Archive for June, 2016

Damn Christians Part II

“Because I’m a [damn] Christian.”—Will Campbell

Orlando clubI’d scarcely clicked “Publish” on my last post “Needed-Damn Christians”—when I realized I needed to say more. I’d told the story of the late Will Campbell and his unique ministry to folks on all sides of political and religious divides. I described his presence at the long-delayed murder trial of Ku Klux Klan leader Sam Bowers. Bowers had allegedly ordered the killing of a number of civil rights activists, most notably Vernon Dahmer—in the mid-1960’s! In 1998, thirty-twoyears after the fact, Bowers stood trial again in Mississippi, this time with new evidence and a realistic chance of being convicted. Campbell spent some of the time at the trial sitting with Dahmer’s large family on one side of the courtroom–and about the same amount sitting with Sam Bowers, who sat all alone on the other side. When a reporter asked why he did this, Campbell growled, “Because I’m a damn Christian.”  I concluded that our fragmented society needs more “damn Christians” who will share the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:20) modeled by Jesus and pursued by Campbell, Martin Luther King, and countless others. I said, “I believe the church’s place relative to the red and blue faultline running through American society is standing tall with our feet planted firmly on both sides… with neighbors who are easy to love and with those we struggle to love.”

But I hadn’t said much about how we arrive at that conviction, or what equips us for that uncomfortable and challenging stance. Then the Pulse Nightclub shooting happened early Sunday morning. It brought folks together. It also re-opened some old wounds and re-started some old arguments:

  • Omar Mateen’s anti-gay feelings clearly informed his choice of target. Those feelings still live in many hearts and minds.
  • He was an admirer or supporter of Isis. That’s enough to reanimate both rational concern over terror and misinformed or simply mean-spirited anti-Muslim prejudice. The ongoing investigation seeks to determine the exact nature and strength of that connection in this incident.
  • His primary weapon was an assault rifle like the ones banned from sale in this country until 2004. We’re having that yelling match again.

Thirty or so hours after the shooting, before all the dead are identified and their loved ones notified, the noise around these divisive issues grows ever louder. Politicians speak out, seeking every advantage. Activists on both sides strain to shout down the opposition. But if we’re simply yelling past each other, once again we’ll generate plenty of heat but precious little light.

What if some “damn Christians” dare to love our neighbors more than our ideology? Something could change. If we behave differently, the future would play out differently. Don’t misunderstand me. I have very strong convictions about these issues. But beyond the issues are our relationships with our neighbors. “If it is possible,” Paul urges us, “so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:18 NRSV)

So I offer here a framework within which we who follow Jesus might find ways to “live peaceably” with “all sorts and conditions of persons” while still maintaining the integrity of our convictions.

  1. We see and honor the image of God in every person.

“God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.” (Genesis 1:27 CEB)

Every human being bears the divine image. No exceptions. No exclusions. No weasel words. No fudge factor. Sharing this divine DNA makes all seven billion of us family–for better or worse! That includes all those folks who post their ridiculous nonsense online (and who feel the same way about our brilliant, witty, profound posts); folks from places whose names we can’t possibly twist our tongues around; folks with whom we fit perfectly and folks with whom we clash catastrophically; folks who energize us and folks who drain us; folks with whom we feel welcome and folks who just give us the creeps. All of us, in all our glory and uniqueness, created alike bearing the divine image. All means all. “Damn Christians” practice the spiritual discipline of looking for the divine image, no matter how hidden, marred, or disfigured, in every human being.

  1. We recognize every person as someone for whom Christ died.

“This is how much God loved the world: He gave his…one and only Son…so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.” John 3:16 MSG

Still no exclusionary clause. “…whole and lasting life” is God’s will for each of us and all our divine kin on this planet. Not exactly the message we get from our “I’ve got mine and I’ll take yours if I want it” culture. Claiming God’s gift doesn’t require a dazzling resume or a twenty-page application. It requires only “believing”–trusting with our whole being– that the way of life we see in Jesus leads away from destruction toward more and better life than we’d dared to imagine.

