those days. I don’t relive it much, though.

And here’s why. With the fighting of a certain movement, labels became necessary. Conservative, Fundamentalist, Liberal, Moderate. Thus I was a moderate Baptist or moderate Christian, not holding extreme views, but not subscribing to the fundamentalist doctrine of biblical inerrancy. That doesn’t mean I think the Bible is false, for crying out loud. It just means I don’t agree with their theory of inerrancy, at least the way they present it.

So we became a carefully labeled Baptist society, conservative Baptist, modern Baptist, and so on. In due time, I’ve come to realize something. That’s not workable.

“What am I?” is the question that occurs as I wonder what appellation to ascribe to myself. More and more over the years, such designations make me increasingly uncomfortable. Am I, or is anyone, less or more of a Christian, a follower, by qualifying such appellations with words such as liberal, conservative, moderate, fundamentalist?

I think not.

And I suspect the question itself might be part of the problem. What am I? or Who am I? Maybe it is better without the qualifier.

Am I?

Or am I not?

I am a follower of Christ. I am living my life in accordance with his teachings, revealed in the Bible. As a person of faith, I am cogent of the workings of the Holy Spirit to guide my thinking and help me better understand my place in this world.  I am ready to act on my faith when presented with a situation that calls for it.

Or, I am not. I think it is that simple, when we get right down to it.

I AM, of course, is the answer God gave Moses at the burning bush, when Moses asked who he was.  And that problematic answer seems to make a lot more sense when I quit trying to qualify it with modifiers.  In other words, God is saying to Moses, “Moses, quit beating around this here bush and get your ass in gear! Because I AM.”

Indeed.

I am either a follower of Christ or I am not. Anything beyond that is to invite something besides faith to live within us. And that troubles me mightily.

 

 

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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.

Questions and Answers

July 19, 2011

Answers are nice, but seem to be weighty with finality. Questions are thus more preferable to me, for they are fraught with possibilities and open doors.