Generous Orthodoxy  

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

"Whitey" Bulger and the notion of honor

The trial of James (Whitey) Bulger, the infamous emperor of the Boston underworld in the 70s and 80s, is riveting Boston and the Northeast in general. (The odious character played by Jack Nicholson in Scorsese's Oscar-winning The Departed was based on Bulger.) Particularly noteworthy has been the testimony of John Martorano, aka the Executioner, who has confessed to 20+ murders. Except that he doesn't call them murders. He wants to be known as a man who lived strictly by a code of honor, which he claims he learned first from his father who always said, "Family and friends come first," and then from "the priests and the nuns I grew up with. They taught me that Judas was the worst person in the world." In other words, when it comes to defending "family and friends," killing enemies was not only permitted, it was required. The corollary of this was that anyone who snitched was a traitor, a Judas. Martorano was not in the least concerned about all the people that Bulger either killed personally or ordered killed. What bothers him and drove him to testify at the trial was the disclosure of Bulger's being an informer to the FBI. The sin of sins, in other words, is to snitch. No crime, however horrible, would ever be revealed if it was committed by one's "family" member.

All of this is based on a code of "honor." We have heard a good deal lately about the honor codes in the Middle East, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other cultures. I have always been interested in the idea of honor because I grew up with it in the South. To do something dishonorable was the worst of offenses ("death before dishonor"). As I remember it, a dishonorable act was not primarily one that brought shame on one's family. It was an act that offended the norms of the community at large. The community norms were not seen as local, however.  My own native culture (patrician Virginia) had some traits that have been variously described as Puritan, Victorian, or (horrors) bourgeois, but this is to miss the mark by a good deal. The rigor of the Southern concept of honor was not derived from those sources in any major way. It was derived from various other magisterial sources: republican Rome, medieval chivalry, military discipline, and not least Christianity. The famous honor system at the University of Virginia focuses on lying, cheating, and stealing; even today, shopkeepers at "The Corner" in Charlottesville report fewer infractions than would be the case in many other places. However, the system does not work unless the whole  community signs on to the understanding that violators will be reported by their peers, and then judged by their peers. It's proven to be difficult to continue that 170-year-old tradition at the University, what with diversity and the absence of universally accepted social norms.

The point here is that, in a strange reversal, "snitching," rather than dishonor, has somehow become the worst of the worst of unacceptable actions. This has pernicious results. To take an extreme case, I have personal knowledge of a murder of a teenager that took place in a small town.  Several other teenagers had knowledge of who the killer was but did not tell anyone. The choir director at the Methodist church also knew and did not tell. For years, the parents of the victim went on living in the same house in the same town knowing that someone knew; imagine their anguish! Only years later did the story begin to come out. Among the teenagers, "snitching" was viewed as more dishonorable than homicide. It was considered more important to protect the killer than to serve the cause of justice and truth.

In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus intructs his disciples in the procedure to be used in the community called by his name when there is an offense.
If your brother sins, go and point out his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won him over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If he still refuses to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
Shouldn't we be teaching something like this to our young people? 

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Will Campbell lives! (part four)

In this week's New York Review of Books, there is a substantive article about guns in America by David Cole, professor of law at Georgetown. The NYRB is ultra-liberal by almost any standard, yet many of its essayists work hard to be respectful and to analyze issues fairly, in depth, from various perspectives. Cole is reviewing two books, one favorably, one not so favorably. He takes author Tom Diaz (The Last Gun) to task for "liberal hyperbole." The book that he praises, and describes at some length, is Gun Guys: A Road Trip by Dan Baum. Baum, a Jewish Democrat from New Jersey and a former staff writer at The New Yorker, plays against type in his essay; he's always liked guns. He has gone to considerable lengths to understand the gun culture. He travelled around the South and Southwest wearing an NRA cap and carrying a gun (for which he obtained a license), meeting and schmoozing with gun enthusiasts, trying to empathize with them and deconstruct their political views.

The first thing that he wants to say about his subjects is that they have been on the receiving end of  a good deal of truly awful stereotyping, dished out gleefully by the liberal media. This would not have been tolerated for a minute if the subjects had been black, gay, Hispanic, Jewish (fill in the blanks).  Here are some examples that Cole quotes from Baum's book:

Newspaper editorialists called gun owners “a ridiculous minority of airheads,” “a handful of middle-age fat guys with popguns,” and “hicksville cowboys” with “macho” hang-ups. For Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post, gun guys were “bumpkins and yeehaws who like to think they are protecting their homes against imagined swarthy marauders desperate to steal their flea-bitten sofas from their rotting front porches.” Mark Morford of SF Gate called female shooters “bored, under-educated, bitter, terrified, badly dressed, pasty, hate-spewin’ suburban white women from lost Midwestern towns with names like Frankenmuth.”

