[In Memoriam: William Sloan Coffin
June 1, 1924 — April 12, 2006]
Note: Bill Coffin died four days before I delivered this tribute to him at the Presbyterian church. It is a composite of his own words in sermons, books and interviews over the years — g.a.w.
“To Bill with Great Love and Appreciation” — Gary
“I am reminded of all the undergraduates I knew and loved, many now crowding sixty, even seventy. Some of them have aged like vintage wine, heeding Albert Camus’s wisdom: ‘To grow old is to pass from passion to compassion.’
A few of them, however, looking back on the springtime of their lives, say, ‘Ah, those were the days!’ — and the worst of it is, they’re right! It was not the days, I suspect, but they who used to be better!
You have to unlearn as well as learn, to clear away the weeds and thickets in order to see more clearly the various paths ahead. [The same applies to our faith.]
Harry Emerson Fosdick, the founding pastor of Riverside Church in New York, once wrote, ‘The world has tried in two ways to get rid of Jesus: first, by crucifying him, and second, by worshipping him.’ Jesus doesn’t ask us to worship him. [In fact, he specifically told his followers not to worship him.] He said, ‘Follow me.’ Faith is a matter of being faithful. It’s not believing without proof; it’s trusting without reservation.
Over the years I have been convinced that the more important question is not who believes in God, but in whom does God believe? Rather than claim God for our side, it’s better to wonder whether we are on God’s side. Faith is being grasped by the power of love, and there are many atheists with ‘believing’ hearts — the part of us that should be religious if you can offer only one.
God’s love doesn’t seek value; it creates it. It’s not because we have value that we are loved. It is because we are loved that we have value. Our value is a gift, not an achievement. Just think: we never have to prove ourselves; that’s already taken care of. All we have to do is to express ourselves — to return God’s love with our own.
What makes Easter so exciting is the cosmic quality of it. For Easter has less to do with one person’s escape from the grave than with the victory of seemingly powerless love over loveless power. Easter represents a demand as well as a promise, a demand not that we sympathize with the crucified Christ, but that we pledge our loyalty to the risen one. That means an end to all loyalties, to all people, and to all institutions that crucify.
For example, I don’t see how we can proclaim allegiance to the Risen Lord and remain indifferent to our government’s [and the world’s] intention not to abolish nuclear weapons. Or how can we think that the Risen Lord would applaud an economic system that reverses the priorities of Mary’s Magnificat – filling the rich with good things and sending the poor away empty? (Almost one American child in four lives below the poverty line, and one in three children of the world exist in terribly horrible poverty.)
Few of us are truly evil; the trouble is, most of us mean well — feebly. We are just not serious. We carry around justice, love, and peace in our shopping carts, but along with a lot of other things that make for injustice, hatred, and war. Churches in our day are a bit like families: they tend to be havens in a heartless world, but they reinforce that world by caring more for its victims than by challenging its assumptions.
Christ wants us to challenge the assumptions of our nation and world, just as he challenged those of his. In a democracy dissent is not disloyal. Christ today wants his disciples to tell the nations that their disastrous cult of power leads to the pretensions of the powerful, and to the despair of the powerless, leaving all lovers of life filled with unutterable sadness.
What I think God wants us to do is not practice piecemeal charity but engage in wholesale justice. Justice is at the heart of religious faith. When we see Christ empowering the poor, scorning the powerful, healing the world’s hurts, we are seeing transparently the power of God at work.
God is not too hard to believe in. God is too good to believe in, we being such strangers to such goodness. Two things are clear to me: that almost every square inch of the earth’s surface is soaked with the tears and blood of the innocent…and that it’s not God’s doing. It’s our doing. That’s human malpractice. Don’t chalk it up to God. Every time people see the innocent suffering, and lift their eyes to heaven and say, ‘God, how could you let this happen?’ it’s well to remember that exactly at that moment God is asking exactly the same question of us:'”How could you let this happen?
If you back off from every little controversy in your life you’re not alive…and what’s more, you’re boring! [The truth is] you can be more alive in pain than in complacency. It’s not enough to pray, ‘Grant us peace in our time, O Lord.’ God must be saying, ‘Oh, come off it! What are you going to do for peace, for heaven’s sake?’ It’s not enough to pray for peace. You have to work for justice. You have to suffer for it, and you have to endure a lot for it. So don’t just pray about it.
People in high places make me rally angry — the way that [some] corporations are now behaving, the way the United States government is behaving. What makes me angry is that they are so callous, really callous. When you see uncaring people in high places, everybody should be mad as hell.
Self-righteousness destroys our capacity for self-criticism. It makes it very hard to be humble, and it destroys the sense of oneness all human beings should have, one with another.
My understanding of Christianity is that it underlies all progressive moves to implement more justice, to get a higher degree of peace in the world. The impulse to love God and neighbor, that impulse is at the heart of Judaism, Islam, Christianity [and the other religions of the world]. God is not confined to Christians.
I am not a pacifist. About the use of force I think we should be ambivalent — the dilemmas are real. All we can say for sure is that while force may be necessary, what is wrong — always wrong — is the desire to use it. It is hard to get even with violent people [especially terrorists]. What is easy is to get more and more like them. ‘The warhorse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save.’ (Psalm 33) War is a coward’s escape from the problems of peace.
God is not mocked: what is grossly immoral cannot in the long run be politically expedient. ‘The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.’ Only reverence can restrain violence, be it violence against nature or against each other.
