Will D. Campbell, right, and Ralph Abernathy comforted each other on April 4, 1968, at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Will D. Campbell, right, and Ralph Abernathy comforted each other on April 4, 1968, at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

In our discussion on Sunday at North City Church, Sister Nancy reminded us that in Ferguson last Saturday, two lives were lost – Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, the man who shot him. We haven’t heard much from Wilson or from his family, but undoubtedly they’re suffering right now. Their lives will not be normal again for a long time, if ever. Reflecting on the plight of the Wilson family, I am reminded of the Civil Rights leader Will Campbell, who, after several years working with Martin Luther King and SCLC, devoted himself to ministering to white Christians, and particularly those identified as racists. He famously “converted” several former Klansmen and facilitated reconciliation with their former victims. He even visited James Earl Ray, King’s assassin, in prison. In citing Campbell, I don’t mean to imply that Wilson is a racist or a Klansman; we’ll probably never know the full story of what happened that day or why it happened. But regardless of his actual culpability, Wilson has become a symbol of systemic racism, of police brutality, and of white oppression. Will Campbell, like Sister Nancy at North City, calls us to see recent events through the eyes of Christ rather than “from a human point of view” (2 Cor 5:16).

Campbell spent his life arguing that Christians must practice a more radical form of racial reconciliation than the compassionate humanitarianism of the world, whose aims in the 1960s included voter protections, school integration, and an end to discrimination. While these goals are laudable, the Christian is compelled to go further, because the Christian has an obligation to minister not only to the oppressed, but also to the oppressor. In a tragedy like the Brown shooting, it’s easy to sympathize with the victim, with his family, and with the whole black community in Ferguson who’s been putting up with discrimination for years. Yet Campbell reminds us that there is something more to be feared than physical pain and death – the deadening of the soul through hatred, victimizing, and oppressing. In his 1962 book Race and the Renewal of the Church, Campbell wrote:

“The Christian must first of all be concerned with souls. He will leap to the side of those who are being harmed, but his anguish at the suffering of the victims of racism will not blind him to the dangers facing the souls of the oppressors. The suffering of the minority group does not separate it from God, but the sin of the majority group does separate it from God. Thus, the soul of the dispossessor must concern us as much as the suffering of the dispossessed, and when this is not the case, our concern and action is something less than Christian concern and action….None of this is to deny the obligation of the Christian to relieve the suffering of the oppressed. It is rather to say that when this is all we do, we are stopping short of the Christian imperative. Jesus showed concern and pain when he saw people suffer, and he relieved them. But in a moment of great emotion, he looked over his own people and cried: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets, and stoning those who are sent you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Matt 23:37). Here was the real tragedy. This was not merely a cry of despair over the alienation and sin of the people. To be sure, their hardness of heart, their stubbornness, their refusal to recognize the truth, resulted in human misery, but this was not primary. The suffering was merely a symptom of a functional and basic sickness. And it was for this that he went to his death.”

We cannot neglect the real bodily needs of our neighbors in Ferguson, nor the real political changes which need to be made. But we must recognize the basic sickness which Jesus died for, the sickness which causes us to divide, to categorize, to name call, to Other, to hate. Until we can see both Michael Brown and Darren Wilson as children of God, fallen yet redeemed, we will continue to make the mistakes which have been made in Ferguson. Until we can see ourselves as fallen yet redeemed, we will miss the full liberation of the gospel.

Will Campbell was once asked to sum up the gospel in 10 words or less. The Bootleg Baptist replied, “We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway.” I can think of no better news.

[You can read Race and the Renewal of the Church along with other of Campbell’s writings in Crashing the Idols: The Vocation of Will D. Campbell (and any other Christian for that matter), edited by Richard Goode (Wipf & Stock, 2010).]

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