What Will Campbell Learned
For Sunday September 9, 2012
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)
Proverbs 22:1–2, 8–9, 22–23 or Isaiah 35:4–7
Psalm 125 or Psalm 146
James 2:1–10, (11–13), 14–17
"My sisters and brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don't show favoritism" (James 2:1). When we play favorites, writes James, we "discriminate and become judges." And when we judge, we've put ourselves in the place of God, which is idolatry.
We judge, discriminate, and play favorites for many reasons — race, religion, gender, intelligence, politics, and nationality all come to mind. James uses the example of Christians who favored the rich over the poor. The irony is not lost on him: "Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong?"
In the gospel this week we see how Jesus accepted everyone indiscriminately. A desperate mother brought her sick daughter to Jesus, but there was a problem: she was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia, and thus to a Jew who was careful about ritual purity, she was an unclean Gentile. Indeed, Jesus tests her by saying that his primary mission is to the Jews. But this religious and ethnic outsider persisted so much that Jesus praises her as a paradigm of faith. He similarly touches the untouchable in the healing of the deaf and dumb man.
Garry Wills puts it perfectly in his book What Jesus Meant (2006). God in his lavish and indiscriminate love never excludes people because they are unclean, unworthy, or disrespectable. Nor should we. "No outcasts were cast out far enough in Jesus's world to make him shun them."
Playing favorites is easy; loving indiscriminately is hard. Will Campbell (b. 1924) found this out the hard way. In his two memoirs Forty Acres and a Goat and Brother to a Dragonfly he describes his own experience of learning to love without limits. And for the record, I would count these as two of the most important books in my own Christian pilgrimage.
Campbell was born and raised in the rural and very poor deep south of Amite, Mississippi. He was "ordained" by family members at a local Baptist church when he was seventeen, and, in a delightfully improbable life, played a central role as an activist and agitator on behalf of African Americans. But to leave it at that would badly misrepresent his story.
After serving in World War II, Campbell studied at Tulane, Wake Forest, and Yale. After a short stint as a pastor in Louisiana, he served as Director of Religious life at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss), but left after two years because his controversial views on race attracted death threats. He then did a stint for the National Council of Churches, working with most of the civil rights luminaries. In 1957, for example, Campbell was one of four people who escorted the nine black students who integrated Little Rock's Central High School; and he was the only white person to attend the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. The hate mail from the white right poured in.
As he matured, Campbell had the uneasy feeling that he hated those redneck bigots who hated. He discovered how easy it was to play favorites and to oppress the oppressors. Strange, he thought, how he enjoyed thinking that God hated all the same people that he hated. He realized that he had created God in his own image, and after his own personal and political likeness. Through a series of encounters with unlikely "teachers," Campbell came to admit that after twenty years in ministry he had become little more than a "doctrinaire social activist," which was different than being a follower of Jesus.
The key? "I came to understand the nature of tragedy. And one who understands the nature of tragedy can never take sides." Campbell saw how he had played favorites and taken sides; he had subverted the indiscriminate love of God for all people without conditions, limits, or exceptions into a ministry of "liberal sophistication."
Acting upon these convictions, he started sipping whiskey with the Ku Klux Klan. He did their funerals and weddings, and even befriended the Grand Dragon of North Carolina, J.R. "Bob" Jones. When they were sick he emptied their bed pans. And then the hate mail came from the liberal left. In a 1976 interview for an oral history that he gave to the University of Southern Mississippi, he joked, "It's been a long time since I got a hate letter from the right. Now they come from the left."
Since God doesn't play favorites, Campbell concluded, neither should he.
The necessary connection between claiming to love God and proving that we love our fellow human beings became so embedded in the early Christian traditions that this teaching is repeated almost verbatim by Paul (Romans 13:8–9, Galatians 5:14), by James (James 2:8), and most memorably by John: "If anyone says, 'I love God,' yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother" (1 John 4:20–21).
I don't know if I could make nice with the KKK like Will Campbell. But he surely points us in the right direction of indiscriminate love that doesn't play favorites. It's a way of life commended long ago by Saint Maximos the Confessor (580–662): "Blessed is the one who can love all people equally… always thinking good of everyone."
Image credits: (1) ONTD Political; (2) Belmont University; and (3) The Bilerico Project.