Will Campbell: Jesus was a Radical

Ya'll know I'm a big fan of the late Will Campbell. I'd say I'm a Campbellite twice over.

First, as a member of the Churches of Christ, a founder of which was Alexander Campbell, we are often called "Campbellites," a moniker that Wikipedia calls "a mildly pergortitive term" for members of the CoC.

And, second, I'd say I'm a Campbellite as I'm a devoted student of the life and witness of Will Campbell.

To further your own exposure to Will Campbell, some selections below from his rhetorically epic address to the Whitsitt Society in 1995. Campbell was a Baptist so in parts below he levels a lot of his critique as his own tribe at the time of the speech. I'm unaware of what those particular issues were. But Campbell's indictment of replacing the gospel with intramural denominational squabbles, witch-hunting and power plays seems universally applicable:
The first thing I feel disposed to share is what is apparent to us all, namely that if Jesus Christ had been a Moderate he would never have been crucified...Jesus Christ was a RADICAL! And for that he died. Died so that we might be free. Free from religiosity for certainly he was not a religious man. Far from it. Free from the Law. Free from tyranny, especially religious tyranny. Free from piety to save us. Free from certitude and thus free from creedal strife. Jesus was a RADICAL!
Jeremiah said that it was not good to be too sure of God. Today we are bombarded with a theology of certitude, and even cocksureness. A creed that might well begin, "My god can whip your god."

On one occasion Kierkegaard observed that God may take Christianity away as the one way of convincing people of its truth. That is what the prophets called living under judgment. It would seem clear, to any discerning reader of Scripture, that judgment is the only term that can be applied to the absurd, conniving, farcical, nonsensical, mean-spirited schoolyard scuffle that has raged in Southern Baptist circles for more than a decade. Some would prefer to call it Diaspora. But Diaspora infers that there are somewhere the righteous, the faithful, living outside the tribal boundaries. Where do we see the righteous in this depraved imbroglio?

Was Kierkegaard onto something when he said that God may take Christianity away as the one way of convincing people of its truth?
Where were we as a denomination in the sixties and seventies when cities were burning, when black Americans were being gunned down for no greater crime than the color of their skin and their quest for freedom? Where were we during those long decades when human beings were denied the ballot, had to drink from designated fountains, could not go to parks, theaters, schools? If you don't recall I'll remind you. We were sitting in silence, minding our own altar fires and tea parties, building tall spires and fine steeples, watching God's world crumble around us. Ah, but now we have apologized for all that. Have we now? If we bump our neighbors off the sidewalk and into oncoming traffic and say, "Excuse me," and walk away, we have served the neighbors not at all. It is only when we bind their wounds and see them through the ordeal that true reconciliation is in evidence. Biblically it is called the story of the Good Samaritan. Politically it is called affirmative action.
How does one behave under judgment? Maybe by just not caring about the things that really, after all, just don't matter anymore. If they ever did. By not agonizing over triviality. Jesus, quoting Isaiah, said that he had come to proclaim the opening of the doors of prisons, and letting the prisoners go free, bringing good news--food and housing--to the poor, seeing eye dogs for the blind. Jesus was a radical. So should I care who the next president of some man-made, yes man-made, convention, fellowship or what have you may be? Does it really matter in the glaring white heat of Isaiah and Jesus' words? I say you nay. Am I going to alter the course by the latest utterance of some institutional pimp who appears to spend most of his time blow drying his hair and in his free time dismisses some of his finest teachers and scholars, seeking to make robots and handmaidens of a once-gifted faculty? I say you nay.
I learned theology from my father's table grace as he said the same words three times a day no matter how meager the fare. The words I heard from the day I was born until I left his table at seventeen summed up his theology, his philosophy, his very life. And after eight years of what we call higher education I never found a more succinct summary of the Christian movement. For his simple words acknowledged the existence of the Deity, they spoke of mercy, of thanksgiving, sin, forgiveness, restoration, and always concluded with the benedictory AMEN. What else is there to our faith? Hear his words and see if anything essential is missing:

O Lord, look down on us with mercy,
Pardon and forgive us our sins,
Make us thankful for these and all other blessings,
We ask for Christ's sake. Amen.
I was a pastor, a university chaplain, an employee of the allegedly most free religious institution in the world. I didn't keep any job for long. But through it all I discovered one thing. All institutions, every last single one of them, are evil; self-serving, self-preserving, self-loving; and very early in the life of any institution it will exist for its own self. So beware out there this week. True soul freedom cannot be found in any institution. That is the guts of my testimony to you today. True soul freedom can never be found in any institution. If they will pay you, let them. I did it too. But never trust them. Never bow the knee to them. They are all after your soul. Your ultimate, absolute, uncompromising allegiance. Your soul. ALL OF THEM. Jesus was a RADICAL! And His Grace abounds.

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10 thoughts on “Will Campbell: Jesus was a Radical”

  1. Is there a significant faction of Southern Baptists who are still influenced by him?

  2. Thanks Stephen.

    Regarding James Smith's piece my first thoughts are about those posts last week about Christ and the Powers. The second post I believe goes to Smith's point, that the powers were created for the societal good and still function in such a way: http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2013/10/christ-and-powers-part-2-goodness-of.html

    But I'd go on to say that just as Smith is pushing against an anti-institutionalism his piece is just as reactionary in the opposite direction, ignoring the falleness and the hostility toward the Kingdom of the principalities and powers.

    So the key, in my estimation, is to resist an idolatry of the powers, to deideologize the powers. That was the point from the third post last week: http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2013/10/christ-and-powers-part-3-to-resist.html

    As I read Campbell I see him as preaching against that sort of idolatry and ideology:

    "True soul freedom can never be found in any institution. If they will pay you, let them. I did it too. But never trust them. Never bow the knee to them. They are all after your soul. Your ultimate, absolute, uncompromising allegiance. Your soul."

  3. I would be amazed if there is. I was raised in the Southern Baptist tradition and still attend its churches and I've never heard such a thing.

  4. That's my sense, that Campbell has never been a big influence upon Southern Baptists. I think largely due to a mutual separation, Campbell being too radical for the Southern Baptists and Campbell's own anti-establishment streak.

  5. Thanks. That was my guess, after the purges of the 80's...it looks like he did write a wistful protest of that whole deal. http://www.amazon.com/Convention-Parable-Will-D-Campbell/dp/0881460842

  6. I can see that happening in Smith and it made me uncomfortable (gotta love the affective responses!). My next question is, if institutions are, or at least can function as the powers, then communities and Churches function as the Powers as well, right? When does a community that is created good turn into a power that functions for oppression and evil? How do we know when we've crossed the line?

  7. This is a question that comes to my mind rather often. I'd really appreciate some insights from others who have reached some conclusions.

  8. Richard, I really have appreciated your insights on this blog for a while now. You've mentioned before your growing up in the Church of Christ denomination. I work at a public library, and I was made aware we need some lay-person books on what the Church of Christ is as a denomination, either historically or currently. Even with my background in theology, I had a hard time coming up with a few titles. Any intro books you can think of would be very appreciated, so I can add it to our collection. Thanks again for generously devoting your time and wisdom on this blog.

  9. I was a Campbellite who became a socialist and....RADICAL JESUS the comic is the result, almost 50 years later.

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