By Bill Leonard
Will Campbell turns the gospel of Jesus on its head, at least where standardized, predictable concepts and actions, left-wing and right, are concerned.
Preacher, writer, lecturer, farmer, raconteur and soulful iconoclast, Will Campbell is an equal-opportunity prophet. Just when you think he has confirmed all your sacred cows and reinforced your sociopolitical “enemies lists,” he jumps ahead, taking the ax to the roots of your own ideological forest.
Twice-born in Mississippi as a “deep water” Baptist, Will studied at Louisiana College, did military service during WW II, finished Wake Forest in 1948 and received a theology degree from Yale Divinity School. He returned to the South as Director of Religious Life at the University of Mississippi just in time for its integrationist turmoil, and became deeply engaged in the Civil Rights struggle.
To the chagrin of many friends, Will insisted that since “we’re all bastards but God loves us anyway,” there was grace even for racists. It is grace found, not in “acquittal by law” but “acquittal by resurrection,” that “takes us into a freedom where it would never occur to us to kill somebody.” He reflects on such terrifying freedom in remarkable books like Brother to a Dragonfly (1977), Forty Acres and a Goat (1986) and The Stem of Jesse (1995).
Now 87, Will had a stroke earlier this year and continues in rehab with significant speech impairment. Given those realities, it seems a good time to hear him again him as he speaks from his books, offering insights into the past and ornery, prophetic wisdom for the turbulent present.
In Dragonfly Will recalls that he preached his first sermon from a pulpit Bible donated to his Mississippi Baptist church by the KKK and recounts a 1960s exchange with a Klansman who asserted that his organization “stands for peace, harmony and freedom.”
Will asked: “What means are you willing to use to accomplish those glorious ends?”
The man replied: “The means we are willing to use are as follows: murder, torture, threats, blackmail, intimidation, burning, guerrilla warfare. Whatever it takes.”
Will writes: “And then he stopped. And I stopped. I knew that I had set a little trap for him and had cleverly let him snap the trigger. But then he started again. ‘Now, Preacher. Let me ask you a question. You tell me what we stand for in Vietnam.’”
Will recalls: “Suddenly I knew a lot of things I had not known before. I knew that I had been caught in my own trap. Suddenly I knew that we are a nation of Klansmen. I knew that as a nation we stood for peace, harmony and freedom in that war, that we defined the words, and that the means we were employing to accomplish those ends were identical with the ones he had listed.”
Could Will Campbell and a KKK leader challenge the rhetoric and the “warring madness” of our current “military actions?”
In The Stem of Jesse, Will detailed the 1963 integration of Mercer University by a Nigerian named Sam Oni with the insistence of religion professor Mac Bryan and admissions director John Mitchell that Baptists could not send out missionaries to convert Africans while refusing those converts admission to the very university that educated the missionaries.
Oni entered Mercer but was refused admittance to the Tattnall Square Baptist Church, a now-defunct congregation whose building is part of the Mercer campus.
Will writes of his meeting with Sam Oni at a special lecture in that building 30 years after the African was denied entry to the church. He invited Oni to join him on stage, offering “unplanned verbalizing of troubled feelings.”
Haltingly, he blurted out: “Mr. Oni. I am not a Mercerian. But I am white. I am Christian. I am American. A Southerner. So I was here that morning when we turned you away. I am sorry sir, for what we did to you that day. I am sorry for what we did to ourselves. And to our God. Forgive us.”
Campbell concludes: “then a black Nigerian in his middle years, and a white Mississippian who has reached the biblical three-score years and ten, held each other in a prolonged and passionate embrace.”
Whatever else “evangelism” means today, it surely encompasses such reconciliation as that.
Will can’t seem to let go of grace, or vice versa. In Forty Acres and a Goat he tells about the Christmas morning when he baptized his 3-year old grandson, Harlan, at the breakfast table.
Fretting over his Baptist roots and the “age of accountability” Will decided to talk to the boy of sin, grace, guilt and forgiveness, like “any other sinner.”
“What’s guilt, Papa?” his grandson asked.
Will replied: “‘Well, you know that big lump you get in your throat when you’re mean to your mother?’ He nodded that he did. ‘Well, you don’t have to have that. Being mean to your mother was your sin. And the lump is feeling guilty about it. And the water was put on your head because Jesus has already forgiven you for your meanness.’”
“When I was through he was laughing out loud,” Will writes. “I had no further question as to the age of accountability. It was the most appropriate response to a sacrament I had ever heard. A big belly laugh…. He was baptized.”
Will Campbell is obsessed with grace, especially as it falls on the “inappropriate” people at inopportune times. If Will could speak today he’d surely say: “Hell, we’re all in rehab.” And, by God, he’s right.