#43: Will Campbell 1990
Writing as Subversion, June 5, 2019
Today’s episode, a recording from the very first Festival in 1990, features Will Campbell. Campbell, a Baptist minister, is perhaps best known for his involvement in the Civil Rights movement. Here he speaks about the subversive power of writing and the increasing difficulty of subversion in our technology-saturated world.
- Doug Marlette, cartoonist
- Paul Conrad, cartoonist
- Mike Peters, cartoonist
- Jules Feiffer, cartoonist
- Merle Haggard, “Mama’s Hungry Eyes”
- Tom T. Hall
- “Watermelon Wine”
- “Mama Bake A Pie (Daddy Kill A Chicken)”
- Shirl Milete, “I Wonder if Canada is Cold”
- St. Augustine, City of God
- Edith Hamilton, Witness to the Truth
- Will Campbell, Covenant
Roy Anker (host): [00:00:01] Support for Rewrite Radio comes from the Fetzer Institute, helping build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Fetzer envisions a world that embraces love as a guiding principle and animating force for our lives—a powerful love that helps us live in sacred relationship with ourselves, others, and the natural world. Learn more by visiting fetzer.org.
From the very first Festival in 1990, the oldest recording in our archive: a talk by writer and Civil Rights activist Will Campbell.
I’m Roy Anker, emeritus professor of English at Calvin.
Today’s episode, a recording from the very first Festival in 1990 and it features Will Campbell. Campbell, a Baptist minister, is perhaps best known for his involvement in the Civil Rights movement, first through the National Council of Churches and then through the Committee of Southern Churchmen, through which he published Katallagete, the New Testament Greek for “be reconciled.”
He was on the front lines of integration efforts: one of the four people who escorted the black students who integrated the Little Rock public schools, the only white person present at the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King, and a marcher with King in Birmingham and Selma. His activism led him as well to protest other issues, such as Vietnam and the death penalty. Campbell was the author of numerous works, and his memoir, Brother to a Dragonfly, was a National Book Award finalist in 1978.
He was also a pop culture icon: the inspiration for the character Will B. Dunn in the cartoon Kudzu. In 2000, President Bill Clinton awarded Campbell the National Humanities Medal. He passed away in 2013.
From 1990, here’s Will Campbell in a speech called “Writing as Subversion.”
Will Campbell: [00:02:36] When I called some months ago and asked to state a title for my remarks this evening (I’m not big on titles), so I just said off the top of my head (there being nothing else there), [laughter] what about “Writing as Subversion”? The more I thought about that, the better it sounded, [laughter] though I had not given it any thought at the moment. But then coming along today, I had second thoughts about that.
Subversion has become increasingly difficult in this technological concentration camp in which we have placed ourselves. But after one American Airlines flight (this is not a commercial for American Airlines because they didn’t do well all day [laughter]) —First flight that some of us were due out on was cancelled and the next flight the pilot announced that a part was missing, [laughter] so we had to wait for the part (I don’t think he ever said which part it was, [laughter] but some part of the airplane) then we got on the runway and he announced that some computer cable in Cleveland had been cut in two [laughter] and that would delay us for some time [laughter] and since that had happened I was pleased that it was going to delay us because I assume that those computers have something to do with where you’re going and whether you get there at all. But when he said that the cable had been cut in two it sounded like such a willful act [laughter] that it reminded me of my subject—of subversion and I was tempted to change the subject but since I had given some modest amount of thought to it I thought maybe we would continue it.
So it’s a very difficult thing—any kind of subversion. We’re almost in what I referred to as the technological concentration camp where even here in the guest house you have a little card that you push across to get in the door. I’m told that that not only lets you in, but it records the person who is entering the building and at what time they enter it. [laughter] And I know that there have been a lot of changes made even since I decided on this subject which makes it a bit more intimidating to me to come to a college that I gather is sort of a hotbed of some form of Calvinism [laughter] and hear a recently communist country’s president quoted at length [laughter] is somewhat surprising. Or it would have been a few months ago.
So there have been a lot of changes—all of which, I think, makes subversion—maybe puts it only in the pen of the writer. I don’t know. How do you make a political statement anymore really? Well, I’m a farmer. I know how I make a political statement this year, I plant broccoli. [laughter] And I don’t like broccoli either, but I’m planting lots of broccoli and spreading the word all around the little village of Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. In May, come for broccoli. Bring your pick-up trucks—there’s plenty of it here.
