Sermon: Christus Victor: the Harrower of Hell

Video

My memory played a trick on me. The title of Richard Beck’s book is The Slavery of Death. I picked up the book in a bookstore to find that Beck is heavily influenced by William Stringfellow and Ernest Becker, two writers who have heavily influenced my developing view of life and death. It was Beck’s contrast between the Western Church’s accent on sin and the Eastern Church’s accent on death – or the fear of death – that brought the “Aha!” for this preacher.

Remembering Will Campbell

Will Campbell

Will Campbell

Will Campbell (1924-2013) is unforgettable. Beyond unusual, he was idiosyncratic. In death, he calls us to the deeper selves we so easily lose.

Will Campbell was that rare person of integrity who seemed to fulfill the hard calling described once by his friend William Stringfellow – “to be the same person everywhere all the time” – and his different places still blow the mind.

He was idiosyncratic. Who else would or could march at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and ‘60s, once the law was changed, turn his ministry to sipping whiskey with the Good Ol’ Boys on the front porches of the Ku Klux Klan?

Campbell was a son of the Deep South, a white Southern Baptist preacher raised in Mississippi, who betrayed his white privilege as a matter of Gospel discipleship. He became one of the closest friends of the youth Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the only white person present at the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that led the charge for Civil Rights in America. He was trusted that much.

His life was threatened repeatedly. He gained national prominence as a field worker for the Department of Racial and Cultural Relations of the National Council of Churches, the nation’s largest ecumenical council that suffered heavy criticism from anti-civil rights forces across the country, but especially in the Deep South. The National Council of Churches and Will Campbell were to their critics what the KKK was to those who worked to eliminate segregation in America.

When the nine black school children walked through hostile crowds to integrate the public school system in Little Rock, Arkansas, Will Campbell was one of four people at their side.

He became Director of the Committee of Southern Churchman, a position he used to promote racial reconciliation, his vocation until the day he died.

With the passage of the Civil Right Act, the man who spent his ministry to help win freedom for blacks did something no one could have imagined. He chose to re-direct his ministry to the new lepers of society, the defeated hooded enemies of integration, the Ku Klux Klan.

No one but Will Campbell would have done this, and few others could have done this. But he did. He became known as the chaplain to the KKK. Campbell wrote in Brother to a Dragonfly, one of 26 publications that bear his name:

“I had become a doctrinaire social activist without consciously choosing to be. And I would continue to be some kind of social activist. But there was a decided difference. Because from that point on I came to understand the nature of tragedy. And one who understands the nature of tragedy can never take sides.”

Will Campbell was not a hater. He was a reconciler who loved people. All kinds and conditions of people, even his ‘enemies’. He was the same person everywhere all the time.

He confused his critics – first the Right and then the Left – by insisting that his soul did not belong to any team – racial, political, religious, cultural. It belonged to the Kingdom of God. There was only one team, and that was the family of ALL God’s children everywhere. Compassion came first in his hierarchy of values. Compassion led him to campaign for justice in the Civil Rights Movement, and compassion led him to sip whiskey with the cross-burners in the rocking chairs on their front porches. His was a ministry of reconciliation, a living, idiosyncratic expression a bold declaration of the biblical gospel that God was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s own Self.

The notice of Will’s death (June 3, 2013) at the age of 88 in Nashville, Tennessee reminded me of just how hard it is to be a disciple of Jesus, how hard it is to love my neighbor as myself, especially when the neighbor is the enemy of my own claims to righteousness. Would that all of us were as idiosyncratic as Will.

Out of the Mouth of William Stringfellow

Jacket of "My People Is the Enemy"

Jacket of “My People Is the Enemy”

“Let all religious people beware. Their earnest longing for God is predicated on the reservation on their part that it is necessary for them to do something to find God. The Word of God in the Bible, however, is that God does not await human initiative of any sort but seeks and finds [people] where they are, wherever it be.”

- William Stringfellow, Count It All Joy (Eerdman’s, 1967).

Inspired by Stringfellow’s writings, six students at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago gathered weekly at 6:00 a.m. on Wednesday mornings with Professor Bruce Rigdon to reflect together on our late-night (10: p.m. – 2:00 a.m.) “bar ministry” at Poor Richard’s, a “secular” place, in light of Stringfellow’s writings. God was already present everywhere; our privilege was to recognize it in the world.

Outside the fence at the seminary students from the Moody Bible Institute targeted McCormick people with tracts that threatened Hell for the liberal “sinners” who didn’t recognize the depth of human depravity. They wanted to save the “wretched” seminarians who scorned every hint of a shame and guilt as the starting point of the Christian faith. We believed that grace was amazing and that it was everywhere, but Amazing Grace‘s “saved a wretch like me” was the language of Moody, a wallowing in shame and guilt from which we were proud to have been freed.

It’s 1966 in Chicago’s Old Town entertainment district. Kay Zimmerman, a dear friend and classmate who lost her sight at the age of nine, and I walk into Poor Richards arm-in-arm. The bar is unusually full. A young man jumps up on a table with his guitar and starts to strum out  the hymn we seminary students ridiculed for it’s wretched theology of human wretchedness: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me…” and everyone rose to their feet to join . “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”

Several years following ordination, the Chaplain of Milliken University (Decatur, IL) invited me to an evening with “Bill” Stringfellow. It was two weeks before Stringfellow was to undergo major exploratory surgery for a misdiagnosed illness that threatened his life. During an evening in Bill Bodamer’s home Stringfellow spoke in terms that captured my attention in a new way.

