Appreciating Will Campbell, “Preacher to the Damned”
The Rev. Will Campbell died on Monday. Here’s a profile of the civil rights activist and storyteller from Dec. 1982.
Appreciating Will Campbell: From the Archives
I stopped off in Nashville a while back for a few days of R&R with my friend, Will Campbell, a balding, funny looking, hard-living preacher—a Baptist-bred drinking buddy and spiritual adviser who has emerged over the years as a Socratic Southern gadfly, a thorn in the flesh of the conventional wisdom.
I arrived a little late for the christening—the spiritual dedication of the newborn son of Waylon Jennings (an event attended by, among others, Muhammad Ali). But I did catch a glimpse of the burial of Bill Jenkins, which was in itself a remarkable occasion. Jenkins was a neighbor of Campbell's—an eighty-five-year-old black man who lived alone and who would peer from his farmhouse porch across the rolling Tennessee countryside, recalling the days when it all belonged to him, before the Depression came and the banks foreclosed and his children grew up and moved away.
"The younger generation," he would say, "they so crazy. Always causin' trouble 'bout this or that. Me," he would say, "I ain't ever been in no trouble . . . ," then adding for the sake of clinical accuracy after gazing discreetly at the curling, light-skinned scar that ran across his wrist and left thumb, " 'cept when I killed my wife."
But all that was a long time ago, and Jenkins had long since done his time and paid his debts and lived hard and clean for more than fifty years. Then he died, and as the mourners poured into the sandstone church, making their way across a rubblestrewn field of briars and Johnson grass and Queen Anne's lace, Campbell stood before them, grimly buoyed by the swelling amens and the grief-stricken moans, and he declared in sonorous tones:
"He was my neighbor. We used to lean against the fence and swap stories in the evenin' time, but that wasn't enough. No, it wasn't enough because he was also my friend. It didn't matter that he was old, and I was not so old, or that his skin was black and mine was white, or that he owned a lot of land and I owned a little. He was my friend. But that wasn't enough either 'cause he was also my brother."
And later, when a friend with no connection to the event beyond curiosity offered lame compliments on the quality of the sermon, Campbell simply grunted and cleared his throat. "Hell," he affirmed, his boot kicking idly at the Tennessee sod, "if you can't preach to a bunch of broken-hearted people, there ain't much use in trying to preach.... "
Campbell can preach, of course. He's been at it now for more than forty years, ever since the steamy June Sunday in south Mississippi when he preached his first sermon at East Fork Baptist, a tiny wooden church near the town of Liberty—hidden away in the murky Amite County bottomlands, amid the stands of pine and the shadowy streams of gray Spanish moss. He gazed out nervously across the upturned faces—a skinny, soft-eyed kid of seventeen, with oversized ears and a runaway shock of dark brown hair. He peered through a pair of black-rimmed glasses, and after checking the hand-me-down pocket-watch on the lectern beside him, he launched a short, fiery sermon on the first verse of Genesis.
Later, after thinking it over and praying about it some, the elders of the church— preacher J. Price Brock and a half dozen others—took him aside and declared him ordained to go and preach the gospel. He made a few detours along the way, through Yale Divinity School, among other places, but he has emerged in the end as one of the South's leading preachers—an earthy, erudite theologian and author who takes satisfaction in giving offense, in proclaiming a kind of astonishment nearly anywhere he goes.
He is not a William Sloane Coffin. Nor is he Billy Graham. He is instead an odd and unsettling combination of the two—a radical, slow-moving Bible-belt preacher with a hand-carved cane and a floppy Amish hat, meandering his way through the crises of life. He's developed a kind of cult-figure fame in American theology, partly through his books, but mostly through his unpretentious, one-man ministry to the nation's dispossessed. He's an ardent proponent of black civil rights, a friend to the bigots in the Ku Klux Klan, and, most recently, an unlikely champion for the men and women of death row.
He began in the 1950s with the issue of race. First as chaplain at the University of Mississippi, and later as a Deep South staffer for the National Council of Churches, he allied himself with the Civil Rights movement—traveling the bumpy Southern backroads from one upheaval to the next, from Montgomery to Nashville to St. Augustine, Florida. It's hard to say exactly what he did. He was simply there, moving among the people and offering what he could. In 1957, for example, he was one of three white ministers with Elizabeth Eckford, walking by her side as she and eight other black teenagers made their way through the Little Rock mobs, braving taunts and rocks and bayonetted rifles, seeking to enroll in an all-white school.
