The Ballad of Will Campbell

For some strange reason, I often forget/neglect the genius that is Will D. Campbell.

(The same goes for William Stringfellow–oh, that guy is just too smart.)

Campbell is one of the few Christian thinkers who understands how (classical) liberal theology ultimately created both right and left-wing Christianity, and, because of this, his understanding of how Jesus does not fit into this matrix often proves to be an obstacle for some readers. This is not because his writings are dense, but because he is neither a liberal nor a conservative.

Campbell, like many of the good ones, requires that you dig deeper. He certainly does not demand that you agree with all he has to stay (that’s more my tactic), but in disagreeing with Campbell you often find yourself having to disagree with him on unfamiliar territory. Much of his thinking simply does not ‘fit’ the mold that we project on one another and, therefore, requires us to do a little bit of work.

Below is a quote one of my readers (betterbegood) posted on an earlier thread. It illuminates well what I think I’m trying to say about what Campbell has often said well:

“Early in my life I took a position against racial discrimination, joined Martin Luther King in the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, walked to school with the Little Rock Nine, and involved myself in the civil rights movement in various ways. In none of this did I think of myself as being on the Left. Others, in the Mississippi of my white rearing, did. The designation was theirs, not mine.

When the Grand Dragon of the North Carolina Ku Klux Klan was indicted and tried for contempt of Congress, I helped raise money for his defense. I was with him the night the marshals came to take him away. I kept in touch with his family, visited him in Danbury prison. I should not have been surprised when some considered that a move to the far Right, even though I also visited others there for crimes of war resistance. I saw no inconsistency since neither Isaiah nor Jesus said anything about ideology. Prisoners are prisoners and it is our vocation to set them free.

I harbored deserters and draft dodgers and took some of them to Canada during the Vietnam War. Was that of the Left or Right? To me it was neither. Though seen by most as politically left, again, someone else was drawing the boundaries.

I have written, spoken, stood in vigils against the death penalty. Liberal? If others wish to categorize, they are free to do so.

I see the fashion in which abortion is practiced as the greatest American shame since slavery. Does that mean I am in league with the Reagan-Bush syndrome and am now a right-wing Republican? God forbid! For I believe the economic policies of those administrations have resulted in far more abortions than their rhetoric or gestures have prevented.

So what does it all mean? If these are not political acts, are not to be categorized by someone’s scheme as “Left” or “Right,” then what? Are we talking of anarchy when we suggest that Caesar’s, and society’s, nomenclature is irrelevant to us? Perhaps so. But let it be the Christian anarchy Vernard Eller and Jacques Ellul so ably describe, not the anarchy which simply becomes another political position to be campaigned for. In Christian anarchy there is no Left, Right, or Center. Christian anarchy has to do with grace and human freedom. And it is human freedom which seems to me to be the essential message of Jesus.

“Be a good-hearted woman and read the book.”

Thus my seeming contradictions, in a life which has spanned almost 70 years, reflect an effort to survive as a human being, free of other archeies which inevitably define a channel in which its adherents must swim or be excluded, and which, by nature, are enslaving, for they claim ultimate allegiance.”

Damn, that’s good. I mean, that last line?

Hey, John Zerzan and Derrick Jensen . . . eat your little anarchistic hearts out.

If you’ve yet to read the work of Campbell I strongly recommend his book, Brother to a Dragonfly. It’s an incredible memoir that reads like a Wendell Berry novel. It’s loaded with anecdotes detailing both the beauty and the oppression that is ‘Christian’ life in the South. It’s also endorsed by Waylon Jennings. That’s right. The great Duke Boys’ Balladeer thinks you should read it. (That may or may not be a selling point for you.)

So, again, thank you Mr. betterbegood. I will do my best to be better at being good if for no other reason than you reminding me of the goodness that is Will Campbell.


Further Reading:
  • karla

    That sounds intriguing…maybe I will add that to my reading list…after that other book of course…the one about the devil and prada or something ;)

    • theamishjihadist

      Ha ha. Yeah . . . ‘or something’.

  • rnewson

    Yes! This makes my night – thanks for this. More people need to know about this guy, and read this guy. Also love the Stringfellow shout-out: I’ve heard a friend describe him (Stringfellow) as an angry Yoder, whatever that means. My favorite Stringfellow quote: “There is simply a point at which social analysis must be validated in action or else it becomes morbid, self-indulgent, and misleading, compounding the very issues it professes to clarify. There comes a moment when words must either become incarnated or the words, even if literally true, are rendered false.” I think Campbell would agree – his life certainly says he would.

    • theamishjihadist

      Yes. Lovely quote. Right, truth is performative. Hmm. This has me wondering if I can pull together some Lindbeck on this very notion with Stringfellow’s comment that words, even if true, can be false (I think Bonhoeffer dabbled in this area as well).

  • Anne Trudel

    Will Campbell is awesome! I’ve heard him speak several times. I believe he’s in his 80s now. He will not go quietly into the great beyond…something which I admire. By all means, read Brother to a Dragonfly. Remember that it is set during the civil rights era. Thankfully, we have made some progress in the South since then.

    • theamishjihadist

      “He will not go quietly into the great beyond…” No doubt. And I hope he doesn’t for a long, long time.

  • rcf

    Yup, Will Campbell is awesome. Just finished The Glad River, and read Brother to a Dragonfly a couple of years ago. Stumbled upon him in Hauerwas’s writings (I seem to have stumbled upon many folks and things in those writings — Dorothy Day, Jean Vanier, Christian de Cherge, and Clarence Jordan, to name a few). As Kingston said in The Glad River, “there’s a difference between truth and fact.”

    • theamishjihadist

      Yes, definitely. See dialogue above with rnewsom.

  • betterbegood

    Way to cite your sources! Gold star, on me

    I think Campbell was the first person that showed me what Christian anarchism can actually be. I read Boyd’s book (which is anarch-ish) before anything of Campbell’s, but Campbell
    made it more real.

    It’s a shame that more people don’t know about him, his life and thoughts are incredible

    • theamishjihadist

      You know this! I’m a citing machine!

      After all, as a few lofty critics of mine have suggested, I’m little more than a ‘hack’. My thinking is, as long as I’m ‘hacking’ from the right people, I’m good with it.

      • betterbegood

        Ah, so you HAVE gotten my hate mail. I was wondering about that

  • Dave_the_Zoo_Advocate

    I love Campbell’s assertion, “Christian anarchy has to do with grace and human freedom. And it is human freedom which seems to me to be the essential message of Jesus.” Sign me up!! That said, I’m still wrestling with how human freedom can be achieved and sustained without literally fighting to the death the evil bastards who would take it away, e.g., Hitler, Stalin, Mao, idi-Amin, Bin Laden, al-Assad, Ahmadinejad, etc.

    • theamishjihadist

      Well, as long as you are struggling with it, we’re good to go!

  • Kara

    Rest in peace, Will Campbell.