But it’s difficult to make any kind of political statement. I find that I was able to make one not long ago. People always ask me do you need that cane? Well, if I didn’t need it I wouldn’t have it. Doesn’t mean I’m crippled, it just meets some need that I have. Don’t get Freudian on me now. [laughter]
Not long ago I was coming from somewhere and I was a little out of sorts and you know I’m always somewhat peeved by the security system which doesn’t really do any good. Now I’m not skyjacking—I’d be terrified if someone said we were going somewhere other than where we were supposed to be going, but I don’t think that the system really works. I know how I could get on a flight armed any time I’m ready—I’m not going to tell you how I can do it, but I know it can be done. But anyway—
It seems a terrible invasion of privacy to open my little bag and see whatever it is to see that’s in there. And then I walk through the upright with my cane. Now if I had a gun or a sword concealed in this walking cane which happens to be made out of an old piece of barn wood, a piece of cherry wood which a friend of mine who was what we would call illiterate tore down fifty years ago and discovered that the timbers were made out of cherry and he knew something about aesthetics, he knew what was pretty—some bottom line stuff. He could have decided something else, but he made beautiful sculpture out of it. But that’s not the point.
I walked through this upright and if my friend had placed a sword or a gun in here that would sound off—or so they tell me. Because if I have too many keys in my pocket or too much money, which is unlikely, [laughter] it will set it off. But I walked through those uprights and then (not always but about half the time) this fellow who has great authority vested in him now he has a badge and sometimes a gun and he said, “Now go and put your cane back on that roller,” where you have put your bags to go through there. I think it was in Dallas and I was tired of all that foolishness anyway.
[00:09:23] By the way, if you should have trouble—my voice is not too strong—and if you should have difficulty hearing me in the course of my remarks, if you could indicate—assuming you still have the desire to do so [laughter]—I will try to accommodate you if I know.
I walked through with my cane and put my bag on the roller and I got to the other end—which was a long roller in this case—and he said, “Now, go back and put your cane on the roller.” And I said, “Okay.” So I walked back there, put my cane on the roller, and continued to stand back there. And he kept motioning—he was on the other end. And he said, “Come on down here and get your cane.” And I said, “No, no, no. I have done what you have asked me to do, now would bring the cane back to me.” He said, “Can you walk without the cane?” [laughter] I said, “Wait a minute now, I pay someone else to pass on the state of my health. That’s not your job. You just bring the cane back.”
Of course, by then people were backed up behind me, clearing their throats, going to miss their airplanes. And he stood there and I saw that he wasn’t going to give. So I said, “Okay, I’ll come and get the cane.” So I got down on my hands and knees [laughter] and very feebly crawled all the way down and then reached up and got the cane and started on down and then gave it a little twirl. [laughter] My wife said, “Why do you do that?” I said, “For only one reason: and that is to say that I am not a robot, that I am a human being, capable of understanding rationality. That this makes no sense.” She said, “But it’s the rule.” I said, “I know it’s the rule and that’s why I’m breaking it.” [laughter]
Well, no charge for that. Except to say that it is only in ridiculous forms, in ridiculous things that we can be subversive, that we can question the status quo. Now I think the cartoonists are on to something. They are able to do this, I think, better than those of us who deal with words. I remember a cartoon of Doug Marlette back during the Panama Canal discussion. He had these three characters here talking and the then president, Mr. Reagan says: “If we give up the canal, we give up the rights to use it.” Which seems like a reasonable statement. Then the next fellow, Senator Strom Thurmond, says: “And our ships will be forced to go all the way around South America.” And then Senator Helms says: “And of course that increases the chances of sailing off the edge of the earth.” [laughter]
Now just that image of these three national leaders in this serious discussion probably influenced more people than any biography that any university press might publish of Senator Jesse Helms and the Panama Canal debates (and I understand there is one in the works or perhaps already finished). Paul Conrad from Los Angeles, who happens to be one of my favorite cartoonists, I think probably reaches more people with what I call—
I kind of like to collect these things when I see what I like, if I don’t know the cartoonist, I write to them, and I didn’t know Paul Conrad but I did write and tell him that I particularly liked that cartoon, so he sent me the original. And it’s hanging in my log cabin office. If you come in I’ll show it to you, what I call his Cartesian cartoon, which showing the fetus in the womb, at first it says—”I think,” the second one, “Therefore,” “I am.” And the last one, “I hope.” [laughter] Descartes.
