If you didn’t know, Will Campbell died a bit ago. Author of Brother to a Dragonfly (best book by a clergyman ever), Campbell was a Civil Rights activist who infuriated Civil Rights liberals for his Christian love of the enemy.
Campbell was a nagging reminder that Christians, whose primary story is the Gospel rather than America, defy easy categorization.
Campbell’s death brought to mind an experience I had recently.
Just a few weeks ago, I participated in a bible study on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Our bible study of less than a dozen people included Christians (and even one ‘none’) from all over the world.
As I noted in a recent sermon, the group was comprised of a gay Episcopal priest from San Francisco, a Unitarian lay person from Boulder, Colorado, a Catholic civil servant from Paris, France, a women’s studies PhD candidate from Barcelona, Spain, and a geologist from Italy who looked like a shorter, plumper, balder, older version of me. He even sported my sloppy dress and unkempt beard.
Then there was me.
And across from me was an Episcopal Bishop from California.
In the above mentioned sermon, I recounted how, in exasperation and upon remembering that the bishop before me wasn’t my bishop and, as such, had no authority over me, I burst forth:
‘Of course, you think that. You’re a tree-hugging, liberal, Baby Boomer Episcopalian from California.’
In the context of the sermon, it was just a throwaway line, a sneaky gauge of my listeners’ wakefulness disguised as a snarky joke.
In the context of the bible study in which it was originally uttered; however, what later became a throwaway line was initially a genuine outburst of exasperation.
I reduced the bishop to a political label.
I put her in a box.
And then I colored it a dark blue using the red-blue crayons the culture wars have given us.
I did so (if I were of a more ‘liberal’ bent I’d use the word ‘prophetic’ here) because that’s exactly what I’d listened to her do for upwards of 15 minutes.
Our scripture lesson that morning had been from 2 Isaiah: ‘Do not remember the former things…’ That scripture along with the long-suffering landscape of Pine Ridge became the only ingredients necessary for the bishop to launch into a diatribe against ‘right-wing, conservative Christians who [fill in predictable adjectives and knee-jerk assumptions about what ‘those people’ do or support].
As her diarrhea of the mouth built to a crescendo, complaining about all those Christians who listen to X radio preacher and Y cable news channel and hate Z demographic, I’d decided I’d had enough and threw up the words: ‘Of course, you think that. You’re a tree-hugging, liberal, Baby Boomer Episcopalian from California.’
My gross generalizing judgment had the silencing, subject-changing results I’d hoped and, like Lord Voldemort, we spoke of it no more.
I’m sure if the bishop had had the chance to rebut me, she would’ve protested that she was a much more complicated person, her own views more nuanced and tempered by the ambiguities of life experience and vagaries that come with the relationships in her life.
And that was my point.
The same is true of so-called ‘right-wing, conservative Christians.’
The same is true of everyone.
All of us.
None of us so easily fits the boxes and categories we submissively allow the culture and its media to give us.
In my line of work, I know lots of Christians. Many- if not most- are conservative and almost none of them fit the template for ‘Conservative Christian.’
They all have incredibly diverse approaches, opinions and stories. And I think the word ‘story’ best captures my point. We all have one that’s unique to us and we all bring it, uniquely, to the Christian story.
As James KA Smith puts it:
‘We are Christians not because of what we believe, but because we have been called to be disciples of Jesus. Becoming a disciple is not a matter of a new or changed self-understanding but of becoming part of a different community with a different set of practices.’
Put a bit differently, Christianity is where our personal stories intersect the story of Jesus and that’s always going to result in a messy collision that’s unique for each and every person unlucky enough to have their life sabotaged by Jesus.
If Christianity isn’t primarily about opinions and beliefs, if it’s about our story and Christ’s story becoming one, if this is always an alchemy that yields a one-of-a-kind batch each and every time, then we should refuse to put Christians into boxes.
Because to do so would require a new box for each and every person.
‘Story’ and the uniqueness of each person’s story as it integrates the Christ story has been vogue for some time now in
liberal progressive circles, where its emphasis implicitly- if not explicitly- encourages a certain charity towards every individual’s point of view.
An emphasis on ‘story,’ in other words, is inherently inclusive, engendering tolerance, patience and kindness.
To an extent.
Too often, I think, those who laud ‘story’ do so provided only that the person’s ‘story’ is staked out somewhere within the pre-approved vicinity of the
liberal progressive camp.
Put a bit differently, Will Campbell’s death and my conversation (ie, heated exchange) with the bishop has caused me to wonder if those who espouse tolerance are tolerant only of those they deem safely outside the intolerant fold. Sure, it’s easy to point out examples of conservative Christians being intolerant of those with whom they disagree. That’s no surprise. They’re all over the media.
But, troublingly, it’s damn hard to find contemporary
liberal progressive versions of Will Campbell.
I wonder how many of those who esteem ‘story’ today have listened charitably to the ‘story’ of individual conservatives? Or evangelicals?
Because, like I said, I think they’d find that it’s a waste of time to put folks in boxes. The nearest Container Store to me is in Georgetown and, even then, I doubt there’s enough boxes to go around.