Easy to say, but very hard to accept. Abundant negative evidence exists, much provided by so-called “Christians” in the form of both actions and deadly silence. Our not-yet-believing neighbors want to be told less and shown more. “Believing” takes what God always knew it would take—incarnational evidence.

Orlando hug

  1. We will embody Christ for others through everything we do and are.

 “Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what…When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human!” Philippians 2:5-7 MSG

 That’s all it takes. Just turn my back on this 21st-century  privileged, entitled, “I want it all” culture. Climb down the ladder I’ve worked so hard climbing up. Invest myself in folks from whom I thought I’d managed to insulate and isolate myself. Give up my self-important illusions and just be my created-in-the-divine-image self. All that takes is someone who …didn’t think so much of himself…” “didn’t …cling to…status…” “…set aside…privileges…took on the status of a slave, became human.” It takes some “damn Christian” foolish enough to follow Jesus to places and people most folks say aren’t worth the effort; foolish enough to believe “God loved the world…” means the whole creation and everyone who’s ever been or ever would be a part of it. Some damn Christian like Miss Velma Westbury. According to Will Campbell, Miss Velma often said, ‘”If you just love the folks what’s easy to love,that really ain’t no love at all…If you love one, you have to love’em all.”

“Of course,” Campbell points out, “some folks said Miss Velma was crazy.”


epa02317367 Taylor Strowger (10) from Darfield explores earthquake damage to Highfield Road, 30km west of Christchurch, New Zealand, on 05 September 2010. It will take at least a year to rebuild the  centre of Christchurch, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said on 05 September as aftershocks continued to rock the city in the wake of a devastating 7.1-magnitude earthquake.  EPA/DAVID WETHEY AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT

The fault lines grow more sharply defined daily in our polarized society. So many of us are so sure we are so right about so much that we’ve spawned multiple versions of “Political correctness”. Their specific content varies according to where we are, whom we’re with, who might overhear us. But all are variations on the theme: “Feel free to express yourself—as long as you don’t say this, do that, go there, embrace and affirm Them.”

 The faultlines fragment our legislatures, our churches, our families, our schools, our workplaces, our neighborhoods, our media. The increasingly bitter presidential race is the loudest, most visible–and most obnoxious?—sign of our fragmentation. Some folks continue to study candidates and issues with an open mind. Others choose to sit on the sidelines. Once again their first choice–“None of the Above”– isn’t on the ballot. But a great many have made their decision, can’t conceive of changing their minds, and speak of those who disagree in terms ranging from impolite and inappropriate to vicious and profane.


Breathe. Inhale. Exhale.  Again.  Once more. That’s better.

Where should the church stand with regard to our nation’s politico-socio-economic-spiritual faultline? Some say “as far away as possible!” Others urge everyone to study the issues—in private, at home—and vote. And please, PLEASE don’t disturb our peace by mentioning this stuff on Sunday morning. Still others have chosen their side and feel called to persuade everyone within reach. How, we wonder together in our self-righteous holy huddles, could an intelligent person, a sane person, a fully-devoted (thinking-like-me) Christian, a real (thinking-like-me) American, possibly choose otherwise?

Sixty years or so ago our nation found itself similarly polarized. That fault line was black and white, not red and blue. The Civil Rights Movement was begnning to transform every aspect of life in the old South—and beyond, for those who had eyes to see. Folks on both sides were convinced of their side’s absolute righteousness and the other side’s absolute unrighteousness, even wickedness.