Or Mike Peters from the Daytona Daily News addressing the nuclear controversy with another one of the wonderful cartoons I have hanging in my office which I particularly like. He has a drawing of two women talking beside a sign which says “Nuclear Reactor” and is pointing to a nuclear reactor station. One of the women is holding a little ten-year-old boy by the hand and the other woman says in the caption, “He’s grown a foot since I saw him last.” And here’s a little foot [laughter] growing straight out of his head.
Or Jules Feiffer showing a black man standing with the chaplain and warden with a noose around his neck. “Nothing personal, Sam, it’s a deterrent.” [laughter] “What does it deter?” the black prisoner asks. “It deters you from committing any more homicides,” the warden responds. “Would it deter me if I was white?” “Don’t confuse justice with racism, Sam.” “Would it deter me if I was rich?” “Don’t confuse justice with anti-Americanism, Sam.” “Would it deter me if I wasn’t black and poor and could afford a good lawyer?” “I don’t know where you got all those weird ideas, Sam.” “How many white, middle-class murderers you heard of on death row, warden?” And the warden says, “DROP.” And then he says, “So goes another enemy of free enterprise,” and he is followed closely by a pious little priest reading scripture.
Now, a number of people in the South, I happen to be one of them, work passionately against the death penalty, but I doubt if all of us combined can ever make the case quite so succinctly or convincingly as just this image. Subversive notions, to be sure. The warden was right while he was subversive.
And we march about these things and speak and lobby, but the cartoonists somehow come along as another one of them did in talking about women priests. I don’t know about in your denomination, but in my holy mother church, the Southern Baptist convention, they decided some years ago that since man was first in creation and woman was first in the Edenic fall—that kinda has a cute ring to it, don’t it? [laughter]—only men should be ordained as ministers. The only problem with that, it seems to me, if it is true that it is first that women were first in the fall in the Garden of Eden, then they discovered sin first—they’ve been at it longer and thus are probably better at identifying it and casting it out. [laughter] And so maybe we should have only women priests and ministers.
But strange as it might seem to you, those who make these decisions in the Southern Baptist convention church didn’t ask me about that bit of legislation. [laughter] But I told a friend of mine about it and he had this cartoon which is here: this little bearded fellow, his chin, sitting there writing a memo and the memo is titled “To Apostle Paul, from Machismo of Macedonia, [laughter] subject Women Priests. He says, “Dear Paul: Hang tough on this female issue. After all none of Christ’s apostles are women. Also, only Jews should be priests because no apostles are Gentiles. Furthermore, only short, bearded people, etc.” [laughter]
Well, you have your… How much time do I have? [laughter]
There are those, certainly the song writers, have, I think, captured this spirit of subversion. This is not a how-to lecture on subverting the steeples or the academy or anything else. I can only, at best, speak in the spirit of this subject. And it seems to me that some of the songwriters, and being from Nashville I of course would have in mind particularly some of the country song writers who have caught this. I know quite a number of them and I sit down and try to talk to them about this and they don’t seem to know what I’m talking about. But it’s in their bones and their genes.
Merle Haggard who probably would not be eligible to be president of this college [laughter] or even to teach sociology here, but he wrote and sang this song called “Mama’s Hungry Eyes,” addressing the problem of poverty. His family grew up in a migrant labor camp and the hunger he saw in the eyes of his mother who only wanted things she really needed and the broken-heart of his father and so on.
Or Tom T. Hall singing of aesthetics in his song “Watermelon Wine” or a war in his song “Mama Bake A Pie (Daddy Kill A Chicken)” about the Vietnam War and this boy coming home with a bottle hidden underneath the blanket over his two battered legs. And he knows when he gets home his momma is going to be crying and his daddy is going to say, “Son, did they treat you good?” And he says, “My uncle is going to be drunk,” and he says, “Boy, they doing some real great things with wood.” Say, “Mama Bake A Pie / Daddy Kill A Chicken / Your son is coming home / 11:35, Wednesday night.” His girlfriend has written to say, “Goodbye. / She couldn't wait and lots of luck.” But he loves her and knows that the bottle will get her off his back. And he sees in the paper where they say that the war was just a waste of time.
Or Shirl Milete writing of dodgers and deserters on their way to Canada in his song “I Wonder if Canada is Cold.”
