Another thoughtful column from Ray Waddle of The Tennessean, eulogizing one of my heroes, Rev. Will Campbell, who passed away earlier this month:
For centuries it has puzzled people that Jesus never left an owner’s manual for running a congregation or changing society. The history of the church has been an improvised competition, a juggernaut of believers trying their best and living with doubts while projecting confidence that their way is the true way.
Will Campbell, who died in Nashville June 3 at age 88, figured Jesus had his reasons for leaving no blueprint for building Christendom. Campbell concentrated instead on what Jesus did say: “Come, follow me.”
That simple directive gave him his marching orders — his ministry, a word he disliked — for more than 60 years. It showed him the risks of Christian discipleship and the value of religious freedom. It furnished him with a stripped-down credo: respect each person, practice reconciliation, refuse power.
Those are hard things. Probably the hardest is rejecting power, since all well-intended solutions (and egos) depend on accumulations of political influence and institutional muscle. But Campbell warned:
“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. All of them. Jesus was a radical! And his grace abounds.”
For him, the Jesus movement revealed a path that cut across all political mandates. Visit prisoners. Be a friend to the forgotten. Be also a friend to racists. Put no faith in any ideology. Be the incarnation of Jesus in this world.
That message guaranteed his marginalization. Living near Nashville, a conscientious city of steeples and professional religion, Campbell had occasion every day to count the cost of his nonconformity.
Early on he had tried “institutional flings” — church jobs — but none worked out. His particular Christian faith was a bit too indigestible. He was molecularly suspicious of systematic doctrines. They divide people. They fuel an unwarranted human confidence in pronouncements of truth.
The God of the Bible is too enigmatic for well-rounded theological statements. Will Campbell relied on his own wits and the subversions of grace, summarizing a biblical command: “We must obey God rather than man. He is our only sovereign. He is our God. Him will we serve.”
The paradoxes of this writer-farmer-agitator were fascinating to admirers and catnip to journalists. The dossier provides a familiar litany: He was a white Mississippi Baptist in the vanguard of race relations, a Southern yeoman with an Ivy League degree, a literary man detached from the establishment circuit, an embodiment of gruff and empathetic, barbed and tender, inspirational and unknowable.
Out of these smoldering human contradictions, people saw a gospel witness they hadn’t encountered before. Campbell kept a laser focus on the meaning of the Kingdom of God — the reconciliation of all. He took seriously Jesus’ outlandish announcement that this Kingdom is at hand, and it’s our difficult task to be midwife in its delivery. Campbell’s outlook was as discomfiting in 2013 as it was in 1952 when he was starting out, or in 1852 or in year 52.
“Given a hearing, Will can describe a Christianity that is scandalous and objectionable, shockingly exhilarating and frighteningly attractive,” writes Richard Goode, a history professor at Lipscomb University who edited an indispensable volume called Writings on Reconciliation and Resistance (Cascade Books, 2010), a collection of Campbell essays and speeches.
“Precisely because we are reconciled, professing disciples must live an irrepressible conflict against the principalities and powers — the idols — that divide and dehumanize.”
I was privileged to count Will as a friend. It might now be tempting to establish a Church of the Will of Will or a Free Will political party. To that he’d scoff. A better homage would be to look homeless people in the eye, scorn pompous sanctimony, resist warmongering and read Scripture with courage.
Speaking to a group of Baptist brethren in 1995 he said: “As the sands of time run out on me, I do not consider that I have had a ministry at all, except in the sense that all believers are priests. I have had a life. As to how well I have conducted it I am willing to leave to the One so mysterious, so elusive and evasive, so hidden as to say to Moses from the burning bush, I AM WHO I AM, to be the sole judge. I can only exult that grace abounds …”