My church, the Episcopal Church, just concluded its national convention. Critics of liberal religion were quick to condemn the gathering for accommodating the timeless truth of the gospel to the whims of today’s culture. Ross Douthat of the New York Times had a suggestion for us.
“The leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism. Which suggests that perhaps they should pause, amid their frantic renovations, and consider not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world. “
Fair enough, Mr. Douthat. Here’s what I believe uncompromisingly. And I can tell you in eight words.
But first I have to tell you a story.
Will Campbell was a Baptist preacher in backwoods Mississippi. Even though he graduated from Yale Divinity School, he didn’t really have a church—he just met people at the tavern in town. He said, “I marry the people. Bury the people. Get them out of jail, or try to, and so on. Every one of them, without exception, would be at my house as quickly as they could get there. And I would be at theirs. That is church.”
Will Campbell was the only white minister present at the creation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was with Martin Luther King, Jr. at sit-ins and rallies and demonstrations. On the day nine black students had to push their way through an angry mob at Central High School in Little Rock, Will Campbell escorted them. In his passion to bring together people of all races (he had friends who belonged to the Ku Klux Klan), Campbell angered plenty of church-going Christians and often found himself working with agnostics and those who had given up on faith.
One of those agnostics was a tough newspaper editor named P.D. East, who shared Campbell’s social views but saw the church as the enemy. He couldn’t understand Campbell’s staunch commitment to religious faith. One day in frustration P.D. East said, “In ten words or less, what’s the Christian message?” Will Campbell thought a moment and replied, “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.”
He touched a nerve. Campbell had no idea that P.D. East was in fact an illegitimate child and had been called “bastard” in his youth. The old Baptist preacher chose the word not only for its shock value, but because it is theologically correct. The Bible tells us we were all estranged from God—not a part of the family of God—until God adopted us all anyway. Made us his children. It wasn’t because we were so good and righteous and perfect but because God loved us anyway.
That’s what I believe, Mr. Douthat, in the plainest unvarnished eight words I know. It’s what the Bible tells me. It’s what I know in my heart. It means that every human being is precious in God’s sight (though we can’t usually see with God’s eyes why), and that we are called to share that good news with every person—especially those who feel least like they belong in God’s household.
That’s why I believe we have to make the doors of the church wider, not narrower. That’s why I work to create a community where women belong, and people of every color belong, and people who are gay and lesbian belong. That’s why, in the name of God, I touch the sick and stand with the poor. Because Jesus did and he told me to. It says so in the Bible.
After Will Campbell gave his eight-word answer, P.D. East said, “I gave you a ten-word limit. If you want to try again, you have two words left.” But Campbell stuck to his brief credo, and I can do no better. “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.”