[00:22:37] All of these songs are songs of ethics, songs of subversion, songs about change, social change, and all coming out of a thorough Christian milieu. Now, as something of a wordsmith I must confess that I fear that we have not been as successful as the songwriters in capturing the essence of trying to affect social change and I assume that that’s what any kind of subversion is all about. That when we write we’re trying to say something, we’re trying to change people’s minds if even for an instant, even if it’s nothing but pornography, we have something that we’re trying to say.
Now of course it becomes a little more difficult I think when we’re talking about literature, but what is literature? Is literature simply good books? And how good does a book have to be to qualify as literature? And who decides? How long does it take a good book to become literature? And is it dependent on the critics? My God, I hope not. [laughter]
And of course, what is Christianity? That covers a lot of territory. From three criminals hanging on crosses outside the city of Jerusalem who Karl Barth said formed the first Christian community from there to Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. And certainly we would all agree that Falwell and Robertson are trying to affect social change, but does that make their words really subversive?
Now a book, in and of itself, does not, cannot affect social change. The words may influence people, may inspire them, even compel them to various kinds of actions but just the words on a piece of paper alone are not going to do it. And one of the earliest bits of written words which went on to become important literature I think in anybody’s book and affect social change was when Moses sat down with Pharaoh and said, “We’ve got to have some changes. Let my people go.”
But behind the literature was an authority, so when we’re talking about subversion we must always be careful: what is the authority? Who’s made you the troubler or the dissembler or whatever? It was not the words, but what prompted the words, it was not art for art’s sake, but words growing out of an experience this Moses. Moses had a story to tell, he had something to say, something to write about. Happens it was autobiographical. Truth is, everything we write is autobiographical. I can come in the room and say to you, “Good morning,” that says something about me, says I speak the English language and it might to some of you, who are not as good at language as others, it might suggest to you that I have come from a part of the country known as the South. It’s not likely that you would suspect that, but you might. [laughter]
But with Moses’ strange spooky kind of experience now you all know the story. He worked for his dad-in-law and was out moving sheep from one side of the pasture to another and he saw a bush on fire. Nothing particularly unusual about that in this arid countryside where they had a lot of fox hunters who thought it might have been a campfire, the hunters out there waiting for the hounds. But then he saw that it was not a campfire, but it was a bush on fire. Well, nothing particularly unusual about that. In this dry country some little Philistine kid thunked a roach over there, you know, [laughter] flamed up. Could have happened that way—I don’t say it did but it could have.
But it was kind of a bizarre thing to him and not only that: the bush began to talk to him. Now Moses’ life up to that point hadn’t exactly been cruising down a river on a Sunday afternoon. But he was mildly daunted by a talking bush on fire. [laughter] Especially when the voice said, “Now Moses, ole buddy, we’ve got to make some changes in society. Things aren’t right and you’ve got to do something. My folks over in Egypt are slaves, they’re being brutalized, tortured, and we’re going to do something about it. I want you to go over there now I want you to go and get them out of there.” So Moses, I’m sure, just standing there laughing this up, but then he said, “But wait a minute. What if they ask me who sent me? Who told me to tell them all these things? Who do I say sent me? What is my authority?” And the bush on fire said the most ridiculous, outrageous, absolutely nonsensical thing: “Just tell them I AM has sent you.” And Moses, even more bewildered I’m sure, threw his hands in the air and said, “Jesus Christ.” [laughter]
He didn’t say that of course, [laughter] he said, “Holy Moses” or whatever. I don’t know exactly what he said, but I do suspect that he said, “Now look, Mr. Bush, [laughter] I can’t tell them that. Look, they’ll send me to Meiningers and shoot me full of thorazine [laughter] and I’ve got problems enough I have to go for speech therapy now [laughter] and so you’re kidding.” And being an old fox hunter and familiar with the vernacular said, “No, now Mr. I AM. Whoever you are. It’s time to pee on the fire, call the dog and go home. [laughter] I can’t tell them I AM sent me.”
“No, no,” the voice said, “just tell them I AM who I AM sent you.”
Subversion by the absurd, the utter ridiculous. I AM—come on! But thus began changes which continue to unfold to this very day. I haven’t heard the news but this morning’s news we were praying for hostages in that part of the world to be released. And Senator Dole is saying we made some mistakes about where the Jewish capital city should be, changes that still affect us because, as Pope Pius XIth said, we are all “spiritual Semites,” though in our sect called Christianity we tend to forget that 7 or 8 million of our Semitic brothers and sisters were made into soap and lamp shades.
