Since The Donald ascended to the oval office in January, I’ve heard progressive Christians yearning for a contemporary incarnation of Reinhold Niebuhr, a public theologian who can offer, with clarity and conviction, a Christian critique of the current regime. I’ve also heard fellow clergy ask- with not a little self-seriousness (myself included)- if the threat The Donald poses to America is sufficiently analogous to the threat posed to Germany by Hitler such that what the Church in America needs now is another Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a righteous voice to lead a confessing minority of Christians against a contagion of fascist ideology. Increasingly, I’m convinced the Church in Trump’s America needs neither a Niebuhr nor a Bonhoeffer and that the longing for either may be self-righteous to the point of obscuring the Gospel which we’re called to proclaim in word and deed.
Last week the progressive pastor Rev. Dr. William Barber made news by arguing on MSNBC’s AM Joy that clergy who prayed for or with The Donald committed “theological malpractice bordering on heresy.” Conservative clergy responded in kind that Barber’s assertion did not project love for his Christian brothers and sisters. In response to the story, pro and con tweets followed by Christians all over social media, each abiding by the red or blue hue of their flavor of Christianity.
In a blog post earlier this week, I noted how both Rev. Barber’s critique of The Donald and Trump-loving Christians appeared to have little use for Jesus, who commanded us not only to pray for our enemies but to forgive them and, even, to love them.
More than a few readers messaged me to extol Rev. Barber’s “brave Christian witness against the Powers” and his “radical politics.” It’s possible I failed to articulate my point with sufficient clarity; it’s also possible that progressives have become so enmeshed in their own blue-hued, generic civil religion, too enthusiastic about their own State Church of the Left, that my point was too specifically Christian to be obvious to them.
Rev. Barber’s politics are not radical enough.
I don’t think the Church in America needs a Niebuhr or a Bonhoeffer because I worry The Donald is a character of such exaggerated and self-evident flaws he’s exacerbated our very human and (sinful) tendency to draw lines between moral and immoral people, as though the line between good and evil dotted the borders of mutually exclusive ideologies rather than running through every human heart.
You cannot have a truly radical politics without a radical doctrine of justification by grace.
As my friend Dr. Jeffrey Pugh mentioned in passing during our recent live podcast, what the Church in America needs is not a Bonhoeffer nor a Niebuhr nor does the progressive wing of the Church need a blue-hued version of what it detests on the Right.
Only an understanding that ALL are under the Power of Sin, all stand condemned, NONE is righteous, and that there is no distinction between any of us- only such an understanding can produce a radical politics.
What the Church in America needs Jeffrey observed is another Will Campbell.
And I couldn’t agree more.
For those of you who don’t know, “Brother Will,” who recently died, was a controversial figure- just note that fact, the “radical” Rev. Barber is not at all controversial among progressive Christians.
Originally from Mississippi, he returned to live there after graduating from Yale Divinity School, and he founded an organization called the Committee of Southern Churchmen. This organization published a journal called Katallagete, which means “be reconciled.” Brother Will was one of the very few white people who escorted the “Little Rock Nine” into Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. He was also there when Martin Luther King, Jr. founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Will Campbell believed with all his heart in the cause of Civil Rights. But he also believed, equally firmly, that Christ died for the racists as much as he died for the victims of racism.
Fleming Rutledge tells this story about Will:
“Will attend[ed] the trial of Sam Bowers, the Grand Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Bowers is believed to have ordered several killings, the most conspicuous of which was the assassination of the black civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer in his own home.
At the Mississippi trial held almost 40 years later, the large Dahmer family sat on one side of the courtroom. Sam Bowers sat alone on the other. As the trial proceeded, Will sat with the Dahmers some of the time and with Bowers some of the time.
A baffled reporter asked him why he did that.
“Because I’m a damn Christian.”
When his fellow activists got angry with Will for spending time with members of the Ku Klux Klan, he said:
“I’d identified with liberal sophistication, and had lost something of the meaning of grace that does include us all.
I would continue to be a social activist, but came to understand the nature of tragedy. And one who understands the nature of tragedy can never take sides.”
It’s laudable, for example, that Christians and clergy near my alma mater in Charlottesville recently protested against the presence of the Klan, but- I wonder- was their witness radical? Christianly speaking? Might a more distinctive witness been offered, one made possibly only by faith in the Gospel of grace- had some Will Campbell Christians, protest signs in hand, also embraced those on the other side?
In his memoir, Brother to a Dragonfly, Campbell writes of watching a documentary of the KKK with a group of like-minded progressive activists:
“I felt a sickening in my stomach [to the viewers’ response to the film.] Who were they? Most of them were from middle and upper class families…they were students or graduates of rich and leading universities. They were tough but somehow I sensed that there wasn’t a radical in the bunch.
For if they were radical how could they laugh at a poor ignorant farmer who didn’t know his left hand from his right. If they had been radical they would have been weeping, asking what had produced him.
I began my speech to them, saying: “I’m Will Campbell. I’m a Baptist preacher. I’m a native of Mississippi. And I’m pro-Klansmen because I’m pro-human being.”
His “radical” audience all left, outraged, threatening him harm. Will concludes his memory saying:”
“A true radical would ask how do we humans get to be the sort of humans we are.
Just four words uttered- pro-Klansmen Mississippi Baptist Preacher, coupled with one image, White, had turned them into everything they thought the KKK to be- hostile, frustrated, angry, violent and irrational.
I was never able to explain to them that pro-Klansmen is not the same as pro-Klan. That the former has to do with the person, the other with an ideology.”
I yearn for a truly radical voice like Will’s.