NEEDED–DAMN CHRISTIANS

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.

OMG IS HE REALLY GOING THERE? WHICH SIDE IS HE GOING TO TICK OFF FIRST?? WILL MY DEVICE EXPLODE IF I KEEP READING??? WILL I GET SO MAD I HURL IT ACROSS THE ROOM AGAINST THE WALL OUT THE FRONT DOOR INTO THE SWIMMING POOL?!?!?

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)

               

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