What happened to the Baptists?

Will Campbell, a farmer, author and social activist who died June 3 at age 88, brought characteristic wit and wisdom to these remarks to directors, staff and friends of Associated Baptist Press on Oct. 27, 1994.

By Will Campbell

When I was going to school on the G.I. Bill of Rights, right after the Spanish-American War, they told me that the first few minutes of any address or sermon should be given over to sheer foolishness and nonsense. I reckon John Seigenthaler’s introduction has pretty well covered that, so we can proceed to the subject at hand -- whatever that subject may be.

Actually, John, I was born in New York City -- in the Soho district. My mother was a dancer at Radio City Music Hall with the Rockettes. My father was with the Secret Service, guarding Mr. Garfield, until that terrible accident. Then we moved to Mississippi and started picking cotton for a living. And if you’re buying all that I have some choice property in the Smokey Mountains you might be interested in.

Now some of you asked me about my walking cane. I’m always glad, because that allows me to tell one of my favorite stories -- something that really happened, though perhaps I should be ashamed to tell it. The cane was made for me by a neighbor who was what we would call illiterate. But he knew something about aesthetics; knew what was pretty; what really, finally mattered.

He tore down an old abandoned barn many years ago and discovered that some of the rotting timbers were made of wild cherry. He put them aside, and when he was old, he made things that were at once beautiful and useful for those he loved. Fortunately, I was one of them. It is, I think, a fine metaphor for the gospel – taking something rotten and making something beautiful of it.

All of you know about security at airports. Well, I walk through the upright sensor and the cane doesn’t set off an alarm because there is not a gun in it. Not even a sword; just a piece of wood.

On one occasion the guard, the fellow who had been empowered – had a badge, you know – told me to go back and put my cane on the roller after I had walked through the upright sensor. Well, that didn’t make any sense to me, but I went back and put it on the roller. And then I stood there. He said, “Now come on through and get your cane.”

I said, “No, no. If you don’t mind, bring it back to me. Now I have done what you asked me to do so will you do what I’m asking you to do?”

He said, “Mister, can you walk without your cane?” By then people were backed up behind me, clearing their throats, about to miss their airplane, don’t you know.

I said: “We don’t pay you to ask medical questions. That’s a different specialty. They’re called physicians. Just bring me the cane back.” He was getting mad, and I was somewhat out of sorts myself. When I got home and told my wife about it she accused me of being mildly in the grape, but I wasn’t, just vexed.

Finally, he said, “Mister, if you want your cane you’re going to have to come down here and get it.”

I said, “All right, whatever you say.” Then I got down on my belly and crawled the length of the roller. With that people were hissing and booing him: “Making that poor old man crawl to get his walking cane.” Then, with feigned caducity I pushed myself up, and with a palsied hand got the cane, gave it a sassy little twirl and walked on down the corridor, leaving him standing there to face the crowd.

My wife said, “Do you want to get hijacked?”

Where in the Sam Hill would they take us today? LA?

“Well,” she said. “Why do you do things like that?”

“Because,” I said, “I’m a Baptist! I come from a long line of hell-raisers. I was taught that I wasn’t a robot -- that I was a human being with a mind, capable of reason, entitled to read any book, including the Bible, and interpret it according to the ability of the mind I was given. That’s why I do things like that.”

What happened to those Baptists? Where are those people who were drowned in the Amstel River, tied on ladders and pushed into burning brush heaps because they believed in and practiced freedom of conscience; because they believed in total, total separation of church and state; because they were so opposed to the death penalty that they wouldn’t serve on juries; because they would not go to war, any war, for church or state, would not baptize their babies, not so much for doctrinal reasons but because they saw it as enrollment by the state, a way of maintaining control of the faithful. For those offenses they were hunted down like rabbits by armed horsemen. Where are they now? What happened?

It’s a long way from that to a civil magistrate standing with a wall-sized American flag in the background – a George Bush, a Dan Quayle, an Oliver North – spewing forth the most un-Baptistic nationalistic rubbish and receiving frenzied, rabid, fanatical cheers and applause from 30,000 alleged Baptists. Great God Almighty! What’s going on here? What happened?

We know what happened. And if we will be honest we have to admit that it happened long before a Texas judge and his little covey of rich preachers who -- where Baptist history and Scripture are concerned appear to read only until their lips get tired, or until they find a passage that will bolster their political agenda and with that authority go out and wreck the fellowship of one of the nation’s largest religious bodies -- determined to make robots out of its adherents and eunuchs and handmaidens of its finest teachers and scholars.