President Bush rightly spoke of an ‘axis of evil’ but it is not Iran, Iraq and North Korea. A far more dangerous trio would be: environmental degradation, pandemic poverty, and a world awash with weapons. Far beyond individuals, communities and nations, the world itself is on the brink of destruction. If we were serious, with the other nations, to engage the war on poverty around the world, that would stem the flow of recruits to the ranks of terrorists.
Every nation makes decisions based on self-interest and defends them on the basis of morality. In our time all it takes for evil to flourish is for a few good men to be a little wrong and have a great deal of power and for the vast majority of their fellow citizens to remain indifferent. The danger today is that we might become more concerned with defense than with [being a country] worth defending.
Terrorism is a clear and present danger, but our present policies are nourishing rather than restraining terrorists…. Let’s not forget what that Israeli journalist wrote: ‘The terrorism of suicide bombers is born of despair. There is no military solution to despair.’
Norman Mailer compared our present pursuit of terrorists to a Sherman tank going after a hornet hiding in a building. By the time the building is flattened, arousing considerable resentment, the hornet is safely in the attic next door. With terrorist cells in over sixty nations we need allies, lots of them, who think not ill but well of us. Most of all, we must agree to be governed by the force of law, not by the law of force.
For our presently tormented and endangered planet to survive, it will require a politically committed spirituality. Patriotism at the expense of another nation is as wicked as racism at the expense of another race. Let us resolve to be patriots always, nationalists never. Let us love our country, but
‘…pledge allegiance to the earth,
and to the flora and fauna and human life that it supports;
one planet indivisible, with clean air, soil and water;
with liberty, justice and peace for all.’
Before I die, I want to see all nuclear missiles beaten into homes for the homeless and land for the landless, into day-care centers and good schools for our poorest kids and compassionate care for our elderly.
Only God has the right to destroy all life on the planet. We haven’t the authority; we only have the power. Therefore, to threaten to use nuclear weapons must be an abomination in the sight of God. We have to recognize a single standard for all nuclear weapons: either universal permission or universal abolition.
Courage means being well aware of the worst that can happen, being scared almost to death and then doing the right thing anyhow. As Robert Kennedy said so well, ‘Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.’
[We] can either follow [our] fears or be led by [our] values and [our] passions. All of this fear-mongering today (of immigrants, homosexuals, crime, and terrorists), I’m afraid, is quite deliberate because the more you can make people fear, the more a government can control you. The American people don’t feel a sense of personal accountability for what the nation should stand for. No one need be afraid of fear; only afraid that fear will stop him or her from doing what’s right.
[Yet, in the face of all of this…] I remain hopeful. Hope needs to be understood as a reflection of the state of your soul, not as reflection of the circumstances that surround your days. Hope is not the equivalent of optimism. The opposite of hope is not pessimism, but despair. Hope is about keeping the faith despite the evidence so that the evidence has a chance of changing.
If Christ never allowed his soul to be cornered with despair – and his was maybe the greatest miscarriage of justice in the world – who the hell am I to say I’m going to despair a bit? Hope criticizes what is, hopelessness rationalizes it. Hope resists, hopelessness adapts. Hope arouses, as nothing else can, a passion for the possible!
There never was a night or a problem that could defeat sunrise or hope!
We may not know what is beyond the grave, but we do know who is beyond the grave. And there is more mercy in him than sin in us, more faith in him than doubt in us, and more hope for the world in him than in anything else on the horizon.
‘Thine is the Glory, Risen, Conquering Son, Endless is the Victory, Thou o’er Death hast won.’
NOTE: William Sloane Coffin died four days before I delivered this Tribute to him on Easter Sunday . It is a composite of his own words in sermons, books and interviews over the years. The following sources have been most helpful to me in this compilation — G.A.W.
“Make Love Your Aim,” Sermon, First Presbyterian Church, New Canaan, CT, January 12, 1997.
“Easter 1984,” Sermons from Riverside, April 22, 1984, p. l.
“Easter and Forgiveness,” The Living Pulpit, Vol. 7, No. 1, p. 8, 9.
“Do Not Be Afraid,” Sermon, Pilgrim Congregational Church, Lexington, MA., April 11, 2004.
“The Good Samaritan Revisited,” Sermon, First Parish Church, Lincoln, Nebraska, October 27, 2002.
“With a Warrior’s Conviction, Coffin Affirms Peace in Visit,” Yolanda Jones, Idlewild Presbyterian Church, Memphis, TN, February 3, 2003.
“Profile: William Sloane Coffin,” Religion & Ethics: Interview by Bob Abernethy, August 27, 2004, Episode #752.
“Modern American Patriot: William Sloane Coffin,” Center for Defense Information, Washington, D.C., February 5, 1995.
“Rev. William Sloane Coffin Dies at 81; Fought for Civil Rights and Against a War,” The New York Times Obituaries, Thursday, April 13, 2006, p. A21
Yale Alumni Magazine, 1967.
Yale Class of 1968, 35th Reunion, May, 2003.
The Courage To Love, William Sloane Coffin (San Francisco: Harper & Row Pub., 1982)
Living The Truth In a World of Illusions, William Sloane Coffin (San Francisco, Harper & Row Pub., 1985), Chp. 15.
A Passion For The Possible: A Message to U.S. Churches (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993).
The Heart Is A Little To The Left: Essays on Public Morality, William Sloane Coffin (Dartmouth College, University Press of New England, 1999), pp. 60, 66.
Credo (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), p. 132.
Letters To A Young Doubter (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), pp. 21, 97, 134.
The Reverend Dr. Gary A. Wilburn is senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church, New Canaan, CT