Baum rightly concludes, “It was impossible to imagine getting away with such cruel dismissals of, say, blacks or gays, yet among a certain set, backhanding gun owners was good sport, even righteous.”

What was also coming through again and again was that gun guys felt insulted. They had something they liked to do—own and shoot guns—and because of it they suffered, they believed, a continuous assault on their hobby, their lifestyle, and their dignity…. At precisely the moment they were sensing their numbers shrinking, gun guys were experiencing what they perceived as a nonstop attack on their very worth as human beings.
Will Campbell is not mentioned in this article nor, indeed, envisioned. And yet here he is. "These are my people," he would be saying. He would be reminding us that "we're all racists," "we're all bastards, but God loves us anyway." That was the rock bottom of his gift to the church. The difference between him and us is that he acted on these beliefs in a way that is unimaginable to most of us. In spite of his often annoying, self-parodying persona, he was the real thing (see the Rolling Stone article mentioned in an earlier Rumination, if you can find it).

In the final analysis, the gospel is not only good news for victims. It is also good news for victimizers. And it is transformative for us both. Thus Paul the apostle concludes, "God has consigned all human beings to disobedience in order that he might have mercy upon them all." (Romans 11:32)

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

The impact of Will D. Campbell (part three)

I am going to start compiling some of the testimonies to Will's importance that I'm receiving in response to my efforts to pay tribute to him (read parts one and two, immediately preceding on this blog). Here, for instance, is what Phil Ziegler wrote from the University of Aberdeen:

I remember what a revelation it was to discover a full run of Katallagete in the Emmanuel College library in Toronto when I was a student there in the 1990s. Reading in it helped to break things open for me – that a radical biblical theology of grace and radical politics were related was a thought I couldn’t have formed in the United Church before that encounter. Somebody with access to them should scan a full set of these and offer them as a kind of digital archive.
Katallagete should not be mentioned solely in connection with Will, however. It was a joint effort with Jim Holloway (James Y.) and could not have existed without him.
Here is another response, from the Rev. Craig Higgins, a friend and superb preacher:

I just read your blog posts on the passing of Will Campbell. I too only met him once, as an undergrad at Mercer University, where he was considered nothing less than a saint.  (His book, The Stem of Jesse, is about Mercer, of course.  And I studied under Joe Hendricks Hendricks, Mary Wilder, Bob Otto, and a bunch of the people mentioned in that book.  Although, by the time I got there in the Fall of 1979, the worst of those struggles was over.)  I am thankful to have a copy of The Glad River, inscribed, “To Craig, part of the neighborhood.  Will Campbell.”

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Will D. Campbell (part two) and the possibility of universal salvation

In addition to what I have already written (please read the previous post first) about Brother Will, there is something else. This appears in another sermon in my Help My Unbelief, but the original source is Will's book And Also With You. The sermon was preached at the commencement for Virginia Theological Seminary graduates in 1999. Here is a part of the conclusion:


            This brings us to book number three, by Will Campbell. No greater servant of the radical gospel of grace lives today. He was, as he says, “in the crosshairs of the Klan” for many years, but everything Brother Will writes is constructed around the gospel message that Christ died for the ungodly.[1] His latest is And Also With You: Duncan Gray and the American Dilemma.[2] Duncan Gray was a genuine hero of the Episcopal Church in Mississippi during the civil rights movement, and the book is written as a tribute to his witness. I want to give you some idea of the book’s ending, but please be aware that it is far more intricate, poetic, artful and profound than I can even begin to suggest. That said, let us follow as Brother Will describes a day with a most unlikely and unholy triumvirate. Picture Will Campbell, Sam Bowers, and civil rights activist Kenneth Dean, colleague and friend of Duncan Gray. Bowers is escorting them on foot through the “deep, foreboding” Mississippi swamps, “as remote a place as I had ever seen,” where “dark rituals [had] uneased the night” at “nocturnal, clandestine gatherings” of the Ku Klux Klan.

