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Civil Rights leader, preacher Will Campbell dead at 88

4 June 2013

I was rather saddened to see this news item, posted by a distant cousin on Twitter, Civil Rights leader, preacher Will Campbell dead at 88.

Who was Will Campbell, and why should anyone in South Africa have heard of him?

I first learnt of Will Campbell when I got sick in Cape Town, and was taken in and nursed by a Methodist minister, Theo Kotze, and his wife Helen. That was over 40 years ago, in 1972, when the police were rioting in the Anglican cathedral in Cape Town, and there were student protests all over. We were talking about all that, and the response of Christians to the growing repression. And Theo handed me a book and said “Read this. It’s far more radical than anything I’ve ever come across.”

Up to Our Steeples in PoliticsUp to Our Steeples in Politics by Will D. Campbell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So I read it on my sick bed, and got about halfway through.

But there was something that jumped out at me on the first page, which struck me as very radical, and very orthodox, not to mention Orthodox.

Back in those days everyone was talking about Christians being activist, and saying that we should not be concerned about status but about function. Being a Christian was not enough, you needed to do something. You had to do theology.

I wasn’t Orthodox in those days, but I had been exposed to Orthodoxy (at St Sergius Institute in Paris, for Holy Week) and it had got me reading some Orthodox books, and finding that they were saying things that I had been looking for for a long time.

And here’s this book by this Protestant preacher from the Deep South in the USA, and he was saying the same kind of thing.

And the thing that jumped out at me on the first page was this:

We agree with those who have reminded us in recent years that the Christian faith is indicative (the fact that God reconciles the world in Christ), not imperative (Go to church! Do not drink bourbon! Feed the hungry! Search and destroy!

There was, and is, a great deal of talk about “reconciliation”. But Will D. Campbell and his collaborator James Y. Holloway said that one thing that looked like an imperative in the New Testament, “be reconciled” (katallagete) was a different kind of imperative. It “calls attention to a special kind of behavior by the Christian toward the world, behaviour which ‘does’ by being, ‘acts’ by living, that is, being and living as God made us in Christ.”

For more on this, see this post from a couple of years ago Reconciliation | Khanya, where I quote more extensively from Campbell & Holloway.

And if anyone lived his faith, and acted by being, it was Will D. Campbell. The Tennessean had this to say about him:

A white man from Mississippi walked with black children through a frothing mob at Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957, helping to integrate Arkansas public schools.

Later, he was the only pale face at the founding of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He also played a crucial – though subtle – role in integrating Nashville’s shops and restaurants.

That same man, Will Campbell, was the personal pastor to people – terrorists, we’d call them today – whose violent mission was to make sure the South would never integrate.

The civil rights movement, in which Will Campbell played a significant part, did not put an end to racism, though it did help to eliminate many of the instiutionalised expressions of it. Other social issues came to the fore, and Will Campbell was there. As the first article cited above notes,

“If you’re gonna love one, you’ve got to love ’em all,” he repeated thousands of times.

For the past 40 years, at least until a May 2011 stroke left him in a West Nashville medical care facility, Campbell broadened his ministry. He wrote books that drew praise from former President Jimmy Carter, Robert Penn Warren and others. He campaigned mightily against abortion and the death penalty.

Though I never met him, he had a huge influence on my life. May his memory be eternal!

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One Comment leave one →


  1. Orthodox Collective

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