Gradually, he became a friend to the leaders of the movement—Andy Young, John Lewis, and Martin Luther King—but also to the bright young radicals of lesser charisma, some of them filled with foolhardy courage, others simply quiet and determined, as they drifted into Selma or Marks, Mississippi, defying the wrath of the most brutal South. Campbell was awed by the bravery of it all, and yet he couldn't shake a feeling in the back of his mind—a troublesome sense that however right and righteous it was, however important that the South be confronted with the sins of its history, there was something simplistic and shortsighted about the whole crusade, some failure to understand, as he would put it later, "that Mr. Jesus died for the bigots as well."
So he began to work the other side of the street, mingling with the racists and Klansmen, as well as the blacks, setting out from home in the early morning hours, rumbling through the Delta in his cherry-red pick-up. Armed with a guitar and a Bible and an occasional bottle of Tennessee whiskey, he would point himself toward the flat and muddy fields of Sunflower County, toward the straight and endless rows of picked-over cotton and the barbed-wire fences at Parchman Penitentiary.
At Parchman, he would visit a young friend of his—a terrorist, as it happened, whose name was Tommy Tarrants. He was a Klansman, a tough and lanky young man in his middle twenties, with scruffy brown hair and a head full of hate. He had moved to Mississippi from Mobile, Alabama, while he was still in his teens, a leading strategist in a campaign of violence. But he was shot and nearly killed in 1968, ambushed by the FBI, as he sought to bomb the home of a liberal Jewish merchant. For his trouble, he was sentenced to thirty years in prison, and at the time Campbell came along, he was still in a struggle with the passions of his youth.
They spent a lot of time behind the barbed wire of Parchman, settling occasionally under the shade of an oak and letting the conversation ramble where it would. Eventually, after visits from Campbell and a handful of others who took an interest in his case, Tarrants began to change. He renounced his racism, proclaimed a newfound belief in the Christian faith, and got himself paroled. He enrolled in Ole Miss, got a degree, and became a kind of freelance missionary to the prisoners of the South.
CAMPBELL is pleased by that, but takes no credit for it. Conversions, he says, are not his calling. He is embarked on an unconditional ministry, a simple reaching out to angry young blacks, Kluxers, draft-dodgers, alienated rich—leaving it to them what they do with the message.
That's a little unsettling to many fundamentalists, and also to his liberal friends, to the people who are involved in a push for social change. But for Campbell, it's all very clear, and he will rummage through the clutter on his rolltop desk, producing a well-worn copy of the King James Bible, fumbling through the parchment to the writings of Paul.
"Here," he will say, "it's all right here in Second Corinthians, right down here at the end of chapter five: 'God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses against them.... "
"There," he continues, with a fierce, sudden swipe at his gray fringe of hair, "that's what it's all about. You can read it there, or in Mark or Matthew, or over in Luke. But what it all means is so damn simple: We are bastards, but God loves us anyway. We're forgiven, and if we can somehow manage to get hold of that fact, we can find the power to go and do likewise. Go and hate no more, go and kill no more. Old Tommy Tarrants got his mind around that one, and if the rest of us could do the same . . . but of course we don't want to do the same 'cause it would change the way we all do our business. So we keep foolin' around with all the false messiahs ... " and he shrugs philosophically, folds up the Bible, and returns it to the clutter on his desk.
But despite his fatalism and occasional despair, Campbell has set out to proclaim the message—giving little thought to measurable results, for if he did much of that, he would give up the ghost. He is a peculiar sort of gospel existentialist, like some strange character from the mind of Camus, behaving as if the odds were not insurmountable—as if the world were not full of murder, mendacity, executions, and prejudice.
It is, he admits, a mission so pure and pitiful that it's almost a joke. But it isn't a joke, for not everyone is amused when he pays a visit to a rich liberal church, surveying the stained glass windows and the prosperous people in the hand-carved pews— and suggesting, when they ask how their faith should be applied, that they leave the door to the sanctuary open, so the downtown winos will have a place to sleep.
"I agree," he says, "that they'll use bad language, and maybe piss on your rug. But it's scriptural."
