One radical old baptist patriarch

By Terry Mattingly Modified: August 2, 2013 at 1:36 pm •  Published: August 2, 2013
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The old Southern preacher had walked through many airport security gates using his cherry-wood cane and was surprised -- especially years before 9/11 -- when a guard ordered him to send it through the X-ray scanner.

After that rite, the Rev. Will Campbell asked the guard to bring him the cane. The guard, somewhat miffed, asked if he could walk through the scanner without it. The preacher, somewhat vexed, said that was a question for his doctor.

Facing a nervous crowd, the guard ordered Campbell to walk through the gate. So the famous civil-rights activist -- the only white leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. invited to the first Southern Christian Leadership Conference meeting -- got down on the floor and crawled through. Then he retrieved his cane.

Campbell admitted, when telling this parable to Baptist progressives in 1994, that he then gave the cane a "sassy little twirl." His wife asked: "Why do you do things like that?"

"Because I'm a Baptist! I come from a long line of hell-raisers," said Campbell. "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."

The key, he said, is to ask what happened to all the Baptists who kept clashing with authority figures in the past. Where are the Baptists who were willing to be "tied on ladders and pushed into burning brush heaps because they believed in and practiced freedom of conscience," who "were so opposed to the death penalty they wouldn't serve on juries" and who "would not go to war, any war, for church or state?... Where are they now?"

Campbell, who died last month at the age of 88, was a complex activist and writer who made lots of people mad for lots of reasons. Raised in rural Mississippi, he thrived at Yale Divinity School and failed as a small-town pastor. He accompanied the Freedom Riders in 1961 and marched in Birmingham in 1963. He tried to avoid reporters, but was tight with country-music rebels like Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. He opposed both abortion and the death penalty and, late in life, backed gay rights.

The self-proclaimed "bootleg Baptist" spent his life preaching forgiveness and reconciliation, yet also called religious conservatives "ecclesiastical highwaymen" who were "espousing a course that is a rollercoaster to a fascist theocracy." Pushed to summarize his theology, he stated: "We're all bastards, but God loves us anyway."



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