But the literature was there. And no literature so lusts after change, whether for good or evil, as religious literature because of who the authority is. Something so mysterious and awesome as to identify itself as I AM. Now, no book of literature has ever influenced the literature that followed as much as what began when Moses began this process of negotiation with Pharaoh—much of it violent literature, much of it highly subversive, but all of it directing at affecting what goes on within the community, not the community of believers, not our co-religionists, but in the community of humanity. Of course, the stories of the Bible are numerous. So far I don’t think any of us have tried to equal them.
Someone was telling me about a young scholar, wasn’t this college I hope, if it is I’m in big trouble, but he was giving his first address in front of the chair of his department and the president and he said: “As upon one occasion Jesus said, with whom I’m inclined to agree…”
Whether we agree with the stories in the Bible or not, they are there and they are numerous and we think of this little fella named David. Just a little fella. Played for the Ephrathite Pee-Wee league. [laughter] He had seven big brothers who played professionally for the Israelite Lions. When the Israelite Lions had a big game against the Philistine Bears with a big defensive tackle named Goliath—I think they called him the Fridge [laughter]—it was this little peewee who talked the coach into letting him into the game, he’d never been in a game like that before. Played down with the little fellows. (Like me playing basketball with Roy Anker. [laughter]) But he talked the coach into letting him into the game and said that only he would hit the Fridge. Which he did do. Killed him. Cut his head off. And before he did he invoked the same I AM by saying, “I have come against you in the name of the Lord of Hosts, the God of the army of Israel which you have defied. The Lord will put you into my power this day I’ll kill you (pretty permanent word) and cut your head off and leave your carcass and the carcass of the Philistines to the birds and the wild beasts. All the world shall know that there is a God.”
[00:35:01] The literature developed and grew and was past on was added to. It was taught in the manner that I learned down in a little rural Baptist church called East Fork Baptist Church in south Mississippi. Mississippi, when I was growing up, was not exactly notorious for its social radicalism. [laughter] But I learned from these stories a lot of important lessons and they came in strange and subversive ways. We were galvanized by the story of Jael and Sisera in the book of Judges. We had a wonderful old Sunday school teacher called Aunt Donay. She wasn’t anybody’s aunt that I know of, but she was everybody’s aunt. We lived down close to the Louisiana line, close to bayou country, and Aunt Donay thought Jael was a Cajun. [laughter]
Very colorful, fine imagination and she told us that Jael was a cheerleader for Ragin’ Cajuns down in what used to be called Southwest Louisiana Institute down in Lafayette. You remember the story: Deborah had sent Barak out to fight the Canaanites, heavily outnumbered, but Barak had put them to route and Sisera, the commanding officer of the Canaanite forces, did what a lot of head officers do, he got his pipe and his braid cap and said “I shall return.” He bailed out.
Now, Aunt Donay, for some reason unknown to us at the time, suspected that Sisera somehow was acquainted with Jael already. In fact, she found a love letter in his pocket that he hadn’t told us about, told us that she’d found it there. But in any case, he made his way to her tent and Aunt Donay would skip and priss around the Sunday school room—actually it was a room our church house was just one big room and we had clothes wire up on the ceiling and muslin curtains you could close off and make many rooms out of this one big room. I see some of you smiling a little bit, you’re familiar with church houses like that. So if you got bored with what was going on in your side of the blanket, [laughter] there were two or three others across the blanket...
We were seldom bored with Aunt Donay as our Sunday school teacher because she would priss around and roll her eyes and turn around and shake her geriatric booty [laughter] and talk in her Cajun accent, “Hey, big boy, come on over to my tent there. [laughter] I’m going to give you something like you ain’t never had before.” [laughter] Well, now General Sisera crusty old Army man that he was thought he’d already had everything he thought you could catch except leprosy perhaps, [laughter] but he went on in the tent and said, “Now, now, baby I’m pretty washed out right now, but I tell you what let me take a nap and rest up a little and then we’ll see.” [laughter]
Well, that was all right for Jael because her agenda was not what the general thought it was, and anyway she had a headache. [laughter] He was soon to have one, too. A permanent one. She covered him up with an old Army blanket she had bought at the Army surplus store and stuffed one of her husband’s old t-shirts under his head (the one that said Caesar’s Palace—Gomorrah or See Mount Sinai) and rubbed his back and gave him a drink of buttermilk and told him to get some rest and she’d wait just outside the tend and tell anyone who inquired that he wasn’t there. “Now you go nighty-night, baby,” she cooed.