And if that sounds outrageous to the point of buffoonery, there are other moments when he can't be dismissed, when the scandal of his message is so inescapable that the people in the audience will wince, or even cry, as the words tumble out. He is strangely unimposing as he stands before them, looking thoroughly uncomfortable, tugging at his earlobe or the end of his sideburn, ignoring, or trying to, the knot of fear and insecurity that is there in his gut. There is the trace of a tremor around the edges of his voice, and yet through it all a kind of resonant, stentorian certainty as he begins to tell the story.
It is a brutal story and the telling is as wrenching as Campbell can make it.
"Thirty-four years ago," he says, speaking this time to more than 12,000 teenagers, Lutherans as it happens, who are gathered in Kansas City for their annual convention, "I stood with my buddies on the island of Saipan, overlooking the crystal blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. Not far from where we stood was a little island, looking to us almost like an aircraft carrier—a little island called Tinian. We used to stand in the early morning and watch the big airplanes take off and gather in the afternoon to watch them return. That day, August 6, 1945 . . . was no ordinary day. It was the day 200,000 human beings would die. It was the day the first atom bomb was dropped. . . . "
We knew as we gathered that afternoon that the bomb had fallen, 200,000 people left dead in its wake . . . and I cheered! My young brothers and sisters, I yelled and cheered and slapped my buddies on the back and threw my Army helmet into the sea at the news that 200,000 people, those for whom Christ died, no longer lived. Because I wanted to go home. Fry the bastards. Kill the slant-eyed, slope-head sons-of-bitches. I want to go home.... "
He pauses now to let the words sink in, his expression a mixture of outrage and grief, eyes glistening, his hand trembling slightly at the side of the lectern. But his words are soft and sure as he resumes the narrative, shifting the scene to another cheering crowd of more recent vintage—to the people who gathered May 25, 1979, to applaud the excruciating end to the life of John Spenkelink. Shortly after 10:00 on that sunny May morning, amid the taunting of guards and the jubilant chanting of the people outside, Spenkelink was strapped to a white wooden chair at the Florida state prison. And on the final orders of Governor Bob Graham, 7,500 volts of electricity were sent through his body, causing his flesh to burn, and six minutes later, his heart to stop beating.
In the aftermath of that execution, Campbell has emerged as one of the nation's leading opponents of capital punishment—denouncing it, testifying against it wherever he can. For he knew John Spenkelink's history, knew that he was guilty of killing another man, but also that in his nearly six years of facing death himself, he had become caught up in a quiet Christian search, not showy or pious, but a final private grappling with what it all means. He was the acknowledged leader among the men of death row—aggressive in defense of other prisoners' rights, but with an emerging sensitivity that was sometimes startling. Two hours before his death, for example, he turned to his minister and friend, Tom Feamster, and said, "Let's pray for the governor... " adding when the prayer was over, "Don't tell the press. That's not why I did it. . . ." Campbell told all that to his young Lutheran audience, then compared it starkly to the things that happened next.
"When all was in readiness," he said, his voice low and husky, but strangely calm, "when Brother John, bound and gagged, was strapped in the electric chair, the curtain was opened for the witnesses. The first surge, 2,500 volts of electricity, singed the skin off his right calf, sending smoke into the death chamber. He clenched his left fist, then his hands began to curl and blacken. Listen to me now. The doctor stepped forth, unbuttoned his white shirt and placed a stethoscope on his chest. He was not yet dead. The doctor stepped back. Another surge of 2,500 volts of electricity, then another, and the deed was done. And outside the walls, a group of teenager hecklers about your age, fifteen, sixteen, nineteen years, were chanting in unison, again and again: 'Spark Spenk, Spark Spenk, Bring on the Barbecue Sauce.' I wanted to cry, to run, to vomit. And I did cry, for I was hearing myself, thirty-four years ago, cheering on the cliffs of a faraway island . . . 'Fry the bastards, kill the sons-of-bitches. / want to go home. . . .' "
And there in the auditorium filled with silence and shock, just before the outburst of a standing ovation, Campbell added six words—sounding at first like an afterthought, but making, he says, the only real point that he knows how to make: "May Christ have mercy upon us."
