Remembering Will Campbell

I've been away all week, so I haven't had the time to take a moment to reflect on the passing of Will Campbell. Brother Will passed away last week, on Monday, at the age of 88.

Given Will's passing it was good to be with my friend Richard Goode last week in Nashville to hear him share some thoughts about Will and their work together. My favorite story Richard shared was how Will helped Thomas Merton climb the wall of the Gethsemani monastery so the two of them could get a drink in town.

Richard is responsible for introducing a new generation to the life and witness of Will Campbell through the books Crashing the Idols and Writings on Reconciliation and Resistance. I can't recommend these two books highly enough. Richard also edited the recently published volume of essays And The Criminals With Him, a work inspired by the 1972 issue of Katallagete, the journal Will published, devoted to shedding light on the US prison system.

I'm honored to have an essay in And The Criminals With Him because Will Campbell, though I never met him, is the reason I'm doing prison ministry.

When the book came out I asked Richard, when he next visited Will, if he could have Will autograph a copy. Richard tried, but Will was too ill. But Richard read my essay aloud to Will during the visit. For that, I'm so grateful.

And, incidentally, I did figure out another way to get Will's autograph. Online I found a first edition, signed copy of Brother to a Dragon Fly, the book many consider to be Will's finest.

If you don't know about Will Campbell many tributes appeared last week. For a good biographical overview see Robert McFadden's tribute in the New York Times. For some insight into Will's theology and his cutting prophetic commentary see Greg Garrison's tribute to the "bootleg preacher" at

My post sharing and reflecting upon Will's famous summation of Christian theology--"We're all bastards but God loves us anyway"--can be found here.

Be reconciled. 2 Corinthians 5.20. καταλλάγητε. In a nutshell, that was Brother Will's message. Once, in a religion seminar, Will got into an argument with a university professor who was pushing Will to get specific about his doctrine and ministry. As recounted by Thomas Connelly:
[T]he theology professor repeated the same question, over and over: "What is your actual business, Reverend Campbell--I mean, what do you believe in?" Finally Campbell lost his patience and roared, "I have been trying to tell you! I believe in Jesus, goddammit, Jesus! Through the saving grace of His death on the cross, we have all been reconciled to each other. So if we accept this gift, we're free. There ain't no need to hate anyone! Getting the word around about that--that's my business, professor!"
Be reconciled, my brothers and sisters, be reconciled.

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6 thoughts on “Remembering Will Campbell ”

  1. Campbell was once asked when he thought the church would come to grips with homosexuality.

    "It's never come to grips with heterosexuality," he said.

    Haha. Writings on reconciliation and resistance was the beginning of action for me. When a writer or preacher moves you to act, not just pass along his words, then you have a gem of a preacher. Such a gift. To actively needle you to NOT let his words become a doctrine that could then be endlessly studied. He saw the rise of the scholarly professor, much like Kierkegaard did, as the enemy of commitment, action and discipleship. Now we just blog about our insights. Imitation? That's costly. Suffering is the key to discipleship? Let me check with the professor first then crowd source my feed and see if that be true.

  2. Such an interesting figure. From the article, Garrison's article I love this part in particular: "Recent national Baptist leaders have given fundamentalism a bad name, he said. "Fundamentalism was originally a responsible, respectable school of thought," Campbell said. "These people aren't fundamentalists; they're mean." This particular move is one that I've stolen from Campbell, without realizing it. Take a term that is used as a term of abuse, as a designation for everything that is backwards and outside, and reclaim what is good in the term. So I am a conservative libertarian evangelical, and am entirely sincere about all of that. I just think that all of these labels have been coopted by people who aren't terribly conservative, libertarian or evangelical. By and large, they've come to represent positions and ideologies that are just mean. Still, it isn't the mean-ness that defines these values or ideas. Mean-ness infects and corrupts these values, like it often corrupts us all when we slip into the familiar patterns of in-group valorization and out-group demonization. I've seen plenty of liberals and progressives become mean as well, through the operation of the same process. If I ever get mad enough at enough people for being mean, I suppose I'll have become a conservative libertarian evangelical liberal progressive fundamentalist non-denominational Protestant Catholic.

  3. I've never heard of him but now I want to go check him out. I love that he focuses on what we have in common-Jesus and not the little details that can divide.

  4. I envy him. I have been a reader of Merton for over twenty years, and to think, Campbell climbed the wall of the Gethsemani monastery with Merton to go get a drink. The adventure of that night and the words that passed back and forth over that table must have kept his soul bursting for a lifetime.

  5. Followers of Jesus and his disciple Will Campbell try hard to treat people right. I've seen "liberals" treat Fundamentalists like barnyard manure and visa fact been a part of that sorry game myself. Love people....don't hate them no matter what. What better place to start? Thanks, Richard.

  6. Loved this from the article,

    "I don't like the term ministry," Campbell said. "It's arrogant, presumptuous, even imperialistic."
    Campbell said a Baptist lawyer on an airline flight with him one Sunday asked in an accusatory manner where he went to church. "That depends on your definition of church," Campbell said.
    The lawyer defined church as a community of baptized believers.
    Campbell told him that at 1 a.m. that morning he had been in a tavern in Mount Joliet, sitting with a neighbor whose wife had just died, "watching him get drunk and maybe helping him a little bit."
    The tavern was full of people Campbell knew, he said. "They were all baptized; they were all believers."

    As someone who has worked in church environments for a long time, we could all use a little more Will Cambell's with us. I also, think a good cuss word, at the right time, would be a nice addition as well. I remember preaching at a Presbyterian church one morning. Before the service began I met with an older woman, probably in her 70's, that was in charge of the service. As we went over the order she said, "Looks like all you gotta do is preach", I said, "Yep, looks that way", she said, "you better do damn good job...lets pray". I LOVED IT!

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