Beside me was Bowers, a man alleged to have been responsible for multiple murders, bombings, and mayhem. On the other side of me was [Kenneth] Dean, a man who had risked his own life trying to save the lives of black citizens...It was the greatest test my tentative understanding of unconditional grace as overshadowing, overcoming, conquering humanity’s inherent sinfulness I had ever known. The scandal of the gospel I had heard preachers and theologians talk about in generalities all my life assumed an even more outrageous posture. Is grace abounding here in this darkening arcane forest? Truly unconditional grace? Something as crazy as Golda Meir chasing Hitler around the pinnacles of heaven, and after a thousand years he stops and lets her pin a Star of David on his chest? Who said that?...I felt a strange oneness with the two men with me. And an even more unfamiliar concord with those I knew had convened on this ground to plan missions of atrocity.

            What is that oneness? What is that concord? That is the theological question. Is it simply “God loves everybody?” No one who cares about God’s justice can be satisfied with that. Religious reassurances of the ordinary variety do not reach the deepest pain or bridge the widest chasms. Nothing will do it but this Word: Christ died for the ungodly. That is our oneness, that is our concord. The unconditional grace of God, the righteousness of Christ in his death, “overshadowing, overcoming, conquering humanity’s inherent sinfulness”; the purpose of God at work with resurrection power to reclaim this whole human race of “miserable offenders” for his glorious kingdom: that is the word of faith which we preach.


That's from the sermon. Since 1999 I have written 600 pages about these problems and these issues. It is Paul in Romans 11 who most clearly suggests universal salvation (preceded by hints in Jonah and Isaiah 40-55). George Hunsinger of Princeton Theological Seminary and I were discussing universalism and the problems it poses, and he said, "We are permitted to hope for it." That seems right to me, and I don't think we can say more than that about universal salvation in view of the many portions of scripture that seem to forbid such a speculation.

Wikipedia has an entry for Will that shows more depth that Wiki often does. It contains two classic quotations:
He has insisted that "anyone who is not as concerned with the immortal soul of the dispossessor as he is with the suffering of the dispossessed is being something less than Christian" [7] and that "Mr. Jesus died for the bigots as well".[8]
Regarding Hitler: after pondering the problem of evil and reading at least 40 books about Hitler, the Holocaust, Rwanda, Stalin, and genocide in general, I have begun to think that there have been a few people in human history who were not human beings at all. They appeared to be, but they were only simulacra (having the appearance but not the substance of the real thing). That's as much as we can surmise. Obliteration, as though they had never been, and the erasure of their memory (see Miroslav Volf's The End of Memory) seems a possibility, but we must leave that to our righteous Judge.

[1] One annoying thing about Will Campbell is his insistence on saying that he is not a theologian. That’s equivalent to Aretha Franklin saying she is not a singer.
[2] Will D. Campbell, And Also With You: Duncan Gray and the American Dilemma (Franklin, Tennessee: Providence House Publishers, 1997)

A towering figure crosses over Jordan: Will D. Campbell

There is no single Christian who has meant more to some of us, especially us Southerners, than "Brother Will" D. Campbell. He went home to the Lord today at the age of 88. No one served the gospel more radically or more completely. I don't wish to idealize him -- he could be, and often was, outrageous and infuriating -- but he understood the scandal of the crucified Christ as well as any Christian who ever lived,  and he wrote well, too. At Yale Divinity School, together with his then comrade-in-arms James Y. Holloway, he met and influenced many who would become noted scholars and ministers. The two of them published and edited (respectively) the journal Katallagete, the house organ for the Committee of Southern Churchmen (full disclosure: I wrote a few essays for "Kat" in the late 70s). The Greek word katallagete occurs in II Cor. 5:20; it means "be reconciled!"

The masthead of Kat listed the editorial board members.  I doubt if any of the people on it ever exercised any actual editorial functions, but we were all "friends of Will" if not of one another. What a list! Jacques Ellul, Walker Percy, Julius Lester, Vine Deloria, many less famous names...a wildly dissimilar bunch, all having in common a quirky sensibility and willingness to go against the grain while being found somewhere along the way of "the Search" -- as in Percy's The Moviegoer. (What am I doing on that masthead? Well, I was a student of J. Louis Martyn who was a close friend of Jim Holloway, who was....) William Stringfellow should have been on that list -- he really fits with Will Campbell -- but then, he was not a Southerner. Hmmm.....Frenchman Jacques Ellul wasn't either. You get the picture. What then was the common denominator? A certain apocalyptic turn of mind, and a truly radical commitment to the God who acts in the lives of the poor, the powerless, the victimized --  and perhaps even the victimizers.

