Call-In Culture

As I read in the 12/16/20 issue of The Christian Century, Loretta J. Ross, who teaches a popular class at Smith College, is challenging her students to address “call-out” culture—the practice of publicly shaming someone for behavior or speech deemed inappropriate. Ross, a radical Black feminist and a longtime activist, believes call-out culture is toxic.

She suggests, as an alternative, developing a “call-in” practice: confronting people privately while caring or them and walking with them as people. She quotes her mentor in the civil rights movement, the late C.T. Vivian, who said: “When you ask people to give up hate, you have to be there for them when they do.”

You can read the entire New York Times article on Professor Ross here.

This approach makes me think of Will Campbell. Campbell’s classic book, Brother to a Dragonfly, is one of my all-time favorites, and, from the time I first read it, it has spoken deeply to me about how the love God calls us to transcends boundaries of left and right, conservative and liberal.

Campbell was born and raised in the rural and very poor deep south of Mississippi. He was ordained at East Fork Baptist Church in Amite County when he was seventeen, and, improbably, as an adult ended up playing a central role as an activist and agitator on behalf of civil rights and equality for African-Americans. Great story. But that is not all.

Daniel Clendenin summarizes Will Campbell’s story, including his remarkable transformation, in an article entitled “Playing Favorites: What Will Campbell Learned.” After serving in World War II, Campbell studied at Tulane, Wake Forest, and Yale. After a short stint as a pastor in Louisiana, he served as Director of Religious life at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) but left after two years because his controversial views on race attracted death threats. He then did a stint for the National Council of Churches, working with most of the civil rights luminaries. In 1957, for example, Campbell was one of four people who escorted the nine black students who integrated Little Rock’s Central High School; and he was the only white person to attend the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. The hate mail from the white right poured in.

As he matured, Campbell was self-aware enough to realize that he hated those redneck bigots who hated him and hated African-Americans.  It occurred to him how much he enjoyed thinking that God hated all the same people that he hated. Anne Lamott would later offer a similar insight: “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Campbell realized that he had created God in his own image and after his own personal and political likeness. Through a series of encounters with unlikely “teachers,” Campbell came to admit that after twenty years in ministry he had become little more than a “doctrinaire social activist,” which was different than being a follower of Jesus.

Campbell began to practice what I think Ross is calling a “call-in” culture. He started actually developing relationships with the Ku Klux Klan. He did their funerals and weddings, visited them when they were sick, and even befriended the Grand Dragon of North Carolina, J.R. “Bob” Jones. Campbell said things like, “With the same love that it is commanded to shower upon the innocent victim of his frustration and hostility, the church must love the racist.” And then the hate mail came in from the liberal left. In a 1976 interview for an oral history that he gave to the University of Southern Mississippi, he joked, “It’s been a long time since I got a hate letter from the right. Now they come from the left.”

“You love one, you got to love ‘em all,” Will Campbell said.                                                                                

This is not some kind of tepid “both-sides-ism.” It doesn’t mean that there is no right and wrong and that “calling-in” is always going to be effective in creating change.

Professor Ross says, “You can’t be responsible for someone else’s inability to grow. So take comfort in the fact that you offered a new perspective of information and you did so with love and respect, and then you walk away.

“We have a saying in the movement: Some people you can work with and some people you can work around. But the thing that I want to emphasize is that the calling-in practice means you always keep a seat at the table for them if they come back.”

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