Remembering Will Campbell: A Champion For Social Justice

by Mary Button

One of the greatest gifts my parents gave me as a child was an awareness of my own privilege. Both of my parents grew up as white children in the segregated and violent Jim Crow South. They spent their adulthood trying to make sense of the experience by instilling in me and my brother a passion for justice and a deep sense of history.

When I was a junior in college, my father gave me the book that changed my life: Brother to a Dragonfly by Will Campbell. It’s a memoir about Campbell’s relationship with his brother as well as an account of his journey from the campus chaplain at Ole Miss to the field officer for the National Council of Churches who escorted the Little Rock Nine to their first day of school. He helped the Freedom Riders integrate interstate bus travel. He was the only white minister invited by Dr. Martin Luther King to the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. And he drank whiskey with Klansmen and visited James Earl Ray in prison.

The course of Campbell’s ministry changed after a conversation with a colleague in the Civil Rights Movement.

As a white man, Campbell wanted to know where his place in the Civil Rights Movement should be. He was met with a frank answer: in white churches, working to end the prejudice and discrimination that they promulgate. His book Race and the Renewal of the Church had an effect in my life similar to that of Campbell’s conversation with his colleague. In the following passage, he addresses churches that preach “separate but equal:”

[It] must be said to the segregationist who insists that he can love his brother and still restrict his freedom through a system of segregation is that this is simply not true. Who, having two children, can claim to love them equally if he puts one in a room—which he himself selects—gives that child the same toys, clothes, food and medical care as the other child whom he has not restricted to an assigned room but has given the freedom of the house and grounds, including even the room assigned to the first child? The segregationist is often honest and sincere in his belief that he loves the minority person whom he restricts, but we may well question whether he really knows the meaning of love.

We must say, then, frankly recognizing the danger of such a position, that at some point, some very fine but very real point, it is possible for the church to cease to be the church, and that at that point it should identify itself by some other name.

What these words mean to me is that when the church ceases to be the church, when it preaches, for instance, that the love two men can feel for each other is unequal to the love that a man can feel for a woman it is the role of the Christian to ask the church to identify itself by some other name. The pursuit of social justice is the pursuit of a world that organizes itself around the potential of all human beings to live in service to each other.

Campbell’s words re-directed my life and my own ministry, and his words guide me on my journey as a straight ally in the movement for LGBT equality.

My work as an activist and theologian is to ask, “At what point should the church identify itself by another name?” The church today has substituted the racism of “separate but equal” with the homophobia of “love the sinner, hate the sin.” It’s time for Sexuality and the Renewal of the Church. Toward the end of his life Campbell seemed to have reached the same conclusion.

Campbell took great pride in working with his lesbian daughter in the pursuit of LGBT equality. And I took great joy in hearing echoes of Will Campbell’s ministry in President Obama’s second inaugural speech when he proclaimed, “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.” The ecclesial barriers built by privileging heterosexuality and heteronormativity over and against the amazing diversity of God-given expressions of sexuality and gender are destroying the sacrality of the Beloved Community.

The Biblical passage most dear to me is Romans 8: 38-39: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

The power of God’s love is greater than the twisted theology of any church. This is the lesson preached and lived out by Will Campbell.

The world lost a powerful champion for social justice when Will Campbell died on Monday, June 3, 2013. The powerful theological legacy left by books like Brother to a Dragonfly and Race and the Renewal of the Church will continue to guide me in my work as an LGBT activist. More than that, the radical and affirming love he showed for all people – regardless of opinion – will always live on in my heart and the hearts of all people lucky enough to have had him in their lives.

Image from The Hymnbook Project by Mary Button, inspired by the ministry of Will Campbell

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