This is a good time to remember Will Campbell, who died three years ago this summer. Probably best known for his memoir, Brother to a Dragonfly, which was a National Book Award finalist, here’s how the New York Times described Campbell when he died: “…he was a civil rights advocate who drank whiskey with Klansmen, a writer who layered fact and fiction, and a preacher without a church who presided at weddings, baptisms and funerals in homes, hospitals and graveyards for a flock of like-minded rebels that included Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Dick Gregory, Jules Feiffer and Studs Terkel.”
Will Campbell lived most of his adult life in Mt. Juliet, then a small town outside Nashville. I was privileged to be in his home a couple of times while I was a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Here’s why I’m evoking his memory now.
Though a civil rights advocate, Campbell also believed that, in his words, “Jesus died for all people, not just those on my side of an issue.” So he decided to befriend members of the Ku Klux Klan. He wanted to find out what made them think and behave the way they did.
He was the only white man invited to attend the founding of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s Southern Christian Leadership Council in 1957. A few months later, he escorted nine black students through angry mobs at Central High School in Little Rock. He also was the one who visited a KKK leader the night before he was heading into prison. A heckler once yelled at him, “I hear you love the Klan!” Campbell replied, “No, I love Klansmen.”
He loved them, not what they did, not what they stood for. He loved them because he had empathy for them, he recognized a common humanity, and it was his way of imitating Jesus.
Might our nation be less bitterly divided right now if we had more people around like Will Campbell? Someone happy to share a meal with “Black Lives Matter” protesters and with police? Someone happy to share a drink with a Trump supporter and also a Clinton supporter? Someone who would listen to those on both sides of our contentious issues?
Part of our current culture of fear and xenophobia is fueled by a feeling of scarcity. People, some of whom are struggling economically and some of whom aren’t, worry that that there’s not enough to go around: not enough good jobs, not enough money, not enough room in the middle class. So the thought pattern begins: “I have to hang on tight to what I have, I can’t share it, and I can’t let another group do well, because that means my group will suffer.”
The real scarcity is a scarcity of empathy, an inability for us to see life from another person’s point of view, an unwillingness to see that those we differ with politically have any wisdom or humanity whatsoever.