In Memory of Will D. Campbell

Will Campbell made me a Christian. I entered seminary in 1993 - not convicted by a sense of call to the ministry, but because I wanted to figure out what I believed (and the only model I knew for "figuring stuff out" was school). I entered the M. Div. program of the University of Chicago that Fall, not sure how my understanding of the world and beyond did (or didn't) jibe with Christianity. But I was eager to explore.

Not long after I arrived, my (then girlfriend) Elizabeth sent me a copy of a Rolling Stone article about a renegade Southern preacher named Will D. Campbell. This was long enough ago that the article arrived as a black and white copy via the US Postal Service, believe it or not.

I devoured the article, and then found everything I could written about or by Campbell, coalescing them into a paper titled "Bastard Will," an homage to one particular line of his that is still among my treasured theological nuggets. When a friend challenged Campbell to sum up the Bible in ten words or less, he replied, "We're all bastards, but God loves us anyway."

The friend counted and said, "You've got two more words."

"Don't need 'em," Campbell answered.

Campbell's own history is incredible: a dirt poor Mississippian who eventually ended up in the Navy and then at Yale by way of Wake Forest, he was fired from his first job as a college chaplain for playing ping pong with a black man. He was the only white member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But his true conversion came, he said, in the wake of Medgar Evers' assassination. "Did God love Medgar, Brother Will?"

"Of course!"

"What about the redneck sheriff that shot him - does God love him?"

And so, after visiting with Evers' family in the hospital, Campbell headed to the prison to visit his assailant. And in doing so, he lost many of his friends in the Civil Rights movement. But Campbell was convicted by the call of Jesus to love his enemies, and continued to do so throughout his life.

His writing was prolific, ascerbic, funny, and deeply theological. This combination meant that he became a darling of Protestant intellectuals, and brought him invitations to speak on campuses and in large churches. But his speaking style rarely meant that he got invited back: he was a prophet, a gadfly, who didn't have any compunction about telling the truth the way he saw it and the way he was sure Jesus saw it.

Once invited to speak on a panel about the death penalty, Campbell followed an eloquent, thoughtful, philosophical argument in favor of its limited use in a democratic society. Campbell approached the mic slowly, leaned over, and said, "I think the death penalty is tacky." And then he sat down.

During the Q&A that followed, someone in the crowd got up the nerve to ask him to elaborate on his viewpoint. "If it's tacky, it ain't got no beauty. If it ain't got no beauty, God ain't in it. I think that about says it." Simplicity cut through the rhetoric and spoke louder truth than complexity.

And that's why Campbell's death hits me today: when I read his writings, I recognized the Jesus that I had fallen in love with. And that Jesus was a hard one to follow: loving enemies, praying for persecutors, hanging out with the poor, willing to die for the sake of the world. In other words, a far cry from what I observed among those who claimed to follow him. "If this guy's a Christian," I thought, "then I must be, too."

The rest of seminary had its own twists and turns that led me to professional ministry. But it was the Rev. Will D. Campbell who initially got me pointed in the right direction. And for that, I am eternally grateful.

Say hi to Jesus, Brother Will. I'm sure you've got a lot to catch up on.

Note: The biographical details and quotes are from memory. They are close, but may not be exact. Feel free to fact-check me by reading his memoir Brother to a Dragonfly. Even if I'm on target, it'll be worth the read.