“Nobody I’ve read challenged me as much as Will D. Campbell.”
My friend Drew, a voracious reader and excellent writer himself, posted those words on Facebook a couple of days ago when he learned that one of the heroes of the civil rights movement had died.
Who was Will Campbell? A liquor-loving Baptist preacher who preferred honky-tonks to sanctuaries and who spent his life ministering to those most of us good Christian folks would do anything to avoid.
And he defied definition. What you find in Campbell’s life is a brutal authenticity, an honesty that made him difficult to like but impossible to ignore and that threatened every ounce of decency you ever claimed to have.
Hailed by some as “the conscience of the South,” Campbell was anything but a “clear” conscience. He was troubled by so many things that the world and the church had messed up, and he had the courage to not only speak about them, but to wade into the messiness with nothing more than the love he believed Jesus embodied.
Like my friend Drew, I found Campbell’s writings deeply challenging, but challenging in the best sort of way. His words and his life stand as a challenge against every tendency within me to restrict God’s love to those who measure up socially, or economically, or racially, or to any other category of respectability I might want to impose. As Campbell would always proclaim, “You love one, you have to love ’em all.”
In his autobiography Brother to a Dragonfly, Campbell tells the story of what became his most-famous quote. His friend P. D. East, an editor, had asked him to capture the heart of Christianity, but with some severe limitations. “I’m not too bright,” he told Campbell. “Keep it simple. In ten words or less, what’s the Christian message?”
Campbell’s response? “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.”
Some time later, these words were put to the cruelest test imaginable. A friend of Campbell’s who was a student of theology at a seminary in Massachusetts had travelled to Alabama to help blacks get registered to vote. A deputy shot him coming out of a store. His crime? He was with two black friends.
Campbell happened to be with his editor friend when he learned of his friend’s horrifying death. So P. D. East asked him, “Was your friend a bastard?” Still in shock and grieving, Campbell confessed that he surely was.
“What about the deputy who murdered him? Was he a bastard too?”
This was an easy question. “Of course he was a bastard!”
And then East asked a question that Campbell remembers as the turning point of his life: “Which one of these two bastards do you think God loves most?”
Campbell answered that question over the course of his life. And because he believed that “if you love one, you have to love ’em all,” his life took him to all the places you wouldn’t expect him to go. He visited James Earl Ray in prison after he killed Martin Luther King. Jr. He turned his love to countless members of the Ku Klux Klan. He placed himself in all the places the rejected and forgotten and ignored gathered, and he just loved them.
And because he loved them all, he was hated by countless folks on every side of every issue. Unconditional love can bring out hatred quicker than anything else in life. We simply keep wanting to reserve love for the lovely, and when folks like Will Campbell dare to embrace the love seen in Jesus, we are challenged, at best, and, at our worst, angered to an irrational hate which betrays the way of Jesus we so often want to protect from those we detest.
Thanks be to God for the life of Will Campbell, whose life challenges us to a deeper and more scandalous love.
And thanks be to God for loving us anyway.