In the midst of this foundation-shaking chaos lived a white man named Will Campbell. He’d grown up on a farm in Mississippi. His parents had taught him their Baptist faith—so well that he’d been ordained a Baptist minister at age 17. After serving his country in World War II, he completed his education (Wake Forest, Tulane, Yale Divinity School) and returned to the South. In 1957 Will Campbell was one of four ministers who escorted the Little Rock Nine, the black students who integrated Little Rock, Arkansas public schools. In the late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s he supported, organized, and participated in numerous marches, sit-ins, and other actions. He founded an organization called The Committee of Southern Churchmen, which published Katallegete, a journal whose title is the Greek word translated “Be reconciled” (2 Corinthians 5:20).

In 1965 Will Campbell met an Episcopal seminary student named Jonathan Daniels. Jon was helping register black voters in Lowndes County, Alabama. He and his fellow workers literally risked their lives daily to do what we take for granted today–thanks to the courageous efforts of people like them. One day Will heard that Jonathan and another man had been shot by a sheriff named Thomas Coleman. Campbell’s book Brother to a Dragonfly describes the conversation Will had with his longtime (agnostic) friend P.D. East.. In a previous conversation, East had pushed Campbell to define the Gospel. The result was, “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.”

Now as Will relates the story, P.D. said, “‘Come on, Brother.Let’s talk about your definition. Was Jonathan a bastard?’… I knew that if I said no he would leave me alone and if I said yes he wouldn’t. And I knew my definition would be blown if I said no. So I said, ‘Yes.’

” ‘All right. Is Thomas Coleman a bastard?’ That one was a lot easier. ’Yes. Thomas Coleman is a bastard.’

“‘Okay. Let me get this straight now… Jonathan Daniel was a bastard. Thomas Coleman is a bastard. Right? Which one of these two bastards do you think God loves the most?’

“[P.D’s] voice now was almost a whisper as he leaned forward, staring me directly in the eyes…He leaned his face closer to mine, patting first his own knee and then mine, holding the other hand aloft in oath-taking fashion. ‘Which one of these two bastards does God love the most? Does he love that little dead bastard Jonathan the most? Or does He love that living bastard Thomas the most?’”

The agnostic had led his Baptist preacher friend to–conversion: “I remember trying to sort out the sadness and the joy…then this too became clear.

“I was laughing at myself, at twenty years of a ministry which had become…a ministry of liberal sophistication…denying not only the Faith I professed to hold but my history and my people—the Thomas Colemans. Loved. And if loved, forgiven. And if forgiven, reconciled. Yet sitting there in his own jail cell, the blood of two of his and my brothers on his hands. The thought gave me a shaking chill in a non-air-conditioned room in August.”

Will began to understand how ordinary white people like Thomas Coleman and black people were both oppressed by the racist system in the South. Will began reaching out to “racists”, including Klansmen and their families. He hung out with them, sipped whisky with them, officiated at their weddings and funerals–and took intense heat from both white and black “liberals” who couldn’t understand “we’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway.”

In 1998 Will Campbell attended the trial of Sam Bowers, Grand Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. He was charged (again) with ordering the murders of numerous civil rights activists in the ‘60’s, most notably Vernon Dahmer. Sam Bowers sat alone on one side of the courtroom. Dahmer’s large extended family sat on the other side. During the trial Campbell sat with the Dahmers some of the time and with Sam Bowers some of the time. One day a puzzled reporter asked him why he did that. Will growled, “Because I’m a [damn] Christian.”

So to answer my question—I believe the church’s place relative to the red and blue faultline running through American society is standing tall with our feet planted firmly on both sides. Our place is both with neighbors who are easy to love and with those we struggle to love.  We need some “damn Christians” who know from painful, joyful experience that “we’re all bastards but God loves us anyway”. That love frees us to love our neighbors more than any idolatrously-enshrined political, religious, or ideological orthodoxy. That love can grow a new generation called to share Will Campbell’s passion for “reconciliation”:

…”if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived! All of these new things are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and who gave us the ministry of reconciliation.  In other words, God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them. He has trusted us with this message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors who represent Christ. God is negotiating with you through us. We beg you as Christ’s representatives, “Be reconciled to God!”  (2 Corinthians 5:17-20 CEB)