In his autobiography, Brother to a Dragonfly, Will Campbell recounts the experience that confronted him with the radical implications of the gospel of reconciliation. His friend, civil rights worker Jonathan Daniels, had just been gunned down in cold blood by volunteer Deputy Sheriff Thomas Coleman. Will was livid with grief and rage over Jonathan’s murder.
In the aftermath Will’s agnostic friend P.D. East reminded Will of a conversation they had years earlier. P.D. had challenged Will to give him a definition of the Christian faith in ten words or less. Will defined it this way: “We are all bastards, but God loves us anyway.” P.D. now challenged Will’s succinct definition of the gospel.
P.D. tore into Will: “Was Jonathan a bastard?” Will commented on how Jonathan was one of the sweetest, most gentle guys he had ever known. P.D. pressed: “But was he a bastard?” His tone almost a scream. Will knew P.D. had him cornered. Will finally conceded, “Yes.” P.D. came firing back: “All right. Is Thomas Coleman a bastard.” That was easy. “Yes, Thomas Coleman is a bastard.”
P.D. said: “Okay, let me get this straight . . . Jonathan Daniels was a bastard. Thomas Colman is a
bastard. . . . Which of these two bastards do you think God loves the most? Does God love that little dead bastard Jonathan the most? Or does he love the living bastard Thomas the most?”
The truth of the gospel hit Will with such force that Will describes the encounter as something of a conversion experience. Will was overcome with emotion. He found himself weeping and laughing simultaneously. He told P.D.: “Damn, Brother, if you haven’t gone and made a Christian out of me.”
The gospel of reconciliation is a radical gospel; it is offensive to conservatives, moderates, and liberals alike. To think that God loves the Thomas Colemans of the world as much as the Jonathan Daniels’ is hard to take, isn’t it?
I have no doubt this is why so many liberals have equated the gospel with a social cause and so many conservatives have reduced the gospel to going to heaven when we die. Institutional Christianity on both the right and left has a tough time with this radical gospel of unconditional love and grace.
Paul says in his correspondence with the church in Corinth that God was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s self, not counting their transgressions against them (2 Cor. 5:19). All are loved and forgiven. Thomas Coleman and Jonathan Daniel; Hitler and Mother Teresa. All are God’s children.
How do we live this scandalous gospel? It’s not easy. I know I cannot do it on my own. It’s easy to identify with the victim, but to love the perpetrator of abuse or violence takes more love than I am capable of. I need grace. I need to “know” at the deep, core level of my being, beyond my intellect, the love of God that passes all understanding.
Only through fresh encounters with the Divine Love that pervades and sustains all reality—that we Christians believe became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth—can we find the faith, strength, courage, and hope to love the Thomas Colemans of the world.