Will Campbell on a Theological Implication of the Tragic

Suddenly everything became clear. Everything. It was a revelation. The glow of 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 by laughter.

–Will Campbell, Brother to a Dragonfly

If you are not an Episcopalian or a historian of the Civil Rights movement, then the name Jonathan Daniels might not mean much to you. Daniels was a young, white seminarian who was involved directly in the Civil Rights movement during the 1960s. He was murdered soon after being released from spending six days in jail over a protest. His death is rightly commemorated annually by the church as a martyrdom. He was killed by a shotgun blast fired by Thomas Coleman, a county engineer, who obviously perceived Jonathan and his group to be a threat to Lowndes county’s way of life. You can read and listen to more about his story here.

escru_jd_children3I just finished reading Will Campbell’s autobiography and elegy to his brother, Joe. Campbell was born and raised in Mississippi prior to the Civil Rights movement. The book tells a number of stories that lead up to his own involvement, as a Southern Baptist pastor, in that movement. The revelation above comes toward the end of the book when he is talking with his brother and the witty gadfly, P.D. East. East, a lapsed Methodist who calls the church “The Easter Chicken” (who now just looks like one more chicken in the world; but that’s another story), confronts Campbell with some tough questions. The two had a back-and-forth relationship. Previously, Campbell had written many times in response to his mostly satirical paper to “set him straight on one theological point or another.” In this face-to-face conversation, P.D. asks Campbell for a definition of the Christian Faith in just ten words or less.

“Okay. If you would tell me what the hell the Christian Faith is all about maybe I wouldn’t make an ass of myself when I’m talking about it….”

I said, “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.” He swung his car off on the shoulder and stopped, asking me to say it again. I repeated: “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.” He didn’t comment on what he thought about the summary except to say, after he had counted on his fingers, “I gave you a ten word limit. If you want to try again you have two words left.” I didn’t try again but he often reminded me of what I said that day…

“Was Jonathan a bastard?”

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.

“But was he a bastard?” His tone was almost a scream. “Now that’s your word. Not mine.”….


“All right. Is Thomas Coleman a bastard?”

That one was a lot easier…

P.D. …, pull[ed] his chair closer to mine, placing his huge, bony hand on my knee. “Which one of these two bastards you think God loves the most?”

For Will Campbell, this was the moment the implications of his definition came crashing in on him, turning his thinking inside out.

I was laughing for myself, at twenty years of a ministry which had become, without my realizing it, a ministry of liberal sophistication. An attempted negation of Jesus, of human engineering, of riding the coattails of Caesar, of playing on his ballpark, by his rules and with his ball, of looking to government to make and verify and authenticate our morality, of worshipping at the shrine of enlightenment and academia, of making an idol of the Supreme Court, a theology of law and order and of denying the only Faith I professed to hold but my history and my people—the Thomas Colemans. Loved. And if loved, forgiven. And if forgiven, reconciled…

George Wallace frees him to go and kill again. The other liberates him to obedience to Christ. Acquittal by law is the act of Caesar. Render unto him what is his….Acquittal by resurrection takes us back to our little definition of Faith. And takes us into a freedom where it would never occur to us to kill somebody.

The truth is, law is not restraining them. If law is for the purpose of preventing crime every wail of a siren calls out its failure. Every civil rights demonstration attest to the courts’ inability to provide racial justice. Every police chief who asks for a larger appropriation because of the rising crime rate is admitting his own failure. Every time a law has to be enforced it is a failure….

[F]rom that point on I came to understand the nature of tragedy. And one who understands the nature of tragedy can never take sides. And I had taken sides. Many of us who were interested in racial justice had taken sides and there were good reasons in history for doing what we did…

Because we did not understand the nature of tragedy we learned the latest woolhat jokes, learned to cuss Mississippi and Alabama sheriffs, learned to say “redneck” with the same venomous tones we had heard others, or ourselves, say “nigger.” We did not understand that those we so vulgarly called “redneck” were a part of the tragedy.

Brother to a Dragonfly pp. 218-227


The Priority of Theology in Moltmann

The idea that the world will end with God’s final judgement is not originally a Christian concept, and not even a biblical one. Israel took over Babylon, and later Egyptian, ideas about justice in its own independent way, and reshaped them in the power of its belief in God.”–Jurgen Moltmann, Sun of Righteousness: The Gospel about Judgment and the New Creation of All Things in Sun of Righteousness, Arise!: God’s Future for Humanity of the Earth

Moltmann goes on to describe “The Day of the Lord” at the end of history as having two aspects in scripture —judgment of the past and bringing to light the new creation. In Egyptian thought about the afterlife “the human being is the sum of his good and evil anubisworks.” The weighing of these individual deeds, the weight of the heart, is the central feature of the justice which ends in a movement toward one of two possible destinations. The creative justice of God that takes into account not only deeds but sufferings and a concept of the judgment of God as the life-giving ‘putting right’ of what has gone wrong, does not appear in this scheme.

Moltmann is critical of this perspective and spends a good deal of time pointing out its flaws when looked at through the life and teachings of Jesus especially.  Judgment exists, but the image of a criminal court is replaced with an arbitration. Victims and victimizers must be brought together; they need each other for truth to reign. Furthermore, there is an emphasis on the communal, even cosmic, spheres. Moltmann, as most know, is an unapologetic universalist. Death and hell will be destroyed (I Cor. 15.26) . God will be universally glorified and every created thing will share in this eternal livingness.

What interests me the most in this chapter, and elsewhere in his writings, is that Moltmann does not try to deny, by ignoring or reinterpreting, that there are texts in the biblical canon that teach something closer to the Egyptian view—the dividing of humanity into friend and enemy, believer and unbeliever. Instead, he uses this fact to put forward the priority of theology over particular texts in the conclusion of the same chapter:

I recognize that Matthew, the Synoptic Little Apocalypse [Matt 24-25; Mark 13], and the book of Revelation talk about an anthropological dualism rather than about a theocentric universalism. For me, the casting vote was given by the Old Testament concept of divine justice for victims and the all-rectifying judgment of God. The different biblical traditions about judgment cannot be harmonized. A decision has to made on the foundation of theological arguments.”