Generous Orthodoxy  

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

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: