"Then this too became clear."

I'm in Jackson, Mississippi. Our Freedom Ride ends today. We're heading back home this morning. You can experience the entire ride on the ACU Freedom Ride blog. You can also get a quick overview here at the ACU Today blog.

You know what I've learned this week? That it's hard to run two blogs at the same time!

Anyhow, as this amazing week comes to a close, I've kept coming back to the life and work of Will Campbell. Campbell was a Southern preacher who was deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement. He was the only white preacher in attendance when Martin Luther King's SCLC was formed. Campbell was also one of the four preachers who escorted the Little Rock Nine to school.

I've thought of Campbell a lot on this trip because he helps me wrestle with my feelings regarding all the violence and the hate we've seen and heard about on this trip. For example, you see a lot of Klu Klux Klan displays in Civil Rights museums and footage.

How am I, as a Christian, to relate to these people?

One the the things I so respect about King's call to nonviolence is that it is a call to make a friend of our enemy. Late in the movement, with the rise of groups like the Black Panthers, that call to nonviolence was questioned and repudiated by many. And it's not hard to see why.

But for me, as I stand in front of Klan displays, can I see these people as fellow human beings? Worthy of respect and love? Or will I demonize these people and fall into the same trap that created their hate? Slip into the easy story of "the good guys versus the bad guys" that leads to the next iteration of violence?

Will Campbell began to be controversial in the movement because toward the end he started reaching out to the Klan. He did so because the gospel of Jesus was calling him to something greater that the liberal humanism and political activism that had motivated so much of the white religious response to the cause.

Campbell tells the story of his epiphany in his book Brother to a Dragonfly. I've slightly edited, for length, the excerpt from Richard Goode's edited volume of Campbell's work Writings on Reconciliation and Resistance. This story comes in the middle of the Civil Rights struggle:

Joe came to the door and called us in. "Brother, you know a Jonathan Daniels?" "Yea. Sure. I know Jon Daniels. Why?" "Well, he's dead." ...

[Jonathan Daniels] was a student from the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge, Massachusetts who was involved in registering black citizens to vote in Lowndes County, Alabama. A few days earlier I had learned that Jon was in jail in that county along with a number of others...

Jonathan and Richard Morrisroe, a Roman Catholic priest from Chicago, had just been released from the Lowndes County jail in Hayneville. Because of some confusion in a telephone conversation there was no one to meet them when they, and twenty-five others, had been released. Jonathan, Richard, and two black students stopped at a small grocery store on the edge of the little town. Despite the fact that the majority of the woman's trade was black people, she became alarmed by their presence and called a special deputy named Thomas Coleman who arrived on the scene before the four could finish their cold drinks and leave. Armed with his own shotgun he fired as the four were leaving the premises, killing Jonathan instantly with the first shot...

That was the new. That was all we knew. My young friend Jonathan Daniels was dead...I sat in stunned silence. Joe snapped the television off and came over and kissed me on the head. "I'm sorry, Brother." P.D. said nothing.

I made some phone calls to get more details and to see if there was something we should be dong. Joe and P.D. sat in a silent room, mourning with me over the death of my friend, saying little...

P.D. spoke first. "Well, Brother, what do you reckon your friend Mr. Jesus thinks of all this?" I allowed that I guessed he was pretty sad about it. He stood up and turned an overhead light on, went to the kitchen and came back with some beer and cheese. He spoke again as his hulking frame sank into a bigger chair. "Brother, what about that definition of Christianity you gave me that time? Let's see if it can pass the test."

Years before, when P.D. had his paper going, he liked to argue about religion...[Once] he asked me to define the Christian faith. But he had a way of pushing one for simple answers. "Just tell me what this Jesus cat is all about. I'm not too bright but maybe I can get the hang of it." The nearest I ever came to giving him a satisfactory answer was once when I blasted him for some childish "can God make a rock so big He couldn't pick it up" criticism of the faith. He blasted right back. "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. Keep it simple. In ten words or less, what's the Christian message?" We were going someplace, or coming back from someplace when he said, "Let me have it. Ten words." 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 the number of words 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 had said that day.

Now, sitting in the presence of two of the most troubled men I have ever known, I was about to receive the most enlightening theological lessons I had ever had in my life. Not at Louisiana College, Tulane, Wake Forest, or Yale Divinity School. But sitting here in a heavily mortgaged house in Fairhope, Alabama. P.D. East and Joseph Campbell, as teachers. And I as pupil.

"Yea, Brother. Let's see if your definition of the faith can stand the test." My calls had been to the Department of Justice, to the American Civil Liberties Union, and to a lawyer friend in Nashville. I had talked of the death of my friend as being a travesty of justice, as a complete breakdown of law and order, as a violation of federal and state law. I had used words like redneck, backwoods, woolhat, cracker, Kluxer, ignoramus, and many others. I had studied sociology, psychology, and social ethics and was speaking and thinking in those concepts. I had also studied New Testament theology.

P.D. stalked me like a tiger. "Come on, Brother: Let's talk about your definition." At one point Joe turned on him, "Lay off, P.D. Can't you see when somebody is upset?" But P.D. waved him off, loving me too much to leave me alone.

"Was Jonathan as bastard?"

I said I was sure that everyone is a sinner in one way or another but that he was one 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. You told me one time that everybody is a bastard. That's a pretty tough word. I know. Cause I am a bastard. A born bastard. A real bastard. My Mama wasn't married to my Daddy. Now, by god, you tell me, right now, yes or no and not maybe, was Jonathan Daniels a bastard?"

I knew that if I said no he would leave me alone and if I said yes he wouldn't. And I knew my definition would be blown if I said no.

So I said, "Yes."

"Alright. Is Thomas Coleman a bastard?"

That one was a lot easier. "Yes. Thomas Coleman is a bastard."

"Okay. Let me get this straight now. I don't want to misquote you. Jonathan Daniels was a bastard. Thomas Coleman is a bastard. Right?" Joe the Protector was on his feet.

"Goddammit, P.D. that's sacrilege. Knock it off! Get off the kid's back."

P.D. ignored him, pulling his chair closer to mine, placing his huge bony hand on my knee. "Which one of these two bastards do you think God loves the most?" His voice now was almost a whisper as he leaned forward, staring me directly in the eyes.

I made some feeble attempt to talk about God loving the sinner and not the sin, about judgment, justice, and the brotherhood of all humanity. But P.D. shook his hands in a manner of cancellation. He didn't want to hear about that.

"You're trying to complicate it. Now you're the one who always told me about how simple it was. Just answer the question." His direct examination would have done credit to Clarence Darrow.

He leaned his face closer to mine, patting first his own knee and then mine, holding the other hand aloft in oath-taking fashion.

"Which one of these two bastards does God love the most? Does he love that little dead bastard Jonathan the most? Or does he love that living bastard Thomas the most?"

Suddenly everything became clear. Everything. It was a revelation. The glow of the 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 with laughter. It was a strange experience. I remember trying to sort out the sadness and the joy. Just what was I crying for and what I was laughing for. Then this too became clear.

I was laughing at myself, at twenty years of 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 Cesar, 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 not only the faith I professed to hold but my history and my people--the Thomas Colemans. Loved. And if loved, forgiven. And if forgiven, reconciled. Yet sitting then in his own jail cell, the blood of two of his and my brothers on his hands. The thought gave me a shaking chill in a non-air-conditioned room in August. I had never considered myself a liberal. I don't think in those terms. But that was the camp in which I had pitched my tent. Now I was not so sure.

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2 thoughts on “"Then this too became clear."”

  1. What a deeply powerful story which resonates throughout with blood-splattered truth. I could feel those eyes boring into me as I read.

    Tomorrow, I'm delivering my first sermon in three and a half years. During that time I have wandered through my own forest of "enlightenment and academia", only to emerge into the sunlight of our Father's inexorable love. That will be my message - that God is willing and able to reconcile us all - to one another and to Himself. I wouldn't have got to this point without this blog, so, on behalf of my church (who just don't know they're grateful yet), thank-you.

    Sounds like you've had a wonderful and deeply meaningful trip, Richard. Thank-you for continuing to take time to share it with us. 

  2. Thank you so much for blogging as you did your ACU Freedom Ride! As I read along, amazed at the overwhelming stories and experiences, tears welled in the corners of my eyes, and would begin rolling down my nose and cheeks. Mostly tears of joy--at the beautiful stories of heroism, and also of relief at seeing a seemingly adequate way to highlight and celebrate those stories. ...but I suppose, too, a tincture of "the blight man was born for" as I mourned for the relative smallness and meanness of my life.

    I hope you won't mind my adding a thought on Will Campbell's words. James has been often maligned for his position in "The Will to Believe" which gives "truth" a relative and sociological dimension. "...not insight, but the prestige of opinions, is what makes the sparks shoot from them..." (Even a casual look at the present political landscape here in the US gives James' point obvious merit.) But if correct, James' view demands a large measure of party spirit, with an accompanying insider-outsider, with-us/against-us mentality. 

    I think that a very strong reading of the NT can be made to support the view that the Christian faith has as a central mission the opposition of that very insider-outsider mentality. "But that was the camp in which I had pitched my tent. Now I was not so sure." Amen.

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