The extraordinary thing about Brother Will was the depth of his commitment to the dikaiosune theou in every circumstance. What do I mean by that? It's Greek for "the righteousness of God." The word that we translate "justification" is the same word--dikaiosis. Will took Paul the apostle at his word about the righteousness of God, which is "the power of God for salvation" (Romans 1:16-17). As in Romans 11, Will's vision of the power of God to make righteous, to justify, to rectify -- to make right what has been wrong -- extends to what is impossible for human beings. God is able to create righteousness and justice (same word in Greek) where there has been none, where in fact there has been evil.

People were baffled by this. In a sermon called "God-damned Christians," which appears in my book Help My Unbelief, I retell a true story about Will attending the trial of Sam Bowers, the Grand Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Bowers is believed to have ordered several killings, the most conspicuous of which was the assassination of the black civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer in his own home. At the Mississippi trial held almost forty years later, the large Dahmer family sat on one side of the courtroom. Sam Bowers sat alone on the other. As the trial proceeded, Will sat with the Dahmers some of the time and with Bowers some of the time. A baffled reporter asked him why he did that. Will growled, "Because I'm a God-damned Christian."

Will understood that the gospel is not about "improving the improvable" (to borrow a phrase from Robert Farrar Capon, another radical Christian thinker), but raising the dead.  Christ did not die on the cross to make good people better, but to take upon himself the judgment that lay over the whole human race. God is not just on the side of the "good" people. His terrible god-forsaken death at the hands of torturers, whom he forgave on the cross, means -- whatever else it may mean -- that God is also on the side of those who perpetrate evil on other human beings.  "There but for the grace of God go I."

Will and I corresponded over the years, but I only met him once, in New York City of all places. I was in my 30s, he only twelve years older but seeming to me like an ancient prophet come down off Mount Horeb. I was callow beyond belief, still congratulating myself for my politically correct views and my transition from segregationist to activist (imagine me thinking of myself as an activist in the presence of a man who had risked his life repeatedly!). We were walking down Fifth Avenue after our conversation over lunch (or whatever it had been, I don't remember that part). I was confiding in him about my conversion.

"My father," I said sadly (I adored my father) but smugly, "was a racist."

"Fleming," said Will. Pause. "We're all racists."

I have looked back on that moment virtually every day since. It was one of the transformative events of my life. Three words. The whole of the Epistle to the Romans fell into place in the presence of one man who had committed his life to the righteousness of God for salvation.

Thank you, Father in heaven, for giving us Will Campbell to remind us all of the judgment we deserve and the grace we have received. May we share in some small measure of his courage and continue some of his witness to the unconditional power of the righteousness of God. In Christ's conquering Name we pray. Amen.

The New York Times obituary is here (watch for other, fuller notices in Christian sources):

And not-so-Christian sources One of the very best articles about Will, which really gives a sense of who he was to unbelievers, doubters, and renegades, is in Rolling Stone, December 13-27, 1990. It's called "The First Church of Rednecks, White Socks, and Blue Ribbon Beer," by Lawrence Wright. I tried to get a link, but couldn't find out how to do it without becoming a subscriber. You subscribers out there, go to that article! Among other things, it is worth it just to see the beautiful photo of Will and his wife.

Ha! I do have hip readers after all! One of them sent me this link to the Rolling Stone piece. It's superb. I bet you have to pay for it, though. It's worth it. Anyway, give it a try:

Timothy George wrote a good piece for First Things. Among other things he discloses something I didn't know. Will apparently said that “I see the fashion in which abortion is practiced as the greatest American shame since slavery.” The article also contains the best description I've heard of the Committee of Southern Churchmen (I was theoretically a member later on, but alas, was never invited to Gass' Tavern), and one of the best descriptions of the gospel and the Christian life:

In the 1960s, Campbell became disillusioned with the National Council of Churches and from then on carried out his work as director of the “Committee of Southern Churchmen.” This was a loose-knit band of Will’s friends and fellow travelers who defined themselves as “a group of folk here in the South who cared that Jesus Christ died for our sins, and who are going to live in light of and because of that fact.” On one occasion, Will invited me to join the board of the Committee of Southern Churchmen. He explained that there were no dues, no regular meetings, no given responsibilities, no budget (because they were broke), and no duties. I accepted. We would meet for an hour or two at Will’s famous log cabin and farm in Mount Juliet, Tennessee, and then retire to a nearby tavern called Gass’s for barbeque sandwiches and Jack Daniels (or lemonade).
Here's the link, but again, I bet you have to be a subscriber: