The Scandal of Forgiveness
Will Campbell grew up on a hardscrabble farm in Mississippi. Bookish, never really fitting in with his rural surroundings, he worked hard at his studies and eventually made his way to Yale Divinity School. After graduation he returned south to preach and was named director of religious life at the University of Mississippi. This was the early 1960s, when proper Mississippians circles the wagons against assaults from civil rights activists, and when students and administrators learned of Campbell's liberal views on integration, his stint at the school abruptly ended.
Campbell soon found himself in the thick of battle, leading voter registration drives and supervising the idealistic young Northerners who migrated south to join the civil rights crusade. Among them was a Harvard Divinity School student named Jonathan Daniels, who had responded to Dr. King's call for supporters to descend on Selma. Most of the volunteers went home after the big march, but Jonathan Daniels stayed, and Will Campbell befriended him.
Campbell's theology was undergoing some testing in those days. Much of the opposition to his work came from “good Christians” who refused to let people of other races into their churches and who resented anyone tampering with laws favoring white people. Campbell found allies more easily among agnostics, socialists, and a few devout Northerners.
“In ten words or less, what's the Christian message?” one agnostic had challenged him. The interlocutor was P.D. East, a renegade newspaper editor who viewed Christians as the enemy and could not understand Will's stubborn commitment to religious faith.
We were going someplace, or coming back from someplace and he said, “Let me have it. Ten words.” I said, "We're all bastards but God loves us anyways.” He didn't comment on what he thought about the summary except to say, after he had counted the number of words on his fingers, “I gave you a ten-word limit. If you want to try again you have two words left.” I didn't try again but he often reminded me of what I said that day.
The definition stung P.D. East who, unbeknown to Campbell, was indeed illegitimate and had been called “b*****d” all his life. Campbell had chosen the word not merely for shock effect but also for theological accuracy: spiritually we are illegitimate children, invited despite our paternity to join God's family. The more Campbell thought about his impromptu definition of the gospel, the more he liked it.
P.D. East put that definition to a ruthless test, however, on the darkest day of Campbell's life, a day when an Alabama deputy sheriff named Thomas Coleman gunned down Campbell's twenty-six-year-old friend. Jonathan Daniels had been arrested for picketing white stores. On his release from jail he approached a grocery store to make a phone call to arrange a ride when Coleman appeared with a shotgun and emptied it in his stomach. The pellets hit one other person, a black teenager, in the back, critically injuring him.
Campbell's book Brother to a Dragonfly records the conversation with P.D. East on that night, which led to what Campbell looks back on as “the most enlightening theological lesson I ever had in my life.” P.D. East stayed on the offensive, even at this moment of grief:
“Yeah, Brother. Let's see if your definition of the Faith can stand the test.” My calls had been to the Department of Justice, to the American Civil Liberties Union, to a lawyer friend in Nashville. I had talked of the death of my friend as being a travesty of justice, as a complete moral breakdown of law and order, as a violation of Federal and State Law. I had used words like redneck, backwoods, woolhat, cracker, Kluxer, ignoramus and many others. I had studied sociology, psychology, and social ethics and was speaking and thinking in these concepts. I had also studied New Testament theology.
P.D. stalked me like a tiger. “Come on, Brother. Let's talk about your definition.” At one point Joe [Will's brother] turned on him, “Lay off P.D. Can't you see when somebody is upset?” But P.D. waved him off, loving me too much to leave me alone.
“Was Jonathan a b*****d?” P.D. asked first. Campbell replied that though he was one of the most gentle guys he'd ever known, it's true that everyone is a sinner. In those terms, yes, he was a “b*****d.”
“All right. Is Thomas Coleman a b*****d?” That question, Campbell found much easier to answer. You bet the murderer was a b*****d.
Then P.D. pulled his chair close, placed his bony hand on Campbell's knee, and looked directly into his red-streaked eyes. “Which of those two bastards do you think God loves the most?” The question hit home, like an arrow to the heart.
Suddenly everything became clear. Everything. It was a revelation. The glow of the malt which we were well into by then seemed to illuminate and intensify it. I walked across the room and opened the blind, staring directly into the glare of the streetlight. And I began to whimper. But the crying was interspersed with laughter. It was a strange experience. I remember trying to sort out the sadness and the joy. Just what I was crying for and what I was laughing for. Then this too became clear.
I was laughing at myself, at twenty years of a ministry which had become, without my realizing it, a ministry of liberal sophistication...
I agreed that the notion that a man could go into a store where a group of unarmed human beings are drinking soda pop and eating moon pies, fire a shotgun blast at one of them, tearing his lungs and heart and bowels from his body, turn on another and send lead pellets ripping through his flesh and bones, and that God would set him free is almost more than I could stand. But unless that is precisely the case then there is no Gospel, there is no Good News. Unless that is the truth we have only bad news, we are back with law alone.
What Will Campbell learned that night was a new insight into grace. The free offer of grace extends not just to the undeserving, but in fact to those who deserve the opposite: to Klu Klux Klanners as well as civil rights marchers, to P.D. East as well as Will Campbell, to Thomas Coleman as well as Jonathan Daniels.
This message lodged so deep inside Will Campbell that he underwent a kind of earthquake of grace. He resigned his position with the National Council of Churches and became what he wryly calls “an apostle to the rednecks.” He bought a farm in Tennessee, and today is as likely to spend his time among Klansmen and racists as among racial minorities and white liberals. A lot of people, he decided, were volunteering to help minorities; he knew of no one ministering to the Thomas Coleman's of the the world.
From grace (a visual representation of the book What's So Amazing About Grace?) by Philip Yancey.