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.”….

“Yes.”

“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

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