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Sunday, 14 March 2010

Will D Campbell: Radical Baptist - Theologian of Radical Grace

For reasons that I am not totally clear about I have been dipping back into the life and writings of Will D Campbell a radical Baptist preacher from the south of the USA. If you dip into the history of the civil rights movement you are likely to find him popping up here and there as a fugitive presence. He was an activist, pastor, theologian for most of his life without a formal church position and with a habit of raising difficult questions for theological and social liberals who might have assumed that he was on their side.

For an account of his life check out Will Campbell - A man of the Word.

Richard D Goode has recently edited an anthology of Campbell's work, Writings on Reconciliation and Resistance (Cascade Books, 2009). The book contains some good extracts that catches the flavour of what Campbell has on about.

If prophets are called to unveil and expose the illegitimacy of those principalities masquerading as "the right" and purportedly using their powers for "the good," then Will D. Campbell is one of the foremost prophets in American religious history. Like Clarence Jordan and Dorothy Day and probably Wendell Berry in his own more gentle but nonteheless challenging way Campbell incarnates the radical iconoclastic vocation of standing in contraposition to society, naming the racial, economic, and political idols that seduce and delude. (Jacques Ellul is one of the influences lurking behind the scenes here)

In this anthology Campbell diagnoses a problem afflicting much of the church today. Zealous to make a difference in the world by acquiring the power of legislation and enforcement, Christians employ society's political science rather than the scandalous politics of Jesus. Although well-intentioned, Christians are, Campbell laments, mistakenly "up to our steeples in politics." Campbell's prescription is for disciples simply to incarnate the reconciliation that Christ has achieved. Rather than crafting savvy strategies and public policies, "Do nothing," Campbell counsels. "Be reconciled!"

Yet his encouragement to "do nothing" is no endorsement of passivity or apolitical withdrawal. Rather, Campbell calls for disciples to give their lives of reconciliation in irrepressible resistance against all principalities and powers that would impede or deny our reconciliation in Christ—an unrelenting prophetic challenge leveled especially at institutional churches, as well as Christian colleges and universities.

In sermons, difficult-to-access journal articles, and archival manuscripts and extracts from his books assembled here by Goode, Campbell develops what reconciliation looks like. Being the church, for example, means identifying with, and advocating for, society's "least one"-including violent offenders, disenfranchised minorities, and even militant bigots. In fact, in Campbell's understanding the scorned sectarian and disinherited denizen is often closer to the peculiar Christian genius than are society's well-healed powerbrokers.



Part 2 on Campbell's ecclesiology and Part 3 on Campbell's publications to follow

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