Tuesday, June 16, 2015

A Man, A Story—and the Death Penalty

     Will Campbell was a Mississippi-born and bred renegade Southern Baptist preacher, activist, author, and friend. A strong willed and humble man, he quit organized religion and fought injustice in the civil rights struggle in the 1950's.
     Several years ago, my wife and I stopped by his home in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee for a short visit. We talked for awhile in his log cabin office just across the creek, before joining his wife, Brenda for cold cucumber and tomato sandwiches. I first met Will in the 50's when I was in seminary and saw him off and on through the years. This was Maurine's first chance to meet him. We both came away that day warmed by his humor and hospitality and challenged by his life story. Maurine still treasures one of his books he gave her. He autographed it, “For Maurine, who came by with hope.”
     One of the reasons Will comes to mind just now has to do with recent action taken by the Nebraska legislature. For many years, Ernie Chambers, an African-American senator from north Omaha has attempted to get the death penalty repealed in our state. This year, with the support of a coalition of political liberals, religious conservatives, and pragmatic senators, he succeeded—and together they overrode the Governor's veto. The struggle is not over and there is a referendum in the offing, but there is hope.
     This all takes me back to Will's long crusade against capital punishment. Will was a great storyteller, but the story I remember most with regard to this issue, is the one told about him.
     Will was invited to debate the issue before a fired-up crowd of death penalty supporters. His opponent gave a long and vigorous defense of capital punishment, festooned with all kinds of statistics and moral and theological justifications. He was rewarded with a standing ovation.
     The moderator then introduced Rev. Campbell, who shambled up to the podium accompanied by tepid applause. Will looked over the crowd, then leaned into the mike and growled, "I'm against the capital punishment because it's tacky!" Then he shambled back to his chair and sat down.
     The stunned crowd fell silent as Will sat and sat some more, staring benignly at them. Finally, the moderator returned to the podium. "Rev. Campbell, won't you please come back and say more about your beliefs?"
     Will shook his head in a silent no. "Are you sure?" asked the moderator. Will nodded his head in a silent yes. In desperation, the moderator said, "Well, won't you at least come back and tell us what you mean by 'tacky'?"
     Slowly, Will got to his feet, shambled back to the podium, and growled into the mike again: "Hell, everybody knows what tacky is!" Then he returned to his chair and sat down.
     The storyteller concludes: “I've yet to hear a more pointed, persuasive, or eloquent argument against the death penalty.”
     Will died two years ago, at the age of 88. His spirit lives on.

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