“Man was first in creation and woman was first in the Edenic Fall.” Now ain’t that cute! Has such a nice ring to it. But the dialectics of it is overwhelming. Therefore, they reason, women should not be ordained as proclaimers of the Word. That’s the kind of logic that makes a fellow crawl through airports on his belly. If woman was first in the Fall she should have priority in ordination. Or so it has always seemed to me. Woman discovered sin first, she has been at it longer, and thus should be more adept at identifying sin and casting it out. But then, logic seldom prevails over bigotry.

Surely we are living in the throes of one of the greatest religious and political heresy ever to blow its chilly winds over this land called America. My yellow-dog genes tempt me to say it is a political heresy because it is Republican, and Baptists, in my youth, were Democrats. But that isn’t the reason. It is a political heresy because it is espousing a course that is a rollercoaster to a fascist theocracy -- to unfreedom. It is a political heresy because it is in direct opposition to our earliest political document.

It is a religious heresy because it is religious -- oh, yes, very damnably religious -- and the founder of the Christian Movement was very, very anti-religious, certainly anti-religious, and came to establish freedom and end religiosity.

But I don’t want to talk about what those little people have done. I’ve never been one to get involved in any kind of controversy. What’s the point of talking about what they have done? They’re not here. We’re here. And if I may sound a note of warning to this assemblage it is that it strikes me that too much energy is being spent bemoaning the fact that the institution known as the SBC – and by that we mean some imagined, romantic SBC of the decade of the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s – is no more. There was never anything sacred about that institution, nor any other institution, so why lament its demise? It wasn’t a true copy of the Baptist birthright in the first place and didn’t deserve to survive. So the ABP should not attempt to resuscitate a corpse but espouse the Kingdom now. Don’t seek the living among the dead nor seek to find a risen Lord in a sepulcher.

I know it is rude to accept an invitation to someone’s house and then complain about the décor, but one thing on which I have always agreed with Robert Taft is that tact is dishonest. So the second warning I would sound is that you tolerate the designation, “Moderate.” The original Baptist Movement was a radical, revolutionary one, scorned and persecuted by both the established church under Luther and Calvin, as well as Rome, and the established state under whatever prelate was in power. Christian discipleship is always radical, and thus costly.

The demise of the Baptist Movement began long before Judge Pressler and that bunch of ecclesiastical highwaymen began their reign of terror. When did it begin? It began, in my judgment, when a Movement became an institution, a principality. It began when we went to Baal Pe’or and became like unto the things we detested.

Institutions, by their very definition, are evil. For their raison-d’etre is always and inevitably self-survival. They, all of them, when they are threatened will go to any length, tell any lie, engage in any program to protect themselves. And justify it as being in defense of Almighty God.

That is why it is safe to say the things that brought us to this hour began long before the so-called takeover. The takeover, of the Baptist Movement, my friends, began on our watch. Nay, long before our watch. It began with the formulation of creeds and theologies.

Our Anabaptist ancestors – and Professor Estep is correct to trace our roots back to them – knew that, and that was why they had to be killed. They were dangerous to established institutions, a peril to principalities. Schwarmers, they were called. Radicals who swarm about like bees on the loose. The left-wing of the Reformation they were known as. Yes, Left-wingers. Not Moderates. Where are they now? What happened?

The historic Baptist notion of discipleship over creedalism survived in the new country for a time but now it is no more. The Baptist people, once a Movement, (or sect if you prefer Troeltsch’s understanding) is now a creedalistic institution, and has been for a long time.

Oh, when I was a boy in Mississippi we claimed that we weren’t. But we were. We said the Bible was our creed and made a fetish, an idol of the Bible. Which part of the Bible? Certainly not those parts where Ezekiel said, “She lusted after lovers whose genitals were like a mule’s genitals and whose ejaculations were like that of horses.” (That’s from Chapter 23 of Ezekiel, verse 20. I’m sure some of you want to grab that Gideon Bible when you get back to your room and check the text.)

I cite it here for more than comedic or melodramatic effect. The significance of that text for this gathering is that the prophet was addressing a group not too dissimilar to the neo-Baptists of our day. (And neo-Baptist would be a more accurate designation than Fundamentalist.) “Your genitals are like mule’s genitals.” If you grew up in the country as I did you know what God was saying through the prophet Ezekiel. A mule is a hybrid. Sterile. God was saying to that right-wing bunch, “Ha, you can’t even get it …” Well, never mind.

I was speaking to the state annual meeting of the ACLU in Mississippi not long ago. It was not a large gathering, which struck me as being odd for Baptist is the state church in Mississippi and the First Amendment was the idea of a couple of Baptist preachers. Anyway, some Baptists were protesting the gathering because the ACLU defends pornographers. It does, but it also defends Baptists, if it can find any, which isn’t easy to do these days. Anyway, I cited that passage and challenged the censors to burn that book because it contains hundreds of passages equally tempting to the aggressive scissors of censorship.

With the Bible as our creed we regularly repented of the Bingo games of our Catholic neighbors but I recall no repenting of the sin of whipping black people. Nor even lynching them.

But, I wander – a geriatric propensity, I suppose. My point is that the Baptist Movement floundered when it became institutionalized, when it became a vessel -- not of faith, a faith such as Abraham had, and certainly not a vessel of radical discipleship such as our spiritual ancestors were -- but a vessel of certitude, of theologies and creeds. And thence the fighting. “My God can whip your God.” Doesn’t that about sum it up?

What then are the inherent dangers of creeds, of theologies, of certitude?

In an important but little-known book called Witness to the Truth, Edith Hamilton, a scholar best known for her work on antiquities, made a statement almost 50 years ago that addresses that question.

So the great Church of Christ came into being by ignoring the life of Christ…. The Fathers of the Church were good men, often saintly men, sometimes men who cared enough for Christ to die for him, but they did not trust him. They could not trust the safety of his church to his way of doing things. So they set out to make the church safe in their own way. Creeds and theologies protected it from individual vagaries; riches and power protected it against outside attacks. The church was safe. But one thing its ardent builders and defenders failed to see. Nothing that lives can be safe. Life means danger. The more the church was hedged about with confessions of faith and defended by the mighty of the earth, the feebler its life grew.

What this wise woman was saying is, to me, highly infuriating. For she was saying that the structured, institutional, church was a cop-out from the very outset. Even as a bootleg Baptist preacher of the South (not a Southern Baptist preacher, and I know the difference) and steeple dropout I am not ready to go with her that far.

Yet she has much evidence on her side. She was saying that no institution could be made to work efficiently by following Christ literally. For he had no system, no rules, no methods people could adopt and put to definite use.

Edith Hamilton was correct as she continued that Christ never laid down that matter of fundamental importance to an organization, clearly formulated conditions on which one could enter it.

He never demanded of the people who wanted to follow him that they must first know this or that, this creed, or that catechism, the nature of the Trinity or the plan of salvation, or subscribe to an Abstract of Principles to the satisfaction of the Sanhedrin. He had not insisted on any systematic belief whatsoever.

He talked of such things as a cup of cold water. Ah, but we must build a global sprinkler system. And while we are appointing committees and electing boards and creating giant agencies to build the global sprinkler system the one near at hand perishes from dehydration as we pass by on the other side.

The inherent danger in creed, in belief over faith, Edith Hamilton said, is that belief is passive. Faith is active and leads to discipleship. Creed, or belief, simply requires recitation. What’s the point in believing a whale swallowed a man unless we understand that it is a story about justice?

The problem with biblical literalism is that it is biblical illiteracy. The words are known but not the tune. The Bible is a book. A book about who God is. It is not a scientific dissertation to be required in Caesar’s academy. But again I wander.

Where, then, is there hope? If not in institutions, in bigness, in belief, certitude or creed, where is it? In freelance acts of discipleship, I believe. Certainly grace abounds and there is hope.

I have been accused of being a man without hope in my writings, of being in despair. Not so. There is a difference between perplexity and despair. While it is true that I take no hope in partisan houses, in ideologies, even theologies, I see hope all around me.

For every soul that groans under the burden of bigotry, ignorance, discrimination, rejection and violence there is hope.

For every hug and act of kindness extended to one dying of AIDS, there is hope.

For every hand reaching sacrificially to the homeless by offering shelter from the cold and food to ward off starvation, there is hope.

At the risk of toadying to our host tonight, for every organization that stands for freedom over against the tyranny of fools, there is hope.

In a Florida editor with bills and house notes and family to feed who stands tall and says, “My skills you have bought for many years for little pay, but my soul, sirs, is not for sale – goodbye,” there is hope.

For every word and story you write and put on the wire containing a message of radical discipleship to a living Christ, there is hope. There is hope, for there the star of Christmas shines again and there the Star of David glows anew. For there is Immanuel: God with us.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.