A week ago today (June 3, 2013) Will Campbell, minister, civil rights activist, author, lecturer, died at the age of 88. While his educational heritage included Yale Divinity School he may have been most comfortable with the common folk. He was one of the few white individuals to walk with the Little Rock Nine and yet he also had a strong ministry to members of the KKK, because, after all, they needed Jesus too. What has been most impactful to me is that he found a way to minister to the abused as well as the abuser in the name of Jesus.
I never met Will and sadly only came across his writings in the last year, but in that time he has had a tremendous influence on my life. His insistence (from 2 Corinthians 5) that as Christians our ministry of reconciliation means that we must learn to love and forgive all people is challenging and penetrating on so many levels because it requires us to do what we don’t want to do; forgive the one who has wronged us. It’s not a choice, in the name of Jesus we must be reconciled to each other because we are all in the same position, we are all sinners loved by God. Or as Campbell states it when asked to summarize the Christian faith in ten words or less, “We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway.” It’s a crude quote, and one I almost deleted, but to do so would be to do a disservice to Will’s memory and my own faith journey because the crudeness hits me between the eyes and keeps me from making excuses. I often don’t want to forgive others because I assume that I am somehow better than them and thus they should not have wronged me. But Campbell reminds me that we are all in the same place and so I can’t hold a grudge or anger or hatred, I must forgive and be reconciled.
This truth came to Campbell in 1965 when he was trying to come to grips with the death of Jonathon Daniels, a white seminary student, who was shot in cold blood by Thomas Coleman, a sheriff’s deputy in Lowndes County, Alabama. Jonathon was an acquaintance of Campbell’s and Campbell wanted to see justice done. He hated Coleman for what he had done and Will was using every contact he had in the government to try to bring Coleman to justice. Finally Will’s hatred was confronted by his good friend, P.D. Eastman who in the midst of the confrontation asked, “Will, which of these two bastards does God love the most, Jonathon or Thomas?” Will records his response in Brother To A Dragonfly:
“Suddenly everything became clear. Everything. It was a revelation…I walked across the room…and began to whimper. But the crying was interspersed with laughter. It was a strange experience. I remember trying to sort out the sadness and the joy. Just what was I crying for and what was I laughing for. Then this too became clear. I was laughing at myself, at twenty years of ministry that had become, without realizing it, a ministry of liberal sophistication. An attempted negation of Jesus, of human engineering, of riding the coattails of Caesar…a theology of law and order and of denying not only the faith I professed to hold but my history and my people – the Thomas Colemans. Loved. And if loved, forgiven. And if forgiven, reconciled.”
In this moment Campbell realized that as Christians we don’t get to choose who we love and who we forgive, as Christians our ministry is reconciliation to all people, to all cultures, to all nationalities, to all political groups. We are called to love and forgive the Saint and the Sinner, the stranger who buys our coffee at the store and the stranger who breaks into our car and steals our phone. As Christians we must love the innocent who was killed as well as the guilty who pulled the trigger. And, we must love the friend, acquaintance, co-worker, neighbor, who has wronged us and doesn’t seek forgiveness. Our ministry of reconciliation compels us. It doesn’t mean that Thomas Coleman isn’t guilty and doesn’t deserve punishment, but it does mean that not only can I not hate, I must seek reconciliation in the name of Jesus.
I don’t agree with everything Will Campbell said and did, and at times he was crude. But I am thankful for his voice of faith and his challenge to not just go through the motions but to embody Christian faith to the core. His writings and example will continue to challenge my walk. To that I say, Thank You Will, and while we never met on earth, I look forward to meeting you at the Wedding Supper of the Lamb.