Will Campbell died last week. There was a small flurry of obituaries that seemed to struggle at including the breadth and almost contradictory spectrum of his life. He worked extensively on the front lines of the civil rights movement with Dr. King and drank whiskey with Klansmen. He was a pastor without a church.
A few years ago Bishop Kenneth Carder told me to read his memoir Brother to a Dragonfly, a personal story mainly about what it feels like to be rubbed by the steel wool of God’s love.
As a preacher, Will Campbell was an idol crasher. He chipped away at our culture’s feet of clay and faces of gold. He didn’t do this through extended theological argument, a philosophical treatise, or sets of statistics. He did it by telling a story—his story and Christ’s story. Throughout his life, Will Campbell embodied startling images and actions so the church could see and hear what the gospel—and what this love—means and costs. One is reminded of when Hazel Motes, in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, states, “If you’ve been redeemed, I wouldn’t want to be.” I think Will wanted others to say this, but for the right reasons. He would want people who reject Christianity to do so because of the costliness of its love, because of the depths of its forgiveness.
He was no friend of easy “oppositionalism,” of any simplistic demarcation of the just and unjust. Our categories crumble in the presence of God’s grace. In every education and discipleship lies the specter of sophistication; the belief that God’s justice perfectly lines up with our justice. Depending on the form it takes a quest for justice can itself become an idol. His story, his relationship with his brother and the civil rights movement warns us of when our desire to work for others says more about us than it does about God.
He was no friend of boundaries. A large part of North American church life involves the drawing of boundaries, and the gospel itself should lead the church to resist and break them. If anything, Will Campbell is the anti-prophet; the prophet to the prophets; the divinely sent worm that kills the tree of self-satisfied categorization and apathy. He stings those who, similar to Jonah, refuse to go to the Ninevehs of our time. He was not afraid to call the modern Ninevites sinful (maybe the KKK) but that does not mean they are “exempt” from his ministry. As he says: “If you love one, you have to love them all.”
He was a friend of flesh and blood people. He stood against structures, powers and principalities; he stood with people. There are two types of horror stories typically told around campfires. The first set tells the story as if the monsters are “out there,” beyond the light the campfire casts. The monsters lurk in the dark woods, as outsiders, as “others.” The next story type draws the boundaries differently—saying that the monsters are here, illumined by the fire’s light, most likely sitting around it. Simply, the monsters are us. His autobiography, Brother to a Dragonfly, tells both of these story types simultaneously. Only when you tell the story right are you going to know who the real enemies are. Faithfulness to the gospel involves a public and difficult grappling with one’s own fallibility; truthfulness about the structural powers of sin entails truthfulness about oneself. God’s grace never tells us that we are innocent, “but it will tell us that we are loved.” Grace is a double-edged balm, convicting and healing both the victim and the oppressor. Campbell’s lovely summation of the gospel gets the final word: “We are all bastards, but God loves us anyways.”