That is his hope, his pitch, his final affirmation when it all gets crazy. Though his thinking is systematic in its own peculiar way, it is more than an abstraction from St. Augustine or Paul, more than an echo of his professors back at Yale. There's a kind of brutal intuition about reality and religion, a sure wrathful instinct that keeps him on course. But where does it come from? What is it, finally, that saves him from despair, yet removes him as well from the pristine and pious?
To get a sense of that, it helps to tag along on a swing through the South—when he strikes out from Nashville in a small rented car, heading southwest toward the state of Mississippi, humming through the Delta on the long flat roads, toward the town of Yazoo where the hills begin, past the cotton and the rice and the dingy green pastures where the cattle are grazing. There'll be a few stops along the way—a dinnertime visit with a liberal lawyer friend, a strategy session with a young black activist—but his real destination lies deeper in the state. He is headed toward the homeplace down in Amite, singing country songs or telling bawdy tales, backseat driving while a friend takes the wheel.
"Damn it," he says with peevish good humor, "will you please slow down? How you gonna see when the countryside's a blur? There're some historic sites along in here. Right over there, on up around the curve, is where ole man Tweet McKelvin used to live. He was the only Republican I'd ever seen till I was grown. I remember the first time an automobile ever came by his place, he said, 'My God, son, the automobiles are gonna be the ruination of this country.' God, that old guy had it all figured out, right down to what we are talking about today. He didn't call it an energy shortage, but he knew . . . and then he'd want a ride into town.... "
He is rolling now, and as the stories tumble out, we pause for a while at an ancient-looking farmhouse, tidy and green, set back from the road on Highway 24. It has a television antenna and a fresh coat of paint, but other than that it's changed very little since Campbell's grandfather, known in the family as Grandpa Bunt, raised ten children in its four small rooms. He was a stoic Baptist deacon of determined good cheer—a small-time cotton farmer, gaunt and slightly stooped, with a sun-crinkled face and wispy gray hair that grew thinner with age.
In his later years, when the children grew up and the grandchildren came, he would lean against a stump in his barren front yard, smiling to himself at the games that they played. They were a hearty consolation against the tragedies of his past— against the unrelenting memories from his early years of marriage, when his first three children, Murtis, Claudie, and little Sophia, all died within weeks of the same disease. But he came through it all with no trace of bitterness—with a kind of dogged, undismayed understanding that the world is full of suffering and caprice, and that the mission of a man is not to add to the total.
"I remember one time," says his grandson Will, "we were playing in the yard over there by the fence. It looked a little different back in those days, which was right during the heart of the Great Depression. The road was made out of gravel and clay, and it was farther from the house than it is today—kinda curling past us toward a thick stand of pines. We were playing tag or some such game, me and about a dozen cousins and friends, when we noticed a black man coming up the road. His name was John Walker, and we thought he was a character. He had recently been beaten for stealing a sack of corn, and some of us laughed at the way he told the story: 'Lawd, they got me nekked as a jaybird. Took a gin belt to me. Whipped me til I almost shat.' So when he came shuffling by us on this particular day, we began to taunt him: 'Hey nigger, hey nigger.' But he didn't even look up, kept his eyes pointed straight at the road, as if he hadn't noticed. But Grandpa noticed, and he called us over and said very quietly: 'Now hon'—that's what he called everybody in that way that he had—'now hon, there's no more niggers. Those days are dead. All that's left now is the colored people.' "
And suddenly as you listen, it begins to make sense. You begin to understand what Campbell is about—to see why his diploma from Yale is no longer on display, and why, pasted over it on the wall above his mantel, is a certificate of ordination from East Fork Baptist—lying slightly crooked in its simple black frame, but affirming that in the eyes of his fellow believers, of people like his grandfather, he is now ordained to go and preach the gospel.
He has tried to do simply that, armed with gritty understandings of the Sermon on the Mount, of the first being last and the meek and humble emerging triumphant. And the radical causes into which it all thrust him—his strategy sessions with Martin Luther King, his prison visitations to death-row killers—never seriously estranged him from most members of his family. He could always return from his travels through the South, his freelance pastorate to the centers of turmoil, and he would know that on some level—often more instinctive than openly expressed—his father and his brothers would approve of his calling.
