The Common Good
January-February 2000

Grace for Everyone

by Frye Galliard | January-February 2000

Will Campbell's 'scandalizing' faith.

"For Grandma Bertha and Grandpa Bunt, who taught me about hard sayings."

So begins Will Campbell’s 17th book, Soul Among Lions: Musings of a Bootleg Preacher, a collection of essays, some hard-hitting, others sentimental, but all of them bearing the distinctive stamp of one of the most provocative writers of our time.

Campbell is a Mississippian by birth, a white Southern Baptist who became an activist in the civil rights movement and ever since has taken his own particular delight in scandalizing those more rigid in their faith. At age 75, he is still caught up in the mystery of it all. He has little use for ideology or creed—"the baggage," he says, of those apostles of certainty who proclaim to their own congregations and the world: "God told me, and I’m telling you, and if you don’t believe as I do you’re doomed." There is a special corner of his contempt, it seems, for the political preachings of the far Religious Right—"those electronic soul-molesters who hurl to hearth and household their political agenda, all disguised in a tidy and palatable gospel of ‘Take up your cross and relax. Take up your cross and get rich. Take up your cross and send a hurricane scurrying up the coast to blow somebody else’s house to smithereens.’"

If Campbell has little use for that approach, it’s hard to say exactly where he fits. His faith is rooted in part in his Mississippi boyhood—in his memories especially of his Grandpa Bunt, to whom his current book is dedicated. As Campbell remembers him, the old man stood gently against the racial attitudes of his time. Motivated by his faith, he proclaimed to the children who were growing up around him that God made no distinctions between people who were black and people who were white, and eventually the world would come to understand. Will Campbell believed it, and a few years later he found himself caught in the crusade for civil rights. He marveled at the courage of the young black people who resisted the cattle prods and the mobs, marching for what they knew to be the truth.

But Campbell has never turned his back on his own. He believes in grace, the undeserved shower of divine forgiveness that rains upon us all, and he believes that everyone—even the members of the Ku Klux Klan, hidden away behind their hoods, burning their crosses in the Mississippi night—are the children of God.

He also believes there is virtue in places you might not expect it. In Soul Among Lions, he writes about Pebo, his Tennessee neighbor who seemed to work hard at being a rube. He chewed tobacco and drank too much and used bad grammar even though he knew better—and sometimes, purely for shock value, he used the n-word. Given that blemish, there were people who argued that Campbell, who played with Pebo in a little country band, ought to choose better friends. Campbell agreed that the word was offensive, a degrading epithet that his friend shouldn’t use. But he remembers the night when a violent snowstorm had swept through the valley. Roads were blocked and power lines were down, and most of the people in that part of Tennessee, including Campbell and his family, had spent the night in blankets near the fire. Pebo, meanwhile, spent the night on his bulldozer out in the cold, clearing the roads, delivering food and medicine, firewood and coal, to all of his neighbors, without regard for who was black or who was white.

"Not those who say, ‘Lord, Lord,’ but those who do the will of God," writes Campbell, and that is the way he looks at the world. For a half century or more, he roamed the South as a preacher at large, becoming more and more impatient over time with all of the rationalizations and the lies, the attempts to trivialize the Christian faith and bend it to the sinful will of human beings. The faith, he insists, was never meant to be easy. It is, instead, a call to do better—to recognize our common humanity and to resist the temptations of our selfishness and greed.

Soul Among Lions is an eloquent, deeply felt testimonial to the essence of the faith as Campbell understands it—a provocative collection of essays and parables, even for those who might disagree. —Frye Gaillard

FRYE GAILLARD is the author of 16 books, including The Dream Long Deferred and If I Were A Carpenter: Twenty Years of Habitat for Humanity. He is currently at work on a biography of Will Campbell.

Soul Among Lions: Musings of a Bootleg Preacher. Will Campbell. Estminster John Knox Press, 1/1/99.

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