Will D Campbell and the Politics of Radical Inclusivity

September 1, 2010

For all the talk of inclusion we often hear at the “progressive” end of the spectrum, I think there are notable exclusions to who we truly want to “include.” I’m not pointing fingers though, not without having the other four point right back at myself anyway.

Once we jump through the hurdles of gaining a little rationality and sense, once we strip away are inherent prejudices that we have developed simply by living and growing up in our environments, we can begin to learn how to extend our care, love, and welcome to those typically outside of the circle of inclusivity. The “least of these” in our midst become in; and that group of folks can be a lot of different things depending on where you live in this country. The battle for gay rights, though far from over, has at least finally extended a “place at the table” for LGBTQ folks, at least in most progressive factions of the field. Muslims in America, as recent news has shown, have a way to go before a good portion of America welcomes them, but many in the religious and political landscape of America see their place at the table as undeniable and welcome. Those of races, creeds, and countries of origin different than our own can clearly be seen as those we should include. The homeless, at least at face value, are obvious contenders for those “least of these” that our love and care must extend to—though it’s doubtful that in the flesh they will often get a “spot at the table” in many places. Most churches and social organizations have grown past the stigma of a disease like AIDS so much so that fundraising charity walks in support of AIDS patients and research are now the norm.

This is all well, this is all good, and the work to be done on behalf of and in cooperation with all of the above-mentioned communities is far from over; those of us in traditionally “liberal” churches and political groups certainly can’t pat ourselves on the back with a “mission accomplished” affirmation in this regard yet. But there’s a type of person that we all find difficult to extend this sort of care too—in fact, a sort of person(s) we find it difficult to extend even basic conversation to.

Will D. Campbell is a Baptist preacher who was heavily involved in the Civil Rights movement—he was one of the four people who escorted the black students in the first integrated class of Little Rock, Arkansas and he was the only white person present when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Later in Campbell’s career he made a move that angered many of his friends on the Left and many of those same friends he marched with for Civil Rights—he befriended and ministered to many members of the Ku Klux Klan. This was not because he developed white supremacist ideologies of his own, it’s because in his opinion, “anyone who is not as concerned with the immortal soul of the dispossessor as he is with the suffering of the dispossessed is being something less than Christian” (as he wrote in his “Brother to a Dragonfly” book).

Now, there are aspects of Campbell’s political and theological positions that I myself do not fully agree or identify with, but both of these above-mentioned facets of his character and work are things I deem to be very admirable traits that all who connect with Christianity whatsoever should aspire to at some level. Seated where I am in my ideologies and as I hinted at from the beginning of this essay, I find his work in the Civil Rights Movement—as difficult, daring, and brave as it was—to be an easier pill to swallow, an easier struggle to commit to than the latter act, that of befriending and ministering to the bigots themselves.

An example of what this type of mindset might entail can take the current LGBTQ rights movement as a concern; straight people who take the concerns of that community and work for their inclusion and equality are viewed as “allies.” I don’t know how much work done for the community is required to earn such a term, but let’s assume someone is working tirelessly for LGBTQ equality—on a “small” scale by making choices in their daily lives that seek advancement for that community and on a large scale by making certain political decisions, etc. That someone, I feel, would typically not befriend many blatantly heterosexist/homophobic individuals. Should they? I say yes. Granted, it might be too much to ask for such a person to befriend a member of a hate organization, say of Fred Phelp’s infamous Westboro Baptist Church. That type of commitment would come from this movement’s equivalent of Campbell. But everyone knows people in their own lives who hold prejudiced views on this issue and a social networking explosion like what has gone on in Facebook has brought a lot of people in contact with a lot of friends they haven’t communicated with in years—odds are, the most progressive rights campaigner in the country was good friends with someone in High School that held some pretty homophobic opinions, opinions that person has yet to “outgrow.” Taking Facebook as an example might seem a bit generic, and it is in many aspects, but for the sake of simplicity let’s work with it. The above mentioned rights worker typically will “defriend” or ignore the old friend once they realize how disparate their adult views are now. Someone like Campbell wouldn’t though. Such a person can opt to remain in casual conversation with the other; always going after their opinion won’t typically work, so why not wait for topics of conversation that are relatable and dialogue with them there? You certainly shouldn’t pretend to think something you don’t, and if asked you should always bluntly speak truth; you shouldn’t waiver in expressing your own opinion about the issues they would disagree with to others where they might see or hear it either, though. The first step to overcoming prejudices is often finding that the “other” isn’t really that different from you in the first place.

I spoke of how we on the “progressive” end find a certain kind of person difficult to talk to, and that person is the “non-progressive,” a term which sounds insulting. But if we arrogantly think we are “progressive” and they are not, we are apt to lump all sorts of prejudices their way. It takes time to fight against prejudices, they’re instilled deep in all of us whether we like it or not—they’re a gut reaction probably rooted in our evolution, a way of taking care of our own tribe and banding together with those like us so that we can fight against those not like us. I think being inclusive must extend across to everyone, even the person with the most heinous opinion and shrill tone—we might not agree with them, we might loathe what they say, and we might be working our best to end much of what they are standing for. But we can “love” them on an individual, personal basis. Christian Ethics are built on a framework that asks the individual to do things that don’t always seem logical—after all, the leader of this group was a martyr who did nothing to avoid that martyrdom and according to the opinion of many segments of this camp went to that martyrdom purposefully and willingly. Loving the enemy is a result of that. Hell, doing away with the term “enemy” is probably a final result of that too.

Once again, I find myself commentating on a set of ideals I feel least able to live out on—I find it difficult to communicate with a Fox News fan at points in my life, much less with a Klansmen. But if I can’t be friends with someone with different political opinions than myself (when the entire political spectrum seems warped in relation to the kind of Ethics I’m talking about here anyway), then I don’t think I’m much of a Christ-follower even in the most peripheral of ways. It helps to remember though, that we all grow and learn and we all have many people that we’ve known and that have been important to us in our lives whose views were far less “enlightened” than the ones we currently think we have gained that have “figured it all out.” Peace.

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