He usually spared them the harrowing specifics, the nerve-racking scenes in the midst of the demonstrations, when he was threatened occasionally by mobs of whites or trailed by deputies in the middle of the night. But there was one particular story that he related in detail, for it was, he said, a kind of conversion—a sudden, agonizing moment of truth when his faith took on a heightened sense of clarity. He learned that a friend named Jonathan Daniel—a gentle-spirited Episcopal priest who had spoken out for civil rights in the dusty reaches of rural Alabama—had been murdered, torn apart by a shotgun blast in the slumbering, sun-baked village of Hayneville. Campbell was devastated. But in the midst of his grief, he found himself forced by his own theology to affirm that the sins of the murderer were already forgiven.
"It was a revelation," he says. But it was also something more personal than that; it was a discovery of the things that his grandfather knew—that in a world full of tragedy, you don't choose sides; that you can stand for what's right and yet reject condemnation for those who are wrong. So when an all-white jury freed Daniel's killer, Campbell made a point of endorsing the verdict.
It was shocking news back in 1966, when he wrote in a liberal Christian quarterly, "Jonathan can never have died in vain, because he loved his killer—by his own last written words. And since he loved his murderer, his death is its own meaning. And what it means is that Tom Coleman, this man who pulled the trigger, is forgiven. If Jonathan forgives him, then it is not for me to cry for his blood, his execution. Any act on my part which is even akin to 'avenging' Jonathan's death is sacrilege. . . . For when Thomas killed Jonathan, he committed a crime against the State. When Thomas killed Jonathan, he committed a crime against God. The strange, the near maddening thing about this case is that both the offended parties have rendered the same verdict— not for the same reasons, not in the same way, but the verdict is the same— acquittal."
Later, he admits with a sort of rueful self-bemusement, "A whole bunch of my civil rights friends came to me and said, with considerable embellishment, 'Good God, Campbell, you stupid idiot, you can't go saying things like that to a bunch of rednecks. Man, that just gives 'em license. But of course, I told 'em, that's not true. What the jury told Tom Coleman was, 'You are forgiven. Go thou and kill again, if you want.' But what the gospel says, and what we are obliged to say is, 'Your sins are already forgiven you, brother. Go thou and kill no more.' That's the difference, and it's all the difference in the world."
And for those who regard such words as the ravings of a madman or the babblings of a fool (and there are many who fall into each of those categories), Campbell has a different answer. Instead of arguing the efficacy of conversions through divine compassion, he shifts his ground and attacks the alternative.
"The law" he says. "We are forever arguing that people must be restrained, so we pass a law and set about restrained, so we pass a law and set about enforcing it. But if the law is for the purpose of preventing crime, of securing a just and civilized society, then every wail of a siren calls out its failure. Every civil rights demonstration attests to the inability of the courts to provide racial justice. Every police chief who asks for a larger appropriation because of rising crime rates is admitting his own failure. Every time a law has to be enforced, then it has failed to do what we hoped it would. So what I am saying is, for God's sake, let's try something else."
He has built an organization on precisely that premise—a haphazard collection of like-minded people, ranging over the years from John Spenkelink to novelist Walker Percy. It's an otherwise ill-defined group called the Committee of Southern Churchmen, subsisting year-to-year on patched-together budgets of $30,000— most of it coming from small foundations. The committee publishes a quarterly Christian journal, with contributors ranging from Percy to Robert Coles. But its primary function is to provide a base for Campbell— a subsistence salary, a generous travel budget, and a log-cabin office in the hills near Nashville.
People often ask him exactly what he does, and the answer isn't easy. He listens to the problems of bewildered individuals, writes magazine articles and occasional books. The first major seller, Brother to a Dragonfly, was nominated for the National Book Award in 1978, and his most recent, a novel called The Glad River, has drawn widespread acclaim.
But one of the clearest indications of the nature of Campbell's calling occurred in 1980 when Billy Graham came to Nashville, arriving on a warm summer Saturday and sending word to Campbell that he'd like to get together. Graham was preparing for a crusade at Vanderbilt University, and through an intermediary, he invited Campbell to meet him backstage—"just to get acquainted," the intermediary said.