It was during that visit that I began to move theologically from the prevalent paradigm of good v. evil to what Stringfellow argued was the biblical paradigm of life v. death. Even yet today, I am still moving from under the spell of my own form of pietistic slavery to “goodness” into the freedom for which Christ has set me free.

Over the years that followed, Bill became a guest in our home during his visits to campus ministry programs at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Northern New York Campus Ministry (Canton, NY), and The College of Wooster (Wooster, OH). My children remember this frail man with the searching eyes, sensing perhaps that his physical frailty not only revealed a human frailty he never denied but a powerful faith in God’s great extravagance.

The absolution from pietism is that there is no way at all to please God, no way to strike a bargain  with Him, no necessity to meet Him half-way,…no way in which His godliness can be diluted in dependency upon human enterprise. The futility of pietism, ending as it does in honoring death in the name of fidelity to God, is that God has triumphed over death already, in the here and now of this life. What is given to men, in that triumph, is not to add to God’s achievement, since it is decisive, and it is not to complete His work, since God is not negligent, and much less to ridicule God’s passion for this world by resort to moralistic legalism, mechanistic ritualism, doctrinaire meanness or any similar religious exercises.

“The vocation of men is to enjoy their emancipation from the power of death wrought by God’s vitality in this world. The crown of life is  the freedom to live now, for all the strife and ambiguity and travail, in the imminent transcendence of death, and all of death’s threats and temptation. This is the gift of God to all in Christ’s Resurrection.

“Men of this vocation count all trials as joys, for, though every trial be an assault of the power of death, in every trial is God’s defeat of death verified and manifested.”

- William Stringfellow,  conclusion of Count It All Joy

“Let all religious people beware.”

“You can’t cheat an honest man”

William Stringfellow observed that the greatest personal challenge is to be the same person… in every time…in every place.

If I’d been able to whisper words into the President’s ear last night, or make him speak like an Edgar Bergen dummy on my lap, he would have asked, “Which of the different people you have been  – from which time…and from which place – is the one you asking the American people to vote for?”

But, alas, I only get to grump and moan, holding the President on my lap, like Mortimer Snerd on the lap of Edgar Bergen. Are we really that dumb?

A lot of gas is holding up this balloon.

America and “the Fall”

WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange addressed the United Nations General Assembly yesterday. His speech is reminiscent of American theologian William Stringfellow who declared in 1968 that we were already living under the rule of “extra-constitutional powers and authorities” that operate covertly in the shadows of democracy.

Watch WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange speaking by satellite from Ecuador where he lives in exile. Unedited Politics deserves credit for posting this.  Of particular interest are references to President Obama that hold his Administration accountable while seeming to grant some credit and holding out hope that he might change things.

Julian Assange Speech to UN General Assembly: “US Trying to Erect National Secrecy Regime” – 9/26/12.

William Stringfellow

William Stringfellow – author, lay theologian, lawyer among the poor and defense attorney for Bishop James Pike and the Berrigan Brothers (Frs. Phil and Dan) – wrote the following in 1973:

“In this world as it is, in the era of time, in common history – in the epoch of the Fall, as the Bible designates this scene every principality has the elemental significance of death, notwithstanding contrary appearances. This is eminently so with respect to nations, for nations are, as Revelation indicates, the archetypical principalities… All virtues which nations elevate and idolize – military prowess, material abundance, technological sophistication, imperial grandeur, high culture, racial pride, trade, prosperity, conquest, sport, language, or whatever – are

subservient to the moral presence of death in the nation. And it is the same with the surrogate nations – the other principalities like corporations and conglomerates, ideologies and bureaucracies, and authorities and institutions of every name and description…

“The Fall is where the nation is. The Fall is the locus of America… Since the climax of America’s glorification as a nation – in the ostensible American victory in World War II, most lucidly and aptly symbolized in Hiroshima – Americans have become so beleaguered by anxiety and fatigue, so bemused and intimidated, so beset by a sense of impotence and by intuitions of calamity, that they have, for

the most part, been consigned to despair… Racial conflict has been suppressed by an elaborate apartheid; products which supposedly mean abundance turn out to contaminate or jeopardize life; the environment itself is rendered hostile; there is a pervasive Babel; privacy is a memory because surveillance is ubiquitous; institutional coercion of human beings has proliferated relentlessly. Whatever must be said of earlier times, in the past quarter century, America has become a technological totalitarianism in which hope, in its ordinary connotations, is being annihilated.”

- An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, William Stringfellow, 1973. (Bolded print added by Views from the Edge)

“Sojourners” republishes piece today

Thanks to Sojourners for republishing a piece that first appeared here. Click I wish we were all that Crazy” to read the piece on Jim Wallis’ blog, “God’s Politics.”

If you missed it, it was a reflection on the late Bishop James Pike and the late William Stringfellow, the lawyer and lay theologian who defended the Bishop at the Episcopal Church’s heresy trial.