Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (Luke 11: 33-54) transports me to the 1995 meeting of the Whitsitt Baptist Heritage Society, where the society members bestowed their annual William H. Whitsitt Courage Award to the bootleg preacher/ activist/ author Will D. Campbell. The Baptist Heritage Society formed in the early 90s, after the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention was complete, and the new leadership had completely compromised the integrity of the Historical Commission, eventually dismantling it altogether. Church historians on the losing side of that protracted battle, the moderates, formed this new society to carry on the work of historical engagement with traditional Baptist heritage. What I learned in 1995 was that fundamentalism is not limited to right-wing agendas; it is a character flaw present across the ideological spectrum. I learned it in a very personal way. Several of us who had come through seminary during the convention wars had found our spiritual home on the more progressive side of Baptist life, with a heavy dose of ethics and activism intertwined with a Biblical emphasis on the Sermon on the Mount. We had come to a fairly arrogant loathing of people who rejected right-wing authoritarianism for a “moderate” approach to spiritual and social engagement. We looked back and didn’t find many examples where “moderates” had done much good in any of the major social upheavals that dotted our historical landscape: slavery and civil rights, women’s rights, peacemaking, economic justice. We read Martin Luther King to say that the real enemies of progressive movements were not the Klan types, but the moderates of our world. And so when this new moderate society came up with a Courage Award, and gave it to Will Campbell, we fumed at the news, believing they were exploiting Will’s good name and radical history to make them look more courageous than they were. So I wrote Will a letter, expressing this concern. The gist of the letter was: Why in the world would you agree to accept a courage award from a bunch of moderates who ought to be handing out Caution Awards instead? I’ll never forget his terse reply letter. Brother Stan, I accepted this award for the same reason I accepted the gun offered to me by a Klansmen, because they had the grace to offer it. I would go into a theological treatise emphasizing the grace of receiving, but instead, I’ll just tell you that fundamentalism of any stripe is abhorrent to me. So kiss my ass. Ouch. I got the message. And I’ve never forgotten it. Fundamentalism is abhorrent, and it can creep up in us even as we are in the midst of battle against the fundamentalism of our enemies. It had crept in and found a home in my spiritual walk, and Will’s letter has been a good reminder to be on the lookout for it ever since.
Fundamentalism was abhorrent to brother Jesus, as today’s passage demonstrates. Jesus, the one who had warned that calling people fools would make you libel to the fires of hell, throws caution to the wind as he engaged the Pharisees. You bunch of fools! he begins his curse. You’re squeaky clean on the outside, but filthy on the inside. Their brand of fundamentalism emphasized the necessity of tedious ritual obedience, but they were neglecting love of God and neighbor. In creating their narrow enclave of ritual and credal conformity, they were loading people down, preventing people from getting into the kingdom. There was no grace to their lives. Jesus voiced his abhorrence at their fundamentalism, and essentially told them to kiss his ass. And when he left, the passage reports in one of the great understatements of the day, the scribes and Pharisees began to be very hostile to him.
I offer a much-belated apology to all the fine folks at the Whitsitt Society who saw fit to honor Will Campbell with their Courage Award. I honor and applaud your work in engaging the history of our tradition. I appreciate the way you have shone a light on parts of that tradition that many in the mainstream Baptist world may be unaware of, such as your selection of Lauran Bethell a few years ago for her advocacy work against sex trafficking. Next time I feel a fundamentalist need to critique your work, I’ll do my best to resist the temptation to write a smarmy letter about it. I don’t want to hear Jesus calling me a fool again.
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.