Highly subversive, you know. When he started snoring, Jael took a ball-peen hammer and a long tent peg and drove it through his eardrums. Pretty graphic. And the Holy Bible tells us that his brains oozed out on the ground, [laughter] his arms and legs twitched and spasmed and he died. As well he might! [laughter] This pretty little cheerleader had nailed that booger to the floor. [laughter] In the name of the Lord.
And we all grew quiet, quiet and attentive, knowing that all night we would toss and turn with the image of that big general lying there with a numberated spike driven through his sweetbreads as Aunt Donay read that beautiful Song of Deborah coming immediately after this. “For the leaders in Israel, for the people who answered the call, bless ye the Lord. Blessed above women be Jael, blessed above all women in the tents. He asked for water, she gave him milk. She offered him curds in a bowl, fit for a chieftain (that’s buttermilk). She stretched out her hand for the tent peg, her right hand to hammer the weary. With the hammer she struck Sisera, she crushed his head, she struck and his brains leapt out. At her feet he sank down, he fell where he lay, at her feet he sank down, there he fell down to death.”
Now there was no question in anyone’s mind where our sympathies lay, yet we could sense a kind of motherly empathy as Aunt Donay continued, a kind of worried look on her face. The mother of Sisera peered through the lattice, through the window she peered and shrilly cried, “Why are his chariots so long in coming? Why is the clatter of his chariots so long delayed?” Well, we knew the answer, but we wouldn’t tell, we wouldn’t say. We wouldn’t say, “I know, Aunt Donay—cuz Jael drove a tent peg through his eardrum.” But you see we knew that Aunt Donay had lost a son in the First World War and she knew the feeling of the general’s mother, wrong though he might have been. But she went on, “So perish all thine enemies, O Lord, but let all who love thee be like the sun rising in strength.”
[00:42:05] Now the point here is that the literature that has so influenced us all is literature rooted in great violence and in ambivalence and all kinds of subversion. So there’s nothing new about our talking about writing as subversion, as vocation as subversion. The beautiful Song of Deborah was inspired by a tent peg through an army general’s head. And the little David who would leave the Fridge with the last spasms of life spurting blood all over the East Fork Baptist Church floor was also the sweet singer of Israel, the original country picker, I maintain. Writer of beautiful country love songs and songs of praise and victory and grace.
Now certainly I would hope that our subversion will not be quite so decisive as Jael’s, but you get the point. But yet, we must be ever careful that our subversion, if it is in the name of this social movement or that social movement—and I have been involved in one or another all of my adult life—but I’ve always been suspicious of them, I never trusted any of them and still don’t. So when we talk about writing as subversion it must be in the presentation of a kind of aura, of a mood, of an attitude. It’s not that we know the answer, the political answers to this question or that. God knows, I don’t. But what we write about is not the authority out of which we write the book of Exodus—not even the novel or film version—is not I AM. So what we write is not the authority. It may be the spirit out of which we come, but we don’t have the final word: I AM is I AM. My books are not I AM. And if our writings and if our writers do not reflect this, if they do not reflect, if they are not writing out of the mystery and awe of I AM, they are blasphemous.
Now, the story of Jael and Sisera can be used by warmongers or they can be used by militant feminists. One may be evil, the other may be good. But neither one is I AM. I AM is I AM.
Augustine’s City of God is certainly an important piece of literature to us. But in that great book—incidentally, the man who introduced me to the name of one of my novels, Glad River, happens, it comes from a verse in the Psalms precisely where Augustine got the title for his book, which I thought put me in pretty great company [laughter]—
But in that great book, among other things, he said, “He to whom authority is delegated is but the sword in the hand of he who uses it and is not himself responsible for the death he deals.” Now of course, as others have said, on that basis Eichmann should have been declared innocent. And would you agree that essentially Augustine lays the foundation for the Lutheran position, that there is an earthly authority and we shouldn’t mess with it very much? And we now have to ask whether Lutheranism paved the way for Hilter’s jihad.