Campbell considered it a strange invitation. He had never met Graham, though he'd tried on occasion, and he knew that their differences had been well-publicized. Some eight years earlier, at the height of the killing in Vietnam, he had written an open letter in a Christian magazine, chastising Graham for his support of Richard Nixon. And more recently than that, speaking to a convention of ministers in Graham's hometown, he had scoffed at the blandness of mass market evangelism. But despite such differences, and despite his theology, Campbell is inclined to like Billy Graham—to respect him grudgingly for his personal decency and for his stubborn refusal, nearly thirty years ago, to allow his crusades to be segregated racially. So he looked forward to their meeting for many of the same reasons that Graham proposed it—he wanted an opportunity to discuss their disagreements, but also to affirm that they were brothers in the faith.
It looked for a while, however, as if it would all fall through. As Graham preached to the multitudes at Vanderbilt, inveighing against divorce and premarital sex, Campbell was absorbed in his own Christian witness. He had a wedding, a baptism, and a visit to death row; then a counseling session with a troubled seminarian. And then came the funeral of Bill Jenkins, where he preached a sermon and cried with the family—cursing his lapse of pastoral detachment, while one of Jenkins's daughters, a big, friendly woman with a robust grin, patted him on the arm and consoled him gently: "Now, now, preacher, we all know how you loved Papa. You just go ahead and cry."
But the most wrenching moments came later in the week, just a few hours before he was supposed to meet Graham. He traveled to the town of Lebanon, Tennessee, a medium-sized hamlet some thirty miles from Nashville, with flat-roofed stores along its downtown streets and a Confederate monument in the center of its square. And there in the shadows of early afternoon, amid the tension and humidity of a crowded courtroom, he pleaded for the life of Tyrone Bowers.
Bowers was a black man, twenty-two and stocky, with close-cropped hair and hard, steady eyes that stared straight ahead. Though he insisted he was innocent, five separate witnesses linked him to a murder—to the death of an amiable white man whose name was Glenn Taylor, a forty-one-year-old father of two and a popular figure among the people of Lebanon. According to the witnesses, Bowers admitted robbing Taylor on a cold winter midnight, leading him through a field of waist-high sage and putting six bullets in the back of his head. They said he pulled the trigger until the gun failed to fire, while his victim moaned and begged for his life.
Campbell knew Taylor and was shocked at his death. But as an opponent of capital punishment, he makes no exceptions; and when an all-white jury found Bowers guilty, Campbell agreed to testify at the sentencing hearing. He was asked to appear as an expert witness—a Christian ethicist who had studied at Yale and written extensively on the subject of justice. And the testimony began that way, with Campbell offering theological arguments and recounting his history of opposing executions—his occasional appearances at legislative hearings, his televised debates and his private pleadings with assorted public officials.
But when he acknowledged participation in public demonstrations, the character of the testimony began to change—to become less cerebral and considerably more emotional, as attorney general Tommy Thompson, tall and sandy-haired, with a penetrating mind and an overbearing style, sought to paint Campbell as an out-of-step radical. But in the jousting that followed, Campbell simply sidestepped and presented himself as something very different—a God-fearing, Jesus-loving preacher who takes it all seriously.
Thompson: So you were one of the masses in the streets that we see on television? Would that be fair to say?
Campbell: It would not be fair to say.
Thompson: Well, would it surprise you to know that 85 percent of the general population is in favor of capital punishment?
Campbell: Of the general population? No, sir, it would not surprise me. It may well be, sir, that we say one thing in church and another thing outside of church.
Thompson: All right, well, let me ask you this. Would the fact that 85 percent of these people are for capital punishment make them any less of a Christian than you, sir?
Campbell: It would not make them any less the people for whom our Lord died.
Thompson: Yes, sir. Well, you are so concerned about capital punishment, I want you to look at that picture there [showing him a photo of the dead man, his right arm folded beneath his head, mud on his clothes and six bullet holes in the base of his skull].
Campbell: I have already looked at it, sir.
Thompson: And if I told you that the evidence in this case indicated that this was a hard-working man, fifteen hours a day. . . .
Campbell: I know, I know. I was in his business many times.
Thompson: Well, what do you think would be an answer to a person who would not only rob him, but have him walk through a sage field, make him lay down, put his head in his hands, and sit there and shoot him once with a pistol, and when he started moaning, shoot him five more times. What is the answer to that, Reverend?
Campbell paused before he offered a response, and for a moment it seemed as if he had nothing to say. But he did, of course, and the reaction was stunning in the small country courtroom, with the people jammed into the rough wooden pews, fanning themselves against the Tennessee heat and gazing steadily in the direction of the bench.
