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


Teilhard de Chardin’s Taxonomy of Evil


A friend at church is a big fan of de Chardin, and so I began re-reading sections of his Phenomenon of Man (1948) and some of his other writings over the summer. Overall, I’m impressed with the orderliness of his thinking. Despite some critical comments by readers about his mixing levels of explanationbio-32, on closer reading, he is really quite careful. I agree with Madeleine BartheIemy-Madaule, who said, “..it may be that what the thinker in him was seeking was already known to the mystic; but he never let the mystic influence the thinker.

Teilhard’s view of the Cross as absorbing all evil into itself is a bit too mythological for me, but I like other aspects of his thought such as the incorporation of telos into an evolutionary schema. I plan to return to de Chardin at some point, but a brief appendix on the topic of evil, where he gives a typology appears in Phenomenon, caught my attention. I think definitions of “evil”, “suffering”, and  “existence” (when referring to God) are critical to the discussion. Most of the time, writers speaking of “evil” are referring to suffering imposed by the choices that people make. His taxonomy of different kinds of suffering is more subtle than some and illuminating of the multiplicity and interrelatedness of the issues that are involved.

First: evil of disorder and failure. Right up to its reflective zones we have seen the world proceeding by means of groping and chance. Under this heading alone—even up to the human level on which chance is most controlled—how many failures have there been for one success, how many days of misery for one hour’s joy, how many sins for a solitary saint? To begin with we find physical lack-of-arrangement or derangement on the material level; then suffering, which cuts into the sentient flesh; then, on a still higher level, wickedness and the torture of spirit as it analyzes itself and makes choices. Statistically, at every degree of evolution, we find evil always and everywhere, forming and reforming implacably in us and around us. Necesarium est ut scandal eveniant. This is relentlessly imposed by the play of large number at the heart of a multitude undergoing organization.

Second: evil of decomposition. This is no more than a form of the foregoing, for sickness and corruption invariably result from some unhappy chance. It is an aggravated and doubly fatal form, it must be added, inasmuch as, with living creatures, death is the regular, indispensable condition of the replacement of one individual by another along a phyletic stem. Death—the essential lever in the mechanism and upsurge of life.

Third: evil of solitude and anxiety. This is the great anxiety (peculiar to man) of a consciousness wakening up to reflection in a dark universe in which light takes centuries and centuries to reach it—a universe we have no yet succeeded in understanding either in itself, or its demands on us.

Lastly, the least tragic perhaps, because it exalts us, though none the less real: the evil of growth, by which is expressed in us, in the pangs of childbirth, the mysterious law which, from the bumblest chemism to the highest syntheses of the spirit, makes all progress in the direction of increased unity express itself in terms of work and effort.

The final sentence could be seen as a summary of his views on evil and God.

…In one manner or the other it still remains true that, even in the view of the mere biologist, the human epic resembles nothing so much as a way of the Cross.