All that to say, be careful when you try to affect social change and yet we must try. Not on the basis of certainty, not on the basis of conduct, not on the basis of creed or even belief, but on the basis of faith. And faith is not belief. So when we, with word or action, subvert—it can never be because of something we believe, it can only be in this aura of faith. And again faith is not belief. Any words that come out of belief, of certainty, is tractarian and not literature. Now, this would seem to be a contradiction—because belief is passive and faith is active.
Yet it seems to me that the only definition of faith one can find in the New Testament, the one in Hebrews, makes the point stand: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Creeds and doctrines are based on belief, not on faith. And to write in defense of creed and doctrine or theology is tractarian and is never literature. To write in faith is to try and reflect the way to be in our day followers of the Way and leads to discipleship.
Christ who had no methods people could adopt and put to definite use, no clearly formulated conditions upon which one could enter the kingdom of which he spoke, who never demanded of the people who wished to follow him that they must first know this or that—the nature of the Trinity, the plan of salvation—now that, ladies and gentlemen, is heresy. Because the role and duty of the steepled institutional church is to formulate, teach and defend—by force if necessary—creed, doctrine, theology. And in my judgment, though I’ve always reserved the right to be wrong about anything, including that statement, but in my judgment, the role, the call, the vocation of the writer is to subvert the steeples. Or some institution. And all institutions are inherently evil because all institutions are after my soul. And my soul belongs not to creed, not to doctrine, not to theology, but to I AM who I AM.
[00:49:30] Edith Hamilton, a woman I had only known through her fine work in antiquities and mythology, I ran across a book she wrote late in her life, quite by accident. I was looking for something else. To me it’s one of the most important and maybe it’s just because I was not familiar with it, but a little-known book called Witness to the Truth. Forty years ago, she said:
“The great church of Christ came into being by ignoring the life of Christ. (I want you to listen to her words. I think they’re important. I didn’t say that earlier because they were my words, but these are not my words. I think they’re important.) The fathers of the Church were good men, often saintly men, sometimes men who cared enough for Christ to die for him, but they did not trust him. They could not trust the safety of his church to his way of doing things, so they set out to make the church safe in their own way. Creeds and theologies protected it from individual vagaries, riches and power protected it against outside attacks. So the church was safe, but one thing its ardent builders and defenders failed to see: nothing that lives can be safe. Life means danger, and the more the church was hedged about with confessions of faith and defended by the mighty of the earth, the feebler its life grew until today it is hardly distinguishable from any other club.”
The woman spoke an important truth, I think, particularly for writers. Certainly for writers of literature. The steeples, as I call the structures of the institutional church, have their own scribes. They train them well and they pay them well to defend the creeds and doctrines and theologies and confessions. No one pays the writer well. So he or she is in the shaky but enviable position of being free. She or he can be subversive. As Edith Hamilton, God knows, was subversive, if you caught the impact of what she was saying because what she was saying was that the institutional church from the outset was a cop-out. To keep us distanced from radical discipleship and, of course, that’s a redundancy because all discipleship is radical. Edith Hamilton was subversive because she was talking not about a technological concentration camp, but she was saying that creeds and theologies and doctrines put us in theological concentration camps which keep us from being followers of the Way in the spirit of I AM who I AM.
So we as writers at least have that. We’re free. We won’t get paid much for it. Or I haven’t. And by what authority do we subvert the structures? By the authority of I AM who I AM. Not creed, not doctrine, not theology. And yes, like the church fathers, we as writers do love Jesus. But unlike the church fathers, if we are to reflect his story aright, we must also trust him because we are not called to build anything. And that trust leads to freedom, a freedom that might lead to a cross.
[00:54:04] Now if I may, I’d like to leave you with a few words which probably will not sound subversive to you in this arena today. Words I wrote some time ago but which have just recently been published in a little book called Covenant (which is just a collection of soliloquies of various people I have run into, some of them embellished, some of them written pretty much the way it happened, some of them I made up from beginning to end). But as with all words they require a visual image in your mind and so if the visual image in your mind right now could be—and this soliloquy was written back in the 60s where to go into the basement states of the South and say, “If you believe in racial segregation you’re going straight to hell,” well, that wasn’t exactly designed for longevity. [laughter]
But subversion. So you could talk about and recite about Miss Thelma Westbury and if you can have the visual image of this handsome black woman, well beyond middle years, standing in a cemetery in the South—of course if I know this nation we call America it could happen in any part of this country—standing in the cemetery in the rain with the rain falling on her nappy peppercorn hair, mixing with the tears in the crevices of her face dropping on her once light, plump breast now wilted and sagging with age. Miss Thelma Westbury is thinking:
[00:56:12] I wonder if she knows now. Knows that I wasn’t just her cook. I did cook for her all right, for going on twenty-five years, I cooked for her. And before that I fed her young, from my own breast I fed them. Suckle that Jesus meant for my own babies. She’d tell me I was doing it just to help her wean them, but I knowed she was being plum lowdown. She’d tell them babies that titty was nasty I mean when she got tired of feeding them herself, even when they wasn’t nowhere ready to be weaned. They wasn’t ready for no solid food, the babies knowed it, she knowed it too.