"Mr. Thompson," said Campbell, with his thoughts now collected, "apparently we do not know the answer to your question. I believe the answer is to evangelize the country in the name of Jesus Christ, so it will simply not occur to anyone to commit the kind of violence that is shown in that picture, or the kind we are contemplating in this courtroom today. Until we do come to that kind of commitment and understanding of the Christian faith, I believe the spiral of violence will continue in this country. We have tried everything else we know to try. So I'm citing the only answer I know. I'm a Christian minister."
And in the astonishment that followed, Campbell knew that the point was made. The jury seemed absorbed in his simple proclamation, and several hours later he received word of the verdict—life imprisonment, instead of death in the chair. "The Spirit," he said. "Maybe it got loose in the Court of Mr. Caesar."
HE considered telling the story to his brother, Billy Graham, for he thought it was possible that they could find a common ground, some mutual, substantial affirmation about the gospel—that it is effective and powerful amid the tawdriness of life, and that it's a sacrilegious shame to bury it in sweetness. But when he arrived at the stadium at 7:00 that evening, with the choir and the crowds and the floodlights falling on the artificial turf, he immediately understood that it would not work. He found himself amused at his own presumption—at the notion that he, Will Campbell, could evangelize the best-known evangelist in the Christian world.
So he simply smiled and joked and said gracious things, and chuckled to himself as his own private foolishness. And after basking backstage in the friendliness and charm, he moved to the stands for the public performance—staring in dismay at the slickness of it all. Then he shook his head sadly at what religion has become, and laughed a little wanly when a friend turned and said: "Let's get out of here and go get drunk."
"Well, how was it?" Brenda Campbell demanded.
She is a formidable woman of fifty-six years, thirty-three of which she has spent with Will Campbell. She has become accustomed, she says, to the odd array of people who stream through her kitchen—an unsuccessful songwriter who needs a place to stay, a frightened young Marine who has run away from boot camp. But on this particular night, it was just a pair of journalists, and she seemed more relaxed as she gave her husband a drink and informed him again in her booming Southern voice: "I want to hear all about it."
"Well," he said, burping discreetly and settling in beside her on a lumpy brown couch, "there ain't much to tell. He's a nice guy, but it's easy to be nice when you're in that position. And the problem with it is that people see how nice you are, and how pure you are, and they get to focusing their attention on you. I even have that problem from time to time; somebody'll read what I write or hear some sermon, and before long they'll be callin' me up, or some seminarian will be comin' along to write a Ph.D. on Will Campbellism. And I try to tell 'em, 'Don't do that. There's nothin' here. You don't look to me, and you don't look to Billy, because that ain't where the Christian faith is. It ain't in niceness or eloquence or even social commitment, and we seem to have some trouble gettin' hold of that point ' "
Then a writer-friend who was, as Campbell put it, "well into the hops," cut into the soliloquy to demand a clarification: "You keep saying what the Christian faith isn't. Well, what the hell is it, if it isn't those things?"
So Campbell smiled and picked up his guitar, and he began to answer with his own graphic parable. He told a story from eleven years ago, about a journey he made over to North Carolina—to the town of Granite Quarry in the lush, wooded flatlands just east of Charlotte. His purpose in going was to be with Bob Jones, then the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, on the night before Jones was shipped off to prison.
It was a strangely festive occasion, with all the kinfolk and Klanfolk gathered in the Dragon's cinder block home, telling funny stories and trying to be jolly and unconcerned. The whiskey flowed and the laughter continued until about two in the morning, when Campbell proposed communion.
"Hell yes," said Jones, "let's have communion." So the people gathered in a circle, and Campbell unpacked his guitar and said: "I'm gonna sing a song that to me is the essence of the Christian faith. It's called 'Anna, I'm Takin' You Home,' and it's about a whore and a lover who forgives her and takes her home. That's what Christianity is all about—being forgiven and taken home to where you're loved." Then, strumming softly on his guitar, he began to pray.
"Lord, ole brother Bob is going off to jail for a while. We gonna ask you to kind of keep an eye on him. Lord, you know he's not a saint. And you also know that we sho ain't. But the Book tells us that's why you died. So that God and sinners could be reconciled. And we gon' drink to that and if it's all the same, we gon' sing our song in Jesus' name:
"Anna, I'm takin' you home..."
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