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Freeing Criminals

Will Campbell is about as subversive as they come as far as I’m concerned. This was a fellow who really encountered, believed, and lived the apocalyptic gospel of Jesus in his own contingent circumstances. I’ll write more about him this year and his role in the civil rights movement but for now here is a quote from an article of his on Isaiah 61/Luke 4:16-30, “Good News to Prisoners”:

Jesus’ news is specific, immediate, indifferent to moral codes. It is an event as close to us as brothers, children, neighbors, bedrooms and bars, and the poor and black who stand as judgment on our citizenship and our confessions about Jesus as Lord. Criminals are proclaimed free by God’s deed in Jesus, and that, literally: “Today in your very hearing this text has come true.” It is difficult to be more specific than that. We do not believe that Jesus was speaking of enlightened chaplains who, using the latest techniques of pastoral counseling, lead the prisoners into an adjustment—into a life of great books, celibacy, good behavior points. Nor was He talking of the chaplains who through the art of preaching win a soul here and there to a decision which says, “I am free wherever I am, for ‘if God be for us who can be against us?’” What Jesus is talking about is unlocking the doors, dismissing the warden and his staff, recycling the steel bars into plowshares, and turning the prisoners loose. But let us be clear at all points. This means James Earl Ray as well as Angela Davis; William Calley as well as Phil and Dan Berrigan.

Well. Of course Jesus’ neighbors in the congregation at Nazareth were dismayed and angry: “Today in your very hearing this text has come true.” The one thing society cannot do is free the prisoners. Society can only make prisoners, and rehabilitate, adjust and then parole them . . . to itself. Society cannot free the prisoners. Thus does Jesus’ word from God undermine the claims of absolutism lurking in all political orders—whether religious (Israel) or secular (Rome). All any political order can do is to rest its legitimacy and make its distinctions between criminals and free men on the basis of power deals and arrangements. It is never good news to say to those who stake their lives on the political order and its distinctions that God frees the prisoners. Now, and here, not there and later, God announces freedom to prisoners. Literally, not symbolically. That is how God in Jesus overcomes society. No guns. No plastic bombs or napalm or anti-personnel missiles. No conspiracy that will have to be tried in a court of law. In Jesus God is freedom to the prisoners. Society is overcome. Not destroyed. Overcome.

In his time Jesus had to go. God was made a prisoner and executed. To good religious people, as a religious fanatic; to good citizens, and a political “king.” But in any case, he had to go. Society’s law in both religious and political dimensions makes Jesus a prisoner and executes him in the company of other criminals. And as a wise man reminds us, there, at Jesus’ crucifixion at the place called The Skull, there “was the first Christian fellowship, the first certain, indissoluble and indestructible Christian community . . . directly and unambiguously affected by Jesus’ promise and his assurance . . . to live by this promise is to be a Christian community.” Thus, in their time John the Baptist was a criminal, a prisoner, and executed so; thus, Paul, Peter, and others in the earliest communities who confessed Jesus as Lord; thus the prophets through whom God had spoken his words of reconciliation “to our fathers of old.” Prison and the threat of prison were the necessary part of the life of Jeremiah, Amos, Isaiah, Micaiah, Joseph, Samson. . . . The news that God proclaims freedom to the prisoners is the word that overcomes society and politics. It is the word and deed of freedom which overcomes the words and deeds of inhumanity. Society and politics can only answer by crucifixion, as God answers crucifixion by freedom, liberation, resurrection.

– In Writings on Resistance and Reconciliation, edited by Richard Goode (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010), 20-22.


  1. kim fabricius wrote:

    The” wise man” – Karl Barth, of course, in his shocking Good Friday 1957 Basel prison sermon “The Criminals with Him” – before the Breaking of Bread. And as Campbell makes no distinction between good guys and bad guys, so Barth makes no distinction between the penitnent and the impenitent thief. As the haunting character The Misfit says in the Flannery O’Connor short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”: Jesus – “He thrown everything off balance.”

    Thursday, January 7, 2010 at 10:35 am | Permalink
  2. Yes, more Campbell too (your plate is getting pretty full) and perhaps you could post some reflections on fellow civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, the gay, communist, Ghandian, Quaker, and perhaps MLK’s closest adviser, especially on non-violence. Amazingly, he seems to be relatively unknown (mostly because of his homosexuality), but he was the key figure in the marches on washington etc., and it was Rustin who welcomed Campbell into SCLC when the youngsters tried to keep him out!

    Thursday, January 7, 2010 at 6:27 pm | Permalink
  3. Gene McCarraher wrote:

    Thanks for this. I know next to nothing about Campbell, and this post inspires a desire to know more.

    It reminds me a bit of one of Herbert McCabe’s favorite points: that Jesus was killed for trying to be human, for trying to love. Society gets really nervous when people do that; they clutch their property, or they brandish their weapons, or they throw people in jail, or they just kill them. If you want to know what really loving means, look at a crucifix. By that standard, we’re all pretty lame.

    Thursday, January 7, 2010 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

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