But she had sent for me and tell them babies that if they wanted to nurse it’d have to be from some ole dirty black titty. And babies didn’t know the difference between a white bosom and a black bosom. They’d hang onto my nipples like leeches and cry their little eyes out when I left them. I bathed them, washed all their clothes and ironed them, combed their little cotton heads, and got them ready for school. And when they was grown, I helped every single one of them girls get married. Curl their hair, fix their ruffles, and it was me that told them what to do and what not to do on their wedding night and they never forgot it. Not a one of them ever forgot it. One of them moved off to California, the other one to Louisville—or one of them big places up north. The other one just over in the next county. But it didn’t matter where they was, whether they close or far, they always stop to see me when they come home. Most of the time before they got to her house.
But that ain’t the most I done for her. I loved her. But she almost took that away from me one time, almost took it away. Every time I’d do something that rubbed her the wrong way, she’d rail out at me like some old wet sitting hen. My Claude had a knowed she talked to me that way, Lordy God, he’d a burned her house down and never let me go back. But I kept it to myself always just kept it to myself.
This one morning I’d made the coffee and taken it to her bed like I always done, and then she come dragging in the kitchen in her gown til it hit after nine o’clock, way past time for me to be gone, yelling for her breakfast. I put it down in front of her and she took the fried egg in her hand and slammed it at me hard as she could, said the egg was cold. That egg wasn’t cold. I’d just taken it off before she come in. It missed me but it landed on the stove burner I had left on in case she wanted something else. It commenced to sizzle and smoke the yoke running all down around that red hot coil and wasn’t no way I couldn’t keep it from stinking up the whole house. She kept yelling at me, telling me to do something. Wasn’t nothing I could do but stand there and wait for the burner to cool off so I could get it off and clean it up. But I never was no hand at talking back to her, never did sass her no matter what she said, just kept it to myself. But something or other got into me that day. I reckon the old devil hisself. I took my apron off and hung it where I always did and told her I didn’t know what to do. If she did, she could do it herself. She followed me out the door, just a-hollering and screaming, “You impudent wretch—you wait til I tell Calvin. He knows how to take care of smart-alecky niggers.” Calvin was her youngest boy, and he always paid me off. I went straight to his house, told him I couldn’t take it no more, told him I wouldn’t be back. He almost cried while he was counting up my pay—that Calvin always was a sweet white child. His little wife right there beside him. She told me that she and Calvin didn’t blame me, that they didn’t know how I’d put up with so much for so long.
But next morning, I was right back. I was already tired cuz I hadn’t slept a wink all night, but I was back. I’d stayed awake all night talking to my Jesus. He told me he knew she was mean all right, knew she said hurtful things to folks that’s just trying to help her. But he said she was old and couldn’t look after herself and by going back he’d help me out as best he could. Then he said something I won’t ever forget: he said if we just loved the folks that’s easy to love, that really wasn’t no love at all. He said, “If you love one, you have to love them all.” Just about the time the sun was coming up, me laying there without a wink of sleep, I seen it plain as day. He was sitting there on the side of my bed, Claude just a-snoring on the other side. My Jesus, he put his hand on my shoulder and when I looked up at him, he give me this big wink and he said, “Thelma”—he called my name—he said, “Thelma, there’s one thing I learned 2000 years ago. Don’t let mean white folks make trash out of you.” I started getting up and when I did, he give me another wink and stroked his big ole pretty shoulders and when I looked around he was gone.
And now here I am, standing in the rain, back behind the crowd in this cold graveyard, bawling with the rest of them while they lay her down. All whilst the preacher was talking, I kept looking around for my Jesus to wink at me again. But he never did.
[01:02:12] Thank you. [applause]
Roy: [01:02:18] We give thanks for the memory of Will Campbell and his prophetic words.
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